From the moment President Trump took office, he has been on a warpath with the civil service. He and his associates have waged an open war (and likely one behind closed doors as well) to seize control over federal employees just out of reach of easy firing. In October, as his presidency appeared rapidly to be approaching its end, he lobbed a bomb at the civil service system.
President Trump’s schedule F executive order creates a process to move federal employees into a new category that strips them of worker protections related to hiring, firing, and other personnel decisions. In the last weeks of the Trump regime, this gives the president a mechanism to easily fire dissenting civil servants and replace them with loyalists.
While the executive order leaves career civil servants subject to easier removal, it could actually protect political appointees reclassified as schedule F from being fired for partisan reasons. In other words, Trump may be able to use the order to leave behind loyalists who could sabotage the Biden administration.
The scope of affected employees is vaguely defined in the executive order, including all determined to be “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating”. What is more, individual agencies are charged with determining which employees will be moved to schedule F, likely yielding vastly different outcomes across the executive branch. While agencies still have until January 19th to complete the process, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has already sought to reclassify 88% of its employees as schedule F.
This executive order exacerbates the federal government’s precariousness at a moment when we, as the public, have yet to fully appreciate the full extent of Trump’s damage. Schedule F creates more pathways for the burrowing of Trump appointees who could further the politicization of federal agencies. Mass firings and decreased job security could also weaken the capacity of the civil service, already reeling from attrition. Instead of a large scale purge of career civil servants we predict that Schedule F could result in pockets of mass firings at agencies like the OMB, who have already reclassified a high percentage of their employees.
As serious as this issue is, the Trump administration’s incompetence may limit the scope of the executive order’s implementation. Still, even relatively limited firings and isolated cases of burrowing could pose serious threats to the incoming administration.
Despite calls from a wide array of government employee unions and associations, good government groups, and academic experts, congressional Democrats did not use the December omnibus spending bill to defund schedule F, so this process is still ongoing. Neither legislators nor the incoming Biden administration can afford to continue to ignore this problem. In the short-term, it will be imperative that both identify political appointees who have been placed in schedule F and civil servants who may have lost their positions. Over the long-term, measures that close the loophole that facilitated schedule F, reinforce the civil service’s depleted ranks, and protect its independence are in order.
Here are some of RDP’s efforts to sound the alarm on this disastrous executive order:
Our take on Congress’s inaction:
Our urging of Democrats to resist Trump’s sabotage:
And our colleague Yevgeny Shargo’s takes on Schedule F and the consequences of having too many political appointees running the federal government: