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'A Huge Attack': Critics Decry Trump Order That Makes Firing Federal Workers Easier

President Trump speaks to members of the media before departing the White House on Oct. 21, 2020. That same day he issued an executive order that would make it easier for the federal government to fire career civil servants.
President Trump speaks to members of the media before departing the White House on Oct. 21, 2020. That same day he issued an executive order that would make it easier for the federal government to fire career civil servants.

The Trump administration has issued an executive order that would fundamentally restructure the federal workforce, making it easier for the government to fire thousands of federal workers, while also allowing political and other considerations to affect hiring.

The executive order, issued last week, would affect the professional employees in policymaking positions at the very top of the civil service — people like lawyers and scientists who are are not political appointees and serve from administration to administration regardless of which party controls the White House.

The president's order changes that, creating a new category for them — "Schedule F" — and taking away their civil service protections. In a statement that accompanied the order, the White House took aim at those protections, saying they make it too difficult for agency heads to remove "poor performers." Without the protections, the employees can be more easily replaced.

Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, which supports the order, says it's "a common-sense change" to address a lack of accountability in the federal government.

"I've talked to managers in the past who say that they want to do the right thing and they want to hold workers accountable," says Greszler. "They want to get rid of the bad apples who are weighing others down and preventing the agency from carrying out its mission. But ultimately, the managers said, they often gave up because they had to spend so much time and so much effort that ... it just wasn't worth it. They determined it was better to just keep these people on the payrolls and shift their job responsibilities to others. And that's a big problem."

But public employee unions say it's Trump's order that's the problem. They've said it could have a chilling effect on the more than 2 million people who make up the federal workforce — most of whom are not political appointees.

"It's a huge attack on the apolitical civil service," says Jacqueline Simon, the policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees union. She says the order could mean these top positions would no longer be filled by people who have been hired through a competitive process.

"If it's implemented broadly, it could create absolute chaos in the agencies. It could be an absolute fiasco," says Simon. "Everyone's seen what happens if this administration tries to politicize scientific work. We've seen it in CDC, and we've seen it in the weather service. We've seen it in EPA, we've seen it all across the agencies. Imagine every single agency undermined by political hacks."

Trump has railed against federal workers since taking office, baselessly claiming there is a deep state within the bureaucracy working to thwart his policies.

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, says most recent presidents have tried to reform the federal workforce, but Trump has taken it to a new level.

"We started with a hiring freeze," he says. "We segued into a shutdown. I think the net effect is really on undermining commitment within the federal workforce and just giving feds a good Halloween scare that is likely to be overturned, but they won't forget."

Light says the order could make a career in the federal government less appealing, at a time when many government employees are nearing retirement age.

The executive order has already led to one departure: It prompted the resignation of Ron Sanders, the chairman of the Federal Salary Council.

Sanders, a lifelong Republican, says he believes the U.S. civil service is the best in the world. He warns the order could strip the government of sorely needed expertise.

"It's absolutely critical because of the complexity of that world — the laws, the rules, the regulations, the scientific theories, all of the things that go into public policy," he says. "Somebody has to understand that. You can't look at the CliffsNotes and get it. You need people with deep technical expertise who are there regardless of party who provide neutral competence to whoever is in power."

The executive order calls on federal agencies to make a list of positions that would be affected by the new classification by Jan. 19, the day before Inauguration Day.

What happens next depends on who is sworn in on Jan. 20. It's likely that Democrat Joe Biden would overturn the order if elected. Democrats in Congress say they'll work to nullify the order, and the National Treasury Employees Union has filed a lawsuit to overturn it in court.

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