Hiring With Temporary Cash Infusions Won't Force Future Layoffs, Agency Leaders Say
As agencies look to grow their workforces, House Republicans warn they will not be able to support the increased staffing levels in the future.
House Republicans on Tuesday made clear many pieces of President Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget are “dead on arrival.” They also expressed concern about funding boosts agencies are slated to receive in the coming years from legislation that has already been enacted regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming appropriations fight.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department will both see significant resource infusions if Biden’s budget is enacted and from measures the president has already signed into law, causing Republican lawmakers to question whether the White House’s new proposals are necessary. House Appropriations Committee members said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act are allowing both agencies to go on sizable hiring sprees that could trap future Congresses into making funding increases permanent.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who chaired two separate hearings Tuesday before the appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, said the Biden administration was creating an “employee cliff” that could force lawmakers—once the temporary funding dries up—to decide between massive discretionary spending boosts and widespread layoffs.
“I don’t want to be forced into a position where all of the sudden because of the annual appropriations process we have to lay off a couple thousand people,” Simpson said.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland sought to assuage those fears, noting most of the hires from the infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act were intentionally designed to be temporary. The infrastructure bill has supported 742 hires at EPA and the inflation measure is expected to help bring on another 675.
“Those positions are what we call term-limited and will sunset,” Regan said. “So all of them aren’t permanent.”
Haaland did not detail the hiring so far at Interior, but similarly promised to proceed cautiously.
“We are moving out responsibly,” Haaland said. She called it a “difficult issue” and said she hoped to, eventually, convert many of those hires to full-time roles. “Over time we feel we could absorb a lot of those positions, but we will be careful about that moving forward. I agree with you wholeheartedly on that.”
Last year, the Biden administration announced a special hiring authority that will allow agencies to hire for infrastructure implementation on a limited-term basis. Employees brought on under the authority will serve one-year terms, but their tenures can be extended in one-year increments. Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja has said the positions will open the door to longer-term opportunities, as well as to applicants who want a short stint in public service.
Interior is looking to grow its workforce by thousands of permanent employees as part of its regular fiscal 2024 budget proposal, including by 7% over current levels for the National Park Service; 10% each for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and wildland firefighters; and 20% for its inspector general. To date, the department has struggled to make up for the exodus of employees that took place under the Trump administration.
“We haven’t hired a lot and we’re not hiring a lot,” Haaland said. “We are still rebuilding.”
EPA is anticipating that by the end of the current fiscal year, it will have grown its workforce by 6% since Biden took office. The agency is looking to add 1,900 full-time equivalent employees, marking a 16% increase from 2022. The White House said in its budget the hiring was necessary to offset staffing reductions under the previous administration that “continue to undermine the agency’s ability to carry out its mission.”
“We're facing 21st century challenges with resources of the past,” Regan told lawmakers. “It’s just plain and simple.”
He said EPA has consistently heard from industries such as the power and agriculture sectors who have demanded regulatory clarity to keep pace with new technologies and evolving trends in the market.
“We need to staff to do that and we can't do that with Reagan-era numbers,” Regan said.
In a third hearing Tuesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Debra Shore, EPA’s Region 5 administrator, told lawmakers that the agency will need resources to support long-term remediation efforts “for years to come” after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
“I certainly would urge Congress to support the agency’s budget proposal because that gives us the resources we need to provide the kind of emergency response you noted is so welcome in urban, suburban and rural communities around the country,” Shore said.
Simpson reminded Regan that many of Biden’s proposals are “dead on arrival” and said the administrator will not be happy when he sees the Republicans’ forthcoming proposals for fiscal 2024.
“When you see the budget don't go particularly nuts,” Simpson said. “It won't be pretty when it first comes out but that's the way it is.”