US unions urge Congress to protect federal staff from Trump bid to strip employment protections

By on 01/11/2022 | Updated on 01/11/2022
Critics of Schedule F say the move was an attempt by then president Donald Trump to surround himself with political loyalists. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Congressional leaders have been urged to pass a bill that would block future governments from resurrecting a Trump-era bid to strip career federal employees of their civil service protections, in a letter signed by nearly 50 unions and good government advocates.

In the letter, signatories pressed Congress to pass the Preventing a Patronage System bill before the end of the legislative session in December.

The bill was introduced earlier this year in response to an executive order signed by president Trump in October 2020 which sought to move federal workers in policy-oriented roles 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: US lawmakers vote to shield feds from Trump threat to make them more easily fireable if re-elected

Donald Trump claimed that Schedule F would make it easier to rid the civil service of poor performers and improve bureaucrat accountability to tax-payers. However, critics said it was a bid by the former president to surround himself with political loyalists. These included lifelong Republican and then Federal Salary Council chair Ron Sanders, who said it was an attempt “to replace apolitical expertise with political obeisance” and “make loyalty to [Trump] the litmus test for many thousands of career civil servants”. Sanders resigned in protest at the order.

Though agencies had begun planning to reclassify their employees under the order – including the Office of Management and Budget, which identified that 68% of its staff would need to move to the new category – the Trump administration was unable to implement Schedule F before the 2020 presidential election.

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

Joe Biden rescinded the order early the following year, during his first day in office. However, concerns that it could be resurrected grew in July when it was reported that Trump aides had compiled a list of 50,000 staff that could be purged if the Republicans were to win the next federal election in 2024.

The Preventing a Patronage System bill seeks to prevent a future administration from reviving Schedule F without the approval of Congress. It was passed by the lower house in September.

‘Beholden to the party in power’

The letter – which was organised by the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and accountability watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and signed by 46 others including federal employee groups, good government organisations, policy advocacy bodies and academics – was sent to house speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders last week.

“Every administration holds the authority to exercise its executive power appropriately. But those powers are limited by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” it said. “If government employees owe their jobs more to personal or political allegiance rather than merit, they will be more beholden to the party in power instead of the law of the land.”

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

It argued that under Schedule F, normal due process safeguards would no longer apply to the firing process and that positions “could be filled with handpicked and potentially unqualified individuals”. It added that these hiring and firings, even on a small scale, “would cause substantial disruption of government operations”, forcing each new administration to spend “weeks, if not months, dealing with the after effects of their predecessor’s decisions”.

It also said that repeated hiring and firing of those in certain positions would disrupt agencies’ operations and erode the quality of public services.

More substantial employee turnover from one administration to the next would “lead to loss of institutional knowledge and expertise within government,” the letter stated, adding that this would “increase dysfunction and uncertainty in the disposition of the government’s responsibilities”, including national security, health and safety, economic policy and the stewardship of trillions of dollars in annual federal spending.  

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

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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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