Biden aims to protect federal workers from layoffs

By Kevin Bogardus | 09/15/2023 01:26 PM EDT

Republican presidential candidates have vowed to shake up the federal workforce and fire civil servants if elected to the White House.

President Joe Biden.

President Joe Biden attends a signing ceremony for the CHIPS and Science Act on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 9, 2022. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Biden administration has proposed to strengthen protections for the civil service and block a Trump-era move to ease mass firing of federal employees.

Former President Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates have vowed to shake up the federal workforce if elected in 2024, touting plans to close some agencies and return staff to the office. This week, Vivek Ramaswamy proposed layoffs spread across the government.

The Office of Personnel Management announced a proposed rule Friday that would “reinforce and clarify” civil service protections and merit system principles for career staff. The proposal would solidify guardrails for those who make up the vast majority of the federal workforce, making it more difficult to class them as at-will political appointees.


“The proposed rule honors our 2.2 million career civil servants, helping to ensure they can carry out their duties without fear of political reprisal,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja in a statement. “Career federal employees deliver critical services for Americans in every community. Prior attempts to needlessly politicize their work risked harming the American people.”

The proposal says an employee who has gained civil service protections cannot lose them unless they give them up voluntarily.

Also under the rule, policymaking positions would not be for career employees but for political appointees, who lack civil service protections, and exceptions to those protections could not be applied to career employees.

In addition, the rule would set up requirements when moving government positions from the civil service to political appointments, which are excepted from protections for career employees.

In the final months of his administration, Trump signed an executive order to create a new employee classification, Schedule F, that would strip civil service protections from career employees involved in policymaking. Some agencies, including EPA, took little action to comply with the order. It did not move much further, and President Joe Biden revoked it once he was in office.

James Sherk, who helped craft the Schedule F order as a Trump White House aide, told E&E News the Biden administration “wants to make it harder to remove bureaucrats for poor performance or misconduct.”

“They have the power to do that, but a future administration would have equal power to lift those restrictions. This rule would only temporarily slow down the reinstatement of Schedule F,” said Sherk, now the director of the Center for American Freedom at the America First Policy Institute, a Trump-aligned think tank.

Federal worker unions cheered OPM’s proposed rule.

“We never want another attempt at Schedule F but just in case, this rule establishes some important guardrails to ensure that whatever is done is consistent with civil service laws and regulations,” said Doreen Greenwald, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, in a statement.

Greenwald added, “The merit-based civil service is a critical part of our democracy, and no one should be able to undo that by executive order.”

NTEU petitioned OPM to propose such a rule, which was supported by the Federal Workers Alliance, a coalition that represents federal and postal workers. The union also wrote to Biden about its worries over a future Schedule F in a letter earlier this year.

Democratic lawmakers have also offered legislation in the House (H.R. 1002) and Senate (S. 399) to stymie a return of Trump’s order. Neither bill has passed yet.

OPM’s rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register on Monday. The public will then have 60 days to comment on the proposal.