The Next Republican Presidency—1
First in an occasional series giving realistic scenarios about possible bad things to come. Today: the merit-based civil service in the crosshairs
Today’s post is the first in what will be an occasional series for “Eyes on the Right” examining the plans, hopes, ambitions, and aspirations of Trumpified Republicans—that is, what they will likely aim to accomplish the next time they win the power of the presidency. All subscribers (paying and non-paying) are able to read roughly the first half of today’s post. To gain access to the whole essay, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to “Notes from the Middleground.” Doing so provides access to everything I write in its entirety, along with allowing you to leave comments, participate in conversation and debate with other members of the community here, listen to my personally recorded audio versions of every post, and pose questions to me for periodic “Ask Me Anything” posts. (Later this week, I’ll be doing my first AMA post in a couple of months. Paying subscribers can expect a call for questions via email later in the day on Monday.) Thanks for being here. Now on to today’s post….
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Posts in this series will sometimes be largely speculative, looking at possible priorities for a future Trumpified Republican president. But today’s inaugural post highlights something that goes beyond mere speculation. It focuses on an agenda for reform of the civil service that was hatched during the first Trump administration and finally implemented via executive order just two weeks before the 2020 election. President Joe Biden rescinded that order on his third day in office. If Donald Trump manages to make it back to the White House, he is all but guaranteed to reimplement the reform and then act on what it will make possible—namely, the firing of tens of thousands of career civil servants across the executive branch of the federal government and their replacement by political loyalists.
But Trump isn’t the only potential Republican president who would implement this kind of reform. More than two dozen Republican-dominated states have already moved toward at-will employment for state bureaucrats. It’s highly likely a DeSantis administration would follow Trump and these trends in imposing something along these lines on the federal government—as would any GOP nominee from the now-dominant, Trumpified wing of the party. Ohio Sen. JD Vance spoke for this wing when he suggested, while campaigning for the Senate, that when and if Trump returned to the White House he should “fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people. And when the courts stop you, stand before the country, and say—quoting Andrew Jackson—‘the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.’”
The Origins of “Schedule F”
The proposed reform goes by the anodyne and opaque name of “Schedule F.” Beginning with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, hiring and promotion for most civil service jobs in the federal government has been done on the basis of merit rather than political patronage. As Francis Fukuyama explains in an important essay on the topic, “The merit-based civil service system was created to deal with problems of patronage and corruption that had plagued American public administration since the 1820s, preventing the emergence of a high-capacity bureaucracy sufficient to meet the demands of a complex and rapidly-changing economy and society.”
From the 1940s through the 1970s, a series of laws, executive orders, court decisions that empowered public-sector unions in the federal workforce made it increasingly difficult to fire incompetent civil servants. That can be a problem and is something that cries out for reform. But what the Trump administration implemented in October 2020 is very different than a good-government initiative.
Throughout the myriad departments and agencies of the executive branch, presidents typically nominate ideological allies and personal loyalists to the top jobs (secretaries, undersecretaries, directors, etc.), while most of those who work under them are nonpartisan career civil servants who remain in their jobs across administrations, ensuring continuity and competence in the running of the federal government. The Trump administration became aware very early on that some of its priorities were being blocked or slow-walked at various levels within the government. In his public statements, Trump liked to blame these supposed acts of sabotage on the work of an insidious “deep state.” But in truth Trump’s own appointees often dragged their feet implementing policies they considered foolish or gratuitously cruel—while proposals for drastic policy shifts sometimes raised legal and regulatory concerns among members of the permanent bureaucracy, slowing down their implementation.
A lengthy and illuminating article published last summer in Axios lays out how frustration within the Trump administration over these delays led to the creation of Schedule F. Several Trump loyalists were involved, including John McEntee, James Bacon, Andrew Kloster, and James Sherk. According to Axios, it was Sherk, a member of Trump’s Domestic Policy Council, who fastened onto Section 7511 of Title 5 of the U.S. Code, which exempts from firing protections employees “whose position has been determined to be of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character by the President for a position that the President has excepted from the competitive service.”
The idea would be to have Cabinet secretaries and other political appointees redesignate as Schedule F members of the civil service working under them whose responsibilities could be described in this way. These Schedule F employees could then be fired at will by the president and replaced by anyone he wished. Because Trump didn’t sign the executive order creating Schedule F until October 21, 2020, very little was done on its basis. But Trump loyalist Russ Vought, who ran the Office of Management and Budget, worked to show what Schedule F could make possible. With just two months left before Trump left office, Vought claimed that fully 88 percent of the OMB’s workforce could be redesignated as Schedule F and summarily fired.
A Government Staffed by Cronies and Ideologues
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