In October 2020, three months before leaving office, Donald Trump issued a nefarious Executive Order that would have upended the federal government by creating a new job classification—Schedule F—within the federal government’s ranks. Although President Biden quickly rescinded it upon assuming office, it would have stripped tens of thousands of federal workers of most merit-based civil service protections if implemented, including the protection against being fired based on political whims. The result would have been the destruction of the merit system that has allowed our government to employ highly skilled experts for the past 150 years who have worked hard to make sure we have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink and begun a return to the 19th century spoils system where federal jobs were rewarded on the basis of nepotism, political party and corruption instead of merit and expertise.
As part of a campaign against the so-called “deep state” whom conservatives blame for Trump not getting even more of his agenda implemented, efforts to implement Schedule F have continued. Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and various prominent Republicans have all endorsed reviving the Schedule F initiative if elected in 2024, and in their recently released Project 2025 report, the Heritage Foundation identified Schedule F as a key piece of a future presidential transition effort. In fact, a significant portion of Project 2025 is dedicated to describing policy and legal changes to install loyalists in every corner of the government who won’t stand up to illegitimate presidential orders. In an effort to fend off these attempts, the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) introduced a proposed rule in September aimed at enhancing the merit-based civil service and shielding career civil servants from future Schedule F proposals. Below we delve into the details of the civil service, dissect the implications of Schedule F, illuminate its threat to American democracy and explore how OPM’s proposed rule could help fortify our government from a corrupt political takeover.
What is America’s merit-based civil service system?
The federal government’s merit-based civil service regime requires executive agencies to base their hiring decisions exclusively on a candidate’s merit, expertise and experience; it also protects career civil servants from being fired by a president or an administration without cause—effectively insulating these crucial employees from the political whims of a president. This structure safeguards federal agencies’ integrity and ability to function by limiting political influence in employment decisions and ensuring that qualified individuals with the necessary technical expertise are making regulatory decisions. For example, the merit system ensures that the people in charge of approving new medications at the Food and Drug Administration are doctors and scientists rather than a politician’s nephew.
Why is maintaining a merit-based civil service crucial for good governance?
With Congress increasingly unable to pass even basic legislation due to its polarization, agency rulemakings have become the main way our government ensures that our water and air are clean, and that the medicines we take are safe. Without career civil servants who are experts in their fields and who understand their responsibilities under the law, these functions would collapse. And federal agencies filled with unqualified party loyalists—which has come to be known as the “spoils system”—would harm the lives of Americans by giving individuals without any technical expertise the power to craft policy that could have life or death implications. For instance, a Department of Transportation filled with appointees that lack technical expertise in transportation design and safety could easily allow unsafe aircraft into our skies or dangerous cars and trucks onto our roads. The spoils system fostered corruption, as officials often felt indebted to the political party or individuals who helped them secure positions of power resulting in favoritism, nepotism and a lack of accountability, where officials prioritized personal ties over the public’s best interests. Additionally, the spoils system tended to benefit those who were already well-connected within the political sphere, and historically left marginalized communities underrepresented across the government. Lack of representation can, in turn, lead to policies that do not adequately address the needs and concerns of these communities.
What is the spoils system and its historical implications?
At the founding of the country, most federal government jobs were awarded based on patronage. Known today as the spoils system, presidents and party leaders issued appointments and important government positions (or “spoils”) to friends and to pay back people who helped them get elected. This quid pro quo system of politics and federal employment continued in various forms for the first several decades of American life, until the late 19th century when calls for civil service reform intensified following the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by a rejected office-seeker. The first meaningful step to moderate the spoils system came shortly thereafter with the 1883 passage of the Pendleton Act which created a bipartisan commission to evaluate candidates for federal jobs based on merit. The 1939 passage of the Hatch Act strengthened this separation between politics and federal employment by prohibiting federal employees from engaging in many political activities. Today, more than 90% of federal jobs are awarded based on merit and very few—most notably cabinet and sub cabinet positions and some high profile diplomatic posts—are awarded to political patrons.
Why is this relevant now?
At the end of his term, former President Trump issued an executive order that would have effectively destroyed the merit-based civil service and returned the country to the corrupt spoils system. Executive Order 13957, which is commonly called Schedule F, would have reclassified thousands of career merit-based civil servants to be “at will” employees, thereby making it far easier to fire them all. To accomplish this, the order directed agencies to identify and convert positions that should be under the new Schedule F classification. While Schedule F never fully went into effect, the order effectively proposed going back to the spoils system, where jobs depended on supporting a political party instead of skill and knowledge.
