On September 15, 2023, the Biden administration announced new civil service protections to help protect career federal employees from far-right attacks. Democracy Forward supported these efforts, which are essential to the protection and advancement of American democracy.
Democracy Forward—consistent with our mission to advance a democracy and government that works for all people—submitted two comments and one letter to the Office of Personnel and Management in support of the Biden administration’s proposed rule to protect against a political purge of the civil service.
Democracy Forward worked with Jim Eisenmann, former Executive Director and General Counsel of the Merit Systems Protection Board, Adjunct Professor at the American University School of Public Affairs, and Partner at Alden Law Group, PLLC, on a comment to the Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”) outlining how Congress has, for 150 years, repeatedly directed that the civil service be professionalized and insulated from partisan politics. When the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was being debated, members of Congress said government offices should be “trusts for the people,” that employees should be selected for “fidelity, capacity, [and] honesty,” and they rejected the idea of government jobs just going to a President’s or Congress’s “partisan friends.” Eisenmann also outlines how a wealth of research has repeatedly shown the benefits of civil service protections. Those benefits include: higher quality federal employees and decreased turnover; a reduced risk of corruption; and increased public trust in the government.
Democracy Forward also submitted a comment to OPM that rebuts bad faith arguments made by far-right organizations that seek to impugn the reputation of the civil service. The comment details numerous examples from the Trump administration that show how the Biden administration’s proposals would reinforce the proper functioning of the civil service and protect against future attempts to politicize it in ways that run contrary to Congressional intent and the public interest. The comment argues that the extreme breadth and seriousness of the Trump administration’s legal and ethical lapses should make our country wary of giving Presidential appointees even more unchecked power.
Lastly, Democracy Forward led a coalition of 27 organizations that believe in the importance of civil service protections in a letter in support of the proposed rule. The comment describes how a professional civil service provides valuable regulatory certainty and ensures that the federal government has the experience and expertise necessary to manage complex federal programs.
The groups who joined Democracy Forward in submitting the sign-on comment include: 350.org, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), Brennan Center for Justice, Center for Progressive Reform, Disability Policy Consortium, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Earthjustice, Environmental Protection Network, Equal Rights Advocates, Government Accountability Project, Japanese American Citizens League, JustLeadershipUSA, League of Conservation Voters, MomsRising, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, National Community Action Partnership, National Employment Law Project, National Women’s Law Center, Project On Government Oversight, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Public Rights Project, Revolving Door Project, Rise Economy (formerly California Reinvestment Coalition), and South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.
Why are these civil service protections necessary?
The Trump administration unlawfully attempted to rewind the clock 150 years to the spoils system—when federal employees were chosen based on political ideology rather than expertise of their ability to serve the public—and weaken the federal civil service by removing protections for senior public servants. In his final months in office, President Trump issued Executive Order 13957, titled “Creating Schedule F in the Excepted Service.” The goal was to make it easier for President Trump to fire federal civil servants and replace them with his own political appointees—these political appointees would be loyal to him, not the American people or the mission of the federal agency that employs them.
While E.O. 13957 was rescinded by President Biden on January 22, 2021, prior to any federal employees actually losing their protections from being fired for political reasons, some agencies had started to take actions to recategorize employees under the new regime.
The connection between what the Trump administration did and current planning by anti-democratic organizations is clear—Paul Dans (the Trump administration official who led the Schedule F effort in 2020) is spearheading transition planning for a Heritage Foundation-led coalition of over 70 anti-democratic organizations. This coalition has launched an unprecedented $22 million campaign that, as has been reported in numerous outlets, seeks to purge the civil service of workers far-right groups see as insufficiently loyal to their cause. These extremists have created a database of thousands of potential appointees—they hope to have 20,000 names by 2025—from which an anti-democratic administration can draw to make hiring decisions. They have also run a misinformation campaign meant to impugn the character and professionalism of the 2.2 million million career civil servants who are the backbone of the federal workforce; folks who swore an oath to protect the Constitution, implement programs enacted by Congress to help people, and serve the public interest.
We know that the civil service is meant to serve the American people, not politicians, and the Biden administration’s changes will help the civil service fulfill that mission. People deserve a government that serves them based on evidence and expertise and meets the needs of their communities—that’s why the civil service has been designed to ensure that the federal government serves and protects the public interest.
For all of these reasons, the Biden administration is correct to propose new safeguards to help ensure that the American people and government leaders can count on the services of an experienced, professional, and mission-oriented civil service that puts the public interest first. Without these protections, irreplaceable federal employees with decades of experience and expertise, who run programs that benefit communities across the country, could be the target of a future administration seeking to purge the government of the far-right’s perceived enemies.