Trump moves to extend hire-and-fire powers over civil service

By on 26/10/2020
Last week, president Trump issued an executive order that could undermine federal employees’ rights. Credit: Official White House Photo/Shealah Craighead/Flickr

Donald Trump issued an executive order last week that could remove employment protection rights for tens of thousands of federal employees, giving the president powers to hire and fire a far greater proportion of the civil service workforce. 

The order, which was issued on Wednesday evening, aims to create a new class of federal employee, known as Schedule F. This could be applied to any employee whose work related to federal policy, covering both existing and future roles. It gives agency heads a seven-month period to complete a review of their workforces and then draw up a list of employees that would be subject to Schedule F status.  

Schedule F employees would lose protections ensuring that appointments are made on merit, and that they can’t be disciplined or fired without going through the appropriate performance management processes. Currently, only about 4000 of more than 2m federal employees are political appointees, but the order could increase political control over any staff member deemed to be involved in “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocated” work.

Executive power-grab

With the presidential election now just over a week away, it is unlikely to have any impact in the event that Trump’s Democrat challenger Joe Biden secures the presidency. If, however, Trump triumphs on 3 November, he would be able to order sweeping changes to the workforces at key government agencies, potentially culling thousands of employees he deems to be working for the “deep state” and seeking to undermine his policies.  

Trump’s order argues that the change is required to remove poorly-performing officials. “Separating employees who cannot or will not meet required performance standards is important, and it is particularly important with regard to employees in confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating positions,” it says.

“High performance by such employees can meaningfully enhance agency operations, while poor performance can significantly hinder them. Senior agency officials report that poor performance by career employees in policy-relevant positions has resulted in long delays and substandard-quality work for important agency projects, such as drafting and issuing regulations.” 

Purge fears

Trump’s opponents fear that his order would clear the way for a widespread purge of any officials seen as disloyal to the current president. Over the last four years, numerous senior officials have been forced out, often after whistleblowing or mounting investigations seen as hostile: these include inspector generals at the health department, the intelligence community and the State Department. In other cases, their removal appears to clear the way for Trump’s appointees to bring in political allies – as at the public overseas broadcast agency. Earlier this year, reports emerged suggesting that the administration was compiling lists of supposedly disloyal civil servants.

Senior Democrats condemned the move. Congressman Gerry Connolly, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, said it would cost many career federal employees important civil service protections and strip them of their eligibility to be represented by a union: “This executive order is yet another attack on federal employees that addresses absolutely none of the issues that can hinder effective federal recruitment and hiring. It’s a cheap ploy to let the Trump administration replace talent and acumen with fealty and self-dealing.” 

Union reaction

Unions representing federal employees were also quick to weigh in. “This is the most profound undermining of the civil service in our lifetimes,” said American Federation of Government Employees national president Everett Kelley.  

“The president has doubled down on his effort to politicise and corrupt the professional service. This executive order strips due process rights and protections from perhaps hundreds of thousands of federal employees and will enable political appointees and other officials to hire and fire these workers at will.”  

The result, Kelley added, would be bad for the administration of the federal government and the country, not just for his members. “Through this order, President Trump has declared war on the professional civil service by giving himself the authority to fill the government with his political cronies who will pledge their unwavering loyalty to him – not to America.” 

“By targeting federal workers whose jobs involve government policies, the real-world implications of this order will be disastrous for public health, the environment, the defence of our nation and virtually every facet of our lives.” 

Richard C Loeb, a senior policy counsel for the same union, told the New York Times that the order represents “a declaration of war on the civil service,” calling it “an attempt to politicise the process and to hire cronies and fire enemies.”

Swamp-drainers

However, House Committee on Oversight and Reform ranking member James Comer backed the president’s move. “Our founding fathers never envisioned a massive unelected, unaccountable federal government with the power to create policies that impact Americans’ everyday lives,” he said in a statement.  

“President Trump has long pledged to take on this bureaucracy and restore power to the people by draining the swamp. Today, President Trump again delivered on his promise by signing an executive order that will help make bureaucrats who have the ability to create and implement policy more accountable for their actions. I applaud President Trump’s efforts.” 

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