Budget Knives Surround Fearful Federal Workers


He is a 58-year-old engineer and MBA who cast his fate with the Energy Department 20 years ago, when it was just an office in the Department of the Interior.

He stayed on as it grew, first into an independent federal agency, later into a full Cabinet-level department. And now he and his colleagues are girding for the worst: tough cutbacks in programs or possible annihilation.

“There is a tremendous amount of anxiety here, and it’s already affected our ability to function,” said the employee, who--reflecting the growing concern among federal workers--requested anonymity.


“True, we’ve been through this before, under Ronald Reagan, but with a difference. Now both Congress and the Administration are talking about it.”

During the last round of such talk, Democrats still controlled Congress and could provide some degree of protection. No more.

“There was a strong energy lobby in Congress that resisted it,” said the Energy Department careerist. “Now, all of a sudden, there is collusion between the two. The only thing making it not quite as bad as it could be is that we aren’t the only ones.”

Not by a long shot.

In recent days, as both President Clinton and the incoming GOP congressional majority have spoken increasingly of tax breaks for the middle class--paid for by severe cutbacks in the federal government--agencies are under siege as never before in this company town. The tremors are being felt everywhere, from the civil servants who worry about their livelihoods to advocacy groups trying to preserve endangered social programs.

It has become a bidding war in reverse, with both Clinton and the Republicans rushing to outdo each other in their zeal to provide middle-class tax relief while slashing government jobs and programs.

The Administration is expected to propose ways to cut, eliminate or sell to the private sector numerous programs in at least five departments or agencies, including the departments of Energy, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration.

Incoming GOP congressional leaders, starting with their own house, have announced plans to eliminate numerous committees and caucuses. They have notified an estimated 1,300 non-legislative House employees, such as elevator operators and mail room workers, that they will no longer be needed after the new Congress convenes Jan. 4.


Both the GOP and Clinton have agreed that the welfare system needs massive overhaul, although their respective approaches almost certainly will differ. The Republicans also have declared war on regulation.

The incoming congressional leadership has suggested such cost-cutting measures as turning the Corporation for Public Broadcasting over to private interests and taking another look at Head Start, the popular preschool education program for low-income children, begun in 1965 as a cornerstone of the War on Poverty.

Longtime federal workers in departments and agencies on the hit list are extremely nervous. Although they have heard this kind of talk before, they are taking it much more seriously this time.

“This is all we’re talking about,” said one 42-year-old woman in the supply program at the GSA who began her career at the agency 25 years ago after finishing high school. “We’ve all seen this before, through other administrations, but there are differences this time. I think we’re all trying to figure out if it’s real this time. It’s very disheartening.”

The GSA is the agency often referred to as the government’s “Wal-Mart” because it acts like a phone company, landlord, car buyer, supply warehouse and purchaser of virtually anything the bureaucracy needs.

“On the way home every night--which is most of my alone time--I find myself thinking of ways to survive,” the woman said. “I think: ‘I could sell the house,’ or ‘Thank God my son’s a junior in college and that’s almost finished,’ things like that. I guess, if that’s what I’m doing, this is more real than I want to believe. There are so many people here who will be hurt, like single parents. It’s so sad.”


She and others at the agency question whether any real savings will result. “If you abolish something like GSA, they’ll just have to re-create these offices at a much smaller level,” she said. “Ultimately, it will cost the taxpayer more because you’ll lose our buying power, which is considerable.”

Similarly, the Energy Department employee insisted that while he is not opposed to improving efficiency in government, he does not believe that is what’s fueling the current debate.

“There is deadwood in every major organization. And, of course, in government there is probably more,” he said. “However, this time I believe all of this is coming because of the political changes--changes just for the sake of changes--and that’s not good.”

Federal employees historically have been insulated from the kinds of tough austerity measures that have hit private-sector workers hard in recent years. Perhaps, some workers suggested, the tough economic truths already known to so many on the outside finally are catching up with those who toil on the inside.

“Federal employees have had it easy,” said one who works in a regulatory agency that has yet to be threatened. “If anything, this may give federal employees a sense of what goes on every day elsewhere. Relative to a lot of other people out there, we’ve got it easy. There are always trade-offs. There was a clear mandate that people want a smaller government--and that’s the reality.”

Jobs are not the only things at stake. Programs are on the chopping block too.

At HUD, for example, Secretary Henry G. Cisneros has proposed combining 60 programs into a few funding streams that would be awarded to states or cities in block grants. The recipients of funding would then be decided locally, at the discretion of individual states or cities.


“You’ll see fewer people served,” said Richard Nelson of the National Assn. of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, an advocacy group that works for affordable housing. “They’ll try with smoke and mirrors to say that won’t happen, but it will.”

Also feeling a lot less secure are public-interest groups and other advocates, once comfortable in the knowledge that they could count on at least one Democratic stronghold in government to support traditional liberal social programs, whether it was the White House or Congress.

It is not just the new Republican majority they fear. They also are worried that they may no longer have an ally in Clinton. They are afraid that the President, who is increasingly moving toward the political center, may no longer be willing to stick up for some of their favorite programs. The coming battles are expected to take on a bipartisan theme.

“I’m not an ideological figure. I’ve worked for Republican presidents,” said Edward Zigler, an architect of the Head Start program. “I just know a great deal about children and families. And when people start saying: ‘Let’s take a fresh look at Head Start,’ that scares everybody to death.”

Zigler, now director of the Yale University Bush Center in Child Development, said he plans to increase his presence in Washington, where “I will be talking to people on both sides of the aisle.”

Several weeks ago, representatives from only 30 to 40 groups were expected to show up at a meeting to discuss strategies to oppose the GOP anti-regulation agenda. Instead, the turnout was about three times the number anticipated--120 groups representing a range of constituencies, including the disabled, the poor, the elderly and environmentalists.


“There’s a great deal of concern about what’s happening,” said Gary Bass of OMB Watch, who attended the meeting. “Maybe one of the good things that can come out of this is that it will build solidarity in the public-interest community. We need to enliven civic participation. We’ve gotten fat and lazy in the last couple years.”

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

* GOP SHIFT IN FOCUS: House Republicans seek to reverse flow of federal funds. A22