Holding the Government Accountable

“Schedule F” Plan to Gut Civil Service Puts Seniors at Risk

Mass firings and purging the federal civil service would threaten the health and lives of older adults. 

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Approximately 66 million Americans — or 1 in 5 — collect Social Security benefits. And the percentage of Americans who are age 65 or older is projected to increase to 23% by 2050. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there emerged a disturbing train of thought that older adults were expendable. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick seemed to abdicate any responsibility for the health and well-being of Texas seniors when he said, “Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.” 

The Trump administration’s dangerous response to the pandemic was characterized by sidelining medical and scientific experts; installing unqualified people into leadership positions; spreading disinformation to help the president politicallyrefusing or delaying federal relief to disfavored groups and states governed by the opposing political party; and targeting anyone who contradicted or criticized the administration’s response, no matter how it harmed other people.

At the onset of the pandemic, the administration embarked on a plan that would permanently instill these themes throughout our government. In October 2020, the Trump administration issued a policy change that could fire nonpartisan experts en masse, promote unqualified partisan loyalists into important roles, silence critics, and prioritize political obedience rather than responding directly to the needs of the people. That policy change was an executive order creating Schedule F. 

And if this plan had been fully implemented, it could affect every aspect of the government services, benefits, and care seniors receive.

What is Schedule F?

Schedule F was a new category of employee in the civil service. With Schedule F in place, agencies would be authorized to unilaterally transfer employees into new positions with fewer protections, making it easier for the president or a political appointee to fire them. This would have exponentially increased the number of civil servants who were political appointees, rather than being hired because of their qualifications. It was estimated that this policy would have impacted tens of thousands of employees across the government — up to 100,000 or more. 

Additionally, Schedule F was a tool the administration could use to completely gut key agencies or departments. For example, the Office of Management and Budget, which plays a critical role administering the federal budget and overseeing the performance of federal agencies, categorized an entire 88% of its workforce as Schedule F, stripping them of their protections. The Office of Management and Budget was one of two agencies to submit their analysis first because administration officials wanted them to set an example that other agencies would follow.

Had more agencies followed their lead, then-President Donald Trump and any future presidents could have realistically purged the civil service of nonpartisan experts and replaced them with people committed above all to advancing the president’s political ideology. Schedule F could have returned our country to the corrupt spoils system of the 1800s, when government employees were chosen largely based on personal loyalty and political party over qualifications. But most importantly, it would have threatened the lives and livelihoods of people across the country.

Schedule F and the Civil Service

Although most federal employees work behind the scenes, they live and work in every state, performing necessary roles that many older adults depend on to keep them healthy and safe. This includes things like researching infectious diseases; developing and testing new medications; processing Social Security checks; distributing Supplemental Security Income, Medicare, Medicaid, and other benefits; improving access to safe and reliable public transportation; fighting against elder fraud, neglect, abuse, and exploitation; and helping to ensure seniors stay engaged with their communities and live dignified lives. 

Those making decisions concerning seniors — writing and analyzing policies, processing claims and distributing benefits, and providing the protections they deserve — are in those positions because of their qualifications, expertise, and commitment to truly serving seniors, not because of their ideological loyalty to whatever political party or person is in power. People need to trust that the information the government provides is accurate and not being disseminated for political gain. When they apply for public benefits, people need to trust that their applications will be decided and distributed without bias. And people need to know — especially during emergencies — that the government will serve them fairly and effectively, regardless of who they are, where they live, or how they vote.

The reality of Schedule F being implemented raises concerning questions. Who will be caught in a civil service purge and replaced by partisan operatives?

