Purging Career Civil Servants? That’s The Conservative Playbook.

Bill Scher

When the Trump transition asked the Energy Department to name employees that attended climate change conferences, many people — especially Energy Department employees — reacted in horror, concluding that the incoming administration wants to purge career civil servants from the government.

As the Washington Post has reported, some Trump advisers are counseling him to weaken civil servant protections and make purging easier:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) urged Trump to take on unions by “getting permission to fire corrupt, incompetent and dishonest workers,” declaring in a New Yorker magazine article, “you have to end the civil-service permanent employment.”

Reuters quoted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) saying Trump should seek civil service changes to make it “a lot easier to fire those people.”

Of course, the recommendations are publicly couched in terms of improving government effectiveness. But it’s a longstanding chapter in the conservative playbook to remove career civil servants for political reasons.

Years ago, here at OurFuture.org, I reported on how the George W. Bush administration followed the counsel of a January 2001 Heritage Foundation memo, “Taking Charge of Federal Personnel”:

That report effectively counseled Bush to suffocate the ability of our civil servants to provide objective and factual information, making it impossible for the public to make informed decisions and communicate our will to policymakers in Washington.

It sniffed at the “Public Administration Model” of government as “emphasiz[ing] the Progressive ideal—a value-free ‘scientific’ program of government administration.”

Instead, it preferred the “Political Administration Model” which it defined as “providing presidential leadership to committed top political officials…holding them and their subordinates personally accountable for achievement of the President’s election-endorsed and value-defined program.”

“Political Administration Model” is a fancy way of saying “Spoils System,” which the 19th century progressive invention of a career civil service was designed to save us from.

The Heritage report also wraps its recommendation in high-minded language, delivering a blow to entrenched bureaucracy, “Jealously guarding paychecks, pocketbooks, and power, the permanent government has too much at stake to offer anything less than stout resistance to change.”

But to get there, Heritage concludes, “the Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP) must make appointment decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second, and that the whole governmental apparatus must be managed from this perspective.”

Heritage tries not to disparage expertise completely — the report caveats, “sound cabinet government is not simply a spoils system either, so expertise cannot be ignored.” But we saw what a “Political Administration Model” meant in practice during the Bush administration. Politics routinely rides roughshod over expertise and facts.

The Social Security Administration is forced to pump out privatization propaganda, Medicare staff are threatened when trying to share cost estimates that don’t square with White House talking points. Federal climate scientists report hundreds of cases of political interference. And intelligence analysts are pressured to provide intelligence that conforms to pre-determined policy goals.

At a time when we are drowning in fake news, and we face an incoming President who lies effortlessly, more than ever, our democracy needs a career civil service that provides the government and the public with straight facts. The civil service protections currently in place will be tested like never before, and we should be vigilant about keeping them.

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