The State of the Union address was so horrifying you may have missed 45's call to give federal agency heads absolute authority over hiring … and firing. Yeah, that's not how democracy works.
In a State of the Union speech that was an absolute frenzy of nationalism, grief porn, and immigrant-bashing, it was easy to overlook this brief mention of federal employment processes:
“Tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
This is disturbing on a lot of levels. What does undermining the public trust mean? How do federal workers fail the American people? And what about that “reward good workers” part? They’re all bad in their own special way. And yes, in some ways the comment was a thinly veiled jab at special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who Trump would dearly love to fire. But it hints at much, much more, and is not a Trumpian aberration, but the culmination of Republican thinking about government employees.
Now, it’s no secret that Republicans fetishize smaller government generally. Look at Grover Norquist’s famous quip: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” So, as a first principle, they’re always happy to see government employees fired. However, that stance is more about shrinking government. The call for rewarding good workers and firing ones you don’t like is something else entirely.
Government employees at the federal level are, by and large, civil servants. Not “civil servants” as in merely “people who work in the things we typically call ‘civil service’” but actually people who are employed within the federal civil service system and obtain some protections under that status. Roughly, they get three things: fixed wages, the right to collectively bargain, and a level of job protection that typically exceeds that of the private sector.
The General Schedule governs how most non-politically-appointed federal employees are paid. The General Schedule has a series of “grades” that classify each job based on a number of factors, including qualifications required. Each federal agency then sets the grade of each job based on those factors. Within each grade are “steps” and those govern pay. Government employees get steps, or raises, based on longevity and having acceptable job performance. The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) oversees certain government employees rights to organize, collectively bargain, and be members of labor organizations. Employees who are disciplined or terminated have a right to a hearing before the Merit Systems Protection Board, but the myth that bad federal employees can’t be fired is just that—a myth.
Outside of the protections enshrined in the federal government itself, there’s another important protection that all public employees, federal and otherwise, have: You can’t be fired for speaking out about “issues of public concern”—like your confidence in or opinion about the president—when they do so as private individuals. More importantly, those protections are most robust when a public employee speaks about something not related to their job. If you work for Health and Human Services, speaking out about how Trump’s assertion that he’ll lower drug prices is a sham might be a bad idea. On the other hand, speaking out about how Trump’s State of the Union address was a horrible nightmare of creeping autocracy is perfectly fine to say on your own time.
So it’s no wonder that Trump and his fellow travelers, particularly those agency appointees of his that formerly got rich in the private sector, would hate the sorts of employee protections that ensure fair wages and steady employment. It’s also not surprising that people from the private sector are thrilled to undermine the effectiveness of government so that private companies can perform the functions of government instead, at a profit. But Republicans also hate the fact that the non-political bureaucratic layer of government can’t just be fired on a political whim.
What this all overlooks is that the bureaucratic layer of our democracy is critical. The term “bureaucratic” has been hijacked to refer to a nameless, faceless evil that wields red tape and arbitrary regulations, but the original meaning of the term is just about efficient, impersonal structures that encourage people to make a lifetime career there. (“Impersonal” in this context refers not to facelessness, but to the fact that you define and structure the work so it isn’t dependent on the actual people doing it at that moment and the work can continue as people come and go.) That bureaucratic layer is what keeps government running, because you actually want your scientists at the Centers for Disease Control to be career employees that are beholden to, and believe in, the EPA and science, not Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or Donald Trump.
Which brings us to another point: Non-partisan agency employees are also critical because they provide specialized expertise. Agencies are the institutions that exercise most of the power of government because those entities have the expertise and authority to actually regulate things. Here’s an example: Congress passes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees a free appropriate public education to everyone, regardless of whether they have special educational needs. However, that law is basically a rough guide. It governs things like how grant money flows and how states are eligible for reimbursement, but what it can’t cover is things that require an expertise in the education of children with special needs. Regulations, promulgated and enforced by the Department of Education, cover details like which people need to be involved in developing education plans and how schools should go about ensuring that children with special needs spend as much time as possible in the “regular” classroom. Policies of the Department of Education are not formally promulgated, but offer specific assistance on things like behavioral frameworks and supports for special needs children to help improve school safety and academic achievement
The agency needs to do this because the Congress doesn’t—and shouldn’t—know how. It’s not their job. They’re not experts in the field of special education. They wouldn’t know a behavioral framework from a hole in the wall. But the Department of Education is filled with people who have spent their entire career devoted to understanding things like what a behavioral framework is and how to effectively and fairly deploy it in a school setting.
Now, of course, Trump gets to say who gets appointed to run agencies, which is why we’re faced with Betsy DeVos as head of the Department of Education. DeVos’s main goals seem to be destroying public education, propping up failing (but money-making!) charter schools, and rolling back protections for victims of sexual assault. But the bureaucratic layer ensures that, regardless of DeVos’s grandstanding on those other issues, the day-to-day work of figuring out how to evaluate and assist special needs children goes on.
That work goes on, of course, regardless of the political affiliation of the people doing it, and it has to, because expertise doesn’t always align with the politics of the moment. But if you have no real belief in the power and goodness of government and just basically want to smash and grab, you don’t care. If you have no real belief in the power and goodness of democracy and just want to rule with an iron fist and get paid, you don’t care. When you value loyalty to a strongman more than anything, you don’t care.
And when you let Trump’s vision happen—when you let the politically appointed heads of agencies purge people who disagree with that strongman—you basically get Turkey. After a failed coup attempt, Turkey’s brutal leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan imposed what can only be called a purge, which allows him to fire anyone he deems an enemy of the state. He’s taken advantage of this and fired 150,000 public-sector workers and purged another 50,000 people from police, fire, judiciary, and education—all because they’re not loyal to him and his government.
Though Trump brings a special strongman flavor to all of this, congressional Republicans were pushing this type of plan even before Trump was inaugurated. They’ve pushed to make all new federal employees-at-will, which would remove all the due process protections they currently enjoy. They gave themselves the power to cut salaries of individual workers to $1 and zero out program-level budgets entirely. For years now, they’ve tried to cut federal salaries and benefits. Trump isn’t an aberration—he’s the logical conclusion for, and vessel of, long-standing Republican policies.
They’re going to get their way. And it’s going to be awful. And it’s going to utterly eviscerate how well government works. Which is sort of the whole point, isn’t it?
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