Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Governance Experts Assail White House Effort to Strip Federal Employees of Rights

Good government groups, unions and lawmakers were nearly unanimous in their scorching criticism of an executive order that could strip protections for hundreds of thousands and politicize the federal workforce.

The backlash to President’s Trump’s latest controversial executive order, in this instance converting large segments of the federal workforce into what are effectively political appointments and at-will employment, has been swift and harsh.

The order, signed Wednesday night, establishes a new Schedule F within the federal government’s excepted service of political appointees for “employees in confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy advocating positions,” and instructs agencies to move current employees who fit that description into the new classification and strip them of their civil service protections against adverse personnel actions. In other words, those reclassified employees could then be fired without cause.

Agencies have until Jan. 19—the day before the inauguration—to conduct a “preliminary” review of their workforces to determine who to move into the new Schedule F. And the Federal Labor Relations Authority is tasked with examining whether Schedule F employees should be removed from bargaining units and barred from being represented by federal employee unions.

Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier, whose organization has worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations on ways to improve how the federal government functions, was unusually blunt in his evaluation of the initiative:

“Being able to place any number of existing career positions into this new Schedule F not only blurs the line between politics and the neutral competency of the career civil service, it obliterates it,” Stier said. “We urge Congress to act swiftly to examine the development and potential impact of this executive order. The executive order does not articulate the underlying case for the new Schedule F job classification and provides more questions than answers, including the process for creating the executive order and who is covered by the changes. What is clear is that many federal human resource professionals inside and outside of government were neither consulted nor informed.”

Senior Executives Association President Bob Corsi accused the president of trying to bypass federal law and reinstitute the spoils system:

“This executive order is nothing more than propaganda intended to further the message that career federal workers are corrupt and not dedicated to serving all Americans equally,” he said. “The administration’s endorsement of this philosophy plays directly into the hands of our adversaries who seek to foment civil unrest and undermine the foundation of our democracy . . . With this order, there is no longer an independent civil service. This is how the party-run governments of authoritarian-led countries are organized and staffed.”

Robert Shea, a managing principal at Grant Thornton and former associate director of the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration, said the order does not even adequately achieve its stated goal of more effectively removing poor performers from government:

“I do believe that if it’s an attempt to deal with poor performers, it throws the baby out with the bathwater,” Shea said. “If it’s something more sinister, then that frightens me. But I’d be surprised if even this administration could follow through on the inventory [of potential Schedule F employees] with such alacrity . . . The one thing that this seems to foment is burrowing and inappropriate burrowing [of political appointees into career jobs].”

National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association National President Ken Thomas said the order is an effort to upend more than a century’s worth of laws designed to maintain a nonpartisan civil service, dating back to the 1883 Pendleton Act, which outlawed the spoils system:

“The new exception demolishes the rule that civil servants are hired and fired based on merit, not political affiliation, a tradition that has served our country well since the late 1800s,” Thomas said. “[I] find myself asking, ‘What problem does this executive order seek to solve, particularly in the middle of a presidential election?’ In one fell swoop, this order renders political fodder of senior career experts who, thanks to their training, experience and judgment have risen to the top of their professions and whose work benefits all Americans.”

National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said that his organization is still evaluating just how widespread the conversion to Schedule F could be across the federal workforce:

“The president’s latest executive order is yet another in a long line of attacks on the civil service and circumvention of the laws passed by Congress to protect certain career federal employees from partisan political interference,” Reardon said. “NTEU strongly questions the motives of this executive order because it weakens protections for a portion of the federal workforce and makes them more susceptible to partisan pressures, as opposed to accountability based on sound professional and scientific integrity.”

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., called the measure a “radical attack” on federal workers:

“The president’s executive order is an attempt to redefine the civil service as a political arm of the presidency rather than public servants who work for the American people,” he said. “The stated goal in the text of the order itself weakening union protections and making it easier to fire senior federal employees is to make the federal workforce more loyal to the president. Such open cronyism does not benefit the country, it benefits the president.”

But Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, lauded the decision, arguing that it restores the federal to as the nation’s founders intended, where “policy-making positions were traditionally held by appointees”:

“Our founding fathers never envisioned a massive unelected, unaccountable federal government with the power to create policies that impact Americans’ everyday lives,” Comer said. “President Trump has long pledged to take on this bureaucracy and restore power to the people by draining the swamp.”

Robert Tobias, distinguished practitioner in residence at American University’s Key Executive Leadership Program and a former president of NTEU, said reading the order “took his breath away”:

“Congress passed the Pendleton Act in an attempt to depoliticize the federal government’s career service in attempt to increase its credibility with the public,” Tobias said. “This would remove that entire layer of people, and it would create a group of people who are constantly turning over because they don’t come to the federal government for the purpose of serving the public, they come for the purpose of serving the president. If we were to apply this executive order to the last six months, we would have no career people equivalent to Tony Fauci. We’d merely have political appointee after political appointee who have absolutely no credibility, and a rudderless government as seen by the public.”