As my 33-year career at the National Treasury Employees Union winds down, I am frequently asked about the greatest challenge facing the federal workforce.
A proud union leader, I could easily and unsurprisingly point to understaffing, salaries that don’t keep up with the private sector or poor mid-level managers. Those are serious issues, no doubt, but not the kind that pose a threat to American democracy.
That alarming designation is reserved for one challenge in particular: the accelerating conspiracy to dismantle the merit-based civil service.
Grotesquely claiming a mantle of patriotic duty, a vast network of well-funded, anti-government zealots have been plotting for years to tear down the 140-year-old legal tradition of staffing federal agencies with nonpartisan career professionals. These organizations have unabashedly stated their ultimate goal: to increase the power of the presidency by assembling a federal workforce that is loyal to a Republican occupant of the White House.
This is not within the norms of the debate over government personnel policy. This is an assault on the basic structure of our federal government. It doubts whether taxpayers should be served by experts dedicated to the missions of their agencies and instead suggests a workforce of partisan hacks hired based on their political affiliations.
Federal employees right now swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, but these proposals are more like swearing an oath to a politician, and it is autocratic.
The plotters and the presidential candidates on their side are falsely claiming that this is all a necessary correction to a federal workforce that thwarted the will of the Trump administration.
Let me try to explain the problem here by outlining the basics of how the federal government works.
Within weeks of their inauguration, presidents are free to appoint about 4,000 people to policy oversight posts across all of government. That means dozens or even hundreds of their hand-picked loyalists are inserted into senior policy positions in every single federal agency. Their entire purpose is to make sure the president’s vision is carried out. They are not part of the merit-based competitive service.
When the president who appointed them leaves office, they leave, too. Add the entire Cabinet of secretaries appointed by the president, and it is clear that the executive branch already has ample levers with which to implement its agenda at the federal agencies.
Allegations of widespread, coordinated insubordination by career civil servants are unfounded and absurd. Frontline federal employees are hired after a competitive process precisely because of their commitment to carry out their agency’s mission, regardless of who is president. They serve the American people, not a political ideology, and they do their job during multiple presidential administrations from both parties.
They are expressly prohibited from playing politics with their jobs, to the point that doing so could get them fired. Hearing blatant political schemers claim that federal employees are political is not only ironic, but toxic.
Of course, there is one other possible explanation for a presidential candidate who fears his policies would be stymied by the executive branch of government. Could it be that his proposals would be illegal, or impossible to implement with existing resources, or directly contradictory to the very mission of the agencies as created by Congress?
If given the chance to remove the basic due process rights of career civil servants, an autocrat could bend a workforce of 2 million employees to his will, plow through all guardrails, ignore Congress, and turn the federal government into a giant political weapon fueled by patronage.
I’m no historian, but the debate over whether the U.S. would have an executive with unchecked power was settled nearly 250 years ago.
I’ve spent my entire professional career in the service of our nation’s public servants. They are a backbone of this democracy. Some 85 percent of all federal employees live and work outside of the Washington D.C. region. They are not the “deep state.” They are not “the swamp.” They are American citizens who work for our country, and they are not anyone’s political enemy.
I am inspired every day by the people who eschewed profit-centered corporate careers and chose instead to lend their talents to the immense and complicated jobs our government demands. They work hard and do their best in jobs that affect national security, consumer protection, economic growth, public health and public safety.
Our democracy depends on their expertise and neutrality. Beware those who claim otherwise.
Tony Reardon is the national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents frontline federal employees in 34 different federal agencies and departments. He is retiring this month after serving eight years as national president.
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