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Squashing Civil Service

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 29, 2020

If Donald Trump gets his way in re-election, one new self-benefit he will give himself is the right, through a newly announced executive order, to run a scythe through the many federal agencies to root out anyone he believes less than fully loyal to him personally.

It’s a dream come true for him, though in the off-chance that, say, Joe Biden wins this election, this effort likely will prove futile and join a slew of other executive orders that will hit the wastepaper basket.

For Trump and a coterie of conservative advisers, this order is the weapon with which to attack Trump’s perceived “deep state” of bureaucrats out to sink him. In plain terms, the order strips Civil Service protections from a wide swath of federal employees, and reclassifies them into jobs that can be considered replaceable by political appointees.

Even if you are a fan of small government, which for practical reasons I am not, this is a cannon aimed at scientists, drug regulators, hurricane forecasters, arts administrators, Justice Department prosecutors and FBI managers, IRS auditors, environmental and education policy-makers, you name it.

The whole idea behind a non-partisan bureaucracy is to maintain jobs for people to carry out the rules decided on in the White House and Congress, to make the whole thing work.

We’re not supposed to have a president who re-draws a hurricane map with a Sharpie pen, or who rewrites history to ensure that his predecessor take blame rather than his own administration, or who declares that it is perfectly fine to inject bleach to treat coronavirus just because the idea popped up in the Oval Office overnight.

Power without Oversight

This order alone is a manifestation of power-mad president with serious authoritarian lean. Not only does he want to declare policy from his gut, he wants absolutely no second-guessing from those who actually enforce the rules.

So, let’s just think about this for the moment: Got a problem over years with your taxes? Let’s get rid of the auditors and replace them with political loyalists who make the problem go away. Or that hotel on government land on Pennsylvania Avenue? Replace the G-12 guy at the GSA with a friend of Donald Trump Jr. Or problems getting an environmental permit. No issue, just replace the enforcement officer.

Exactly which roles would be affected will be up to personnel officials at federal agencies, who were tasked with reviewing all of their jobs and deciding who would qualify.

Democrats and unions representing federal employees are going to fight this, but unless Trump is not president, it’s going to happen — and it will be underscored by a Justice Department and a right-leaning Supreme Court that apparently sees no problem with ever-expanding, unchecked power for Trump.

The Washington Post did a great reporting job to trace back this order to a four-year campaign by conservatives working from a ­little-known West Wing office run by James Sherk, a young aide hired early on from the Heritage Foundation with a bold blueprint to rein the sprawling bureaucracy of 2.1 million. The newspaper describes the plan, drafted without input from anyone affected, as “a counterweight to the ‘deep state’ Trump believed was out to disrupt his agenda.”

Pride Before the Fall?

Trump apparently rolled the idea out this weekend in a speech to donors as an example of his can-do style by trashing the very people who work for him.

“Well, you have a lot of people from past administrations, and they’re civil service. I fired some,” Trump said, referring to his efforts to purge career diplomats and others who testified against him during last year’s impeachment hearings. “We had a lot of them come to the floor during the impeachment hoax. You see them coming in with their bow ties and everything. It’s a weird deal,” Trump said. “We have some pretty deep-set, deep-seated people — we got a lot of them, and we got rid of a lot of them.”

The White House has asked Johnny McEntee, 30, its loyal personnel coordinator, to cut disloyal employees from agencies and vet potential hires. There has been no estimate of the number of jobs to be reclassified, though but Civil Service and union folks estimated anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Normally, an administration names about 4,000 political appointees, who typically change with each administration. Officials with the Office of Personnel Management were unable to answer basic questions from Congress about the order, said aides on the call.

Legal challenges are a certainty, as with most of Trump’s executive orders.

The Post said that Sherk, now special assistant to the president for domestic policy, began by proposing an ­anti-labor agenda for the private sector and the government. In 2018, he wrote executive orders that weakened collective bargaining rights, cleared a faster path to firing and blocked unions. The orders survived numerous court challenges. Other proposals to reduce pay and benefits were less successful.

Clearly, this has never come up in anything resembling a debate.

This president wants to rule all.


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