Over four years, President Trump waged a very public war against the civil service. But there’s more that he may have accomplished out of public view. Lawmakers cannot ignore the possibility that Trump went further than we know by, for example, surreptitiously replicating or expanding on the Bush administration’s attacks on the Department of Justice’s independence.
There, the Bush administration successfully twisted the hiring process and entry-level attorney pipelines to filter for those with far-right beliefs. They did this by selectively drawing from conservative schools like the (now famously pro-Trump) Liberty University and screened resumes for right-wing ties. More subtly, political appointees took the hiring process out of career workers’ control and flew interviewees directly to Washington, DC to be interviewed by handpicked conservatives. Potential employees were given right-wing litmus tests during interviews. Only those who passed were moved on.
We only know about this scandal because an inspector general’s report eventually stirred Congress to investigate the politicization of the DOJ. However, there is no reason to believe the problem began and ended with the Bush administration. As Trump’s aggressive right-wing stacking of the federal judiciary shows, the Republican party knows how to rig the system.
The politicization of our civil service decreases the effectiveness of career hires by prioritizing ideology over objective qualifications. Employees chosen for their opposition to “big government” are incentivized to undermine the mission of their agencies, or only selectively enforce rules to further their agenda. For example, Bush’s DOJ shifted prosecutorial focus from racial discrimination cases to defending Christians against supposed religious discrimination. This politicized hiring intentionally allows the functions of government that protect people to wither away. By hollowing out government agencies, conservative administrations can sabotage government from the inside, providing a justification for the more “efficient” private sector to take over.
To find out if something similar happened again under Trump, the Revolving Door Project has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to many federal agencies. We intend to scan the resume of every person hired at the GS-13 level or above to ensure that important arms of government were not staffed by ideologues opposed to the mission of their work.
Unfortunately, this process has limits. Resumes give only a small window into the hiring process. We can spot notoriously right-wing educational backgrounds and previous work for conservative causes, but for most people a resume is just a list of jobs they’ve had in the past and little more. Civil society can only glean a fraction of someone’s political views just from looking at a resume, yet that is the only information available through FOIA. It does not capture the informal yet egregious litmus tests administered during interviews, or explain if the process itself was taken over by political appointees with no business hiring career staff. Preserving the objectivity of the federal government’s hiring will require Congressional action.
The Revolving Door Project calls on Congress to initiate an investigation into the politicization of hiring under Trump. We know that the last Republican administration brazenly subverted the safeguards in place to shape government in its image. And we know that the Trump administration made unprecedented attempts to censor climate scientists, stifle government workers’ unions, and allow political appointees to “burrow” into career positions. Without a thorough accounting, however, we will never know the full extent of the damage. Will illegitimately hired staff undermine our bureaucracy from within for decades to come? It is up to Congress to act, figure out the answer, and then determine what can be done.