Changes in federal government keep coming fast. That’s why GovLoop is giving you these weekly recaps of presidential transition news that may affect agency management and employment. If you’ve fallen behind, check out last week’s recap.
By the time you read this, there will undoubtedly be new developments. And, this roundup can’t include everything. The focus is on presidential transition news most relevant to federal 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. Immigration and travel ban a.k.a. Muslim ban
Late on January 27, Trump issued an executive order that temporarily bans citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and any refugees from entering the U.S., and indefinitely bans Syrian refugees. The ban also initially included legal permanent residents of the U.S., which has made some green card holders afraid to leave the country. In less than a week, a lawyer for the Justice Department said about 100,000 visas had been revoked, while the State Department said it was more like 60,000. Throughout the week, large crowds protested the ban and lawyers rushed to provide free counsel to the thousands of people detained at airports.
The ban caused “bedlam” and “global chaos” as travelers, travel companies, border agents, attorneys, corporate employers, government agencies, and even White House officials struggled to understand who the ban applied to. According to NPR, “the White House shared little information with officials at State, Homeland Security and other departments and agencies.” Government officials told The Intercept that “the implementation of the ban has been defined by a total lack of clarity and direction.”
After several other limited rulings, including a successful lawsuit by the ACLU and other organizations, on February 3 a federal judge issued a nationwide temporary restraining order on the immigration order, and agencies have complied with this ruling. Trump took to Twitter to criticize the judge and the ruling, in what Reuters called “an unusual jab at an independent branch of the U.S. government.” On February 5, a federal appeals court denied the Justice Department’s request to immediately restore the ban. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General is reviewing DHS’s implementation of the executive order.
Beyond continued lawsuits and investigations, experts are also examining language in the same executive order that directs the government to develop a “uniform screening standard and procedure” for everyone entering the U.S.
2. High-profile firing
On January 30, Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates just hours afters she announced that the Department of Justice would not defend the immigration ban against legal challenges. Yates wrote that she was not convinced the ban is “consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.” The White House appointed a new acting attorney general, Dana Boente, who immediately said he would defend the ban.
The New York Times said the firing of Yates “would send a deep shudder through an agency that was already on edge.” John O’Grady, the president of a national council of EPA unions, said Yates’ firing “sends kind of a chilling effect through the agency. I’m afraid at this point that many federal employees are just fearful for their jobs, and they want to keep their heads down.” Columbia University law school professor John Coffee said that “This will add to the general demoralization within the DoJ and may increase the exodus of the career professional staff…for the professional career person it increases the fear that they will be forced to defend hopelessly vulnerable politicized decisions.”
3. Dissent in the ranks
Over 1,000 State Department employees have signed a dissent memo protesting the administration’s immigration and travel ban. The memo was distributed through the Dissent Channel, created in 1971 as a way for Foreign Service employees to officially express disagreement with U.S. policy. Those who voice their opinion via the channel have legal protections from retaliation and disciplinary action.
In response to the memo, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? I think they should either get with the program or they can go.” Gary J. Bass, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, called Spicer’s comments “new and dangerous.” Two good government groups requested that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigate Spicer’s “potentially threatening statements” for possible violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
On his first day as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson offered a more measured response, telling State Department staff, “One of the great challenges and thrills for the State Department staff is deciding how to confront changing conditions in every corner of the world. I encourage all of you to use your natural and well-developed skills to adapt to changes here at home as well.”
State Department staffers aren’t the only ones speaking out about the new administration’s policies. A number of articles explore other actions taken by federal employees, along with the rights and safeguards that protect them.
4. Regulation slow down
One in, two out. That’s the new requirement for federal regulations in the executive order Trump signed on January 30. For each regulation an agency proposes, it needs to identify two or more existing regulations to repeal—to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). It also requires that costs of new regulations be completely offset by repealed regulations, regardless of the benefits of the new regulation. The executive order includes many other details and requirements, including an exception for national security regulations.
Experts quickly weighed in with questions about the executive order, including basic problems like the order’s definition of an “agency,” “regulation,” and “regulatory costs.” The White House issued interim guidance on the order on February 2 clearing up some, but not all, questions.
Robert Verchick, president of the Center for Progressive Reform told Federal News Radio, “Trump’s executive order will…prove difficult for agencies to implement. All rules, even deregulatory ones, have to follow a set of procedural steps required by law, and agencies will run into significant hurdles in their rush to deregulate.”
5. Staff in, staff out, many others still pending
The Senate approved Trump appointees Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and Elaine Chao as Secretary of the Department of Transportation. Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. Vincent Viola, Trump’s nominee to for Secretary of the Army withdrew his name from consideration. With most other positions still vacant pending nomination, Politico reports this has caused non-essential agency work to slow “dramatically.” The Washington Post maintains a list of the 690 positions that require Senate confirmation.
Besides the Yates-Boente switch, there was surprise over Trump’s unexplained firing of Daniel Ragsdale, acting director U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security, and replacement with Thomas Homan.
There was also a lot of hubbub over the removal of Kenneth Haapala, a leading climate change denier, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) transition team at the Department of Commerce.
What other presidential transition developments have caught your attention? What stories are you and your colleagues talking about at the office? Share your thoughts in the comments. (However, please keep politics out of the conversation.)
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.