President Trump is a big fan of Andrew Jackson.
The nation’s seventh president enslaved African Americans, oppressed Native Americans and infected the federal service with a spoils system that allowed him to favor cronies.
Now, almost two centuries later, a stunning Trump executive order would effectively convert thousands of federal civil servants into political staff members who could be fired if they did not demonstrate fealty to him instead of the people they swore to serve.
With his zeal to fire feds faster and under the rubric of “effective performance management of employees,” Trump’s order could hurt taxpayers more than the employees he targets.
His Oct. 22 order creating a new class of federal employees without workplace protections beckons images of the spoils system the civil service was designed to defeat. Although the civil service system, with its due process rights, protects government workers from unjust management actions, it also shields taxpayers from a politicized government that can provide or deny services based on political loyalty.
This is not the first time Trump has weakened federal employee rights. Three executive orders in 2018 severely hindered the ability of federal labor organizations to represent workers, including those who are not union members.
For years, Republicans and sometimes Democrats have pushed for restrictions on federal workplace protections. But Trump’s move is just the latest from a president who has broken boundaries that guard agencies, including scientific offices, against inappropriate, politically motivated actions.
Just this week, a federal judge rejected the administration’s attempt to stop a lawsuit that accuses Trump of a rape before he was president. Such moves lead Steve Katz, a Washington lawyer with years of government experience, to say that the Justice Department acts like a Trump “Department of Justification.”
The White House defends Trump’s directive, claiming in a statement from Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought that he “is delivering on his promise to make Washington accountable again to the citizens it’s meant to serve.” He added: “This much-needed reform will increase accountability in essential policy-making positions within the government.”
This is reminiscent of Jackson, whose “spoils system is the most obvious way in which he broke his promise to fight Washington corruption,” according to Michigan State University’s Young American Republic project. “Under the spoils system, Jackson replaced many upstanding civil service agents . . . with his own friends and supporters, many of whom brought incompetence to their posts.”
The order would create a new category, “Schedule F,” within the civil service. Agencies would be allowed to place an unspecified number of “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating” positions in that group. Like presidential political appointees, those employees would be exempt from merit-based competitive hiring and denied due process rights in disputes with supervisors. They could be fired at will for such offenses as not showing sufficient loyalty to the president.
Former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman are examples of those pushed out after angering Trump before he was impeached.
Reaction to Trump’s order was swift and harsh, from various points on the political spectrum.
“Imagine what happens when virtually every senior mission job . . . is filled by political appointees whose loyalty is to an Administration, and not to the U.S. Constitution and the American people,” Jeff Neal, a former top personnel officer in the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Logistics Agency, wrote in his ChiefHRO blog.
“A government where a loyalty test becomes more important than qualifications. And where anyone who dares to disagree is summarily dismissed. A government of sycophants and political hacks is exactly what President Theodore Roosevelt believed the career civil service was essential to prevent.”
Action by Ron Sanders, Trump’s appointee as chairman of the Federal Salary Council, has been the least expected and the most consequential. Sanders, a lifelong Republican, resigned his position with a stinging rebuke.
“The Executive Order is nothing more than a smoke screen 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,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
To prevent that, three House Democrats introduced legislation that would overturn Trump’s order. “Congress must stand up to this midnight attack on civil service protections,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on government operation.
He introduced the bill along with Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the House majority leader, and Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.), chairman of the full committee. The directive “is a last-ditch attempt by the Trump administration to make it easier to remove federal employees who they deem aren’t ‘loyal enough’ to the President and return us to a patronage politics.” The Republican chairmen of the full House committee and the subcommittee, and the Senate panel that oversees the federal workforce did not respond to requests for comment.
House members from the D.C. area joined all of the Democrats on the full committee in a letter calling on the administration to stop the implementation of the order while the panel obtains and examines information about its development.
The National Treasury Employees Union took legal action this week, asking the U.S. District Court to declare Trump’s order unlawful.
“It is shocking that after four years, the Trump administration still doesn’t understand that the United States expressly rejected a spoils system 137 years ago because it was ripe for corruption,” NTEU President Tony Reardon said. “We intend to remind this administration that the taxpayers are better served by federal employees who swear an oath to the Constitution, not a president.”
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