During his presidency, Donald Trump was constantly at war with the civil service. It’s not hard to see why someone like him might find himself at odds with Washington’s army of dedicated public servants. Our federal workforce, however flawed, is an engine of fairness that strives to consistently minister to the needs of all Americans. It’s also proven to be a last line of defense against corruption and misrule. Naturally, Trump and other figures within the Republican Party want to destroy it. And should the GOP retake the White House, they might get their chance. Few have thought through the implications of what happens if Trump wins in 2024, but it begins with the revival of “Schedule F,” one of the Trump administration’s most devious plots against the U.S. government.
Among other efforts to target the civil service, Trump chiseled away at some of the employment protections that the federal workforce enjoys. Most federal government workers are nonpartisan bureaucrats who work under presidents of either party; there are currently only a few thousand genuine political employees. One important protection for this larger group of nonpolitical civil servants is the Merit Systems Protection Board, which can hear disputes and has the authority to reinstate federal employees who it determines were unjustly fired. This agency helps keep these employees free from fear of retaliation for whistleblowing or refusing to participate in corrupt entanglements.
Trump tried his best to break the agency by leaving all three board member positions vacant. It didn’t quite work—while hobbled, the agency was able to persist. But Trump and his enablers came up with a different scheme. The administration exploited a loophole in the law that allows the president or the Office of Personnel Management to redesignate some members of the federal workforce so they no longer fall under the Merit Systems Protection Board’s protection.
To that end, Trump issued an executive order in October 2020 to create an entirely new category of federal staff called “Schedule F,” which would effectively politicize these expressly nonpolitical roles and do away with some of their job protections as well. As Slate’s Donald Moynihan reported, this plan would have made select members of the civil service subject to a “political loyalty test,” which they needed to pass if they wanted to keep their jobs. Even if only a small number of employees were directly affected, the move would be sufficient to bring the entire federal workforce to heel. Given the latitude to simply fire agency attorneys and other bureaucrats who enforce the rules of the road, Trump could transform the bureaucracy from a workforce whose members all swear an oath to uphold the Constitution to one that would act as his personal wrecking crew. Civil servants would then either have to get in line with Trump’s aims or risk losing their livelihoods and careers.
Trump ultimately ran out of time to fully implement this plan, and Biden immediately rescinded the former president’s executive order upon taking office. But the GOP and its backers are still very interested in reviving the plan. Axios’s Jonathan Swan wrote a detailed report in July about the prospects of a reelected Trump bringing Schedule F back; numerous profiles of the Trumpian “new right” have made it clear that figures in this orbit understand that they can’t institute their illiberal plans in a government with a nonpartisan civil service.*
What would the United States be like if the civil service were to become a mere handmaiden to an unscrupulous chief executive? The past offers some clues: For much of the nineteenth century, the federal bureaucracy operated in what was known as the “spoils system,” in which every new presidential administration would purge the civil service of the old guard and stack it with loyalists. This was, of course, a hothouse for corruption, but it wasn’t until this arrangement resulted in the assassination of President James Garfield that reformers gained the upper hand and passed the Pendleton Act, which established a beachhead for a merit-based system to replace the entrenched patronage system. This work wasn’t completed until the 1970s, when the post-Nixon reforms brought us the Merit Systems Protection Board.
But if Republicans have their way, it wouldn’t simply be a return to the spoils system of old. It will likely be much worse. Today’s GOP, after all, doesn’t believe in peaceful transfers of power or that the president can or should be constrained by the law. Moreover, it now conceives of itself as an instrument of retribution rather than problem solving or policymaking. Consider what Schedule F world might look like: The next Republican administration could use the federal government to punish its opponents. Democrats might find their Social Security or veterans’ benefits delayed or denied. They might no longer be able to obtain passports. Emergency disaster aid might flow only to those deemed loyal to the administration. Corporations that refuse to pay tribute might be punished. Transform the civil service from an open hand to a closed fist, and things get very frightening very quickly.
To their credit, Democrats are fighting back: Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly and Senator Tim Kaine have introduced legislation that “block[s] positions from being classified outside the existing system unless Congress consents to it” in their respective houses of Congress. And via an amendment, Connolly got similar language into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that’s currently awaiting a Senate vote. But Democrats must also find a way to raise the salience of this frightening prospect with voters ahead of the next presidential election, because whether the federal bureaucracy becomes the corrupt arm of an authoritarian regime is on the ballot in 2024.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
* This piece originally misidentified the date of this story.