While many Americans are understandably transfixed by the legal drama featuring the former president, we have paid less attention to what Donald Trump might do were he returned to office in 2024.
Last month, Axios reported plans by Trump’s “administration-in-waiting” to politicize the civil service. Under the current system, several thousand federal government posts are “political” appointees who tend to come and go with each presidential administration. But the vast majority of the 2.1 million–member federal workforce is composed of “career” civil servants, with legal protections that prevent them from being fired for political reasons. By ensuring that our government is staffed by professionals, we avoid the incompetence and corruption endemic to patronage or the “spoils system.”
“Trump wanted a weapon to aim at these civil servants—to threaten them with their jobs if they stepped out of line,” Axios reported in its detailed paper. Trump’s domestic policy adviser James Sherk “shared the view of many conservatives that the ‘nonpartisan’ system was a farce that helped Democratic presidents and stymied Republicans.” Just before the 2020 election, Trump issued an executive order reclassifying thousands of high-level federal workers as “Schedule F” employees, stripping them of the protections afforded career civil servants.
This is no small matter. The targeted staffers advise political appointees on policy. For example, they might explain how an idea runs afoul of the law or is unworkable in practice. They don’t have the final say on policy, but their career status allows them to advise honestly and without fear of termination. With no workplace protections, expertise in the decision-making process would succumb to political pressure. The seeds of a 21st-century spoils system would be planted.
Trump didn’t have time to carry out the Schedule F reclassification process, and the order was quickly scrapped after Joe Biden’s inauguration. But according to Axios, were Trump to reenter the Oval Office, he would dust off the order “immediately,” allowing him to breezily fire reclassified senior officials and intimidate those who survived the ax. This scenario may be reason 5,693 why you might be terrified of a second Trump term.
But we should not view a return of Schedule F as something only Trump would consider. Before the realtor entered the political arena, conservatives wanted to kneecap the civil service.
In January 2001, the right-wing Heritage Foundation issued a policy paper, “Taking Charge of Federal Personnel,” which warned the incoming George W. Bush administration of the “political sophistication of the federal employee network and its allies and the intensity of its resistance to serious change.” It recommended that Bush “make liberal use of his power of appointment [and] get a loyal team in place to carry out his agenda.”
One of the three authors, George Nesterczuk, became a personnel policy adviser in the Bush administration. Trump tapped him in 2017 to preside over the entire civil service as the director of the Office of Personnel Management, but opposition delayed his nomination, and Nesterczuk withdrew. In 2020, Trump hired Nesterczuk as an OPM adviser six months before the issuance of Schedule F. Another of the Heritage paper authors, Donald Devine, was OPM director under Ronald Reagan and served as an OPM adviser under Trump. Neither man was mentioned in the second installment of the Axios report, which tracked the origins of Schedule F, and largely credited Sherk. But Sherk is also a Heritage Foundation alumnus.
The Heritage report derided the “Progressive ideal” of a “public administration or scientific management model” of the civil service, which it defined as “a value-free ‘scientific’ program of government administration, based on objective management and policy principles, which is technically administered by neutral career public officials.” Instead, it encouraged using “the cabinet government or political administration model,” in which “top political officials” are responsible “for achievement of the President’s election-endorsed and value-defined program,” pushing it “throughout the labyrinth of a bureaucracy that is often resistant to change.”
Defined as such, the Heritage viewpoint sounds reasonable. Why should unelected bureaucrats have more power to shape policy than an elected president?
However, Heritage’s definitions obfuscate the debate. The “Progressive ideal” is not a civil service empowered to set its own policies. Heritage largely attributes this philosophy to Woodrow Wilson, who wrote about civil service policy as an academic in the late 19th century, decades before becoming president. In “The Study of Administration,” an article written four years after the 1883 Pendleton Act established the civil service, Wilson noted that a “technically schooled civil service will presently have become indispensable” because of the “enormous burdens of administration which the needs of this industrial and trading age are so fast accumulating.” But Wilson also stressed that the civil service should not become an “offensive official class—a distinct, semi-corporate body with sympathies divorced from those of a progressive, free-spirited people.” On the contrary, “policy will have no taint of officialism about it. It will not be the creation of permanent officials, but of statesmen, whose responsibility to public opinion will be direct and inevitable.”
