Look at the news and it is hard to miss the articles regarding groups of former Trump Administration employees planning for a rebirth of Schedule F, the infamous plan to gut the federal civil service and replace tens of thousands of career civil servants with “Schedule F” appointments. For those who missed the first round of Schedule F, it is a proposed way of hiring people that are, in effect, political appointees.
Those who are pushing for schedule F (if the Republicans win the 2024 presidential election) say it is necessary because of a “deep state” that opposes presidential policies. Calling them unelected bureaucrats, these folks argue that career civil servants undermine the goals of the President, and therefore should be replaced with people who are not subject to the same requirements as career civil servants. Requirements like actually being qualified for the job.
Is there any truth to the allegations that the “deep state” undermines Presidents? Not really. Political appointees of both parties get irritated with career employees. At least that has happened in the administrations I have personal experience with, going back more than 40 years. New political appointees come into office, decide they want to do something that violates a law or regulation, then get upset when a career employee points out that what they want is not legal. I have personally had those discussions with appointees up to and including the Secretary level.
They usually respond by asking what they can do, and if there is a legal way to accomplish what they are trying to do. Career employees do their jobs, and explain what is and is not doable under existing law and regulations. In some cases they help draft new regulations, proposals for legislation, or other changes necessary to carry out the policy objectives of the administration. In some cases there is simply no legal way to accomplish what the politicals want, and the career employees tell them that. Most appointees come to appreciate the career workforce, see them as assets, and work closely with them to carry out their administration’s agenda.
Every administration in recent decades, with the exception of the Trump Administration, accepted the fact that not all things are possible, and that breaking the law is not an option that they should expect career employees to help them execute. Rather than trying to work with the career civil service, the Trump Administration proposed Schedule F. When the proposal first rolled out, there was widespread belief that it was an attempt to politicize the civil service and add tens of thousands of political appointees.
Would implementing Schedule F really be that bad? After all, shouldn’t an administration be able to do what they want? Yes, it would be that bad, and administrations should be able to do whatever they want only when what they want complies with the law. Imagine the consequences of 50,000 new political appointees.
The American people have been losing confidence in government in recent years. The bulk of that loss of confidence is not the result of skilled civil servants doing their jobs. It is the political process that is damaging confidence in government’s ability to get things done. Partisan politics undermines everything when the goals of a party outweigh the good of the people. The fear that partisan politics will undermine effective government is not new. In 1787, James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
If we surveyed the people and asked if they thought 50,000 more politicians running around the federal government would be a good idea, does anyone really think the answer would be yes? Does any reasonable person think that having 50,000 more political appointees turning over every four or eight years is a good idea? Is replacing technical experts with political hacks the way to run an effective government? Do the Republicans who want to replace 50,000 civil servants with political appointees relish the idea of their 50,000 partisans being booted out and replaced with 50,000 partisans appointed by the next Democrat in the White House?
The people want their government to work. They may disagree on the size and scope of government, but reasonable people want the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and others to work. They want to be able to trust what government tells them, and not have to question whether economic data, census data or basic scientific facts were manipulated by political appointees for their own partisan purposes.
The Preventing a Patronage System Act, sponsored by Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), would prohibit current and future administrations from implementing Schedule F without congressional approval. It has passed the House, but has not yet passed the Senate. The bill is called the Preventing a Patronage System Act because the federal government has experience with a patronage system. Nothing about that experience was good. Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, the federal government was filled with patronage jobs. The spoils system meant that every change of administrations resulted in a mad dash for partisans to get a government job. The primary qualification for a job was not experience, but rather politics.
Theodore Roosevelt was a staunch opponent of the spoils system. Mr. Roosevelt wrote ““The government cannot endure permanently if administered on a spoils basis. If this form of corruption is permitted and encouraged, other forms of corruption will inevitably follow in its train. When a department at Washington, or at a state capitol, or in the city hall in some big town is thronged with place-hunters and office-mongers who seek and dispense patronage from considerations of personal and party greed, the tone of public life is necessarily so lowered that the bribe-taker and the bribe-giver, the blackmailer and the corruptionist, find their places ready prepared for them.” President James Garfield described the partisan job seekers as “vultures lying in wait for a wounded bison.” Mr. Roosevelt later said “The worst enemies of the Republic are the demagogue and the corruptionist. The spoils-monger and spoils-seeker invariably breed the bribe-taker and bribes-giver, the embezzler of public funds and the corrupter of voters.”
It is time to put up a guardrail to stop that corruption from taking hold. The best step that can be taken now is for the Senate to pass Mr. Connolly’s bill, and for President Biden to sign it. It does not guarantee that a future administration and Congress will not conspire gut the civil service and return us to a spoils system, but at least it means the House, Senate and President would have to approve doing it and everyone would know who was responsible for putting the interests of a political party ahead of the interests of the people, and taking us back to the corruption of the 1880s.
Jeff Neal authors the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.