After years of complaining that career federal employees are part of the "deep state" and aim to undermine his administration, President Donald Trump this week took a major step toward remaking the federal government as one without nonpartisan civil servants—signing a little-noticed executive order that would strip potentially hundreds of thousands of government employees of their job security.
Under the order, signed late Wednesday, career federal employees could be fired with little or no cause, lose their right to due process, and potentially lose union representation.
Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist warned the president's move would strip protections from some of the same kinds of career federal officials and experts who have challenged Trump's policies during his nearly four years in office, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and scientists who study the climate crisis.
"Examples of people whose jobs could no longer be protected," she tweeted, include:
- @US_FDA scientists who resist rapid drug or vaccine approvals demanded by @WhiteHouse
- @NIH scientists who deny #COVID19 lies & distortions
- @CDCgov policymakers that insist on lockdown approaches to COVID
- Any scientists calling out #ClimateChange
— Laurie Garrett (@Laurie_Garrett) October 23, 2020
As University of Texas professor Donald F. Kettl wrote at the publication Government Executive, the order is vague enough to allow the loss of job protections, which carry over for career federal employees when a new president is elected, regardless of party, for a broad range of civil servants:
Top officials could classify positions as having "a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character." Then they could sweep employees holding those positions into a new "Schedule F," where employees would lose all protections, including those against discrimination, forced reassignments and relocations, and any rights to organize or appeal personnel decisions, for example. Most important, employees could be dismissed for any reason whatsoever.
Kettle called the order "the biggest effort in history to sweep aside 140 years of federal policy promoting professional expertise in government."
"It would have a vast impact on government, on its workers, and on the public's trust in getting a fair and impartial shake from government programs," he added.
Richard Loeb, senior policy counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union representing federal workers, called the order "a declaration of war on the civil service," following numerous attempts by Trump to erode protections for federal employees.
In February, Trump issued a memo allowing Defense Secretary Mark Esper to abolish collective bargaining rights for the Defense Department's 750,000 civilian workers. The AFGE sued the administration in 2018 over Trump's executive order seeking to deny workers the right to job site representation.
The president's latest attack on federal workers is an attempt to remake the federal government as an organization that worksfor him instead of for the public, Loeb told the Washington Post.
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"This could be used to put a whole bunch of Trump loyalists in place" even if Trump loses the general election on Nov. 3, Loeb told the Post.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, echoed Loeb's warning, tweeting that in signing the order, Trump is "setting up his cronies to burrow into permanent jobs in the U.S. government."
If you weren't paying attention, Trump signed an Exec Order deeply undermining the professional federal civil service & setting up his cronies to burrow into permanent jobs in the USG: https://t.co/Af8QQ1X9hl
— Tamara Cofman Wittes (@tcwittes) October 22, 2020
"This executive order is yet another attack on federal employees that addresses absolutely none of the issues that can hinder effective federal recruitment and hiring," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) in a statement. "It's a cheap ploy to let the Trump administration replace talent and acumen with fealty and self-dealing."
Career federal employees are responsible for advising partisan political appointees on how to follow the law and implement policies, and work under both Republican and Democratic administrations. But Trump has regarded federal workers who weren't selected by his administration with suspicion. In August he tweeted that "the deep state" at the FDA was intentionally holding up approval of coronavirus vaccines and treatments in order to harm his chances of reelection.
Months after taking office, Trump said in a speech in Poland that Americans face a danger "invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people." The statement followed remarks from former White House advisor Steve Bannon that federal employees could expect Trump to oversee the "deconstruction of the administrative state."
Under Trump's order, Max Stier of the nonpartisan group Partnership for Public Service told the Post, the president apparently intends to begin treating career civil servants as political appointees who he can hire and fire at will.
"The effect and the apparent intent is that they are moving them into that box," Stier told the Post. "The discretion for both hiring and firing is so great that the merit principles are undermined and they resemble a political appointee much more than a career civil servant."
Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former defense and national security advisor in the Obama administration, tweeted that the order effectively politicizes "the policy apparatus of government."
I want to emphasize how potentially dangerous this is: effectively stripping protections from civil servants and politicizing the policy apparatus of government. https://t.co/RvWMKfXuZy
— Loren DeJonge Schulman (@LorenRaeDeJ) October 23, 2020
A civil service protected from politics is a key element underwriting our democracy. Peaceful transitions are possible because a professional class of civil servants serves across administrations regardless of politics.
— Loren DeJonge Schulman (@LorenRaeDeJ) October 23, 2020
"A civil service protected from politics is a key element underwriting our democracy," she added. "Peaceful transitions are possible because a professional class of civil servants serves across administrations regardless of politics."