Congress must protect the nation from a politicized civil service
Despite growing political polarization in the U.S., Americans still unite around one major concern: government corruption.
According to recent New York Times/Siena polling, 71 percent of registered voters believe American democracy is currently under threat, and 68 percent believe the government mainly works to benefit powerful elites rather than ordinary people. While voters disagree about the exact source of these threats, they identify government corruption as a fundamental problem more frequently than voter fraud, election denial, or political extremism.
This concern creates a further threat: policymakers and influence peddlers cynically exploiting public anxiety about corruption to capture the federal government and enact an extreme agenda that would risk upending American democracy. This agenda would actually worsen corruption, replacing honest public servants with people willing to circumvent the law to advance a political ideology and clearing the path toward a lawless federal government.
We saw glimpses of this under the previous administration, though we only learned of many corrupt policies thanks to whistleblowers who refused to obey unlawful orders. The administration appeared to retaliate against many who fought to uphold the law. Toward the end of his term, President Donald Trump attempted to enact a policy that could have had long-lasting negative impacts.
He signed an executive order that would have made it easier to replace career employees who did not express loyalty to him, rather than to the Constitution and the rule of law. Current laws protect most federal employees who refuse to follow unlawful orders but this executive order created a new category of federal worker, Schedule F. These employees would be stripped of job protections, allowing them to be fired immediately for disobeying orders. Most career government employees who are fired or disciplined can file retaliation complaints and appeal punitive employment decisions, but these employees would lose those rights. Without due process, federal employees reporting corruption could expect to be fired on the spot, without recourse.
The executive order would have transferred tens of thousands of employees into Schedule F and expanded the president’s power to fire government employees en masse and pack the government with staffers loyal to their agenda. Targets would likely include federal attorneys and those working in agencies overseeing the executive branch. They could include those who have dedicated their lives to government service, employees with the experience and expertise needed to provide critical government services and implement policies impacting millions of Americans’ lives, from medical research and public health to national security and emergency response. These employees would likely be forced to follow any order, regardless of legality, or be replaced by someone who would.
Although President Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s order upon entering office, this patronage policy will likely reappear. Schedule F supporters are already building lists of future hires to embed in federal agencies to expedite divisive policy changes, punish political enemies and shield a future administration from oversight and accountability.
One inspiration for purging the federal civil service is a virulent blogosphere arguing that America should forgo democracy and embrace a dictatorship or monarchy. There have been calls to “retire all government employees,” and for Americans to “get over their dictator phobia.”
These statements sound shocking, but this penchant for fascism has attracted serious money and has taken root in mainstream conservative circles.
Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel declared in 2009 he could “no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Since that time, he has bankrolled the 2022 Senate bids of Arizona Republican candidate Blake Masters, who in a Vanity Fair interview indicated support for retiring “all government employees” and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who said in a podcast that former President Trump should if elected in 2024, “fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) have sponsored the Preventing a Patronage System Act, which would protect government employees from a Schedule F threat. However, further reforms are needed to strengthen and modernize the civil service to ensure that it serves the people responsibly.
While some politicians target the so-called “deep state,” a professional civil service is a guardrail against government corruption. There is a reason Congress has passed laws to create a federal workforce selected by merit rather than political loyalty. Career civil servants safeguard our laws, ensure nonpartisanship of governmental services and maintain institutional expertise between administrations.
Overwhelmingly, Americans recognize that democracy is under threat, and corruption is a major contributor. However, we cannot let legitimate concerns about corruption take us back centuries or threaten the American experiment altogether. Instead, we must protect the public from a completely politicized federal government and ensure that our government remains loyal to the Constitution, not a president or dictator.
Joe Spielberger is policy counsel at the Project On Government Oversight.