Among those alarmed by FBI Director James Comey’s firing last week are surely many federal workers, who may see it as emblematic of Donald Trump’s deliberate attack on the nation’s 2.7 million civil servants.
Trump’s eagerness to fire government employees, for political or other reasons, has been on display since his campaign pledge to freeze federal hiring and end “waste, fraud and abuse.” Presidential chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon put it more bluntly following Trump’s election, pledging the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Some of Trump’s firings, such as his dismissals of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, have raised questions about his motives. Like Comey, Yates, and Bharara—who refused to step down alongside 45 other U.S. attorneys asked to resign—were conducting Trump-linked investigations.
Other firings, such as Trump’s order that all Obama-appointed political ambassadors leave their posts by Inauguration Day, drew criticism but were not entirely unexpected. Trump’s bigger and more ominous agenda, which is shared by Republicans on Capitol Hill, is not just to shrink government but to throw out the due process rules, benefits, collective-bargaining rights, and anti-patronage laws that have protected civil servants for more than a century.
The most immediate threat to federal workers comes in the form of a Senate bill that ostensibly would make it easier to remove badly performing employees at the Veterans Health Administration. The GOP-authored bill, a response to the scandal over VA workers who falsified records documenting long wait times for veterans, has four Democratic cosponsors and is moving quickly on Capitol Hill.
But critics say the bill is the first step in a GOP effort to make it easier to fire workers at federal agencies government-wide. The bill would enable supervisors to fire employees with far less evidence than is now required, and gives VA workers a much shorter window in which to respond. The bill’s authors say it would protect whistleblowers, but labor leaders representing federal workers say it would have the opposite effect and discourage them from coming forward.
If Congress approves the VA legislation—an even more anti-worker version of the bill has already passed the House—expect copycat bills targeting every agency in government, says Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees. The upshot, she predicts, would be a drastic change in how federal employees are hired and fired, upending the merit-based system established by the 1883 Pendleton Act, which set out to end the patronage system of the Gilded Age.
“Everybody’s talking about pillars of democracy being under attack, and there’s a lot of concern for the press and the courts,” says Simon. “But an apolitical civil service is also a pillar of democracy, and it’s a very underappreciated pillar.”
The VA bill currently in the Senate is being sold as a tool to make it easier to fire bad employees, but is really “designed to kill off and bury the apolitical civil service,” testified AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. at a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He pointed to numerous studies examining civil service removal procedures, including one by the Government Accountability Office, that blame slow firings not on bureaucratic government rules but on managers who fail to properly document poor performance.
“At issue is whether the United States, the most advanced country in the world and the leading democracy, will continue to have a merit-based career civil service, selected, promoted and retained on the basis of ability and competence, or whether we will descend back into 19th-century corruption and all the maladministration of government that brought us,” said Cox in his prepared testimony.
The government does need more flexible employment rules to attract younger, high-skilled workers, says Don Kettle, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, but changes should not come at the expense of the merit system. Creating a patchwork of hiring and firing rules that vary from one agency to the next would undermine that system, he warns. The VA bill has triggered a much larger debate that could, he says, reverberate throughout the government.
“This is part of a large-scale plan that is, in fact, backed by a fairly concerted strategy—and its goal is to try to break the back of the civil service system,” says Kettle.
One reason some Democrats support the bill, say AFGE officials, is that they fear retribution from the conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, which receives funding from the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, and which spent $3.5 million supporting Republicans in last year’s Senate contests. “People are terrified of Koch brothers money,” says Simon. “Even Democrats. They’ve got people running scared.”
Federal workers are scared, too. From the Trump transition team’s demands for the names of Energy Department employees who had worked on climate issues, to his clashes with the Central Intelligence Agency, Trump has put government employees on edge from day one. His proposed budget included deep cuts to several agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.
In lieu of a hiring freeze, his budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, has now directed all agencies to develop a plan to reduce their workforces by June 30. Even if workers remain in the federal government, they may lose basic protections. The bigger risk is that politically motivated firings could bring back the graft and patronage that were common in the 19th century, threatening the integrity of a U.S. government already under fire.
“Make no mistake about it, this is a very big debate that’s erupted,” says Kettle. “And the effort to make it easier to fire employees at the VA is the point of the spear.”