New rule would stop civil service from turning into spoils system
The Theodore Roosevelt Building, location of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, on Feb. 13, 2024, in Washington. The government's chief human resources agency has issued a new rule making it harder to fire thousands of federal employees. Advocates hope the new rule will head off former President Donald Trump's promises to radically remake the workforce along ideological lines if he wins back the White House in November. | Mark Schiefelbein/AP

WASHINGTON—In a new rule the federal government’s workers are cheering—and which one of their unions takes credit for—the Democratic Biden administration unveiled its plan to stop the lurking Republican threat of turning the civil service into a spoils system before it starts.

And that stop sign on a pending Donald Trump scheme would help the entire country, not just federal workers, their unions say.

That’s because it would prevent a politicized civil service which in turn would be under pressure to make decisions regardless of the merits—such as will you get veterans benefits depending on how you voted in the last election.

The rule, which Biden’s Office of Personnel Management announced on April 4 and published four days later, mandates that nonpartisan career civil servants with protected status can’t have it yanked. Biden also prevents nonpartisan career civil servants from being reclassified as political appointees.

OPM’s rule is needed in case Republican nominee Trump beats Biden in this fall’s rerun election and takes office in January. Trump tried the same scheme, to politicize the government workforce, returning it to the spoils system of the Gilded Age and before, just before he left the Oval Office three years ago. But OPM’s rule would ban any president from politicizing the non-partisan workforce.

In his prior stint in the Oval Office, Trump waited so long to impose his so-called “Schedule F” and did it so late—between the Trump-ordered U.S. Capitol insurrection and the inauguration–that Biden, in one of his first acts upon becoming president, legally was able to dump it, and did.

Trump’s Schedule F in January 2021 would have politicized much of the top echelons of the civil service, but also reached down as far as administrative assistants and secretaries who would have what Trump defined as “policy-making responsibilities.”

What Trump plans in his Project 2025, would cover virtually all federal workers, the Government Employees (AFGE) and the Treasury Employees (NTEU), say. Other unions agree.

Further, outside analysts of the civil service warn the entire nation would be victimized, with grant or denial of federal aid, benefits, contracts, and more depending on your political affiliation.

Trump isn’t the first Republican president to scheme in politicizing federal decisions, just the most notorious. In an infamous statement during Watergate, the Nixon administration considered how to “use the government to screw our political enemies,” to quote then-White House Counsel John Dean. And presidents of both parties often embedded partisans in the civil service before they leave office, by converting the jobs, and their occupants, to career status.

Would protect millions

Biden, in a statement, said his OPM’s new rules would provide “protections for 2.2 million career civil servants from political interference, to guarantee they can carry out their responsibilities in the best interest of the American people.”

“This rule is a step toward combatting corruption and partisan interference to ensure civil servants are able to focus on the most important task at hand: delivering for the American people.”

NTEU took credit for proposing the new regulations to OPM after learning that what it termed “outside organizations” were working with Trump to revive and expand Schedule F far beyond what the former White House occupant had tried to impose. That’s a guarded reference to Trump-organized right-wing think tanks toiling on his “Project 2025” post-takeover plans, including “dictatorship on day one.”

Three years ago, Trump’s OPM, which was staffed by right-wingers from the Heritage Foundation, “stretched the definition of policy-related” workers “to the point of absurdities,” NTEU President Doreen Greenwald said, “They tried to convert as many employees as possible regardless of their duties, just to make it easier for them to fire.”

Biden’s OPM rules would stop any president from restoring the spoils system, Greenwald said, after taking credit for blowing the whistle to OPM about Trump’s latest scheme.

“With these regulations, President Biden’s administration has strengthened the guardrails around the merit-based civil service,” Greenwald said. “It will now be much harder for any president to arbitrarily remove”—i.e. fire—“nonpartisan professionals who staff our federal agencies just to make room for hand-picked partisan loyalists.”

The largest federal workers union, AFGE, said the new rule means any worker being moved from the career civil service to a Schedule F-like position can challenge the move before the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, the equivalent of the NLRB for federal workers. And it defines “policy-related workers” as only the politically appointed decision-makers, not their administrative assistants, IT staffers, or other aides.

The new rule also says any worker who does move to “Schedule F”—and there would be a lot fewer of those than Trump envisioned three years ago—“retains the status and civil service protections they had… by law, unless the employee relinquishes such rights or status by voluntarily” taking a job “that explicitly results in a loss of, or different, rights.”

“One reason for the stability of our federal government is federal employees continue doing their jobs and serving the American public even as political administrations come and go,” said AFGE President Everett Kelley after OPM formally published its new rule on April 8.

“Turning positions that demand technical expertise into political appointments filled based on partisan loyalty would undermine this fundamental tenet of our government and lead to chaos and corruption. Such actions would undermine our democratic, nonpartisan government and take us back to the 19th century when civil servants were hired based on political loyalty rather than professional ability.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.