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Imagining a Schedule F Future
Most federal employees are beholden to the same vetting principles for their jobs as those of us who don’t work for the federal government: They have to prove that they have the knowledge, experience, and expertise to hold their position and that they can do their jobs well and with integrity. This merit-based civil service keeps people from being put in positions of power simply because of their political beliefs or because they have friends in high places.
In 2020, there was a brazen attempt to change that. Then-President Donald Trump’s Schedule F executive order could’ve wiped out job protections for many merit-based civil servants and would’ve given him (or any person in his position) the power to purge thousands upon thousands of federal workers and replace them at will, without regard for their qualifications. Thankfully, Trump’s executive order was canned when the administration changed. But this election year, the threat is back on the table, and with a vengeance. A future where Schedule F is reinstated is a future we should all be worried about. Schedule F is more than just a mass layoff: It could fully politicize the civil service, jeopardizing the safety, quality, and reliability of every touchpoint we have with the federal government.
To conjure up a vision of what a future with a non-merit-based civil service would look like, I talked to my colleague, POGO Policy Counsel Joe Spielberger, who is currently researching the matter.
Definitions and designations
“Schedule F” actually refers to a wholly new category of federal employment that was created by the 2020 executive order. Under the order, any federal employee hired (not appointed or elected) for a “confidential, policy-determining, policymaking, or policy-advocating” position would thereon be a Schedule F employee and would lack the protections that prevent them from being fired without due cause — essentially making them at-will employees.
“To some extent, it’s speculative how many employees would be considered Schedule F since the original executive order was only starting to be implemented,” Joe explained. “But the general consensus is that Schedule F could affect around 50,000 employees, though some estimate that it could be far more.”
The reclassification of workers to a whole new category of employment could have devastating implications for some offices. For example, back in 2020, POGO released an analysis on how the executive order would affect the Office of Management and Budget, a crucial department that puts together the presidents’ annual budget request to Congress. Schedule F would’ve cost 88% of OMB’s staff their job security.
What’s the danger of converting a huge swath of the federal workforce to at-will employment? It enables any president to retaliate against employees who don’t share their politics or who push back against their decisions. Employees who were hired on merit — for their expertise in food safety, disaster response, education, public health, climate science, or technology, for example — could be fired and replaced by people who’d only act in service of whoever landed them the job, rather than working in service of the public. This could even mean federal workers ignoring corruption or breaking the law, either to protect their jobs or the person who hired them.
"An administration could stack people in important positions to provide government services based on political ideology instead of actual competency,” Joe explained.
As an example, Joe asked The Bridge’s audience to consider what could happen in the case of a natural disaster or a pandemic like COVID-19. “In those situations, communities need expedited federal aid, and for help to reach them swiftly and effectively. They need to be able to trust that the information the government is providing them is accurate and true,” he said. “And that requires having experts and professionals in those positions.”
Everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink could be affected if the workers trusted to make policies in those areas aren’t actually qualified — or if they aren’t partial to helping us.
“In the aftermath of catastrophe, there are often accusations of political gamesmanship: that the federal government’s response was lacking because of the demographics or even the political leanings of the communities affected. We’ve seen politicians withhold disaster aid for those reasons. We’ve seen members of Congress vote against relief when other states are hit with hurricanes but be quick to demand relief when their state is affected. With Schedule F, this could be even more common,” Joe said.
If you think this all sounds wholly unacceptable,
you’re not alone. In the coming months, The Bridge will dig deeper into the real-world impact a reinstated Schedule F would have on all the ways the federal government serves our everyday needs. “Schedule F isn’t just a threat to public servants. It’s a threat to our communities,” Joe explained.
It’s critical that we keep this issue top of mind as we go into the election this fall — a whole lot is at stake.
Schedule F has been covered in The Bridge before. To learn more about how Schedule F could be abused by an authoritarian administration, read the first edition here.