Federal employees know well the ins and outs of government personnel policy.

It’s not every day that John Oliver, an Emmy-award winning comedian and host of “Last Week Tonight,” knows it, too.

On June 16, the British-American TV show host parachuted into federal HR territory and discussed how a second term under former President Donald Trump would upend the U.S. government workforce and rewrite traditional rules about how civil servants are hired and fired.

“A group of conservatives has come up with a plan of action to ensure that [Trump] can hit the ground running, and even if he does meet resistance from Congress or the courts, he will now have ways to go around them,” Oliver said on the satirical news show, which garners millions of views per episode and has nearly 10 million YouTube subscribers.

“I don’t want scientific research about nuclear power being done by people without experience,” he joked. “I don’t want my latte being made by someone without experience.”

Though he’s known for his cynical, often crass ridicule of pop culture, social issues and politics, Oliver has been credited with inciting actual political change. In a 2021 hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure on public water quality, witnesses and lawmakers referenced his televised exposé on harmful synthetic chemicals. In 2015, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., said she was planning on showing lawmakers a clip of the show to educate staff and members on the district’s statehood bill.

On his June 16 show, Oliver took apart the plan known as Project 2025, a blueprint for a Republican candidate’s transition to the White House that is led by the Heritage Foundation, 100 conservative organizations and former government executives who claim it’s “not enough for conservatives to win elections.”

Trump and his supporters developed a plan to deal with that, known as Schedule F, which would have converted tens of thousands of civil servants into a specialty employment class that lacks job protections and makes them fireable, and hirable, at will. President Joe Biden swiftly undid Schedule F via executive order in 2021.

Schedule F “should be reinstated, but [senior executive service] responsibility should come first,” the playbook reads.

Part of the group’s 920-page “Mandate for Leadership” identifies certain federal agencies for elimination, privatization or consolidation, including the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, International Trade Administration, the Export–Import Bank, Economic Development Administration, Bureau of Economic Analysis and Census Bureau, Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

It calls the FBI a “bloated, arrogant, increasingly lawless organization, especially at the top,“ and derides the Department of Education as “a convenient one-stop shop for the woke education cartel.” The plan also alleges a “incestuous relationship” between the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control & Preventions and vaccine makers.

The group’s chief concern is that unelected civil servants, of which there are roughly 2 million, are liable to sabotage administrative policies they don’t agree with — acting as a sort of ungovernable, unaccountable influence.

“Byzantine personnel rules provide the bureaucrats with their chief means of self-protection,” the handbook continues. “What’s more, knowledge of such rules is used to thwart the President’s appointees and agenda.”

The system into which they are hired, however, is a meritocracy, meaning there are legal statutes and guardrails surrounding how their appointments are justified, how much they can be paid, and how they must remain nonpartisan. For political appointees, especially, there are rules on ethics and divestitures.

Unlike the legislative branch, the federal workforce is dispersed around the world and tends to retain its members from one election to the next to create a stable resource of knowledge. Some of these positions deal with policy, but many mirror the kind of work done in the private sector, like nursing, engineering or construction.

The current administration has anticipated this desire to reengineer the civil service, so in April, the Office of Personnel Management issued a regulation that guarantees employment protections unless a worker voluntarily waives them and sets up hurdles a future administration would have to clear before changing the rules.

Democrats in Congress have also tried to supplement the regulation with legislation. Those bills have yet to clear both chambers.

Nonetheless, the leaders behind Project 2025 have also created an application system for like-minded candidates to indicate their interest in serving a future Republican administration. The portal markets itself as a “Presidential Personnel Database” and asks questions about applicants’ political philosophy and assesses level of agreement to certain statements, including “the President should be able to advance his/her agenda through the bureaucracy without hindrance from unelected federal officials,” for example.

“Their goal here is clear: to assemble an army of vetted, train staff who can begin dismantling the administrative state from day one,” Oliver said.

Many good government groups, both nonpartisan and nonprofit, and federal unions have advised against Schedule F. A “Public Administration” journal article from last summer sampling empirical research concluded “converting civil servants to at-will status likely decreases government performance and increases corruption.”

Last month, OPM issued a memo to agencies reminding them that during an election year especially, departments must “ensure all personnel actions remain free of political influence or other improprieties and meet all relevant civil service laws, rules, and regulations.”

That includes pre-appointment review of any current politicos who wish to be slotted into a full-time career position.

Putting politics aside, Oliver said that these ideals of limited government are not new, even if they’re being acted on in a way that hasn’t been seen before.

“Project 2025 is born from an impulse almost as old as America,” he said. “It’s an impulse that says one class of Americans is entitled to lead, and the rest of us are lucky to be allowed to serve. These are old, old ideas that have been shouted from podiums ... but have now been placed into a new handbook for only willing presidents to use on day one.”

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.

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