‘A Very Large Earthquake’: How Trump Could Decimate the Civil Service

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For the past two decades, Max Stier has distinguished himself as Washington’s foremost champion of the federal civil service, a quiet but influential voice in favor of practical reforms to make federal bureaucracy work better both for the people who serve in it and for the people that it serves. The Partnership for Public Service — the nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that Stier helped found in 2001 and still runs today — works largely behind the scenes in Washington to grease the wheels of the bureaucracy, doing everything from crafting common sense proposals to modernizing government programs to hosting a much-beloved annual awards ceremony honoring the country’s top performing civil servants.

These days, though, Stier is increasingly preoccupied with what he sees as a fundamental threat to that work: former President Donald Trump’s sweeping proposal to convert thousands of career civil servants into political appointees if he wins a second term in the White House. That plan — which has won the support of powerful, Trump-aligned conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the America First Policy Institute — is modeled on an executive order from Trump’s first term that redesignated 20,000 civil servants in policy-related positions as “Schedule F” employees, thereby allowing them to be fired unilaterally by the president.

The Biden administration reversed the Trump administration’s order upon assuming office in 2021, but Trump has vowed to reinstitute an expanded version of the Schedule F order if he is reelected in 2024, converting as many as 50,000 civil servants into political appointees and stripping them of the career protections that they currently enjoy.

For Stier, Trump’s proposal is as ironic as it is dangerous. Although Trump and his allies have argued that their plan is necessary to vanquish the “deep state” that allegedly undermined Republican policy initiatives during Trump’s first term, Stier argues that a revamped order on Schedule F would in fact go a long way toward creating the sort of “deep state” that conservatives now rail against.

“If you were to convert a significant segment of that professional workforce into one that is being chosen by political fiat, then you end up in a system that is responsive to the political desires of the individual rather than the larger responsibilities to the Constitution and to law,” Stier said when I spoke to him recently. “You wind up with a workforce that is not only going to deliver poor service, but also that is going to be a tool for retribution and actions that are contrary to our democratic system.”

Even so, Stier cautioned, Americans should not underestimate the damage that the reforms would do to the federal government’s ability to deliver basic services in a timely and efficient manner. “At the end of the day, it’s intuitive,” he said. “If you are selecting people on the basis of their political persuasion or their loyalty as opposed to their expertise and their commitment to the public good, you’re going to wind up with less good service and more risk for the American people.”

The following has been edited for concision and clarity.

How seismic would the changes wrought by Trump’s proposal be? Is there any precedent for it?

It would be a very large earthquake. There is precedent, but it’s precedent from the 19th century. In effect, when you talk about implementing Schedule F, you’re talking about turning the clock back to the late 19th century, when our government operated under the spoils system. That all changed, importantly, when President [James] Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled job seeker [in 1881], resulting in the passage of the first piece of legislation that professionalized our government, the Pendleton Act.

Frankly, Schedule F is now used as a handle for a larger set of dramatic changes to our government, but they are entirely designed to — and will have the consequence of — making our government responsive to the will of the individual holder of the office of the president rather than the broader allegiance to our Constitution and the rule of law.

Is there evidence that a merit-based civil service — as opposed to a bureaucracy run according to the spoils system — actually makes the government more effective?

No question. One way to know that is to look at our peer countries across the world, and the reality is that every effective democracy on the planet today has a professionalized, merit-based civil service that is the core of their governmental function. If anything, we are an outlier in the numbers and the extent to which political appointees are [spread] throughout government institutions. We have 4,000 political appointments that are made by a president — and that is dramatically more than anybody else out there. So one direct piece of evidence is to look at our peers to see how capability and government performance are directly related to the professional capability of the other civil service. In our own country, the same is true. We have many instances in which organizations have foundered when they’ve had too many political appointees.

At the end of the day, it’s intuitive: If you are selecting people on the basis of their political persuasion or their loyalty as opposed to their expertise and their commitment to the public good, you’re going to wind up with less good service and more risk for the American people.

Do we know which career positions would likely be converted to appointed positions under a second Trump administration?

The best evidence we have so far is what was attempted at the back end of the last Trump administration. At that point, they were looking at converting effectively the entire Office of Management and Budget. For most people, that’s just another government acronym, but in fact, it’s the nerve center of the entire government and the office that really is responsible for coordinating and allocating all the resources of our government — and it’s one of the most capable and professionalized elements of our government.

If you converted just those positions alone, then all kinds of choices in government would be made not on the basis of what delivers the best service to the public, and not on the basis of choosing according to transparent criteria that match Congress’ objective desires. They would be entirely based on the political implications — and that is a worse world.

What about beyond OMB?

We don’t know what the full sweep would be, but it’s also true that you don’t have to convert all the positions to have a much larger impact. The chill that would exist for the larger workforce would be profound. For instance, we currently have a system that respects whistleblowers in order to make sure that if something illegal is occurring inside an agency, the individuals who raise them are actually protected. In a world with Schedule F, that would be incredibly hard to see that happening.

Which areas of the government stand to suffer the most under a return to the “spoils system,” as you called it? What would that look like in terms of the delivery of government services?

It depends a lot on how broad of a brush is ultimately wielded in making the changes. You can start from the most obvious, life-saving components of our government.

