President George W. Bush, left, with John Negroponte, center, and Mike Hayden in the Oval Office in April 2005.

President George W. Bush, left, with John Negroponte, center, and Mike Hayden in the Oval Office in April 2005. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Bush-era national security officials warn against Schedule F

In a letter to congressional committee staff directors, a cadre of former Republican appointees urged lawmakers to pursue a “middle ground” of federal employee accountability that preserves merit systems principles.

A cadre of Republican former national security officials on Thursday urged lawmakers to abandon the GOP’s growing embrace of Schedule F, arguing there are better ways to hold poor performing or malfeasant federal workers accountable than politicizing the civil service.

Since the rise of Schedule F, the Trump administration’s abortive effort to convert tens of thousands of federal workers in “policy-related” positions out of the competitive service, effectively making them at-will employees, proponents have described it in one of two ways: as a tool for quickly removing feds who “resist” the policy direction of political leaders, or as a more general need to make it easier to fire poor performers.

But in a letter to congressional leaders, former CIA Director Mike Hayden, former Deputy Homeland Security Secretary James Loy, former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and former Navy Secretary and NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, rejected the former president’s approach. Trump, who will again be the Republican nominee for president this fall, has campaigned in part on reviving Schedule F.

“We believe that our career federal civil servants must be accountable to the American people and those that are elected to represent them, but while that core principle is essential to the effective functioning of our democratic system of government, it is simply too hard to hold our civil servants accountable for meeting reasonable standards of performance or conduct,” they wrote. “However, some would establish the political loyalty of those career civil servants as the best way of reassuring that accountability. We strongly disagree.”

The former leaders, all veterans of the George W. Bush administration, said that no matter the motive, creating an opportunity for a president or his politically appointed subordinates to retaliate against federal workers for their political views poses “too great a risk to our national and homeland security.”

“Public service, whether in uniform or otherwise, ought to be based exclusively on qualifications and merit,” they wrote. “Nothing else matters, and in our view, political fealty—however it may be operationalized—does not equate to accountability.”

Ron Sanders has been serving as a technical advisor to the as-yet unnamed group of former officials. Sanders, who himself resigned from his post as chairman of the Federal Salary Council in protest of Schedule F’s implementation, said that although the letter was signed only by former Republican leaders, the group itself is bipartisan.

“Frankly, we’ve been talking with lots of groups who say, ‘A: we agree with you and want a politically neutral but also accountable civil service, and the one we have now falls short of that,’” Sanders said in an interview. “But so many have told us that they were afraid to be public about it. So the only group willing to stand up and be counted now are former national security leaders, but there are many more where that came from.”

Sanders said that if you take the argument that Schedule F is needed to weed out poor performing and malfeasant federal employees, it’s simply bad policy.

“Trying to be as charitable as I can be, I think Schedule F is just inartful,” he said. “The authors will say that [under the proposal], you can’t hire somebody or reassign them under Schedule F for partisan political purposes and there are protections to preclude that. And I don’t necessarily disagree. There are simply other, better ways if accountability is the goal and not politicization.”

The former officials’ letter spells out a three-point plan to try to shore up accountability within the existing civil service system, without infringing on guard rails against politicization. First, they propose “modernizing” the parts of the U.S. Code dealing with federal employee performance appraisals and adverse actions to streamline the firing process.

“You could simply implement time limits for taking and then adjudicating an adverse action,” Sanders said. “Take the VA Accountability Act for example—though not precisely, because its overall legality is in doubt—but the principle is that people should prepared to act quickly, take action, appeal it and get it adjudicated. What the actual time limits are I don’t particularly care about, but just create some time limits.”

Second, the leaders called for a statutory ban on efforts that could undermine merit systems principles, particularly for national security, intelligence community and other law enforcement positions. And finally, they suggested creating a periodic review process to ensure a balance of political and career leaders atop national security and law enforcement agencies.

Sanders said the letter serves as the opening of a conversation he and the other former leaders hope will eventually culminate in language in the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act.

“We can help and are at your disposal,” the officials wrote. “However, let us be clear. We believe that our career civil servants, our civilian employees, are a national resource, and they must be protected by due process,” the letter states. “In our decades of experience overseeing large, complex national security organizations under both Democratic and Republican presidents, these individuals have always brought unrivalled technical expertise, institutional memory, and the ability to navigate complex bureaucracies that are truly priceless.”