Congress Blows Its Shot to Stop Trump’s ‘Deep State’ Revenge

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

In the final days of his presidency, Donald Trump quietly attempted what might have been his most brazen play yet to reshape the federal government in his image: He issued an executive order giving him the power to fire essentially any civil servant at will.

That attempt was thwarted by the election of Joe Biden. But in laying out a 2024 presidential bid and a White House comeback, Trump has vowed to enact that order again immediately, Axios reported.

Congress has the power to block him—or any other president—from executing those plans. But it’s increasingly looking like they won’t use it.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed legislation to codify civil service protections, with six Republicans joining all Democrats in voting yes. But in the Senate, where 10 GOP senators would be needed to vote in favor, the prospects for the legislation are grim.

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For proponents of the bill, their window to change the dynamic is closing rapidly. If either the House or Senate flip to GOP control in this November’s elections—and at least one switch is likely—the bill’s chances of passage would drop dramatically.

That could clear a path for Trump, or any other like-minded president, to assert a level of control over influential policy officials not seen in centuries.

“What you’re talking about is politicizing the civil service and doing away with objective, impartial, nonpartisan government service… in favor of a 2 million-person workforce that is potentially more loyal to a politician than the Constitution,” said Walter Shaub, a former director of the federal Office of Government Ethics who is now a senior fellow at the Project on Government Oversight.

“That,” Shaub said, “should terrify people.”

It appears a critical mass of people on Capitol Hill, however, are not especially terrified. Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was able to muscle the legislation through the House, insiders have taken note of how low-profile this push has been.

That dynamic has been starkest in the Senate, where the bill is yet to get a hearing in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

While Republicans in that chamber have been more comfortable opposing Trump—and this bill is widely seen, fairly or not, as a shot across the bow to the ex-president—few are eager to take up the cause of federal workers, given long-running conservative gripes about the bureaucracy. No GOP senators are on record supporting the legislation.

Meanwhile, it’s unlikely any Democratic senators would oppose the measure, but very few have been raising the alarm over the threats to the civil service and ratcheting up the pressure to move the legislation. Leadership aides say the prospect for the bill’s passage is grim if Republicans don’t support the measure, a reflection of the political reality of legislating in an evenly divided chamber where passing most things takes 60 votes.

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On the day the House passed its bill, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA)—the sponsor of the Senate companion bill—expressed optimism to The Daily Beast that the House’s movement could be infectious, but emphasized he didn’t have an update on the bill’s status.

“There’s a culture of the Senate that does not truly appreciate the threats to democracy right now,” argued Shaub. He made the case that Democrats don’t feel urgency because Biden is in charge and that Republicans “lack the imagination” to be concerned that another president, of either party, might pursue a path similar to Trump.

The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), said that the issue should be nonpartisan because lawmakers in both parties should want to assert the power of the legislative branch—intended to be the first among equals—to rein in any executive.

Connolly told The Daily Beast that while he doesn’t intend the bill to be a reaction to a particular president, it is a reaction to Trump’s behavior.

“What he showed, apparently, is that any president can do this,” Connolly said.

The emerging impasse on Capitol Hill over the legislation is in keeping with the legislative branch’s struggle, both during and after the Trump presidency, to assert its power to respond to the ex-president’s shattering of established norms.

Trump’s allies, for example, routinely tested whether the House would use its constitutionally endowed powers to hold accountable those who ignored or defied lawful congressional subpoenas for information. Only since the Jan. 6 investigation, after Trump left office, have lawmakers been willing to really flex that authority by holding several of his associates in criminal contempt of Congress.

The week the House passed its bill, lawmakers continued negotiations over changing the archaic process by which Congress certifies presidential elections—a process Trump sought to exploit on Jan. 6 to keep himself in power.

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As with those issues, the particulars of Trump’s designs on the federal workforce can sound dry and technical. But he and his allies have been plainspoken about what they want to accomplish through executive order.

