US lawmakers vote to shield feds from Trump threat to make them more easily fireable if re-elected

By on 21/09/2022 | Updated on 21/09/2022
Democrat representative Gerry Connolly gives a speech wearing a suit.
Democrat representative Gerry Connolly, who introduced the bill, said "changing the nature of the civil service is rare and important, and it should require express congressional participation through legislation". Photo by the AFGE via Flickr

The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would stop future presidents from stripping federal employees of civil service protections without Congressional approval.

The ‘Preventing a Patronage System’ bill cleared the House last week in a vote of 225-204.

The move comes after then president Donald Trump signed an executive order in October 2020 under which federal workers in policy-oriented roles could be moved to a new employment category called Schedule F. Those who fell under this category would effectively be ‘at-will’ employees, meaning they could be disciplined or fired without due process and could not engage in collective bargaining. It also meant that new hires could be brought in without going through the civil service’s normal merit-based selection processes.

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

The Trump administration was unable to implement the new employment classification before the 2020 presidential election, and Joe Biden rescinded the order and other efforts to politicise and undermine the civil service early the following year, during his first day in office. However, concerns remained that a future president could unilaterally resurrect the plan after it was reported in July that Trump aides had compiled a list of 50,000 staff that could be purged in the event of his re-election in 2024.

According to Government Executive, one of Trump’s former staffers said there was “real value to issuing Schedule F” because it “turned it into a ‘flip the switch’ thing for the next administration that wants to do it”.

The Preventing a Patronage System bill was introduced to prevent such a move. “The civil servants who make up our federal workforce are the engine that keep our federal government running,” said Democrat representative Gerry Connolly, who introduced the bill. “The former president’s attempt to remove qualified experts and replace them with political loyalists threatened our national security and our government’s ability to function the way the American people expect it to.”

Read more: Trump aides plan federal staff purge in event of 2024 re-election

Connolly said that as well as preserving the federal workforce’s century-old merit system protections, the bill would also reassert Congress’ authority as the maker of federal personnel policy.

“This bill does not preclude the president requesting to create a new job classification, but it does require [a request to Congress],” he said. “It restores the balance… changing the nature of the civil service is rare and important, and it should require express congressional participation through legislation.”

Ridding the civil service of poor performers or rewarding political loyalty?

At a rally in South Carolina earlier this year, Trump said he would make “every executive branch employee fireable by the president” if re-elected in 2024. He also said he would implement a “big and bold” plan to reform government, adding that what he termed ‘the deep state’ “must and will be brought to heel”.

His administration claimed that Schedule F would make it easier to rid the civil service of poor performers and improve bureaucrat accountability to tax-payers. However, many Republicans opposed the executive order, believing that it would benefit poor-performing federal employees.

Days after Trump signed the Schedule F executive order in October 2020, lifelong Republican Ron Sanders – who had been appointed by Trump to oversee federal civil service salaries – quit in protest.

In his resignation letter, which was obtained by Politico, Sanders wrote that the order was an attempt “to replace apolitical expertise with political obeisance” and “make loyalty to him [Trump] the litmus test for many thousands of career civil servants”.

Sanders added that the order is “nothing than a smokescreen for what is clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the president, or failing that, to enable their removal with little if any due process”.

Read more: Role reversal: a round-up of Biden’s moves to support federal workers

The Preventing a Patronage System bill has the support of dozens of government organisations and unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, the Senior Executives Association, the Professional Managers Association and the National Treasury Employees Union.

It is not known when the legislation will be introduced to the Senate.

Read more: Republicans reinforce intent to reduce civil service employment protections

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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