Trump and the future of the Civil Service

February 16, 2023

The conclusion of the Trump administration will rightly be remembered for the Jan. 6 insurrection, but occurring at the same time as the events leading up to the riot at the Capitol was an attempt by the administration to undo more than a century of work in creating a federal bureaucracy capable of addressing increasingly complex public policy problems. Unlike the insurrection, this will get virtually no attention in the 2024 presidential campaign. It should.

In a recent book, I examine the impact of the Trump administration’s attempt to “deconstruct the administrative state.” I spoke with officials in two executive branch agencies, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) at the Department of Agriculture. I also spoke with officials at two Congressional agencies to examine perspectives from both inside and outside the administration.

Notably none of these agencies were the typical agencies that were seen as being under siege by the Trump administration. Finding out that the Environmental Protection Agency or the FBI had a difficult time conducting their jobs under a hostile president is important but not surprising; instead, the agencies I focused on pride themselves on their political neutrality and their ability to work with presidents regardless of their ideology.

OMB works closely with presidential advisers and is part of the Executive Office of the President (I worked there from 1998-2003). There is always a “feeling out” period when a new president takes office, and it takes time for OMB career officials to win the trust of a new administration. After all, OMB had just helped the previous administration (usually from a different party) achieve its policy goals. But time after time, presidents and their advisers have come to trust and rely upon OMB.

Under President Trump, the relationship between OMB and the White House never truly thawed. Trump appointees did not appreciate advice or information that indicated that elements of their policy agenda would not work, or in some cases were illegal. This famously came to a head when two OMB officials resigned rather than sign off on withholding Congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine, the subject of President Trump’s first impeachment.

Then, in the waning days of the Trump administration, the president issued an executive order creating Schedule F, making it easier for the president to fire career officials in key policy-making positions. Upending the idea that career officials were protected from political whims, the order caused panic throughout the bureaucracy. It was soon announced that the first agency subject to the order would be OMB. 

My interview subjects uniformly reported deep concern that this announcement would devastate the agency. Many told me that they would leave and that “OMB would no longer be OMB” if the order was implemented. Trump of course left office shortly afterwards, so Schedule F was never operationalized, and the Executive Order was revoked by President Biden.

The people who worked for ERS were not so lucky.

In 2019, it was announced that ERS headquarters would be moved from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Mo. Many employees resigned rather than make the move. The people I spoke with said there was no sound reason for the move other than to force a gutting of the agency. Here, the impact of the move was mitigated somewhat by the move to remote work during the pandemic, which allowed some employees who had retired to return as contractors. But the overall impact on the agency is likely to last for years.

In all the agencies I spoke with, the employees had spent long careers working for presidents and members of Congress with very different policy preferences. Indeed, they prided themselves on being able to present useful information to political officials regardless of their ideological stripes. But the Trump administration was different. And when official reports or unofficial advice angered Trump appointees, the results were Schedule F and the move of ERS headquarters.

It is comforting to think that with the revocation of Schedule F and the slow rebuilding of ERS that the threat has passed. But Trump’s advisers have made resuscitating Schedule F a top priority for a second Trump term. Congress had the chance to preclude this possibility but declined to do so.

The idea of a neutral civil service based on merit is in danger and likely will be an important issue no one talks about in 2024.

Stuart Shapiro is a Professor and Interim Dean of the Bloustein School

The Hill, 2/15/2023

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