Forbes: A Progress Report - Is President Donald Trump "Draining the Swamp?" 8_Mapping_the_Swamp

August 28, 2019 11:19 AM

Recently released federal payroll numbers from the end of fiscal year 2018 show that President Trump is working to fulfill his campaign promises to protect the country, defend the border, and deliver healthcare to our veterans.


In order to deliver on these assurances, the administration sharply increased payroll headcounts at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Veterans Affairs (VA). Collectively, these agencies added 39,208 new employees since 2016.


The president also promised deep cuts in regulations and bureaucracy to spur economic growth. Our auditors at found 34,640 positions eliminated within the traditional paper-pushing, tax, and regulatory agencies: Education, Health & Human Services, EPA, IRS, Interior, and 114 others.


Statistically speaking, the Trump re-prioritization of the government occurred without a material increase in the number of employees. In his first two-years, the bureaucracy grew by 3,685 staffers and now stands at an all-time high of 1.35 million. However, that’s only one-quarter of one-percent growth (0.27%).


Here’s how the payroll head count breaks down in five key departments where the average employee salary plus bonus exceeds $100,000:


Department of Education, Secretary Betsy DeVos: Compared against the peak year of 2016, the payroll at ED is down 657 employees, or 15 percent. And, they’re not finished – the hiring freeze is still in place. DeVos also cut the "official time" rule, whereby federal employees were paid taxpayer dollars for the private union organizing work. Estimated four-year payroll savings: $265 million.


We asked Secretary DeVos to comment and she responded through an ED spokesperson:


"When she was asked to serve as secretary she committed to being a good steward of taxpayer dollars and to right sizing the department in order to better serve students. She continues to make good on that commitment.


State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Perceived as one of the most entrenched parts of the administrative state, a house cleaning has been underway. In 2016, there were 13,108 employees and by 2018 there were 11,582.  "Foreign Affairs" staffers were cut back from 2,571 to 2,135. However, cuts have been across the board with 60 fewer office secretaries and 20 less public relations officers. Estimated four-year payroll savings: $600 million.


Treasury, Secretary Steven Mnuchin: After the perceived Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting of conservative organizations during the Obama years, this division of Treasury, was on the chopping block. Since 2016, there’s been a 15 percent reduction in "IRS Agents" from 10,400 to 8,944. Total headcount at IRS fell from 77,116 (2016) to 74,525 (2018). Estimated four-year payroll savings: $1 billion.


Veterans Affairs, Secretary Robert Wilkie:  As a candidate, Trump promised to improve health care quality and access to America’s veterans. Since 2016, the VA added 18,108 new staffers – growing payroll to 390,782 positions. In front-line healthcare positions, the number of doctors increased by 700 and 4,000 nurses were added. Estimated four-year cost: $7.2 billion.


Department of Homeland Security, Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan:  The Trump administration has prioritized border security and is dealing with an unprecedented crush of entrants at the southern border. Since 2016, DHS added 21,108 new positions. It was the most aggressive hiring of any agency. Estimated four-year cost: $8.5 billion.




Historically, the national administrative state has resisted most efforts to limit its power. In 1983, Ronald Reagan famously recognized the resistance during the third year of his administration, "It’s hard, when you’re up to your armpits in alligators, to remember that you came here to drain the swamp."


Presidents in both parties have grappled with the swamp. Because of congressional budget sequester, President Barack Obama presided over periods when the executive agency payroll decreased. In the end, the bureaucracy grew by approximately 45,000 employees – from a headcount of 1.304 million (2010) to 1.349 million (2016).


Early in Donald Trump’s presidency, an executive order was issued to freeze hiring in the executive agencies, not including Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Our data shows that the order accomplished its objective.


Since then, the president led by example. Recently published at Forbes, we estimated that the leaner White House payroll has already saved taxpayers $20 million.


In 2020, President Trump will be judged, in part, by his ability to take on permanent Washington, D.C. bureaucracies. In other words, did he really drain the swamp?


So far, it’s a mixed record. In most agencies, payroll was cut. But, the hiring at two large agencies binged. Now, the total head count of the federal bureaucracy is at an all-time high.


The administrative state has mastered the art of permanent survival – even in the era of Trump.


Note: Every agency mentioned and the White House were asked to comment and we’ll update the piece if they respond. Further, the payroll spike at the U.S. Small Business Administration was temporary, as the SBA is the lending arm of FEMA and dealt with repeated natural disasters during 2017-2018.



Back to news
Sign the Petition