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How to stop Trump’s sneak attack on the civil service

By Rep. Gerry Connolly

Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat, represents Virginia’s 11th Congressional District in the House of Representatives and is the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subcommittee on government operations.

Americans should be horrified to learn there is an active plot by a former political leader, twice impeached, to remove people he regards as his political opponents from the civil service. It’s almost too crazy to fathom in our democratic form of government. Removing policy experts because they don’t bend to a president’s will?

A report by Jonathan Swan of Axios has confirmed my worst suspicions: Donald Trump is planning, were he to be reelected as president, to replace vast swaths of government experts with his own army of tens of thousands of loyalists.

This is a direct threat to democracy and the rule of law. The only reason for Trump to do this is to make it easier to fire federal employees who dare to disagree with him.

Trump’s plan is about far more than ordinary political differences Republicans might have with some federal workers. Trump has shown he has no regard for the law when it threatens his power. He pressured his own vice president to overturn a presidential election. Now, if he gets a second term, he would seek the power to fire federal employees who won’t do his bidding.

Jonathan V. Last was right to allude to Hungary’s autocratic leader Viktor Orban when he wrote in the Bulwark: “This is no joke. Say hello to American Orbanism.”

Congress must step up. As the Jan. 6 committee has demonstrated, we need more guardrails to protect against threats to our democracy, not fewer.

Trump already tried this once before. On Oct. 21, 2020, he signed Executive Order 13957 creating Schedule F in the excepted service — jobs in the federal government that, for various reasons, are excluded from certain fundamental civil-service protections. This executive order, which President Biden rescinded, would have undermined the merit system principles of our federal workforce by requiring agency heads to reclassify an estimated 50,000 “policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating” positions to a newly created Schedule F category of federal employees that removed their due process rights and civil service protections.

Efforts to overhaul the civil service without seeking congressional support are nearly unprecedented. Since the end of the spoils system in 1883, administrations have established an excepted service schedule only five times.

These excepted service categories are created for positions that require unique hiring or operating rules, such as for positions of a short-term political nature or positions in remote areas or where there’s a critical hiring need so great that competitive civil service rules cannot apply.

Our federal workforce consists of roughly 2 million federal employees hired based on their acumen, and they work each day for the American people — serving in myriad capacities to improve this nation and America’s posture abroad. These impartial civil servants research vaccines, help families in the wake of hurricanes and deadly fires, and inspect our food to ensure they are free of disease. They deserve protection from political interference from a president who would place preserving his power above following the law.

Congress must assert itself and ensure no future president can repeat what Trump has already tried to do once, and now is reportedly planning to do again. For nearly two years, I have been trying to warn congressional leadership that protecting our 139-year, merit-based, civil service is fundamental to protecting our democracy.

That is why I have introduced the Preventing a Patronage System Act. The bipartisan legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), was passed by the House this month but has yet to be taken up by the Senate. It would secure the civil service and protect federal employees from losing statutory and constitutional job protections. Our bill would prevent any position in the competitive service — the jobs that are protected by merit-based civil service rules — from being reclassified to an excepted service schedule that was created after Sept. 30, 2020.

It would also limit federal employee reclassifications to the five excepted service schedules currently in use and would block any reclassifications of federal employees to Schedule F pursuant to the executive order signed on Oct. 21, 2020.

There are a lot of lessons to learn from Trump’s assault on our democracy and governance norms. Protecting our civil service needs to be top among them.

To view this OpEd as it appeared in the Washington Post, click here.
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