January 19, 2021
Over four years, federal workers were ignored, subjected to retaliation, and fired for articulating politically inconvenient truths or standing in the way of President Donald Trump’s attacks against the public. By all accounts, that is set to change under President-elect Joe Biden. But while new attacks may not be forthcoming, the fissures from old ones will remain, threatening the federal government’s structural integrity unless the next administration and Congress take action. For all that we know about Trump’s assaults on the federal workforce, there is likely more that remains hidden. Up to this point, Democratic leadership has failed to make combating or uncovering these incursions a priority. For the sake of the Biden administration’s success, that will need to change.
Trump has never made any secret of his contempt for the civil service, the body of approximately 2 million federal workers tasked with carrying out the government’s policies and programs, independent of partisan influence. And indeed, a workforce protected from arbitrary dismissal (so as to protect their independence) was bound to be infuriating for a man who grew famous for bellowing “you’re fired!” on a passing whim.
Without removal on the table, however, Trump did not give up. He and his cronies got creative. Over four years, this administration has targeted specific civil servants who got in the way through personal retaliation, reassignment, and silencing. Inconvenient offices have been reorganized and sidelined to ensure that the independent voices in them can’t contradict Trump’s official line. Many agencies have lived under the threat of severe budget cuts throughout Trump’s four years in office. Staffing levels have fallen precipitously in many agencies and offices, placing a greater strain on those who remain behind. Amid all of this, Trump’s executive orders stripping government unions of key rights have made it harder than ever for them to fight back.
And yet federal workers continued to get in the way. Public health officials fought to ensure that guidelines were in line with the science so members of the public could stay safe. Scientists resisted regulatory rollbacks that they knew would put lives at risk. Intelligence officials blew the whistle when they felt national security was under threat. And people throughout the administration leaked to the press without end so that public outrage could rise to meet the violations they were witnessing.
Then, in October, the Trump administration set into motion a plan that would allow it to sweep aside these figures once and for all. In an executive order, Trump created a new civil service classification, Schedule F, and subjected the individuals who would be transferred into it to much easier dismissal. The criteria for reclassification are broad; an official need only be in a policymaking or supervisory role to qualify, leaving thousands of senior civil servants subject to removal and the country with fewer defenses against authoritarian rulers’ whims.
That’s not all. While the order makes it easier to remove civil servants, it could make it harder for Biden to get rid of Trump’s appointees. Political officials reclassified into Schedule F would be protected from removal motivated by partisan affiliation (this is a weaker protection than that afforded to traditional civil servants but stronger than nonexistent protections for political appointees), making it difficult for Biden to sweep out all holdovers from the Trump administration at once.
If it wasn’t already obvious, Trump’s erratic governing style should make clear why a competent, independent, and trusted civil service is essential to good governance. Federal workers need to be confident that presenting politically inconvenient evidence—for example, about the severity of a pandemic and the painful steps that will be needed to counter it—will not result in the loss of their jobs. Similarly, the administration of countless federal programs would quickly fall apart if the president were able to remove those who didn’t favor political allies or shut out political enemies. But it’s not just firings that are a risk to governing integrity. This fall, the sense that supposedly independent public health officials might actually be under the president’s thumb sparked widespread concern about the safety of an eventual coronavirus vaccine.
Many recognized the seriousness of the Schedule F executive order at the time. Government unions, employee associations, former political officials, academic experts, and good government groups all rallied to insist that Congress stop the chaos before it started via the government funding bill. While a few lawmakers championed the cause, congressional leadership decided to trust that the problem would go away when Biden took office.
According to the Washington Post, the White House Office of Administration is still reviewing around 425 names for reclassification into Schedule F, but is likely out of time to make the changes before Biden takes office. Biden has not publicly said he will undo the executive order, but an official told the Post he “has enormous respect for the federal government’s career staff.”
Although it looks as though Schedule F will not be as disastrous as some predicted (thanks in no small part to the Trump administration’s managerial incompetence), leadership’s disinterest in this fight remains a strategic mistake. Even without Schedule F, a Biden administration will face a depleted and beleaguered civil service. The longer-term assault on civil servants’ jobs has created often intolerable conditions that prompted thousands of career officials to leave, taking their policy and institutional expertise with them. Meanwhile, as ProPublica has reported, some Trump appointees are “burrowing” into the civil service. What’s more, there’s nothing to stop a future Republican administration from trying a similar move.
There is unquestionably more that has yet to be uncovered. Has this administration, for example, replicated or even expanded on the George W. Bush administration’s politicization of career hiring processes at the Department of Justice? We do not have a definitive picture of how far Trump has already been able to take his anti–civil service crusade because House Democrats have shown approximately zero interest in this question.
They may soon find that that disinterest comes at a heavy political cost. For better or worse, House Democrats’ ability to maintain, let alone grow, their majority in 2022 will rest on Biden’s success. The new administration already faces many obstacles and high expectations; quiet sabotage and hollowed-out institutions will only push that success further out of reach. If the Biden administration appears inept due to poorly understood forces, House Democrats will be the first to be punished for it.
Democrats have already passed up countless opportunities to begin clearing these obstacles from the Biden administration’s path. There’s no way to avoid the reality that Biden is in a worse position thanks to this surrender. Still, it is better that Democrats get started late than never.
No one really understands the full extent of the damage. Achieving that understanding through congressional investigations will be the first step to fixing the problem and managing any political fallout along the way. With a clear picture of the problem, Biden and his appointees can plan around vacancies or Trump holdovers for the short term while congressional leaders implement longer-term solutions. That includes blocking future administrations from creating another Schedule F. It also means using every moving legislative vehicle to infuse starved executive departments with the resources they need to serve the public interest. In the meantime, by surfacing the extent of the damage in congressional hearings and in the media, lawmakers can make clear who is to blame when Biden stumbles on Trump-laid roadblocks.
Already, many Democratic leaders are hinting at their desire to leave the Trump years behind them. As the outgoing president’s many attacks on the civil service make clear, however, you cannot ignore what Trump has wrought and expect it to go away.