The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress must prevent another Trumpian attempt to purge the government

President Donald Trump at the White House on June 21, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It might sound like an innocuous change to the structure of the federal workforce: creating a category of employee, known as “Schedule F,” for positions related to “policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating.” Yet, this change threatens to politicize the underappreciated ranks of those who keep the country’s government running — the nation’s professional civil service.

President Donald Trump created the Schedule F designation by executive order near the end of his term, just ahead of the 2020 election. The order would have removed long-held protections from tens of thousands of career bureaucrats, making them easier to dismiss. That would give the president vast powers to reshape the federal government at will — and could politicize positions long treated as nonpartisan and merit-based.

The Trump administration attempted unsuccessfully to rush through the change before the end of its term, and, upon taking office, President Biden immediately rescinded the order. But, according to a troubling recent report from Axios’s Jonathan Swan, Mr. Trump and his associates plan to quickly reinstate Schedule F if he is elected in 2024, using it to fire career employees and replace them with loyalists. Other potential GOP presidential hopefuls have also indicated they would consider targeting the federal workforce.

The federal bureaucracy is a behemoth that includes approximately 2 million employees in myriad roles, working to keep the government operating. In 2020, the Trump administration justified its Schedule F executive order by suggesting that it would make it easier for supervisors to remove poor performers. No doubt there are ways to reform evaluation and dismissal processes so they are more nimble and responsive.

But much of our government’s expertise rests with civil servants. A system that sees more people enter and leave federal agencies with the political churn would be less knowledgeable and efficient. It would also eliminate one of the major appeals of federal jobs: the understanding that there will be some measure of stability even when there are changes in administrations. If potential employees feel like they could be fired with little cause or recourse, fewer capable people will seek out these positions. That would only harm the wide range of government services on which Americans rely.

Democrats have introduced legislation that would forestall such a possibility. The Preventing a Patronage System Act, sponsored by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), would block positions from being classified outside the existing system unless Congress consents to it. Mr. Connolly subsequently sponsored this as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, and it passed the House last month. Six Democratic senators, led by Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), have introduced companion legislation that would do the same thing. These measures would uphold protections for federal workers and reduce opportunities for patronage-based hiring in the future.

Populist politicians point to the “deep state” as the root of America’s ills. In fact, what they cast as a threat — a professional, merit-based, experienced civil service — is one of the country’s greatest assets.

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