Schedule F never went into effect. So why are we still fighting it?
The Trump Administration’s attack on the merit system did not fail because supporters thought it was bad policy—it failed because his administration tried to push through a badly-designed proposal at the very end of his term. In the intervening years, the conservative movement has devoted a lot of time and energy to design a comprehensive plan to undermine the merit system. Specifically, the Heritage Foundation publicly released a playbook, colloquially known as Project 2025, that lays out a plan to dismantle and undermine the federal merit system during a future presidential transition, be it for Trump or another conservative candidate. Moreover, President Trump, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis prior to him suspending his campaign all made the implementation of Schedule F a central promise in their campaigns for president. The threat posed by Schedule F is more acute now than at any other period.
What are policymakers doing to respond to this threat?
President Biden rescinded Trump’s Executive Order shortly after assuming office, and instructed his administration to begin taking steps to protect the federal workforce. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal agency that supervises the federal workforce, ultimately developed a rule through its notice and comment system that would enhance the merit system and make it harder for a future present to enact Schedule F by protecting career civil servants from being reclassified and fired at will. OPM released its proposed rule back in September, and CREW submitted a comment applauding the agency’s policy proposal.
Additionally, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) developed and introduced the Saving The Civil Service Act (S. 399), which would prohibit any future president from resurrecting Schedule F through executive action.
How does the proposed rule protect the merit system and help prevent a return to the spoils system?
OPM’s proposed rule fortifies protections for the merit-based civil service by ensuring that qualifications remain the primary consideration in federal employment. The proposed rule explicitly safeguards career federal employees from arbitrary dismissals, protects against political influence in staffing decisions and ultimately ensures federal agencies are staffed by knowledgeable professionals committed to their roles beyond political affiliations.
Specifically, OPM’s new rule would:
- Ensure that employees retain their accrued civil service protections even when they’re relocated or rescheduled to a different agency or position—unless they voluntarily move to a position explicitly resulting in a different status.
- Establish new procedural requirements and extra steps for moving positions out of the competitive service (where the vast majority of federal employees are classified), or between excepted service categories.
- Create a process for career civil servants to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board if their status or protection changes.
- Clarify that an exception to civil service protections for “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating” positions only applies to political appointees, not to career civil servants who may be the target of future extremist attacks.
If implemented correctly, OPM’s rule would create new defenses against attacks on the merit system and the career civil service.
What did CREW say to OPM about the proposed rule?
CREW strongly supports OPM’s proposed rule. To that end, CREW submitted a comment to OPM to underscore the perils of returning to the spoils system, convey the importance of OPM’s strong action in this space and encourage OPM to adopt the rule as quickly as possible. In our comment CREW also encouraged OPM, in its final rule, to explicitly clarify that the protections of the new rule extend to career civil servants in the Senior Executive Service (SES) whenever applicable. SES members “operate and oversee nearly every government activity in approximately 75 Federal agencies,” and are the“major link between [Presidential appointees] and the rest of the Federal workforce.” While the proposed rule does not harm the SES, clarification that these protections apply equally to them would be helpful.
Why should we prioritize this proposed rule and urge for its passage?
Protecting the merit system is one of the most important projects that the government can undertake in the next year. Adopting a rule that protects career employees from being fired en masse and ensuring that a presidential election doesn’t automatically lead to massive staffing shifts is critical to the government’s ability to continue operating the thousands of complex federal programs that protect the health, safety and welfare of Americans. That continuity, expertise and fundamental fairness is what the career civil service provides and what a return to the spoils system would completely destroy. That is precisely why CREW vigorously supports OPM’s strong and important rule to bolster the civil service at this perilous time.
How can individuals or organizations support the civil service and OPM’s proposed rule?
The public has an important role to play in various respects. First, OPM is working on finalizing its rule, and it’s critical that they adopt it largely as proposed. While the official comment period is closed, the public can still put public pressure on OPM to write the best rule possible including by writing op-eds, organizing public rallies and otherwise showing your support for the rule. All of these actions will help demonstrate that the public supports the rule and convey to OPM that they can and should finalize the strongest rule possible.
Although OPM’s rule would make it harder to dismantle the civil service, the only way to completely stop a future president from dismantling the merit system is through legislation: and that’s another great way to help. In particular, voters can call their members of Congress, go to town hall meetings or write op-eds and social media posts encouraging them to support and co-sponsor the Saving The Civil Service Act, and any other proposal to stop the return of Schedule F.