Only Two Agencies Had Submitted Their Schedule F Plans for Approval Before Its Rescission, But Several Others Had Begun Work
Officials with the Office of Personnel Management told the Government Accountability Office that it did not issue regulations on the controversial executive order because they wanted to “observe” how agencies would implement it first.
A new report from a congressional watchdog agency sheds light on the Trump administration’s abortive attempt to remove potentially thousands of federal workers in policy-related positions from the competitive civil service and make them at-will employees.
The Government Accountability Office issued a report Wednesday analyzing how agencies worked to implement former President Trump’s Schedule F executive order in the waning days of his administration, until President Biden took office and quickly rescinded the policy edict.
Schedule F called for career federal workers employed in some policy-related positions to be moved into a new job category outside of the competitive service, stripping them of their civil service protections and making them effectively at-will employees. The proposal was heavily criticized by federal employee organizations and good government groups, who warned it would politicize the federal workforce and mark a return of the 19th century spoils system. Conservatives have begun to rally behind the idea again in recent months, with Trump and think tanks signaling they would revive the measure under the next Republican administration.
GAO studied the effort to implement Schedule F between October 2020, when Trump signed the executive order establishing the new job classification, and January 2021, when Biden was inaugurated and rescinded the directive, and spoke with stakeholders both inside and out of government about the plan. The watchdog agency found that only two agencies—the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission—submitted their plans for moving jobs into Schedule F to the Office of Personnel Management for approval, although several other agencies indicated that they were working on their own proposals.
Of the 13 agencies that communicated with OPM about implementation but had not submitted a proposal, seven reported that they needed additional time to analyze positions across their agency, while another six said they either did not have a need for the expedited hiring and firing afforded by Schedule F or did not have any positions that would qualify for the new job category.
In the case of OMB, which was slated to see 68% of its workforce converted to Schedule F, officials there said agency leaders pushed for fast approval of their plan because “then-administration officials wanted OMB to serve as an example for other agencies to follow.” Although OPM approved OMB’s petition on Jan. 8, 2021, the agency ultimately was unable to convert any positions to Schedule F because its HR staff was too busy preparing for the presidential transition, and officials with the Biden administration instructed staff to stop working on the controversial plan on Jan. 20.
Over at the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, only five of the agency’s 234 employees were slated to move into Schedule F. The agency submitted its plan on Jan. 19, 2021, and OPM was unable to review the proposal before Biden rescinded the executive order.
Officials at the agency, which applies boundary and water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico, said the expedited hiring and firing offered by Schedule F was appealing to senior leaders, particularly given the location of its offices in remote locations along the southern border.
“Another factor officials noted was the desire to have employees who the commissioner trusted to expeditiously carry out policy decisions,” GAO wrote. “Finally, they said that there was a desire to have the flexibility to quickly remove poorly performing employees rather than wait for them to retire, leave or go through the removal process, which they said was lengthy.”
OPM, for its part, consulted with agencies across a number of venues, such as the Chief Human Capital Officer Council, to answer questions about Schedule F, although several topics remained simply “under consideration,” such as whether employees would immediately lose their civil service protections if converted to the new job classification and how probationary periods would work. Although OPM offered initial guidance for how agencies should submit their proposals to comply with Trump’s executive order, the agency never proposed regulations to formally implement the policy.
“OPM did not issue regulations related to Schedule F before [the executive order] was revoked,” GAO wrote. “OPM officials told us they wanted to observe how agencies implemented Schedule F. This would allow them to understand the common issues agencies faced in implementation before issuing regulations.”
GAO also consulted with more than a dozen stakeholders from both within the Trump administration and from employee groups and academia. Although they agreed in a general sense that it can often take too long to either hire or fire a federal worker, some feared Schedule F would lead to a politicization of jobs that had prioritized nonpartisan expertise.
“One stakeholder said a Schedule F category would be a positive development, as employees in Schedule F positions should be committed to presidential priorities and therefore more motivated to quickly and effectively implement the president’s policy agenda,” GAO wrote. “Some stakeholders, however, stated that this could cause federal employees to be hired for their commitment to the president rather than their competence.”
Those interviewed by GAO also said that Schedule F could hurt the recruitment and retention of federal workers, contributing to a loss of institutional knowledge and expertise over time.
“Several stakeholders said Schedule F could make it more difficult to recruit federal employees, as potential applicants interested in a federal career could be deterred from taking a Schedule F position if they believed they could be removed for political reasons after a change in administration,” GAO wrote. “Several stakeholders told us that Schedule F could result in increased employee turnover between administrations, leading to a lack of continuity and a potential degradation in the overall subject matter expertise held within the civil service.”
In response to a draft of the report, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja and OMB Director Shalanda Young said that the Biden administration remains in “steadfast opposition” to Schedule F.
“Schedule F rested on false and harmful assumptions regarding the effectiveness and merit of the career civil service,” they wrote. “And far from promoting merit-based personnel hiring, we now know that the prior administration sought to use Schedule F as a vehicle for replacing nonpartisan civil servants with individuals hired solely based on their ideological and political beliefs. The American people long ago rejected such a patronage system of federal hiring.”