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Trump targets Office of Management and Budget in push to reclassify federal workers

By LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: November 28, 2020

WASHINGTON — The outgoing Trump administration is racing to enact the biggest change to the federal civil service in generations, reclassifying career employees at key agencies to strip their job protections and leave them open to being fired before Joe Biden takes office.

The move to pull off an executive order the president issued less than two weeks before Election Day — affecting tens of thousands of people in policy roles — is accelerating at the agency closest to the White House, the Office of Management and Budget.

The budget office sent a list this week of roles identified by its politically appointed leaders to the federal personnel agency for final sign-off. The list comprises 88% of its workforce — 425 analysts and other experts who would shift into a new job classification called Schedule F.

The employees would then be vulnerable to dismissal before Trump leaves office if they are considered poor performers or have resisted executing the president's priorities, effectively turning them into political appointees that come and go with each administration.

The Office of Personnel Management is also rushing to shuffle many of its own roughly 3,500 employees into the new category, a senior administration official said. Other agencies are pulling together lists of policy roles, too - but the budget and personnel offices volunteered to be test cases for the controversial policy, this official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.

By fast-tracking a process that gave agencies until Jan. 19 to identify affected jobs, the administration appears to be signaling its intent to leave as big an imprint as possible on a workforce it has long mistrusted. Democrats on Capitol Hill are trying to block the effort.

The White House budget office acts as the nerve center of the government, an elite career workforce that prepares and helps administer the annual spending plan and helps set fiscal and personnel policy for federal agencies. Its analysts are generally mission-driven, and they provide vast institutional memory and expertise for a president, regardless of party.

The budget office action was first reported by RealClearPolitics.

With little guidance from the administration, alarmed employees, their allies in Congress and experts in the civil service are wondering how far Trump can go in the 54 days he has left in office.

"A lot can happen," said Jeffrey Neal, a retired Department of Homeland Security personnel chief who took the lead on a proposal from civil service experts to the Biden transition to scrap the executive order.

"Does the Trump administration proceed with moving the career and political workforce of [the budget office] into Schedule F?" Neal said. "The fact that [the budget office] came up with a list two months ahead of the Jan. 19 deadline leads me to believe they will."

If enough employees are viewed as disloyal to the outgoing administration, they could be fired or reassigned, leaving Biden with an empty budget office.

Those employees could sue, or the National Treasury Employees Union could prevail in a pending lawsuit to invalidate the executive order as illegal because it attempts to supersede civil service protections enacted by Congress.

If employees are fired, the Biden administration could give them their jobs back and issue them back pay, experts said.

The executive order has a flip side, too. The administration could use it to assign current political appointees to the new personnel category, giving them a more permanent status than they currently have - although Biden could easily fire them.

The leaders of almost two dozen House committees and subcommittees, led by Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., this week asked the heads of 61 federal agencies for a "full accounting" by Dec. 9 of any plans underway to convert their career staffs to the new personnel category.

A smaller group of House Democrats led by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Gerald Connolly of Virginia are urging appropriators to block the executive order in the spending bill they need to pass by mid-December to keep the government funded. And dozens of Senate Democrats have signed onto separate legislation to block it, sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan.

Trump appointees have chafed at laws that give civil servants such strong job protections that firing poor performers often is not worth the effort for managers. The president and his top aides have also railed against a "deep state" of bureaucrats they believe has resisted implementing many of Trump's policies, from environmental rollbacks to an isolationist foreign policy.

A budget office spokeswoman said the list of affected jobs is under review by the personnel agency, which is supposed to give final approval to each agency's recommendation.

"Director Vought is implementing the President's [executive order] as directed, and now it's with [the Office of Personnel Management]," the spokeswoman said of Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought. Further action "will depend on the review," she said.

But the action is likely to move forward, since the personnel agency's acting Trump appointee, Michael Rigas, is also serving as the budget's office's deputy director for management. A second administration official said the budget office employees will likely be "reassigned" and called any discussion of firings premature.

Rigas has hired Ronald Reagan's chief adviser on the civil service, Donald Devine, who was responsible for large reductions in federal benefits and jobs, to assist in implementing the order. Devine did not return calls seeking comment.

At the same time, an increasing number of political appointees have secured permanent, senior-level jobs in the government, a frowned-upon practice that is happening more frequently now than at the end of previous administrations, according to congressional aides.

But the executive order has the potential to reshape large parts of the nonpartisan civil service and is drawing the most attention.

"The idea of converting [the budget office] to a political operation infects the whole system," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

Trump appointees "should not be making these changes, period, and certainly not changes this dramatic on their way out," he said.

But how easily the incoming administration could change course on the executive order will depend on how far Trump goes in the time left to him.

At a recent meeting, human resources officials were told to move quickly to identify roles in their agencies that qualify. The pace is said to vary by agency, personnel experts said, with some slow-walking the directive and others complying.

News of the action at the budget and personnel offices, which has not been conveyed formally to career employees, has set off frantic consultations for some with attorneys who represent federal workers.

The new classifications come at a busy time for budget analysts, who have been told by Trump appointees to speed up preparations for next year's spending plan even as Trump prepares to leave the White House. Proposals for the Defense Department were completed early this week, according to a person familiar with the work.

Converting almost the entire agency to quasi-political appointees who are subject to dismissal "weakens the agency's institutional strength and weakens a president," leading to a White House that could easily be outgunned in budget negotiations with Congress," said Donald Kettl, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Biden has pledged to reverse a number of Trump's executive orders on federal workers, including those that weaken labor protections in collective bargaining and all but eliminate the rights of union officers to work on employees' behalf during work hours.

But he has been silent so far on the Schedule F order, issued Oct. 21. When asked whether he plans to reverse it when he takes office, a transition spokesman pointed to his comments during the campaign on reinvigorating the federal workforce.

A former federal personnel official who is in close touch with the transition but not authorized to speak publicly about its plans said the team is alarmed that Trump is moving forward with the new directive.

But no decision has been made on how or when Biden would revoke it when he takes office, this person said. The issue is likely to become a priority after the President-elect announces his Cabinet nominees.