President Donald Trump unveiled a stunning executive order on October 21 that threatens to undermine one of the most important aspects of American government: the professional civil service.
The new directive instructs agencies to transfer “career employees in confidential policy-determining, policy‑making and policy-advocating” roles into at-will positions under a new Schedule F job classification. The shift will strip career workers of long-standing civil service protections and politicize the career workforce, allowing merit-based employees to be replaced with appointees selected for their political loyalties.
This is a dangerous proposition.
Now more than ever, our government needs experts with long-term institutional memory who serve to protect our national security, enforce our laws and preserve our health, safety and economic well-being.
This order does just the opposite. It puts government on a constant learning curve, disrupts critical operations, and potentially sabotages future civil service reform. Despite claims to the contrary, the new order makes government less effective and less efficient.
Disrupting Government Operations
For over 130 years, the federal government has hired career civil servants based on qualifications, not cronyism. The Pendleton Act of 1883 established a strict merit system that used competitive exams to hire federal employees and made it illegal to fire them for political reasons. Nearly a century later, President Carter signed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to reaffirm these principles, and further improve the professionalism and productivity of the federal workforce.
Notably, the 1978 law grew out of a deliberative process that included employee representatives, good government groups, the Carter administration, and members of both parties in Congress. The process was open, and passage of the landmark bill enabled the federal government to move forward with a badly needed modernization.
This executive order came about differently. The president reportedly issued the order without seeking input from human capital experts in his own administration, much less members of Congress, outside experts or federal employees themselves.
As a result, the order has left government officials scrambling to understand its meaning and threatens to destabilize federal personnel policy.
Hiring and firing based on political whims, and not on merit, would replace clear and systemized federal hiring practices with far more chaotic, volatile and ad hoc staffing strategies.
U.S. presidents already face the gargantuan task of filling over 4,000 political appointments, roughly 1,200 of which have to undergo the time-consuming and increasingly partisan process of Senate confirmation. Adding thousands – perhaps tens of thousands — of employees hired for political reasons to this mix would only further slow the gears of government.
To make matters worse, the new rules incentivize “burrowing,” a process by which political appointees move into career positions. The practice, some fear, allows presidents to skirt merit-based hiring rules and fill the civil service with political favorites, friends and loyalists. While the Office of Personnel Management typically sets strict guidelines to limit improper burrowing, it is unclear whether the current OPM plans to review employees who transferred into Schedule F under the executive order. Typically, no more than a few dozen political employees are converted to career status in the final year of a president’s term. But this number could explode if the order permits political appointees to become new Schedule F employees without OPM review.
Finally, the executive order sets a tight time frame—just 90 days—for agencies to conduct preliminary position-by-position reviews to decide who will be forced into the new system. The initial deadline is January 19, raising questions of what changes to the civil service might be rushed through on the eve of the 2020 inauguration.
These reviews will be intensive and time-consuming, and leave civil servants in limbo at a time when agencies should be addressing the urgencies of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Undercutting Future Reform
The new executive order also undermines future bipartisan cooperation on new civil service reform—something our system sorely needs, and which the administration claims to want.
Over 40 years have passed since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. The salary framework for federal employees is even older, dating back more than 70 years. Today, we need highly trained, tech-savvy civilian professionals to support our military, protect cyberspace, address complex global economic issues, and protect our health and safety.
To attract this top talent, we need to modernize the ways in which we recruit, hire, pay, train, manage and retain federal employees, and enable the government to be more competitive with the private sector. Moving employees into a new class with diminished rights does nothing to improve federal management and hiring issues.
Instead, the executive order will only raise suspicions that civil service reform is less a good faith, honest effort to make government more effective and more a political hammer to intimidate and subvert the federal workforce. This skepticism has already stymied federal reforms both large and small, from broader government modernization efforts to legislation that would streamline hiring processes for student interns and bring young talent into federal service.
Finally, the new executive order also raises a more fundamental question: Is it legal? The law permits the president to make exceptions to competitive civil service rules. But this executive order appears to turn that exception into one that would swallow the whole rule.
Important questions about due process also linger. The order does not detail why employees in new Schedule F positions will be exempt from the employment protections that come with most civil service jobs, and the Office of Personnel Management has offered little guidance on whether or how the new Schedule F appointees could file complaints about personnel decisions. According to reports, the agency has already told congressional staff that employees would have no right to appeal a transfer into the new schedule.
And despite assurances by the White House Press Office that the executive order does not apply to the Senior Executive Service—one of the crown jewels of the 1978 act—the actual text of the order is muddled. As a result, senior career officials who provide management continuity and technical expertise across administrations may also be subject to the new directive.
To prevent the politicization and disruption of the federal workforce, Congress should move swiftly to nullify President Trump’s executive order, as legislation recently introduced by Rep. Gerry Conolly (D-VA), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, (D-NY) aims to do.
But sending the executive order to its grave cannot be the end of this story. Members of the 117th Congress should make the health and management of the federal civil service a top priority. We need a professional civil service staffed with skilled employees who act as stewards of the public trust and serve the public good.
Over a century ago, we created a model civil service system that offered a clear path for the best and brightest to work in government and serve the public. Later reforms have protected that system, allowing career employees working across administrations to tackle our most pressing challenges. The new executive order undermines this progress, sapping the career workforce of the talent it needs to drive important change and cutting off any possibility of further reform. For these reasons, the order should be rescinded with haste.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.