In their final weeks, outgoing Trump administration officials took steps to fast-track the sweeping directive the president issued in October at one department, the powerful Office of Management and Budget. The agency closest to the White House identified a list of hundreds of jobs and sent it to federal personnel officials for final sign-off.
But in a meeting last week, Budget Director Russell T. Vought, a conservative firebrand who targeted his agency as a test case for the new policy, told his senior staff that the administration ran out of time to change the employees’ status before leaving office, according to two officials familiar with his comments.
A senior administration official, speaking for the White House, denied any delay. “We are moving forward,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the executive order.
The budget office’s list — just under 425 analysts and other experts in policy roles who would shift into a new job classification called Schedule F — is under review by the White House Office of Administration. The small office, which provides personnel and administrative support, is busy bringing new political appointees who will serve on the Biden team onboard and handling paperwork for outgoing Trump appointees.
A senior administration official who is familiar with the executive order said the office is unlikely to move forward in the day and a half left in the administration.
“It logistically was never going to be possible for this to be put into effect” before Trump left office, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Schedule F directive was an extraordinary effort to reshape large parts of the nonpartisan government workforce. Its rollout was planned for at least a year by the White House Domestic Policy Council, but the coronavirus pandemic and other priorities delayed it from moving forward until two weeks before the November election.
The mandate has put many federal employees on edge. The affected employees, who cover a large swath of lawyers, analysts, regulators and other staffers, would be vulnerable to dismissal if they are considered poor performers or have resisted executing the president’s priorities, effectively turning them into political appointees that come and go with each administration.
“Hopefully this gets lost in the shuffle and they realize it would be a waste of time to go through with it,” said Richard Loeb, senior policy counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers.
Loeb said that until the administration leaves office Wednesday, “I’m holding my breath until we’re out of the woods.”
Biden has not taken a public position on the order, which would dramatically remake the federal government if enacted. But he said during his campaign that he would reverse other mandates issued by the Trump White House seen as hostile to federal employees.
House Democrats and experts in the civil service have said they believe Biden would not support any effort to remove job protections from the workforce, whose unions are part of the Democratic base.
A Biden transition official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly, said in an email Monday that Biden “has enormous respect for the federal government’s career staff.” The new administration “will have more to say very soon on the federal workforce,” the official said, “with regard to their pay, benefits and bargaining rights.”
Trump’s executive order came as the last push from a White House that moved to weaken employee unions and impose faster discipline for misconduct and weak performance, strategies that created a climate of anxiety in much of the government.
When it was issued in October, Vought cited obstacles to firing poor performers and said career employees should be able to be removed, much as they can be at private companies. Critics saw an effort to punish workers who pushed back on illegal or improper policies.
The Trump administration declined to say how many jobs would be swept into the new class of employees, but experts and union leaders estimated the number at between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands in a workforce of 2.1 million.
Critics feared that the outgoing administration would convert loyalists in politically appointed jobs to the new job grouping, giving them a chance at more permanent federal jobs, albeit with few protections. But no such conversions were made.
The order gave agencies until Tuesday to review potentially affected jobs. But as of Monday night, no other federal agencies had delivered a list of affected employees to White House officials for review, with the exception of the Office of Personnel Management, which also rushed to reshuffle much of its staff of roughly 3,500 people into the new category.
That list did not move forward, the senior administration official said. The administration concluded in recent weeks that federal employee unions would sue if any career staffers were moved into the new personnel grouping. Lawsuits would bring more unwelcome troubles at the end of the administration.
The National Treasury Employees Union sued in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after the executive order was issued, calling it an unlawful breach of the civil service statute. That suit is pending.
While the budget office’s list comprised 88 percent of its workforce, the personnel agency rejected some of those positions as inappropriate. Among them were presidential management fellows, who are chosen for a prestigious post-college internship at agencies across the government.