James Sherk, former special assistant to President Trump, shown here during a 2016 Heritage Foundation event. Sherk defended Schedule F at a panel discussion hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration on June 29.

James Sherk, former special assistant to President Trump, shown here during a 2016 Heritage Foundation event. Sherk defended Schedule F at a panel discussion hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration on June 29. C-SPAN2/Screengran by GovExec

Schedule F architects say the plan’s critics are ‘hyperbolic’

Officials behind the Trump administration’s abortive effort to strip tens of thousands of federal workers in policy positions of their civil service protections called concerns of politicization overblown, but espoused making all federal employees at-will.

A pair of former Trump administration officials on Thursday made the case in favor of Schedule F, a 2020 plan to strip tens of thousands of federal workers of most civil service protections, calling concerns that the measure would politicize the civil service “hyperbolic,” although they said little to ameliorate those fears.

In October 2020, then-President Trump signed an executive order establishing a new job classification within the federal government’s excepted service—Schedule F—designed for federal employees in policy-related jobs and exempting their positions from most civil service rules. The edict ordered agencies to identify positions that would qualify for the new classification and convert employees in those jobs to Schedule F, effectively making them at-will employees.

Although some agencies had begun work on the process of finding and requesting permission to reclassify portions of their workforces into the new job category, no agency was able to implement the executive order before President Biden’s inauguration in January 2021. Biden quickly rescinded the order upon taking office.

But since then, work has not stopped on the initiative. Former Trump administration officials have continued developing the plan so that the next Republican president could reinstate it quickly, going so far as to identify 50,000 federal workers whom they would target with reclassification and potentially termination. Republican presidential candidates Trump and Florida Gov. Rob DeSantis have both endorsed reviving the initiative if elected, and Schedule F is a key piece of a transition effort by a Heritage Foundation-led coalition of conservative think tanks.

James Sherk, former special assistant to President Trump, and former acting Office of Personnel Management Director Michael Rigas, who both work at the Trump-affiliated America First Policy Institute, defended Schedule F at a panel discussion hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration. They argued the initiative is necessary because of the long-held perception that it is too difficult for the federal government to fire poor performers, and said that during the Trump administration, officials were hamstrung by insubordinate employees in policy-related positions who sought to undermine their efforts to institute new policies.

“What we’re all trying to grapple with is, how do we get an executive branch that is responsive to the public, right?” Rigas said. “If you’re the average American, you have one chance every four years to express your preference for how the executive branch should be governed . . . [Federal employees] are there to carry the mantle of the will that the majority of the people elected to be the president of the United States . . . If federal employees are unable or unwilling to carry out the lawful policy of the president, I think we have a problem there.”

Sherk sought to rebut the criticism often levied at Schedule F that the measure would lead the federal government back to the 19th century spoils system, where employment at federal agencies were dependent on partisan loyalty, arguing that the original executive order included a provision barring the termination of an individual in Schedule F based on partisan affiliation or any other prohibited personnel practice. But he also argued that the drafters of the 1888 Pendleton Act, which established the nonpartisan civil service, were not interested in providing feds due process protections and only aimed to stop partisanship in the hiring process.

“If we wanted to return to the patronage system, we would have just created a bunch of Schedule C positions,” he said. “If you go back to the Pendleton Act, [lawmakers] wrote that they did not want to seal up insubordination or intransigence . . . federal employees had no right to appeal their dismissal until the rise of veterans’ preference during World War II. We had this system grow up in the 1960s as an extension of veteans’ preference, and it has worked badly.”

And Sherk indicated that as a general matter, he believes the entire federal workforce should be made up of at-will employees.

“You need accountability in government,” he said. “In order to preserve the consent of the governed, the government needs to answer to its elected officials, and right now there are major impediments to that with civil service protections. [The workforce should be] fully accountable, and one aspect of that is the ability to fire. Every federal employee should serve at the pleasure of the president.”

But Mary Guy, a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, described Schedule F as akin to throwing a “hand grenade” into the civil service, which while not perfect works reasonably well.

“I am very concerned that Schedule F is designed as a hammer to treat all issues as if they are nails, when in fact they are different issues,” Guy said. “[What] happens when an elected official takes office, after all of the rhetoric and promises they make to get elected, is they want to be a in a row boat that they can turn quickly. But they find themselves on an aircraft carrier that takes days, months or years to implement [changes]. It’s just different.”

Partnership for Public Service executive vice president James-Christian Blockwood sought to find middle ground between Guy and the former Trump administration officials, arguing that officials in both political parties should find areas of reform that they can agree on to improve the system, and that reforms should “empower” federal workers, not demonize them.

“More than 10,000 federal employees are removed annually, around 40 or so or day, and even more are disciplined,” he said. “The idea that they can’t be fired is not the best view, but rather it is a difficult and complex system that needs senior leadership to support the decisions of managers, and by developing a single standard for leadership in public service, which would apply to both career and political officials, we need to recalibrate what it means to serve . . . Nothing gets better if all you do is talk down to it and degrade it.”