The fight to stop a cornerstone of Trump’s ‘retribution’ agenda is underway

A central part of Donald Trump’s plan should he return to the White House is to dismantle the “deep state,” getting rid of the federal government workers who might stand in the way of his broader agenda. 

Allies of those civil servants are already gearing up for a fight.

With nearly a year left until next fall’s election, President Joe Biden’s administration, lawmakers and advocacy groups are already trying to stop the return of a short-lived executive order dubbed “Schedule F.” It’s well-known within the federal government but not to the broader public — and they’re focused on changing that. 

In the final weeks of his time in the White House, Trump signed Schedule F, which stripped job protections from career officials in policy roles throughout the bureaucracy and made it significantly easier for a president to fire civil servants.

Advocates are focusing on two paths to stop Schedule F or a similar initiative. One is an Office of Personnel Management regulation, introduced in September, that would both tighten job securities for civil servants and limit the positions that could have those protections removed.

The second is a legislative effort led by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., along with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that would require congressional approval for any plan to create new employee designations within the federal workforce. 

I don’t think there’s sufficient appreciation of what a threat this poses.

Rep. Gerry connolly, D-Va.

In addition, advocacy groups, including the self-described pro-democracy nonprofit groups whose impact grew following Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, are joining forces to shape messaging about the issue, raise awareness of the potential shakeup and define the stakes of the fight.

But it may not be enough. 

“Absolutely not,” Connolly said when he was asked whether the broader anti-Trump apparatus had become fully activated around the potential return of Schedule F. “This can’t just be a concern for federal [employee] unions, federal employees and stray members of Congress.”

Connolly’s district, just outside Washington, is home to a large number of federal employees. 

“I’ve been sounding the alarm bell on this since Trump was president,” Connolly said. “And I don’t think there’s sufficient appreciation of what a threat this poses.” 

Those hopeful that a future Republican president will dramatically overhaul the civil service believe they have their opponents’ backs up against the wall, with neither the OPM rulemaking nor the legislative effort seen as a real threat.

For starters, the legislative effort has yet to make it through Congress. And while the new OPM regulation, which hasn’t been finalized, looks as if it could make a more immediate impact, it’s viewed as more a speed bump than a roadblock for Republicans, whose only delay would be to have to go through the formal process of repealing it. That’s if it’s not defeated in court earlier as part of a legal battle some on the right suggest they will seek.

“They’re smart and capable, and I understand why they are doing this regulation,” James Sherk, a former Trump administration official who conceived of the idea for Schedule F, said of its opponents. “It is what I would recommend if I were in their shoes. At the same time, I don’t think this rulemaking is going to delay Schedule F’s potential reinstatement very much, even if a court does not strike it down. They’ve got a very weak hand.”

In a statement, Viet Tran, an OPM spokesperson, said OPM will issue a final rule in the spring after it responds to public comments, which closed last month.

“OPM is committed to clarifying the civil service protections that apply to career civil servants, which exist to promote a non-partisan, merit-based federal workforce,” Tran said.

‘Everyone is definitely paying attention’

Reimplementing Schedule F would be one of the most consequential initial moves a future GOP administration could make. 

As president, Trump was routinely outraged that officials in his own government — some of whom he nominated — investigated his ties to Russia or appeared to stymie his policy initiatives. Now, he and his allies are working to ensure a potential second administration is different from the get-go. 

When he announced his “ten-point plan to dismantle the deep state” this year, his top policy point was reinstituting the Schedule F executive order. (The second was “Overhaul federal departments and agencies, firing all of the corrupt actors in our National Security and Intelligence apparatus.”)

At the same time, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, aims to build a database of as many as 20,000 potential future administration officials by the end of next year. Kevin Roberts, the president of Heritage, told The New York Times that the goal is to “flood the zone with conservative personnel” in a way the right didn’t do after Trump’s 2016 victory.

Civil servants, unlike the roughly 4,000 political appointees a president is allowed to replace, are afforded stronger employment protections under the premise that the government needs apolitical staffers to serve as in-house experts under presidents of both parties and ensure the mechanics of government function properly.

Trump isn’t alone in wanting to dramatically change the civil service, with other GOP presidential candidates, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, either embracing Schedule F or alternative ideas to curtail the career workforce. But he has for years led the charge to delegitimize the idea of an impartial bureaucracy, having lambasted it as “the deep state” since the onset of his presidency.