If you ask the public today if they want a professional government service, they say “yes” in very, very large majorities. So I think that the intuitive point is very strong. The challenge is that there’s a narrative that has been sold around this notion of a deep state, which is just wrong. Indeed, the proposals that are on the table would create a deep state, rather than the effective state that we all should be pursuing.

What do you mean?

I don’t think we have a deep state today. The vast bulk of career civil servants understand that their role is to execute the policy choices that our elected leaders make and that they have a responsibility to follow the law and to make sure their actions are consistent with the Constitution. But if you were to convert a significant segment of that professional workforce into one that is being chosen by political fiat, then you end up in a system that is responsive to the political desires of the individual rather than the larger responsibilities to the Constitution and to law.

You wind up with a workforce that is not only going to deliver poor service, but also that is going to be a tool for retribution and actions that are contrary to our democratic system.

The Biden administration has issued a rule that’s designed to limit the scope and efficacy of any subsequent Schedule F reforms by future administrations. How effective do you think that rule will be?

It’s an important effort and recognition that it would be wrong and damaging. At the end of the day, though, Congress speaking to this would be much more efficacious. I actually think that, even absent the rule or legislation, there would be real legal reasons to challenge the creation of something like Schedule F.

What would a legal challenge look like?

There are statutes that Congress passed that enshrined the merit principles, and one of the main principles is that employees should actually be hired on the basis of merit and not on the basis of politics. So I believe there would be credible and important legal questions that could be raised about those kinds of changes.

But again, I’m not suggesting that they necessarily win — and in the meantime, an awful lot of damage could happen. The very effort and attempt [to reimplement schedule F] would be incredibly damaging in and of itself, so people should not feel sanguine about the possibility that this couldn’t happen or could be delayed, because the harm is profound even in just attempting to do so.

Past administrations from both parties have struggled to fill the 4,000 appointed jobs that currently exist. Is it feasible for a future administration to fill somewhere in the ballpark of 50,000 appointed roles?

The biggest challenge in placing political appointees comes from the Senate confirmation process and all the delays and difficulties that are involved in actually nominating and getting the Senate to confirm them. That’s a deeply broken process. But none of these positions would require that. So I don’t believe that people should be heartened by the notion that they can convert them and it won’t matter because they won’t be able to fill those jobs. I don’t think that is either a true or adequate answer to the problem.

I imagine many people reading this will think, “Well, our government doesn’t work all that efficiently as it is, so what’s the problem with making it a little bit less efficient?” How do you answer that?

This is a difference in kind and not in degree. It’s not like, Yeah, we might just have a slightly less efficient government. No — we would actually have a government that fundamentally fails in its responsibilities to the American people. It would become an instrument of political achievement rather than an instrument of problem-solving and addressing critical issues for the public.

But I think the point is a very important one, because the American public should demand even better than they’re getting right now from our government. I believe that there actually are really good ways of improving the capability of the civil service that do not involve burning down our government. That’s fundamentally the choice that is here to be made. I don’t think it’s efficient to simply say that Schedule F is bad. You also have to offer a plan of attack on improving our government — and frankly, we have that. We have a whole roadmap of the changes that should take place. But the reality is that none of it should be viewed as an indictment of career public servants. It’s an indictment of the leadership over the years that has failed to modernize and invest in the systems of our government.

What does that roadmap look like?

To give one example, the pay system is based on a law from 1949 and it fundamentally hasn’t been modernized since then. That ought to be modernized, because it was built at an age in which our federal workforce was largely clerical, whereas today it’s largely professional. The system isn’t designed for market connectivity to get the technologists, the AI specialists and so on that are necessary to deliver the best services to the public.

There are changes that ought to take place in the way accountability is done in our government. You can actually fire federal employees — and many do leave because they’re threatened with being fired for performance issues — but the systems should be modernized and updated and simplified. There are lots of things that can be done that would actually improve the public service and that would result in better outcomes for the public, rather than blowing it up.

What happens to those reforms in a world with Schedule F? Is there a kind of dual-track future where you can do sensible civil service reform even with Schedule F in place, or are they completely crosswise with each other?

I think they’re crosswise because they come from different visions. One vision is a spoils system, and the other is a professional, capable and effective state. Those are very, very different visions, so I don’t think you can marry the two.

Ultimately, the Schedule F approach swamps the entire system. It cuts the legs out from the idea that we want people who are not only selected on the basis of their capabilities but also based on the fact that their loyalty is to the rule of law and our Constitution rather than to the individual [in power]. Again, we have way too many political appointees as it is, and it really is important for people to see that we are such an outlier in the world — in a bad way.

I suspect that some people on the right simply do not care if government efficiency suffers as a result of these reforms. In fact, that might be part of the goal. How do you think about appealing to people who might be thinking about it that way?

There’s an entirely legitimate and appropriate debate to be had about the role of our government. But there should be no debate about ensuring that, whatever the public actually desires the government to do, it’s done well and effectively. The vast majority of civil servants are focused on national security issues — on actually keeping us safe. I don’t think there are very many Americans who would dispute the value of that outcome or the need for an effective government to do it.

How aware are people in Washington of the potential consequences of these reforms? And how prepared do you think they are to deal with them?

I do not believe that the public has good insight into the nasty consequences that would come out of the proposals that are part of Project 2025. At the end of the day, if you look at the polling [about the public’s view of the civil service] it’s clear as can be: Americans actually want the people who are serving them to be chosen because they’re the most expert and capable — not because they’ve sworn loyalty to the person in the Oval Office.

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