5 Things You Need to Know About Federal News from the Past Month

Changes in federal government keep coming fast. That’s why GovLoop gives you these monthly recaps of federal news that may affect agency management and employment. If you’ve fallen behind, check out the previous recaps.

By the time you read this, there will undoubtedly be new developments. And, this roundup can’t include everything. The focus is on federal news most relevant to government employees. Check out the linked sources for more information.

Finally and importantly, this is not an opinion about or endorsement of any policies, regulations, or orders, nor of the behaviors of elected officials, political appointees, government employees, other individuals, organizations, or agencies.

1. Dramatic departures, not just by ones and twos, but by the dozens

As a direct result of Trump’s failure to quickly and clearly denounce the violence by white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, dozens of people cut ties with the administration or quit their federal jobs.

Daniel Kammen, science envoy for the State Department resigned, spelling out “IMPEACH” in the first letter of each paragraph of his resignation letter. National Economic Council director Gary Cohn drafted his resignation letter, but then did not resign, though he criticized Trump’s Charlottesville response.

It’s not just individuals who decided to leave. Entire advisory groups parted ways with Trump because of his comments about white supremacy violence.

The members of the American Manufacturing Council, a group of corporate leaders who advise the president on manufacturing growth, started to resign. At the same time, the entire Strategy and Policy Forum, a panel of business advisors on economic policy, decided to disband entirely. Members of the Digital Economy Board of Advisors at the Department of Commerce, which suggests ways to advance economic growth and opportunity in the digital age, quit. The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned en masse, creatively spelling out “RESIST” in the first letter of each paragraph in the group’s resignation letter.

In a response that earned a lot of “You can’t quit. You’re fired!” headline teasing, Trump dissolved both the American Manufacturing Council and the already-disbanded Strategy and Policy Forum, and insisted “that it had planned to disband the arts and humanities committee anyway.” At the same time, the White House also decided to “not move forward” with the Advisory Council on Infrastructure that, when formed, would have counseled Trump on his much ballyhooed yet elusively unspecific infrastructure promises.

About a week later, Nextgov‘s Defense One reported that more than one-quarter of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council resigned. NIAC advises the Homeland Security Department and the President on cybersecurity and infrastructure. The group’s biting resignation letter cited Trump’s “insufficient attention” to cybersecurity, his response to Nazi violence, and other ways Trump has undermined the nation’s “moral infrastructure” and “threatened the security of the homeland.”

2. Charlottesville wasn’t the only reason people left

We told you about the flood of dramatic firings and resignations at the White House and at key agency positions in July—and August was no less chaotic. In addition to the departures motivated by Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, other staff and advisors left the administration for other reason.

Most notably, the White House’s controversial chief strategist, Steve Bannon left the administration. The White House described it as a “mutually agreed” ending, though others said Bannon was fired. One of Trump’s deputy assistant advisors, Sebastian Gorka, was “forced out” of his White House job. Gorka may have been under investigation for suspicion of being a member of a neo-Nazi organization. Bannon and Gorka immediately returned to work at the conservative Breitbart News website.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland resigned as the director of science and technology in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water in “protest of the direction the EPA has taken” under Trump. She’d worked at the EPA for 30 years. The Hill described Southerland’s exit letter as “scathing.” At least four top career State Department officials left, including Todd Buchwald, a senior lawyer who recently led the shuttered Office of Global Criminal Justice.

3. There were so many departures, we need three sections 

Carl Icahn, billionaire investor and special advisor to the President on regulatory reform issues, resigned just hours before The New Yorker published an critical article about Icahn’s possible conflicts of interest and illegal activitiesWilliam C. Bradford left his position as Trump’s appointed head of Energy Department’s Office of Indian Energy after it was revealed he was the author of malicious, inflammatory online comments about President Obama and others, which Bradford claimed were the result of hacking.

