A New and Direct Assault on Federal Scientists: an Executive Order Designed to Politicize Public Service

October 28, 2020
Michael J. Ermarth/FDA
Andrew Rosenberg
Director, Center for Science and Democracy

Last week, the President issued a new Executive Order designed to greatly politicize the federal civil service. Falsely couched as holding civil servants “accountable”, the order creates a new category “F” for employees in positions that influence policy that waives qualifications and competitive hiring and waives the need for cause when firing an employee. In effect, that means that scientists whose work doesn’t provide the answers an administration wants can be summarily dismissed. And it means unqualified political appointees can be placed in career positions that carry over into future Administrations and can’t be fired because they are unqualified.

Contrary to a lot of the justifying rhetoric around this action, the only thing the new order does regarding the “deep state” is make it more of a reality than it ever has been. It doesn’t drain the swamp. It digs a big hole in the toxic ground of partisanship and fills it with water to give it more life.

Even the cautious and studiously non-partisan Partnership for Public Service, which has been a consistent advocate for reform, has expressed concern. Max Stier, their President, told the Washington Post that while the change would not turn the employees into political appointees, “the effect and the apparent intent is that they are moving them into that box. The discretion for both hiring and firing is so great that the merit principles are undermined and they resemble a political appointee much more than a career civil servant.”

Suppose a scientist working in one of the agencies continues to incorporate the overwhelming evidence of global warming in their work, as they should. That is the scientific evidence, whatever the contrarians might say. An administration could make them “schedule F” without the employee having any recourse, and then dismiss them at will, without cause. Does anyone think that unlikely?

Or suppose a political appointee without real qualifications for a civil service position wants to stay on and make mischief in the next administration. They can be placed in a career, schedule F, position without the need to compete with qualified candidates. And off we go! We now have a partisan career service.

The fate of this Executive Order is unclear. Must a formal regulation be enacted? Can it be reversed in future? If so what happens to schedule F employees? Will legal challenges or Congressional action stop it? We urgently need answers to all of these questions before the professional, non-partisan civil service is F’ed up for years.