Over the last two weeks, TPM has published a number of stories about the Trump administration targeting career civil servants at federal agencies for political reasons. First, House Democrats sounded the alarm about an employee who was reassigned at the State Department because of her work on the Obama administration’s Iran deal. The officials who reassigned her, we discovered, also oversee the the formal dissent channel at the State Department. Then, an administration plot to oust the head of the board that oversees state-funded media, such as Voice of America, came to light.
Meanwhile, bills in Congress, described in an article by TPM’s Alice Ollstein, would weaken protections designed to keep employees of federal agencies from being fired for political reasons. They are following in the wake of a 2017 law that made it easier for employees of the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs to be dismissed. That lead to a purge of rank-and-file employees, while much of the Department’s leadership stayed in place.
TPM plans to devote more of our resources to pursuing these kinds of under-the-radar, politicization-of-personnel stories in 2018. They can be complex, but they’re important; government agencies are where the Trump administration’s policies get put into action, and taking political considerations into account when hiring and firing the staff of these agencies is illegal.
So, for some insight on where this story might take us, TPM put in a call to Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight. POGO is a non-profit government watchdog group that provides support to government employees who want to blow the whistle on abuse of power, and has been tracking these issues for decades.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TPM: Can you give us a sense of how much more common these kind of politicized personnel decisions are under the Trump administration, as opposed to prevous administrations?
Liz Hempowicz: My perception is that it has definitely increased now. One thing that set the stage for it was that the president ran on the platform of “draining the swamp,” and it was sufficiently vague what that term meant that now it’s being applied to draining the career civil service out of government.
TPM: Can you explain who civil servants are?
Hempowicz: Thats a really great question. One of the big problems with this “drain the swamp” message being used against career civil servants is that it seizes on this distrust of DC that is really a distrust of Congress and of people in political positions that have been either elected or appointed. It is not a distrust of these civil service employees. They are the people who are making sure that social security checks are going out. Your neighbor who works at the post office is a civil service employee. When you go on vacation and you go to a national park, the park ranger you speak to in the park is a civil service employee. There’s a huge network of very diverse positions that work for the executive branch in nonpolitical positions.
TPM: To play devil’s advocate, we could say, “The President was elected. Why shouldn’t his appointees get to choose the staff that will best carry out his agenda?”
Hempowicz: The president already has pretty wide power to appoint political appointees. He is already able to fill a lot of key positions with people he has hand picked. What he and those political appointees aren’t allowed to do is clean house of nonpolitical career employees. And that’s because it is essential to the functioning of government that the majority of the civil service is not political appointees.
The civil service is made up of individuals that — regardless of the policies that they’re asked to carry out by the administration — have a responsibility to the American taxpayer and to uphold the constitution and further the mission of their office and their agency. These individuals are allowed to have political opinions as long as it doesn’t effect their work and it’s not on their official time.
TPM: Is there a historical precedent for these attacks on the civil service?
Hempowicz: The reason that we have civil service laws like we do today was in response to a misuse of government positions. Before the reforms that went into place a few decades ago there were a lot of people giving jobs in the government to those who weren’t really qualified for it because they were their friends, their family, their political supporters. It really impedes the functioning of government when you have individuals in these key positions that are responsible for the day-to-day functioning of government — not the policymaking, but the functioning — who aren’t suited for those positions.
The whole reason for the civil service laws that exist today is to make sure those positions are filled with people of merit, people who can do that job and can do it in a way that is not subject to political pressures.
You can fire somebody if they’re not doing the job. You can’t fire somebody if you don’t think they will do the job in the future. Thats what I think a lot of the rhetoric around attacking the civil service is about these days — speculation of whether or not an individual who worked for another administration will also be able to work for this administration.
TPM: So if those are the rules that are supposed to be followed, have you seen anything so far that rises to the level of being illegal with these personnel decisions?
Hempowicz: Yes. I think that any time somebody is removed from their position or retaliated against for blowing the whistle on waste, fraud, abuse or illegality within an agency, we believe that kind of acton to be against the law. We’ve seen a few instances of that.