Andy Hemming stepped down as White House communications team director of rapid response. It was Hemming’s job to find and amplify positive media stories about TrumpRichard Staropoli, chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security resigned for unknown reasons after just three months on the job. And while Rich Higgins, a top official of the National Security Council, was fired in July, it wasn’t until August that we learned the reason why. Higgins was the author of the highly controversial memo that precipitated the sudden departure of a number of NSC officials, including Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council’s controversial top intelligence official.

Unreleated to Trump’s statements on the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, the administration also disbanded the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment, the advisory panel that translates the findings in the National Climate Assessment into official, practical guidance. Recode also reported that the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has been vacant since Inauguration Day.

With all these advisors and key staff missing, it’s yet unclear who will advise Trump about these critical national issues.

4. Lots of hirings, mainly thanks to the Senate’s summer recess

The Senate pushed through 66 confirmations before it went on summer recess, including three positions each at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Health and Human Services. Jessica Rosenworcel and Brendan Carr was confirmed as commissioners on the Federal Communications CommissionSusan Gordon is on board at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Dr. Jerome Adams is now the U.S. surgeon general. For the other confirmations, check out this updated list of nominees.

The Chicago Tribune pointed out that despite these confirmations, the Trump administration is “way behind its predecessors in staffing the government’s senior leadership ranks,” largely because Trump has not yet made hundreds of key nominations.

There were a few new hires that grabbed the public’s attention. The Trump administration appointed Julian Schmoke Jr. to head the Department of Education’s Student Aid Enforcement Office, which investigates fraud and deceptive practices in higher education and student lending. Critics were quick to point out that Schmoke is an odd choice for the role since he was an executive with DeVry University, a school repeatedly busted for fraud. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hired Army General Mark Inch as director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, putting a military policeman in charge of the country’s federal civilian prison population.

Trump’s nomination of Eric Dreiband as assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is facing opposition from human rights and other advocacy groups for “Drieband’s record of ‘hostility toward civil rights and racial justice.” His Senate confirmation hearing begins September 6.

While hiring continues to be sluggish and departures escalate, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration has created a lot of new and profitable opportunities for lobbyists in Washington.

5. Federal staffing and agency issues

The future of transgender people in the military is up in the air. Trump signed a memorandum that bans transgender service members. The start of the contentious directive is delayed for 6 months while the administration studies how to implement the ban. Advocacy organizations and transgender troops are suing over the transgender military ban.

After conservative commentator Laura Ingraham criticized the administration for not filling the many vacancies at federal agencies, Trump tweeted, “We are not looking to fill all of those positions. Don’t need many of them – reduce size of government.” The government continues to have difficulties recruiting for the jobs it wants to fill. Politico reported that the number of people who took the Foreign Service exam to start the process of joining the State Department fell to the “lowest number” in “nearly a decade.” Amy Siskind explains in a video why these unfilled positions are so troubling and can disempower people.

The Peace Corps will cut 20% of its workforce, mainly by “sunsetting” positions as workers’ 5-year job terms come to an end. The Trump administration has also not hired the 5,000 new Border Patrol agents Trump decreed in a January 2017 executive order, and an additional 220 agents have left the Border Patrol since Trump took office. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set out a “major reorganization” of the State Department that will eliminate dozens of special envoy positions. The Trump administration is dramatically, suddenly, and completely defunding the successful Teen Pregnancy Prevention ProgramFederal Times revealed that the legally mandated “effort to ensure increased recruitment and retention of Latino federal employees has largely stalled.”

Trump authorized a 1.9% pay raise for federal workers in 2018, which is less than the 3.2% increase being proposed in a Congressional billGovExec reports that none of the 19 government agencies Trump proposed to defund in his “skinny budget” seem to be at risk in Congress’ spending bills.

Even if you can get a job in the federal government or with a government contractor, the Office of Personnel Management reportedly has a huge backlog of more than 700,000 people awaiting their security clearance (yes, that’s seven hundred thousand). A top secret security clearance now takes 450 days to process.

What other federal government developments have caught your attention? What stories are you and your colleagues talking about at the office? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, writer, and speaker based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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