Don’t Expect Trump’s Workforce Policies to Be Reversed Overnight
With the Biden team focused on issues like COVID response and immigration reform, significant action to rescind the Trump administration’s harmful federal workforce policies could take a back seat.
On the eve of President-elect Biden’s inauguration, experts sought to temper expectations regarding the speed at which the new administration will act to rescind the Trump administration’s federal workforce policies.
Federal employee unions and good government experts have consistently urged Biden to act swiftly to rescind three executive orders aimed at making it easier to fire federal workers and reduce the role of unions at agencies.
And a broad coalition of unions, managerial associations, good government organizations and former officials of both major political parties have decried Trump’s effort to politicize the civil service by establishing the new Schedule F job classification, which could strip existing federal workers of their civil service protections and make it easier for political appointees to burrow into the permanent workforce.
But a combination of the need to address other major challenges, like the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and immigration reform, and the uncertain status of the Trump administration’s effort to implement Schedule F, could complicate the timing of when Biden rescinds these executive orders.
Ronald Klain, who will serve as Biden’s chief of staff, sent a memo Saturday to incoming White House senior staff outlining the president’s plan for the first 10 days of the administration. The document made no mention of federal workforce issues, although Klain also noted that the laundry list of planned actions was “not exhaustive.”
In a statement, a Biden transition team official who declined to be named said that the president-elect has “enormous respect for the federal government’s career staff,” and that the incoming administration “will have more to say very soon on the federal workforce with regards to their pay, benefits and bargaining rights.”
Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said that regardless of whether Biden takes action on Jan. 20, he believes federal workforce issues will be an important piece of the Biden administration’s early initiatives.
“To my mind, whether it’s Day One or Day Seven isn’t the big issue,” Stier said. “On the front end of the work they have to do, the Biden team has been exceptionally well organized, and one of the advantages of that is they’ve been working on these issues since pre-election and then post-election and pre-inauguration.”
Stier said to expect quick action to rescind Trump’s three 2018 workforce orders, as well as the directive issued last September aimed at curtailing diversity and inclusion training at federal agencies and contractors, and an order issued Monday requiring approval of a senior political appointee for all federal regulations and rulemaking. Biden’s broader stated goal to go further than unwinding Trump initiatives to strengthen the federal workforce could take longer, however.
“There’s seemingly no end to it, and [the regulations order] is clearly egregious,” Stier said. “It’s bad policy, done in a bad way, just before the transition. I do think the Biden team has signaled that they will stop the problems created by the Trump team, but then the next step will be: Do they take on the needed changes that are going to be important, positive things that might include improving employee morale and refreshing the workforce? . . . And, of course, the bigger lift will be in modernizing the broader systems of government.”
Another source of possible delays could be the unclear status of the Trump administration’s implementation of Schedule F. The Washington Post reported Monday that officials at the Office of Management and Budget recently conceded that they “ran out of time” to reclassify 88% of the agency's workforce into the new schedule. But the Government Accountability Office told the House Oversight and Reform Committee Friday that the Office of Personnel Management approved the vast majority of OMB’s reclassification requests, only blocking the implementation of Schedule F for presidential management fellows.
And it could take months for lawmakers to come to grips with just how many political appointees have burrowed into career positions across the federal government, either through traditional means or via Schedule F. That uncertainty means that the Biden administration may wait to rescind the Schedule F order, said Don Kettl, professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
“There was a lot of early speculation that on Day One, removing Schedule F would be one of the first acts of the new administration, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen now for a variety of reasons,” Kettl said. “It’s entirely possible that they want to see how much damage was done in the last days, both with agency’s reclassification lists and with officials burrowing in. There’s some doubt, but [Schedule F] may be convenient as a way to uproot some of those folks . . . What’s clear is that on the first day, that’s not one of the top items to try to deal with. The administration has an enormous amount of stuff on its plate, and a limited amount of bandwidth.”
Stier said he disagrees with those who believe that the easiest way to get rid of political appointees burrowing through Schedule F is by using the controversial tool.
“My own view is that they should get rid of that as fast as possible,” he said. “To my mind it’s a little bit like—I don’t know if you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings—but it’s like the One Ring. There’s a pull that makes you believe it can be used for good, but it just can’t.”
Another challenge the Biden administration faces in trying to move quickly on workforce issues has been the delayed—and often strained—nature of the presidential transition. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Senate had only held five confirmation hearings, and Biden has yet to name key positions like the director of OPM or the administrator of the General Services Administration.
“OPM and GSA are key positions for the functioning of government, and it’ll either be a force multiplier or a force detractor for the things that people have to do,” Stier said. “[And when you go further down], at the Merit Systems Protections Board, there’s literally thousands upon thousands of cases that are just sitting there. It’s atrocious, and those cases represent people’s lives and concerns . . . This ordinarily would not be a top priority, but it should be more prioritized, given the backlog and the hardship it represents.”