Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter comes out twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories and articles about politics, media, and culture. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Please check it out.
This Fourth of July, I’d like to salute some of the greatest patriots in the land: government bureaucrats.
I live in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where tens of thousands of federal civil service workers toil and reside. They are my neighbors. They are my fellow commuters. These are Americans who devote themselves to protecting us. They strive to make our food, drugs, cars, airplanes, financial institutions, and workplaces safe. They endeavor to keep our air and water clean and protect our national lands. They fund and manage research to combat diseases and extend our knowledge of the universe. They assist our veterans. They help our farmers. They manage programs essential for the well-being of our elderly and low-income citizens. They represent us overseas and conduct humanitarian missions. And they do so much more.
It’s a pity they are often denigrated and derided as pencil-pushing, inside-the-Beltway ne’er-do-wells staffing Kafkaesque bureaucracies that spend much and do little. Many could be pulling in higher salaries in the private sector. But they want to help. They want to contribute to the greater good. True, far from all the actions of federal agencies are commendable. Departments and offices can be captured by special interests or guided by bad policies. But by and large, the Americans drawn to government work want to make our nation and our world a better place. That’s what I call patriotism.
I know smart and talented people who have spent much, if not all, of their adult lives employed at the EPA, the Labor Department, the Justice Department, the National Institutes of Health, the State Department, and other agencies where they put in long hours developing or implementing policies that will improve the lives of thousands (or millions) of Americans and others around the planet. These are admirable men and women in noble careers. And when you think of Washington as home to perhaps hundreds of thousands of such people, the city can seem a bit wondrous.
As we fire up the barbecue, wave flags at parades, and down another beer to celebrate the birth of our fragile republic, let’s hail the USA-loving civil servants who keep the ship of state moving forward. Particularly since they are in the crosshairs of the Trumpist right.
For years, the leading strategists of Trumpism have been plotting how to gain control of the federal workforce. Steve Bannon and others have declared war on what they call the “administrative state,” which in their minds includes and extends beyond the nefarious “Deep State” cabal that is always conspiring against Trump. They believe that Trump did not achieve many of his policy aims because the federal agencies were staffed with career professionals who thwarted his plans. Actually, Trump rarely turned his impulsive and vague policy aims into particular proposals. Remember Infrastructure Week—which did not happen? Or his purported but never-released health care plan that would provide Americans cheaper and better medical care? (Spoiler: He had no such plan.)
Nevertheless, his henchmen have cooked up a scheme to target federal civil service workers should Trump be restored to the White House. Call it the Schedule F Plot. It sounds wonky but it could dramatically change the government—and the nation.
At the end of Trump’s presidency, he signed an executive order that created a category of federal worker called Schedule F that covered possibly thousands of policy-related positions throughout the various agencies. Any employee assigned to Schedule F could lose civil service protections and be easily fired by the White House. At the time, University of Colorado, Boulder, professor Roger Pielke Jr. told Axios, “If you take how it’s written at face value, [this executive order] has the potential to turn every government employee into a political appointee, who can be hired and fired at the whim of a political appointee or even the president.”
The point was to allow Trump and his minions in the agencies to shit-can career professionals devoted to expertise-based policy—that is, employees serving the public interest instead of Trump’s political and personal interests. But with his stint in the White House at its end, Trump never had the chance to put this authority to use, and President Joe Biden rescinded the order. But had Trump possessed this power at the height of the Covid pandemic, he could have fired scientists and public health experts within the federal government who were warning of the crisis at the same time he was determined to dismiss its significance. And he could have disappeared all sorts of mid-level professionals in the national security agencies whom he believed were Deep Statists pursuing him or his lieutenants.
Out of office, Trump has not given up on the idea of turning the executive branch into his personal fiefdom. At a rally last year, he declared, “We will pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States.” Think of this: Every executive branch employee? There are more than 2.1. million civilian service workers (not counting about half a million postal workers).
A president generally has a say in the hiring and firing of about 4,000 federal officials deemed “political appointees” in agencies and departments throughout the federal government. But the career folks are beyond a president’s reach. A revived Schedule F order could place up to 50,000 federal employees under the direct control of a president. (Here’s a good explanation of this plan.)
Forcing tens of thousands of government workers to be White House loyalists—who could lose their jobs and livelihoods at the snap of a president’s fingers—is the move of an authoritarian. We have seen Gov. Ron DeSantis take steps like this in Florida, as he has enacted legislation to seize control of public universities and colleges. (See Pema Levy’s comprehensive account of DeSantis’ efforts to create an autocracy in the Sunshine State.) Presumably, he, too, would attempt to turn the executive branch into his own duchy, if given the chance.
Trump thunders that he loves the United States. Then again, he refers to the January 6 rioters as “patriots.” But—no surprise—he has no greater love than his love for himself. And the power he lusts for is the power of an autocrat. If he ever regains the keys to the Oval Office, his goal would be to turn the federal workforce into a cadre of zombie Trump troops. Many of the people who now hold these jobs represent the best and brightest of our nation. They deserve our gratitude and, with authoritarian candidates angling for the White House, our protection.
Author: David Corn