The country, and Congress, cannot let the election and the pandemic eclipse alarm over an executive order issued on Oct. 21 by President Donald Trump that could vastly expand his ability to terminate thousands of federal workers and replace them with loyalists.
The order would let federal agencies reclassify certain workers, which could remove civil service job protections of up to hundreds of thousands of employees out of a workforce of about 2.1 million people.
The action accelerates Trump's assault on federal workers at a time when their experience and expertise in issues such as infectious diseases, climate change and diplomacy is needed more than ever. It could also scare away the next generation of talent from public service.
Among the order's many flaws is that a Democratic president could just as easily fire the cohort Trump brought in. Preventing that scenario is exactly why the current system was designed, Jay Kiedrowski, a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, told an editorial writer.
It was "created as a way of eliminating the spoils system in which a winning candidate can bring all of his people into government. ... It just sets up a very bad precedent," Kiedrowski added. "If Joe Biden is elected, should he not now refill the positions Trump is eliminating with people who helped support him on his campaign? I think not; that's just the wrong approach." Wrong indeed — regardless of party.
"This is not a partisan issue; it is about governance," John Hudak, the deputy director at the Brookings Institution's Center for Effective Public Management, told an editorial writer. "Any American should fear the ability of a president to essentially decapitate a government and fill these positions with their own loyalists."
The order faces court challenges and could be rescinded by a new administration. If enacted, though, Hudak fears it would lead to "hyper-partisanship, greater polarization, and a lack of knowledge and experience within the executive branch." Perhaps it's all part of Trump's attack on the phantom "deep state." But "the irony," Hudak said, "is that the pushback here by the president and his unfounded fear of the deep state is that his solution to it is to create a deep state."
The executive order resulted in a rarity in Washington: a principled resignation. It came from Ronald Sanders, chair of the Federal Salary Council. Sanders — a lifelong Republican named after Ronald Reagan — wrote that, "On its surface, the President's Executive Order purports to serve a legitimate and laudable purpose … that is, to hold career Federal employees 'more accountable' for their performance."
However, Sanders added, "it is clear that its stated purpose notwithstanding, the Executive Order is nothing more than a smoke screen for what is clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the President, or failing that, to enable their removal with little if any due process." Sanders said he cannot be part of an administration that seeks "to replace apolitical expertise with political obeisance."
The American people, and their representatives, shouldn't accept it either.