One could almost hear a collective national sigh of relief over the announcement by Emily Murphy, the Trump loyalist who heads the General Services Administration, that presidential transition planning could begin. Nevertheless, the Trump administration continues to inflict, unabated, grave damage on the nation’s well-being, whether driven by anger and intent, incompetence, spite or some perverse combination of all of these.
On the national-security side, in a final grand gift to Vladimir Putin’s Russia — and an angry slap at our NATO allies — President Trump finalized U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, originally conceived and negotiated by Republican administrations. This treaty, providing for unarmed surveillance overflights of Russia, the United States and Western Europe, is, given Putin’s aggressive military adventurism of recent years, of much greater benefit to the United States and its European allies than it might now be to Russia. Not wanting to miss a beat, Russia immediately announced that as a result of U.S. actions, the treaty will not be renegotiated with the Biden administration.
Trump also is removing, or significantly downgrading, military attache offices in a number of critical U.S. embassies around the world including in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey and several African countries, These are countries where U.S. counter-terrorism military forces are deployed. Though the administration rationalizes this move as a means to save money, it damages our national security. Whether being done for budgetary reasons, or to create a record of bringing a handful of troops home, there is little doubt among people knowledgeable about such matters that the long-term national security costs far, far outweigh any potential budgetary or short-term political benefits.
On the domestic side, no less significant is recent presidential Executive Order 13957. Prepared with a degree of secrecy that would be the envy of Putin or Kim Jong-Un, it was issued late at night, the day before the final presidential debate. If implemented, it will rival the most notable efforts of past presidents such as Warren Harding and Richard Nixon in undermining the integrity of the nation’s public sector. This involves Trump’s plan to establish federal Schedule F employment. If not blocked by the courts or by Congress, where Democrats, but no Republicans, have introduced legislation forbidding implementation, this order will take effect January 19, exactly one day prior to Inauguration Day.
If vigorously, and/or vindictively, applied — the federal Office of Personnel Management already has encouraged government agencies to begin preparing lists of employees to be transferred — the implementation of this executive order could effectively paralyze a new administration for months. Quite simply, it will allow the president to hire and/or dismiss totally at will, with no due process, all federal employees who are in policy-determining, policy-making and policy-advocating positions. To understand the potentially catastrophic consequences of this, it is important to understand how the federal workforce has changed over the past 60 years.
Despite thousands of political speeches to the contrary, the reality is that while the federal budget has grown exponentially since John Kennedy became president in 1960, the federal government’s civilian workforce has not. It remains at approximately the same 2 million civil service employees as in 1960, with the majority being located outside of the Washington area. What has changed significantly, however, is the composition of that workforce. No longer does it involve legions of clerks, secretaries and lower-level administrative personnel. Today, to the extent those activities still exist, they are mostly contracted out to private companies.
Perhaps as much as half or more of the current federal workforce, without a very huge stretch, can conceivably be considered as falling within the framework of the proposed Schedule F employment designation. Clearly, this executive order has been driven by Trump’s desire to be able to easily rid the government of people he sees as critics, like Dr. Anthony Fauci or other scientists and technical folks, who fail to ask “how high” when Trump says “Jump!” Nevertheless, it has been drafted, undoubtedly intentionally, with enough generality and implicit executive discretion, that conceivably half of the federal government’s civil service employees could be designated as Schedule F by their supervisors.
Thus, this executive order would enable an incoming president, or a vindictive outgoing president, to fire and replace or not replace, a substantial portion of the federal workforce at will. If done, the process of filling many newly vacated positions would likely consume weeks of time and effort. This could easily paralyze a new administration. Further, when put in such jeopardy, history shows that at least some public employees will become less responsive to their constitutional duty and the citizenry and more responsive to the immediate political needs of the person who controls their fate. Consequently, Congress must act to prevent what is a profound challenge to fair, objective, fact-based government administration, both domestically and internationally.
Allan Rosenbaum is national president-elect of the Washington-based, 10,000-member, American Society for Public Administration and Distinguished University Professor in the Steven J Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.