Although President Joe Biden rescinded the Schedule F executive order upon taking office, the idea of purging the civil service in the future remains a threat, and continues to be championed by certain U.S. senators and influential lobbyists

The reality of Schedule F being implemented raises concerning questions. Who will be caught in a civil service purge and replaced by partisan operatives? Should seniors entrust their Social Security to employees hired as subservient lap dogs who aren’t protecting the public at large? What about Justice Department supervisors overseeing cases against elder fraud, neglect, and abuse? Will the Food and Drug Administration be forced to bend to political pressure and approve unsafe medications so a president can claim credit for some supposed new medical cure leading up to an election? The likelihood of these alarming scenarios becoming reality would only increase under Schedule F, as fewer people would want to risk losing their jobs for speaking out against corruption and wrongdoing, demonstrating the chilling effect on all employees, even those who may not be directly impacted. The fear of “retribution” was raised by a former senior OMB official when the agency released the list of 425 OMB employees that would be reclassified under Schedule F. 

Real-World Effects on Seniors

Taking a closer look at benefits that many seniors rely on illustrates some of the dangers of gutting the career civil service. Although Social Security provides a critical safety net that helps reduce elder poverty and empowers older adults, these benefits are often threatened by politicians putting them on the chopping block for funding cuts. However, even without losing funding, the Social Security Administration and the services it provides can already be undermined by staffing decisions. 

For example, at a high level, the Social Security Administration’s deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy is responsible for retirement and disability issues at the agency and has a lot of power to enact regulations and sub-regulations about these policies. It would already be catastrophic if a presidential administration hired or appointed someone into this role who did not know anything about Social Security but were ideologically opposed to the program. Schedule F would further allow this appointee to fill the agency with like-minded people opposed to the very services it provides. People in critical positions of responsibility like this could immediately cause great harm. For example, simply changing the frequency of administrative disability reviews could be very damaging for people with disabilities, adding additional burden to the process and possibly causing them to lose access to benefits they need.

At a lower level, the Social Security Administration has over 1,200 local offices and employs about 1,500 administrative law judges. People need to trust that the Social Security workers and adjudicators who determine their benefits are treating them fairly. That is why it is critical that nonpartisan staff in these important roles are hired based on their merit and commitment to upholding the rule of law. The ones executing the mission of this agency must understand these benefits and programs and believe in the work of the agency. The loss of those assurances could severely undermine Americans’ confidence in the agency and in the benefits themselves, putting these critical services at risk and harming seniors who depend on them.

The need for civil service protections goes beyond providing benefits and extends into meeting people’s day-to-day needs. These protections are especially critical for seniors who depend the most on a functioning and accountable government. Many Medicaid-eligible adults — including those with physical or intellectual disabilities — require basic assistance for everyday activities like cooking, cleaning, eating, bathing, and getting dressed. Providing long-term services and support that people count on, just to live day to day, requires constant and complex coordination between the federal government and states, providers, advocates, and consumers. Having expert, dedicated staff who serve continuously throughout Republican and Democratic administrations ensures continuity of government and that staff turnover does not threaten the delivery of such critical services to those who need them most. 

Civil servants also provide critical oversight of these services, monitoring providers to ensure they adhere to high standards and provide the quality of care that seniors deserve. This oversight helps ensure, for example, that if a senior requires two hours of care per day, their personal care provider can deliver the specific services they need and that their care meets the highest standard. People in these oversight positions need to be able to perform their jobs without feeling threatened, need the ability to speak out when they notice something wrong, and need to be loyal to the seniors they serve, regardless of an administration’s political agenda. We cannot stand by and allow our government to threaten those who provide such critical support that impacts the lives and daily well-being of so many people across the country.


Many of today’s seniors came of age during the Watergate era and witnessed President Nixon’s corruption against his perceived political enemies. The Nixonian heirs now threatening to reimpose Schedule F will drag us further toward autocracy. They have made it clear that they will abandon people for their own political gain and pack the government with loyalists committed to doing the same. At best, policies like Schedule F would threaten the rights, protections, services, and benefits that seniors have earned and depend on. Schedule F will create a government of loyalists, a government of turnover and chaos, and a government that might see older adults as expendable.

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