The Return of the Spoils System

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

President Donald Trump holds his hands together during a meeting in the Oval Office 

President Trump’s attacks on what he calls “13 Angry Democrats” working for Robert Mueller go well beyond his troublingly successful campaign to discredit the special counsel’s investigation into Russian election interference.

Trump’s “deep state” rhetoric is part of a much broader assault on the federal civil service, the two million or so government professionals who by law are hired to serve the public based on merit and not on partisan fealty. Popular as it is to hate government bureaucrats, this merit-based civil service system is an unsung pillar of democracy—one Trump and his Cabinet are taking steps to topple.

The administration’s latest move to deconstruct what former White House strategist Steve Bannon derided as the “administrative state” came late last week in the form of three executive orders that will make it easier to fire federal workers and negotiate tougher contracts with their unions. The orders also bar federal employees from spending more than a quarter of their “official” time on union-related work. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has sued President Trump over the White House directive on the grounds that it denies workers their right to representation.

Conservatives hailed Trump’s move as a step towards combating bloat and inefficiency in the federal workforce, a favorite Republican punching bag. But some Trump advisers, most notably former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have let slip the real reason Trump wants to give workers slated for firing only 30 days to improve performance, as opposed to the previous standard of up to 120 days.

“When you learned that 97 percent of Justice Department donations went to Hillary Clinton, 99 percent of State Department donations went to Hillary, there are some reasons to believe a substantial number of people don’t want Trump to succeed,” Gingrich told The New York Times last year. “Should the elected president of the United States have the ability to control the bureaucracy that actively opposed him?”

The whole idea behind the merit-based civil service, which dates back to the Pendleton Act of 1883, was to usher out a 19th century “spoils” system that rewarded political loyalists with government jobs. A long list of civil service reforms since then reflect a bipartisan consensus that government works best when its employees serve the public, not the party in power. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 explicitly prohibits discrimination against federal employees on multiple grounds, including race, religion, marital status and, importantly, “political affiliation.”

Yet Trump and his administration treat any affiliation with the Democratic Party as a firing offense—hence his recent attacks on the 13 members of Mueller’s team who appear to be registered as or have contributed money to Democrats. Trump’s executive orders are a first step toward politicizing the entire federal workforce, warns J. David Cox Sr., the president of the AFGE, who decried Trump’s executive action as “more than union busting—it’s democracy busting.”

To be sure, any new administration enjoys the political leeway to fill key government posts with like-minded allies. And public administration experts have praised Trump’s installation of a whistleblower protection office at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency, also deserves credit for intervening when officials at the Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sought to gag federal workers from communicating with Congress and with the public, says Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection group.

But Devine acknowledges that those gag orders should never have been issued in the first place. The Justice gag order took the form of a memo from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that required department officials to seek approval before speaking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, arguably violating federal laws that protect both whistleblowers and federal workers’ communications with Congress. At the CDC, a bid to block employees from speaking with the news media without prior approval violated the First Amendment, says Devine. (Both orders were ultimately blocked.)

And these aren’t the only times that Cabinet officials have run roughshod over civil servants. The inspectors general at both the Interior Department and the State Department are investigating reports that dozens of senior-level employees have been reassigned to low-level jobs unrelated to their expertise, apparently because they were holdovers from, or perceived as aligned with, the Obama administration.

Even worse, the three-member Merit Systems Protection Board, which fields complaints of retaliation and discrimination from inside the federal workforce, has been without a quorum for more than a year, creating a backlog of more than 1,000 complaints. The board’s sole member and chairman, Mark Robbins, drew broad praise for his institutional memory and dedication. Now, Trump has nominated a conservative to replace him, and another to serve on the board.

Nobody disputes that government employees must perform at a high standard, or even that the civil service rules are due for another overhaul. But rewarding or punishing civil servants based on their perceived party affiliation is a recipe for a demoralized, hollow, and ultimately ineffective government.

“The irony is that the Trump administration is attacking seasoned professionals as being partisan agents at the same time as the administration is taking aggressive stands on the policy level to make the federal government a partisan resource for the president,” says Devine. “And there’s no way to avoid noticing the hypocrisy.”

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