Trump plan to gut civil service triggers pushback by unions, Democrats


By Tim Reid and Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – Donald Trump‘s vow to give himself the power to gut the federal workforce if he is elected to the White House again has unions, Democrats and watchdog groups preparing for legal action and seeking to tighten protections to prevent the former president from bending the bureaucracy to his will.

Trump, the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, has pledged to reintroduce an executive order known as Schedule F if he wins a second term in November 2024.

That would give him the power to strip employment protections from tens of thousands of government civil servants, potentially fire them and bring in loyalists willing to implement far-right policies and his self-described “retribution” agenda against those he feels have wronged him.

Opponents of the plan say stripping employment protections from civil servants would be a step toward autocracy and an effort by Trump to politicize the federal bureaucracy to carry out his policy agenda.

Interviews with government employee unions, two U.S. senators and pro-democracy groups revealed the behind-the-scenes legal and strategic preparations already underway.

They are pinning their hopes initially on a proposed rule change by President Joe Biden‘s Democratic administration to make it more difficult for Trump to re-introduce Schedule F.

The new rule, which could be implemented by Biden’s Office of Personnel Management by spring 2024, would allow federal employees whose job classification was changed to retain their current employment protections.

“I don’t care whether the president is a Democrat or Republican, the coin of the realm in the federal civil service should be competence, not loyalty to the president,” said Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine. The Trump campaign and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Any attempt by Trump to undo such regulations would have to go through a months-long process. But Kaine and other backers of the rule change concede it would merely delay rather than totally block Trump’s efforts to strip civil servants of their employment protections.

Normally, presidents get to choose several thousand of their own political appointees to the federal bureaucracy, but the career civil service – around two million workers – is left alone. Schedule F would give Trump the power to fire up to 50,000 of those and replace them with like-minded conservatives if he were re-elected.

LEGAL FIGHTS

Unions and government watchdogs say they are also ready to sue Trump if he carries out his promise to re-introduce a Schedule F.

Late in his first term as president, after Trump introduced the measure by executive order, he was immediately sued by the National Treasury Employees Union, one of the largest government employee groups.

That litigation was never resolved because Biden rescinded Schedule F when he became president after beating Trump in the 2020 election, but the legal challenge is likely to be revived should Trump pursue it again.

Skye Perryman, an attorney and CEO of Democracy Forward, a national legal organization that aims to expose corruption in the executive branch, promised “swift legal opposition” should Trump seek to re-introduce Schedule F.

The biggest federal employees union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents 750,000 federal workers, is also prepared to potentially litigate the issue, said Jacqueline Simon, the AFGE’s policy director.

“That is the complete extreme opposite of what a civil service should be,” Simon said. “Hiring and firing is done on merit, not for politics.”

Many conservatives feel otherwise, however. Earlier this year, two judges on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that a president should have broad powers to fire government workers.

Trump has promised at campaign rallies to “obliterate the deep state,” a term used by some conspiracy theorists to refer to a network of non-elected people in government whom they assert are working clandestinely to bypass elected officials to advance their own agenda.

Trump has pledged to pass reforms to “make every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States.”

Other Republican presidential candidates, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, have also called for Schedule F-type policies.

In documents submitted to the Office of Personnel Management opposing the proposed rule, James Sherk, a senior domestic policy adviser to Trump in his first term and one of the architects of Schedule F, said the federal bureaucracy often stymied Trump’s policy proposals during his presidency.

Sherk, now a director at the America First Policy Institute, a Trump-allied conservative think tank, cited examples of career officials at the Justice Department refusing to work on racial discrimination and abortion cases they disagreed with ideologically, and attorneys in the Environmental Protection Agency hiding information from Trump’s political appointees.

The re-introduction of Schedule F “will absolutely” be a tool in reforming the government workforce should Trump win a second term, said Paul Dans, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s nearly 900-page blueprint for reshaping the federal bureaucracy.

Trump also has pledged to go after the FBI, the CIA, the Biden family, the prosecutors and state attorneys general who have charged him with a combined 91 criminal offenses, and an array of other people and government agencies he perceives as disloyal to him during his first term.

U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, is among those pushing back in anticipation of such efforts. He has co-sponsored legislation to protect government workers, backed the rule change and said he will be working on a campaign to warn the public about Trump re-introducing Schedule F.

“We know that Donald Trump sees the government of the United States as an instrument to advance his own personal agenda and his personal vendettas,” Van Hollen said. “Part of this is sounding the alarm.”

(Reporting by Tim Reid and Nathan Layne; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)



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