Executive Orders Pave Way for Some Savings, but Also More Spending

The Trump Administration has had a busy week, issuing a flurry of executive orders and memoranda on policies including easing burdens imposed by the Affordable Care Act, setting a hiring freeze at most federal agencies, blocking new regulations, and advancing the permitting process on long-delayed pipelines. Some of these orders could have an impact on spending.

The hiring freeze is Trump’s first step towards fulfilling his campaign pledge to reduce the federal bureaucracy. It is to be applied to all executive agencies, with exceptions for the military (but civilian positions at defense agencies would be halted), appointed positions, and also includes allowances for emergencies and other exemptions as approved by the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The order would also require a plan to develop and implement a policy to reduce the federal workforce through attrition. This would limit agencies to hire one worker for every three that retire or otherwise leave. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that this policy would save $18.7 billion over five years.

There is one potential loophole in the order: agencies may turn to employing contract workers to fill the gap in performing a number of administrative and management services. While the use contractors as an alternative to permanent federal employees can lead to savings and improve efficiency of government operations, they require oversight and additional effort to make sure the spending of taxpayer dollars is transparent and available. In 2015, CBO was unable to figure out how many contract employees there are, and also noted, “ ... [A]chieving significant savings generally requires eliminating or significantly reducing programs or functions that an agency provides.”

The orders issued on Wednesday, on the other hand, specifically call for hiring increases in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and set the policy for extending a barrier along the southern border. As highlighted by the President in his remarks Wednesday while at DHS, the orders would:

  • Provide for the “immediate construction of a border wall.” During the campaign, NTUF estimated that at a minimum, completion of a wall across the entire border would cost $12.6 billion. There are also factors that could increase the ultimate cost including the difficulty of terrain and uncertain mitigation for private property owners. Use of fencing or technology to erect a “virtual wall” could also be implemented along sections at a reduced cost to taxpayers. The administration plans to initiate construction using existing funding. Additional funding would require congressional action.

  • Call for “the hiring of another 5,000 border patrol officers.” An amendment to S. 744, the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013, would have required DHS to hire at least 19,200 new border patrol agents. CBO estimated this would cost $30 billion over ten years. Based on that figure, hiring 5,000 could actually cost around $7 billion.

  • Call for tripling the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. During the campaign, NTUF estimated that this could cost nearly $11 billion over five years.

  • End the “policy of catch and release at the border,” empower ICE officers to” target and remove those who pose a threat to public safety,” and “require other countries to take back their criminals.” This policy could increase funding for incarceration while the individuals are detained pending court proceedings and deportation. A cost estimate for these new policies is unavailable as of now. The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which provides payments to states for incarcerating undocumented criminal aliens, was funded at $210 million in FY 2016.

  • Cut off grant funding to “sanctuary cities.” NTUF assumes that the funding would be reallocated to compliant jurisdictions so there would be no net change in spending as a result of the proposal.

  • Create an office “dedicated to supporting the victims of illegal immigrant crime.” There is a related Office for Victims of Crime within the Department of Justice which is solely financed with fines and penalties. A cost estimate is indeterminate for the establishment of a new office.

Additional orders are expected before the week is closed, one of which would reportedly call for reducing funding to the United Nations. The administration will submit a budget proposal to Congress by early March which will provide more details on expected budget cuts and reforms.