Why would the authors of the Heritage report portray Wilson’s position as opposed to their own when their stated core principle is the same? Because to create the conditions for radical changes, the conservative writers needed to paint the roots of the civil service as a rotten, bloated, expensive, unaccountable, unionized bureaucracy.
To diminish the influence of government experts, Heritage counseled the incoming Bush administration to “make appointment decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second, and that the whole governmental apparatus must be managed from this perspective.” While they allowed that “sound cabinet government is not simply a spoils system either, so expertise cannot be ignored,” they also warned that “the best qualified are already in the career positions and part of the status quo—the permanent government.”
To diminish the influence of labor unions, they called on Bush to revoke a Bill Clinton administration innovation: a National Partnership Council, in which labor and management could collaborate on workplace policies. The Clintonites were trying to end an adversarial workplace culture, but to Heritage, the system gave unions too much power over management decisions.
And to reduce the size of government, they heavily recommended reliance on temporary employees and private contractors to “staff up or size down the workforce to meet changing workloads and policy initiatives,” which would also have the benefit of reducing the so-called permanent government.
The Bush administration listened.
For example, one month into the Bush presidency, the labor-management partnerships were gone. In 2007, an executive order was issued installing a politically appointed Regulatory Policy Office in every agency that had to approve even the beginning of a rule-making process, cutting back the power of civil servants to execute directives set by Congress. The politicization of the civil service extended to national security, as Vice President Dick Cheney leaned on career intelligence analysts to provide justifications for invading Iraq.
But perhaps nothing better encapsulates how Bush carried out the Heritage philosophy than his handling of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Putting loyalty before expertise, his first two FEMA chiefs—Joe Allbaugh and Michael Brown—had no disaster management experience, which proved more than a small oversight in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans and the Gulf coast. FEMA spectacularly botched the response. The Washington Post reported, “Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters,” with the top three officials tied to “President Bush’s 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation.”
Unencumbered with institutional knowledge, Bush’s FEMA leadership implemented a privatization strategy to reduce spending. After Katrina, The Washington Post reported, “FEMA insiders and some who have worked with the agency say it has grown increasingly reliant on contractors in recent years not just for help in responding to disasters, but for planning and policymaking as well. It is a trend that has been augmented, they say, by the departure of FEMA’s top civil servants and the arrival of political appointees with little disaster management experience.” As Kevin Drum summed up for the Washington Monthly, “The slow federal response [to Katrina] was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence.”
In urging the Bush administration to take “charge of federal personnel,” the Heritage paper did not direct political appointees to intimidate civil servants. Yet that’s what happened.
In 2004, when the Medicare actuary Richard Foster, a civil servant, tried to give Congress accurate projections about the cost of the Bush administration’s proposed prescription drug reforms, the Medicare chief, Thomas Scully, a political appointee, threatened to fire him. In 2006, after the NASA scientist James Hansen spoke out about the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he accused NASA leaders, as reported by The New York Times, of ordering “the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, [website] postings … and requests for interviews from journalists” as a form of pressure. After those public controversies, Foster and Hansen remained in their posts.
Trump’s Schedule F scheme would be a particularly brazen approach toward breaking the civil service. But as the Heritage brief and the Bush administration’s record indicate, denying Trump a second term would not end conservative hostility to the civil service. Earlier this month, Sherk took to the Wall Street Journal opinion page to argue that Schedule F should be reinstated and carried out by whoever becomes the next president.
Fortunately, Congress can act now to protect the integrity of the civil service from any meddlesome future president.
Last month, when the House passed the 2023 Defense Authorization Act (known as the NDAA), it included an amendment taken from a bipartisan bill authored by Representatives Gerald Connolly and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Democrat and a Republican. The amendment prevents the reclassification of civil servants to a category created after September 2020, one month before the initial creation of Schedule F. However, the Senate version of the NDAA proposed last month by Senators Jack Reed and Jim Inhofe, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not include the amendment. The Senate has yet to pass the bill, so there is time to get the amendment incorporated.
We’ve seen what happens when expert civil service professionals are treated like political enemies. Facts are ignored. Sloppy policies are drafted. Governmental competency suffers. Sure, we shouldn’t have an unelected civil service become untethered to democratic institutions. But our democratically elected officials—in the White House and Congress—should be strong and smart enough to let seasoned experts shape their policies, even when they challenge their preconceptions and biases. Protect the civil service and enact the Connolly-Fitzpatrick amendment.