In the frenzied preelection news cycle, you could be forgiven for missing an alarming move by President Trump that could strip job protections from tens of thousands of federal workers — and make it much easier for the administration to subject dedicated civil servants to political loyalty tests.
The executive order Trump signed on Oct. 21 seems innocuous enough. It creates a new “Schedule F” classification for federal employees who deal with policy-making. Think of the economists, scientists, patent examiners, and other workers who are relied on to help the federal government devise and execute sound policy.
Until now, these career civil servants were protected from political retribution. But Trump’s order would turn them all into at-will employees who can be fired for any reason without due process, including if their political views aren’t considered to be sufficiently aligned with the administration. It’s par for the course for a president who has openly gone to war in the press with career government experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he can’t directly fire like one of his former reality TV show minions because he is not a political appointee. (Trump appointees recently replaced the acting chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with staff who deny the reality and the science of climate change.)
The White House, in a statement, called the directive an effort to give federal agencies “more flexibility to hold career employees in critical positions accountable” and to help address “poor performance.”
But one high-ranking official who has served under Republican and Democratic administrations called that reasoning a pretext for political gamesmanship, and chose to resign rather than enforce it.
Ronald Sanders, who chaired the Federal Salary Council, called the administration’s proffered reason “nothing more than a smokescreen 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.”
In his resignation letter Sunday, Sanders — who is a lifelong Republican and who was named after Ronald Reagan — continued: “I simply cannot be part of an Administration that seeks . . . to replace apolitical expertise with political obeisance.”
If implemented — and agencies have been given 90 days to begin doing so — the new rule would strip away the union representation that prevented politically motivated or retaliatory firings of career workers. It would drop the formal appeals process, too.
It would also allow the administration to appoint new workers without the current competitive merit-based systems that help to ensure that qualified applicants are chosen — potentially creating a vast new class of patronage hires.
In short, as Sanders wrote, the directive “seeks to make loyalty to [Trump] the litmus test for many thousands of career civil servants, and that is something I cannot be part of.”
Sanders joins other former civil servants who have decried Trump administration efforts to dismiss lifelong career policy-making officials as “deep state” opponents of the president. The National Treasury Employees Union filed suit this week to block the order.
But the agency heads who are now charged with identifying the positions that would be assigned the new at-will classification should also resist this political witch hunt.
In a memo to agencies, Acting Office of Personnel Management chief Michael Rigas directed the heads of agencies to take 90 days to review positions that might be reclassified and 120 days to finalize a list.
But Rigas’s memo also made clear that he “retains final authority over which categories and types of positions will be placed in Schedule F.”
Asked about the standards Rigas will use in making that determination, OPM spokeswoman Rachel Tripp said in a statement to the Globe that agency and department personnel “are fully able based on the plain language of the Executive Order and guidance from the Office of Personnel Management to identify positions for conversion to Schedule F.”
That nonanswer is small comfort that the new order won’t serve to allow Trump to replace career policy experts with only those who pass his own political litmus test.
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