'A radical step': Attorney explains why Trump’s latest scheme would create a 'corrupt patronage system'
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump and his allies came up with a scheme called Schedule F — which, according to Axios’ Jonathan Swan, would “radically reshape the federal government” and possibly replace “thousands of civil servants” with Trump loyalists. Trump lost the 2020 election, and it remains to be seen whether or not he will run for president again in 2024. But six Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, have proposed legislation that would block Schedule F from being implemented if Trump or another MAGA Republican becomes president in the future.
MAGA Republicans believe that Schedule F would “drain the swamp.” But in an op-ed published by Politico on August 2, Max Stier — CEO of the group Partnership for Public Service — lays out some reasons why Schedule F is a terrible idea.
Schedule F, according to Stier, would create a whole new system of “patronage” in the federal government — one recalling the 19th Century — and it would encourage enormous “corruption.”
“Federal civil servants are often disparaged as obstructionist bureaucrats, and people might think that it’s only logical that a new president should be able to fire any government employee on a whim and hire people who are considered more loyal,” Stier explains. “In fact, the federal government actually operated under such a patronage system for much of the 19th Century, with jobs for sale to political devotees of the incumbent president and civil servants subject to arbitrary dismissal. That changed after a disgruntled job seeker assassinated President James A. Garfield in 1881 — a shocking episode that prompted Congress to reform the corrupt spoils system with passage of a law that professionalized federal career positions and protected employees from capricious firings.”
Schedule F, according to Stier, would politicize civil service positions in a major way.
“Today, our nation’s 2 million career civil servants swear loyalty to the Constitution, not fealty to an individual president,” Stier notes. “They’re hired based on their ability and skills and cannot be fired for partisan or non-merit reasons. These protections provide civil servants with the latitude to offer unvarnished advice, to execute important policies and report illegal activity and misconduct without fear of retribution. But that could all change under new threats emanating from former President Donald Trump and his allies, to the detriment of our democracy and our government’s ability to keep us safe from a myriad of challenges facing our country.”
Taking a “radical step” like Schedule F, according to Stier, would “would effectively eviscerate the merit-based, apolitical career civil service and return the country to the time when competence was undervalued and when public offices were used to reward members of the victorious political party.”
“The plan, first delineated in a Trump executive order in the fall of 2020 and rescinded by President Joe Biden two days after taking office, has support from some Republicans in Congress and could be embraced by other potential GOP presidential candidates,” Stier observes. “It would create a new job classification for ‘career employees in confidential, policy-determining, policy-making and policy-advocating positions,’ and would strip these individuals of long-standing civil service protections by allowing politically appointed leaders to fire them at will. Reviving this proposal could require a wide range of civil servants, including policy analysts, attorneys, managers, scientists and a host of other career employees whose unbiased judgment we rely on for safety and security, to show partisan allegiance or risk their jobs.”
Stier continues, “Such a policy would have a real chilling effect, discouraging federal employees from speaking out while simultaneously eroding public trust in our government. It also would tarnish the historic requirement of a merit-based system where well-qualified federal employees are given charge over our most sensitive capabilities, data and choices, and would undermine the role of civil servants as stewards of the public good.
The United States’ current civil service system, according to Stier, “is remarkable for its ability to provide for the continuity of our government during changes in administration” and “prevents huge knowledge gaps by keeping in place civil servants with expertise on terrorism, cybersecurity, international relations, public health and a wide range of other critical issues.”
“The arbitrary firing of tens of thousands of civil servants by a new administration could not only put the nation at risk, but potentially hamper the government’s ability to effectively deliver important services, from veterans’ benefits and Social Security to farm programs and ensuring military readiness,” Stier observes. “Our nation’s chief executive already faces the huge task of filling more political appointments than any other democracy…. Politicizing the federal workforce would be a major step backward and undo many of the hard lessons learned from the past.”
Stier adds, “Congress and the White House should not only act to preempt future efforts to bring a wrecking ball to the professional, merit-based civil service. They should take steps through new legislation to strengthen it, and in the process, protect our democratic system of governance. In a world in which we face so many fast-moving challenges and risks, we need a highly capable and competent government, not one that returns us to the 19th Century.”
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