Biden warns of ‘dangers’ of removing civil service protections from US federal officials

By on 05/10/2023 | Updated on 05/10/2023
A screengrab of Joe Biden delivering his speech on threats to US democracy
A screengrab of Joe Biden delivering his speech on threats to US democracy.

US president Joe Biden has warned that Republican plans to turn more civil service jobs into political appointments are part of a “dangerous” political movement in America.

Speaking in Arizona during an event to honour the former Republican senator and US presidential nominee John McCain on 28 September, Biden warned that the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement inspired by former president Donald Trump “does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy”.

He said: “Not every Republican, not even a majority of Republicans, adhere to the MAGA extremist ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with Republicans my whole career. But there is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA Republican extremists. Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it.”

In particular, he highlighted actions under former president Trump to politicise the appointment of more civil service jobs – which Biden reversed but which Trump and fellow Republican presidential nominees have pledged to reinstate – as among the party’s attack on government, in what Biden called efforts “to burn the place down than to let the people’s business be done”.

“We see the headlines,” Biden said. “[A] ‘sweeping expansion of presidential power’. Their goal to, quote, ‘alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government’, end of quote.”

Read more: Republicans could politicise 50,000 civil service jobs, US academic warns

Warnings Republicans ‘could politicise 50,000 civil service jobs’

Trump’s executive order in October 2020 sought to move federal workers in policy-orientated roles from the government’s main federal pay scale (known as the General Schedule) to ‘Schedule F’, a new category under which the usual civil service protections would not apply. This was intended to allow the president and his administration to make it easier to remove federal employees at a time when Trump was describing the permanent federal civil service as part of the “deep state”.

Although Trump was unable to move any workers to Schedule F before January 2021, when Biden took office and rescinded the directive, Biden warned that it would effectively make civil servants pledge loyalty to the president, rather than the US Constitution.

“It did not require that they had any protections, and the president would be able to wholesale fire them if he wanted, because they had no civil service protection.”

Trump and other potential Republican presidential nominees have said they would reintroduce Schedule F, and speaking at an UK Institute for Government (IfG) event on global approaches to civil service impartiality, professor Donald Moynihan, McCourt chair of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Washington DC’s Georgetown University, warned that Republicans could politicise 50,000 civil service jobs.

He said that “conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation have embedded this in their transition guidelines for whoever the next Republican president is”.

The policy represents “a very large unexploded mine sitting in the field of good governance in America, where it’s going to matter not just to the quality of policy advice or implementation, but also to the security of democracy,” Moynihan said, warning of the dangers of a “president who can reach in so deeply into the career civil service, and toss out people who are not going to be acquiescent to his wishes”.

Read more: White House sets out framework to improve digital experience of US government services

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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