It’s in this environment — one that also features Trump looking as strong in polling as he has at any point since he announced his first run in 2015 — that opponents of the effort seek to elevate the issue and safeguard the civil service. 

Among the roughly 4,000 public comments submitted both for and against the OPM rule was a letter led by the nonprofit group Democracy Forward, a legal services organization, that was signed by 27 advocacy groups and stakeholders backing the new rulemaking and condemning efforts to strip civil service protections.

Skye Perryman, the president and CEO of Democracy Forward, said the letter shows that a broad and diverse coalition is lining up to prevent a future administration from “purging the professional civil service in favor of political loyalists.”

“Everyone is definitely paying attention,” she said.

Though it generated more than 4,000 comments, the proposed regulatory change didn’t generate the same level of buzz as other Biden administration initiatives going through the regulatory process. As Semafor reported Sunday, a new Environmental Protection Agency regulation on power plants garnered more than 60,000 comments within weeks, boosted by an Instagram influencer who promoted the change to her followers. 

“I don’t think it has punctured the public’s consciousness,” said Jeff Hauser, the founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, a signer of the Democracy Forward letter. “The abstraction of the ‘deep state’ from Trump has been very effective. And I think that defenders of civil servants have been far too vague.”

Finding the right message

Of course, one difficulty is that the issue is still theoretical: Biden rescinded Schedule F, and it would come to be only if Trump or potentially another Republican wins the White House next fall. 

But another issue is what Hauser sees as the ineffective way Schedule F’s opponents are framing the problem. Some of the messaging has been centered on stopping a return to the “spoils system,” in which government jobs were handed to partisan backers, friends and family members. That system was greatly reformed by the end of the 19th century.

Hauser says that analogy most likely falls flat for people who think “Washington, D.C., has already been bought and paid for.”

“And in general, Biden and Democrats — but also Republicans who disagree with Trump on this — need to lift up what it is that the government does for people that is helpful,” he said. “This country is seriously less polluted than it was 50 years ago. The water is much cleaner, the air is much cleaner, and people’s life expectancy is significantly higher due to the efforts of ‘government bureaucrats.’ And if no one tells that story, I don’t think we can be surprised that people aren’t aware of it.”

Sherk, the former Trump administration official who is now with the America First Policy Institute, a think tank led by a number of Trump administration veterans, said the pushback from opponents suggesting the U.S. could return to the spoils system should Trump succeed in remaking the federal bureaucracy is “laughable on its face.”

“Fifty thousand political appointees — could you tell me where an administration could find 50,000 qualified political appointees?” he said. “Trump didn’t even fill all the political positions he had available to him. Neither has Biden, for that matter. We were getting criticized from our own side for leaving political slots vacant. If President Trump wanted more political appointments, he could have done that, easily, under the current system. But the goal with Schedule F was quite different — accountability for the career workforce.” 

Since he left the White House, Sherk has published accounts relayed by Trump’s political appointees of career employees’ “resisting” his policies. In a comment he submitted as part of the OPM rulemaking, Sherk said many of the issues he sees within the federal workforce stem from the hiring procedures and employment protections provided.

“They make it difficult to hire the best candidates and prohibitively difficult to dismiss employees for all but the worst offenses,” he wrote.

But advocates for the current system say the criticism is misguided, adding that there are procedures for lackluster performance and that some of Trump’s issues with officials carrying out his agenda were tied to people he chose, not career staffers.

“It is true that there were policy goals that Trump had as president that were not implemented,” Hauser said. “But that was usually because courts dominated by Republican judges ruled his efforts to be illegal.”

The issue is likely to play a role on the campaign trail, with Trump putting it front and center as part of his efforts to seek “retribution” against the “deep state,” while the Biden campaign is likely to incorporate it in a broader discussion of what it sees as Trump’s efforts to erode democracy at home.

Kaine, the senator who is helping lead the legislative effort, praised the OPM rulemaking as useful in at least slowing down a future GOP administration while calling for a legislative fix. He said he would like to see the issue get more attention as part of the presidential campaign.

“I think he should,” Kaine said when he was asked about Biden’s talking up the fight on the campaign trail. “And look, President Trump is going to make a big deal out of it.”

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