Donald Trump has been gutting the federal government since he took office, whether by leaving many vacant positions unfilled or simply underfunding and eliminating positions in crucial agencies such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The latter efforts greatly hobbled the CDC’s ability to respond and take measures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the United States and abroad.
As usual, Trump both resents and resists the knowledge the experts typically staffing these agencies bring to the table in the mission of keeping the American people informed and advising on efforts to keep the American people safe. Just look at his antipathy toward Anthony Fauci.
Trump insists on having the power to misinform the people as he wishes. As he likes to say, what does science know? Or, as he also likes to say, let them drink bleach to cleanse themselves of the coronavirus.
Most recently, his hatred of expertise and his desire to politicize all government service agencies and knowledge itself has motivated him to issue an executive order that strips important protections from career federal employees, making it easier to hire those civil servants typically working on policy.
The order, targeting specifically policy-related career positions, creates a new classification, Schedule F, under which employees can be re-classified, presumably at each agency’s discretion. The order affords agencies 90 days to determine which employees warrant this re-classification, which effectively converts these otherwise protected employees into at will employees who can be fired for performance reasons without the ability to protest and without union representation and protection.
Additionally, and quite significantly, the order also facilitates the hiring of new employees outside of standard procedures and competitive process, which would allow agencies potentially to hire employees who lack the appropriate expertise and experience.
Is Trump’s order starting to make sense?
It’s just more of the same. Trump has already been appointing cronies to key positions, even in his cabinet, who have no qualifications or expertise to execute the responsibilities of their offices. Most recently, take Louis DeJoy’s appointment as Postmaster General. Either through incompetence or intentional effort to undermine postal service to aid Trump’s re-election campaign, postal service has deteriorated under his watch, after ousting the previous Postmaster General with years of experience working in the U.S. Postal Service.
Trump wants what he wants, and he usually wants people who will do his political bidding and carry out his autocratic wishes, not folks who carefully research issues and seek appropriate knowledge upon which to base key policy decisions, considering above all how policies will forward the interests of the American people. He doesn’t want apolitical experts crafting policy and weighing decisions rooted in knowledge, science, or data, not to mention care for the nation’s people he is supposed to be serving first and foremost.
And this order makes it easier for Trump simply to fire any employee who questions his policy.
As president of the American Federation of Government Employees Everett Kelley said,
“By targeting federal workers whose jobs involve government policies, the real-world implications of this order will be disastrous for public health, the environment, the defense of our nation, and virtually every facet of our lives.”
“Through this order, President Trump has declared war on the professional civil service by giving himself the authority to fill the government with his political cronies who will pledge their unwavering loyalty to him – not to America.”
The order effectively allows Trump, even if he should lose the upcoming election, to turn politicize these agencies that have historically been staffed by career employees who work for administration after administration, whether Republican or Democrat, bringing to bear their expertise to bear in non-partisan ways on the process of policy-making. This order allows for the removal of expertise and knowledge from this process, to be replaced by pure partisan politics with no vetting for qualifications.
As Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists noted to The Hill, this order enables Trump to install partisan employees who continue to serve the Trump agenda even after he is gone. Should Biden get elected, it could be very difficult for these employees to be removed, since employees can only be removed on the basis of performance, not because of partisanship.
Thus, a bunch of climate change deniers could potentially be entrenched in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
And, as Rosenberg noted, Trump’s order comes off as a pure political power play because it is already possible to fire employees, but it requires due process and following fair labor laws. He said, “This is not solving some problem of ‘you can’t get rid of federal employees.’ You can. If people aren’t really performing you can get rid of them. Trust me, I’ve done it.”
So what problem is it solving? It’s solving Trump’s problem of potentially losing the election and hence power, and it’s solving his problem with democracy by enabling greater autocratic decision-making in the federal government.
Finally, this order simply and severely endangers Americans to a greater extent. Imagine climate change and every other challenge we face as a people not being addressed by experts seeking the best and most researched solutions, rooted in actual knowledge, but by partisan quacks with no concern for people and no desire to truly understand the realities of our world.
Protecting workers and supporting unions, we see, is a key political element of the effort to put a stop to Trump’s deleterious antics.
Trump wants to destroy any organization or structure that empowers people and helps to uphold people’s rights and give them a voice. It’s those organizations that help to protect all of us and all of our rights.
And we see with current pandemic what happens to all of us when employees in these agencies lose power and fall subject to autocratic rule such as Trump’s.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.