We’ve also seen the letter that a few of the Democrats in the House — Representative Cummings and Representative Engles — sent to the White House and the State Department last week. It lays out some really troubling accusations that if true do violate civil service laws but it’s hard to say without having all the facts. I hope that the White House and the State Department cooperate with this inquiry from House Democrats.
And I am honestly shocked and kind of disappointed that this wasn’t a bipartisan effort. I think regardless of political party members of Congress have a responsibility to insure government is functioning in the way it should be functioning. That’s what I see this letter and this inquiry going after to make sure is happening. And I would have loved to see that be a bipartisan effort.
TPM: So now that we have Congress getting involved in the issue, what do you think will happen?
Hempowicz: I would love to see Congress exercising its oversight power over this executive and really keeping him in check as they were supposed to do and as was envisioned under the constitution.
We have seen success when specifically Republican members push back against this administration on some of these civil servant issues. Senator Grassley has been really great in a few instances in pushing back on the gag orders that were issued at the beginning of the administration, saying nobody in the executive branch can speak to members of Congress or to the press.
And so we have seen Congress sort of getting involved in one-off issues that pop up that effect the civil service. I would love to see more oversight and more bipartisan oversight in this area. And so I’m hopeful.
TPM: Who beyond Congress is in a position to enforce some of these rules?
Hempowicz: The Office of Special Counsel is one of the biggest that comes to mind immediately. They hear whistleblower complaints and whistleblower reprisal complaints and are also an intermediary between the civil service and the Merit Systems Protection Board which is another body that was created to enforce civil service protections. Those are two of the big ones.
TPM: And we know this is something they’re looking into.
TPM: We had a story a few days ago in which an appointee to the Broadcast Board of Governors claims he was appointed to “root out all Trump disloyalists.” What are the chances of a plot like that succeeding?
Hempowicz: The Broadcasting Board of Governors is a really interesting example. Those positions do have stronger protections than other positions that are more along the lines of what you’d see in private practice, which is at-will employment. Even the inspectors general at all these federal agencies are at-will employees. They serve at the pleasure of the president and they can be removed. The president doesn’t need cause to remove them.
That doesn’t apply to most civil servants. They have more protections in place specifically to insure that essential government functions can occur regardless of what administration is in the White House and what political policies they have in place.
The strength of these civil service protections are kind of being tested right now, but, so far and for the most part, they’ve stood strong so far.
TPM: What do you think about the bills currently in Congress that aim to weaken protections for civil service employees?
Hempowicz: First of all, we [POGO] were involved in the VA legislation that initially gave these authorities to fire employees with less due process than had been traditionally applied to civil servants in the VA context. But, having said that, we didn’t think they were perfect when they passed and we were pretty critical of these new authorities as well and have been very involved with members of Congress in continued oversight of how these programs are implemented at the VA, especially with the idea that there may then be a push from the administration to apply them to other executive agencies, which is what we’re seeing now.
And so, having said all that, we are very skeptical and concerned about the utility and necessity of this type of change to the protections in place. I actually don’t think there has been this demonstrated need to get rid of lots of employees who are bad actors. And we have continued skepticism that it’s even working well at the VA.
They do publish the levels of people who are fired under these new authorities and at the VA they’ve largely been the lower-level employees: the clerks, the cleaning staff. If you’re trying to make a systemic change at the agency I wonder why we’re not seeing more higher-level employees being suspended or reprimanded under these new authorities.
TPM: Is legislation of this kind likely to pass?
Hempowicz: Over at the VA, they are touting the changes as successful and helpful and I think that narrative does make it harder to push back against these new bills. I think it’s kind of up to members of Congress to be skeptical and watch very closely what’s happening at the VA and ask themselves if that’s what they think these agencies need to be operating better. The answer to me is no, but I’m no longer in the business of predicting what Congress is going to do. So I don’t know. But I think there is some momentum.