Earlier this year, Axios reported that Donald Trump’s “administration-in-waiting” has a plan to end the federal civil service as we know it by reclassifying the positions held by many high-level civil servants from “career” to “political.” That would strip workplace protections held by thousands of top government officials and leave them vulnerable to the president’s whims. Such a radical step would move our federal government away from modern, professional administration toward a more easily corruptible 19th-century-style “spoils system.”
Trump had already shown his interest in gutting the civil service. In October 2020, he issued an executive order, known as “Schedule F,” announcing plans for such a reclassification. But he lost his bid for reelection before he could implement it, and Biden quickly scrapped it.
Now Trump is running for president again, and if he wins, he and his team would come to the White House with more institutional knowledge than before. He is already planning to revive the Schedule F order to bend the federal bureaucracy to his will, regardless of what checks on his power the other branches of government might use to stop his overreach. As Jonathan Swan of Axios explained, the order “could accelerate controversial policy and enforcement changes, but also enable revenge tours against real or perceived enemies, and potentially insulate the president and allies from investigation or prosecution.”
And even if Trump loses the Republican Party primary, his brutish approach to government workers could still carry the day. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been a disturbingly aggressive wielder of executive power, such as when he flew undocumented migrants residing in Texas to Massachusetts under false pretenses or when he fired an elected district attorney because of policy differences. Moreover, as I wrote in August, conservatives have been itching to disempower and diminish the civil service for decades. Trump doesn’t have to be the next Republican president for a resurrection of the spoils system to be a top priority for the next Republican president.
Congress can’t prevent voters from electing an authoritarian president. But during the lame-duck session, it can pass legislation preventing a future power-mad president from gutting the civil service.
The House already took that step, attaching an amendment to the annual defense bill banning any reclassification for civil service positions to categories created after September 2020 (which just happens to be one month before Trump’s initial order creating a new Schedule F category). But the Senate hasn’t passed its version of the defense bill yet. A vote on one is expected this month, but we don’t yet know if language protecting the civil service will be included in the bill that gets brought to the floor.
Defenders of the civil service are lobbying to get protections passed before Republicans take over the House next month. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Tim Kaine have sponsored an amendment that parallels what passed the House. Presumably, the easiest way to enact that legislation is to tack it onto the Senate’s defense bill, get it rubber-stamped in the House, and on to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature. But the amendment could also be attached to a different “must-pass” bill, such as the forthcoming legislation to keep the government open beyond December 16, or (in a less-likely scenario) passed as its own legislation.
In early November, Kaine was hopeful that Congress would step up, telling Government Executive, “We’re going to push very hard for this to be taken up. There are some Republicans [who are opposed to the legislation], but there are others who would see the danger of this … I know we would get all Democratic votes, and although I haven’t done a whip count on it yet or know exactly where we’d get the 10 Republican votes [to survive a filibuster], but I have optimism that we could get this included and sufficient votes to get this passed.”
The big challenge, as has often been the case, is finding those 10 Senate Republicans. This game of chicken often develops in lame-duck sessions. Will enough Republicans fear being blamed for disruptions in government operations enough to let a Democratic amendment hitch a ride on a must-pass bill? Or will Democrats worry they will be blamed for trying to go beyond the must-pass business at hand?
Obstruction has not been a hallmark of the 117th Congress. Ten or more Senate Republicans have joined Democrats to pass several important bills, including bills addressing infrastructure, international competitiveness, gun safety, and, most recently, same-sex-marriage rights. These are Republicans who disagree with Democrats on a wide range of issues but are not beholden to Trump’s MAGA movement. They are, presumably, not hell-bent on decimating good government. There are only a few weeks to appeal to their sense of decency before the Republican-led 118th House comes to town, Congress descends into chaos, and the civil service is on the chopping block.