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Kneecapping the Biden White House

Kneecapping the Biden White House
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Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE’s Oct. 21 Schedule F Executive Order, which would unceremoniously dump thousands of civil servants into a personnel category without protection from arbitrary firing, could undermine the ability of the Biden White House to govern. It would kneecap any incoming White House at the very start.

The order applies to all departments. It would remove from civil service protection all positions that are “policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating.” It could fatally undermine the Biden presidency directly because it would apply to his own, and only, civil service staff — the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). 

OMB is the only permanent staff the president has when he enters the White House. Upon arrival, his staff finds the file drawers are empty, the hard drives are bare, and there is no users’ manual about how to run the executive branch.    

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For five years, I was associate director for national security programs at OMB. I worked with 60 civil servants supporting President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Polls suggest House Democrats will buck midterm curse and add to their ranks Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones calls on Breyer to retire MORE as he governed. Mine was a policy job, for certain, but it could not be done without the solid, trustworthy support of the civil service staff — hands down the best, most hard-working and knowledgeable staff in the entire executive branch.

When OMB released its preliminary list of positions that would be moved from the civil service to the unprotected category — Schedule F — it included 88 percent of the OMB staff, more than 375 civil servants. It would make them vulnerable.

What do these people do that is so important, and so threatened? It is the president’s “memory bank.” It runs his budget process that disciplines every agency. It tells him and his staff — domestic and national security alike — where the key programs are located, what processes are used to make decisions, what the previous administration did. 

It is his “neutral adviser” telling truth to power and finding the most effective way to achieve his ends. The staff presents options, and knows when to leave it to the policy official to make the policy call. Civil service protection safeguards the ability of the civil servants to “tell it like it is.”

It is the president’s “enforcer.” The National Security Council cannot tell agencies what to do; OMB can, through the discipline of the budget process. When Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 The information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all American Rescue Plan: Ending child poverty — let's make it permanent MORE wanted to “reinvent government” in 1993, it took him a year to learn that the vice president had little authority over the federal agencies; OMB did, and we became his most important partner in the reinvention process.   

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OMB “finds the money” when the White House wants to act outside the normal budget schedule, something every president must do. Want to restore democracy in Haiti, but it’s not in the budget? Ask OMB to run a process to find the money; we have. 

Most important, OMB is the White House “funnel,” through which everything any agency does or wants to do is processed, argued and transformed into presidential (as opposed to agency) policy.  

Budgets are policy. Every agency has to go through the OMB budget process. It’s the president’s budget when it goes to the Congress.

Want to propose a statute to Congress? It is scrubbed and staffed to every affected agency by OMB. Want to privatize military family housing? OMB takes the proposal to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make sure it conforms with law. 

Want to object to a law or a money bill that Congress is considering? Every time that happens, OMB writes an SAP — a Statement of Administration Policy — saying whether the president can support that bill.

Agency testimony to Congress gets the OMB wire brush; if it contradicts the president’s policy, it gets edited.

That’s what OMB does, rain or shine, Democratic or Republican White House. I never knew — and never asked — the political preferences of the 60 people who worked long hours on my staff. I just knew they were good, neutral, knowledgeable, invaluable. Every White House has relied on it. And reclassification to Schedule F would remove the protection the staff has to do its job. 

It would open the door to political firings, masquerading as “performance” failings. It would put much of the OMB staff at risk. Those honest options? Not likely; could cost me my job.

It also would weaken the competitive hiring rules for these positions. Anybody could be hired for the job in an organization that requires expertise with which it can support the White House. Hacks and political appointees simply wouldn’t know what to do. 

Schedule F must be stopped now. The Appropriations Omnibus Bill, now being considered, should prohibit any funding to enforce it. President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Biden, Harris commend Mondale in paving the way for female VP Mondale in last message to staff: 'Joe in the White House certainly helps' MORE should declare that he will rehire anyone fired under the executive order. The success of the Biden White House, and any new presidency, is at stake.

Gordon Adams is a Quincy Institute Distinguished Fellow, professor emeritus at American University’s School of International Service, and the former associate director for national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget. Follow him on Twitter @Gadams1941.