The U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass a bill Thursday that would keep the executive branch from creating a new class of federal jobs immune to centuries-old checks and balances on the civil service.
The Preventing a Patronage System Act, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly, (D-Va.), would prevent attempts to allow federal agencies to bypass competitive, merit-based hiring and skirt statutory and constitutional job protections. Former President Donald Trump declared Schedule F in an executive order issued near the end of his term. President Joe Biden revoked it shortly after he took office in January 2021, though concern remained that Trump could bring it back if he wins the presidency again in 2024.
Under Trump’s executive order, tens of thousands of government workers deemed to have at least some influence over policy would be reassigned as Schedule F. As a result, they would generally lose federal employment protections, making them at-will, easily fired employees much more beholden to an administration.
“Expertise, not fealty, must define our civil service,” said Connolly during vote. The bill now goes to the Senate, where a version of the same bill has been introduced in the Senate by senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)
The legislation, which passed 225-204, largely on party lines, bars the reclassification of federal employees out of the competitive service, where applicants must go through a competitive hiring process before being appointed, and into any new excepted service.
Excepted service are federal or civil service positions not in the competitive service or the Senior Executive service. Excepted service agencies, such as the Federal Reserve Board, the CIA and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, set their own qualification requirements and are not subject to the appointment, pay and classification rules that cover other government workers.
“Taxpayers and businesses alike rely on the institutional knowledge of government executives and the consistent application of the law,” the Senior Executives Association, which represents the interests of career federal leaders, said in a letter supporting the bill.
Opponents to the measure claimed that it would soften consequences for poor performers. New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat, said that argument overlooked current data reported by the Office of Personnel Management showing employees are, in fact, terminated on the basis of performance.
More than 10,000 federal employees were removed last year for such reasons, she said.
Currently, an agency must prove, not merely allege, that employees engaged in misconduct or that performance was unacceptable if it wants to fire them.
Even then, agencies are required by statute and the Constitution to provide due process to include notice of proposed action against them and an opportunity to respond.
Terminated employees also have the right to appeal to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
All of these protections help to stabilize bureaucratic churn and ward employees against discriminatory or retaliatory terminations.
“A competitive civil service protects the honor of the federal government to work on behalf of the American people,” said Ken Thomas of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, in a statement. “It provides continuity through changing administrations and ensures public servants’ primary allegiance is to the Constitution and laws of the United States rather than the individual temporarily holding the office of President.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.