The latest version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act is pending final approvals without language banning future attempts at creating Schedule F, an excepted class of civil servants who would lack certain employment protections.
Former President Donald Trump made this idea infamous in federal government circles through executive order in 2020 establishing the Schedule F system, which would transform most wide swaths of the merit-based civil service into political appointees. President Joe Biden canceled the order shortly after taking office.
The current version of the NDAA contains no language that prevents the return of Schedule F or an equivalent to the dismay of some federal employee groups.
“The prospect of a return of Schedule F in a future administration remains very much alive,” said Ken Thomas, national president of National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, in a statement Thursday. “Reports indicate that presidential hopefuls would reinstitute it upon taking office, or at least support the policy. Congress must act in the new year to head off this worrisome potential outcome.”
In the months leading up to final budget negotiations, unions and employees have pushed lawmakers to ensure civil service protections would be codified in the annual defense spending package.
The American Federation of Government Employees, one of the largest federal unions, sent a letter to the Senate urging leaders to support an amendment sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that would’ve limited federal employee reclassifications to the five excepted service schedules in use prior to 2021.
In September, Feinstein, along with Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, both Democrats, initially filed an amendment to the 2023 NDAA that would ban Schedule F.
Two weeks before, the House of Representatives passed the amendment’s underlying legislation, Preventing a Patronage System Act, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly, (D-Va.).
Ultimately, the language was included in the House-passed bill, but left out of the final compromise unveiled Tuesday.
Critics of Schedule F have said there are already similarly purposed classifications available for the government to adjust rules for employees who have policy-determining responsibilities or work confidentially with an official. One such example is Schedule C.
In contrast, the broadness of Schedule F concerned groups who said it would cover too much of the federal workforce.
So, what happens now?
Without formal laws snuffing out the possibility of a Schedule F in the future, a president could reinstate such an excepted service.
In the meantime, the House will review the final negotiated version of the NDAA and, following passage, the spending bill will proceed to the Senate before ultimately heading to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed.
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.