"We will pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States," Trump said at a March rally in South Carolina. “The deep state must and will be brought to heel.”

In October 2020, Trump signed an executive order that created a new classification category for federal employees called “Schedule F.” Employees classified as Schedule F would quickly lose protections making it harder to fire them, essentially making them employed at-will—namely, fireable at any time.

Trump’s intention, Axios reported, was to shift as many as 50,000 federal employees into the Schedule F category. That’s just 2.5 percent of the federal workforce, but it could be an influential slice, including career agency policymakers, regulatory enforcers, and decision-makers across the federal government.

If given the power, Trump could use Schedule F to fire important officials, from his White House to agencies such as the Department of Justice, for any reason he chooses. Axios reported that the plan is a centerpiece of Trump and his allies’ governing plans should he run again in 2024 and win another term in office.

Connolly, the author of the House measure, summed up the thinking of many by calling this prospect a “nightmare.”

The legislation, titled the Preventing A Patronage System Act of 2022, codifies current employment protections and essentially blocks the reassignment of federal workers in the existing schedules to any newly created schedule.

“This is a real issue, and a real risk,” Connolly said, “if you’re worried about authoritarianism, anti-democratic behavior.”

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In arguing against the bill, Trump’s allies in the House leaned on a typical minority argument—that Congress has better things to do—and tapped into long-running GOP messaging that Democrats disproportionately value federal bureaucrats.

The lead Republican on the Oversight Committee, Rep. James Comer (R-KY), framed Trump’s effort as a well-intentioned campaign to improve “accountability” in the federal government by making it easier to fire poor performers.

But Republicans’ most emphatic arguments against the bill seemed to say the quiet part out loud. “President Trump sought to take on this bureaucracy and restore power to the people by draining the swamp,” Comer said. “We should all be in favor of policies making it easier to remove civil servants who refuse to follow the will of the voters.”

On the House floor, Connolly responded that Trump’s order “was never about removing employees who are performing poorly.”

Instead, he said, it was “designed to intimidate and remove career employees who dared to provide impartial advice that may be perceived as contrary to an administration’s political agenda.”

The first rank-and-file Republican to speak against the bill was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who came out of left-field by comparing the situation to the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“On the Black Pearl,” she said, “it has pirates on the ship that become part of the ship walls.” (“It’s the second one,” Greene helpfully noted, for those confused about which film in the aughts-era Johnny Depp swashbuckling trilogy she meant.)

The bill in question, Greene said, “will make employees in the executive branch just that, part of the building wall, making it impossible to get rid of them.”

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Ultimately, six Republicans joined with all Democrats to pass the measure, a group that includes several retiring members and outspoken Trump critics.

Those numbers did not seem to portend a Senate groundswell. The Daily Beast reached out to the offices of three GOP senators who might be more open to considering the measure: Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

Collins’ office referred The Daily Beast to a comment she previously made to local press, in which she stated that the top priority for the federal workforce should be getting employees back to in-person work in order to improve their service. The Maine senator did not weigh in on the bill specifically, but said she “would carefully review any plan to reclassify the status of thousands of federal employees and oppose blatant efforts to politicize the civil service.”

Romney’s office declined to comment; Murkowski’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

With election season in full swing, Congress has few days left this year to legislate, and its plate is full with spending bills to avert a government shutdown.

Lawmakers are holding out hope that there is a way to get the civil service protections passed—perhaps by attaching them to a must-pass bill—but most understand that this could be a long fight.

While a potential GOP takeover of Congress, and a Trump 2024 bid, are looming over the effort, Connolly stressed that the underlying issue is not primed to go away.

Democrats see Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presidential aspirant for 2024 or beyond, as someone who could potentially adopt Trump’s attitudes on the civil service.

“I do not believe it’s an impulse that will go away, and there are other authoritarian figures potentially more lethal than Trump,” Connolly said. “We have to fix this in law.”

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