Report: Trump To Seek New Powers To Purge the Civil Service

Jim Burroway

July 20th, 2016

There are a whole range of policy-making positions in the federal government occupied by people who serve at the President’s pleasure. Cabinet secretaries are the obvious ones, but the range of positions extend several layers down from there. But there is a point in the hierarchy where jobs are shielded from political patronage by Civil Service laws. The President doesn’t get to fire those people based on the color of their shoes or the party ID on their registration cards. Trump surrogate Chris Christie is telling donors that they aim to change that if Trump is elected:

Christie, who is governor of New Jersey and leads Trump’s White House transition team, said the campaign was drawing up a list of federal government employees to fire if Trump defeats Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

“As you know from his other career, Donald likes to fire people,” Christie told a closed-door meeting with dozens of donors at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters and two participants in the meeting.

…Trump’s transition advisers fear that Obama may convert these appointees to civil servants, who have more job security than officials who have been politically appointed. This would allow officials to keep their jobs in a new, possibly Republican, administration, Christie said

…”One of the things I have suggested to Donald is that we have to immediately ask the Republican Congress to change the civil service laws. Because if they do, it will make it a lot easier to fire those people,” Christie said. He said firing civil servants was “cumbersome” and “time-consuming.”

They fear that “Obama may convert these appointees to civil servants” because every president before them did the same thing. And to be clear, this practice, called “burrowing,” is not simply declaring, say, an assistant to a deputy cabinet secretary as a a protected civil service job. Rather, it’s the practice of moving a political appointee from a policy-making position outside the purview of civil service laws and finding them non-political positions jobs in the government, with the hope that they might somehow still be able to wield some kind of influence. Every president has done this: Bush did it before he left office, as did Clinton, elder Bush, Reagan, and so on.

But this kind of proposed change to the Civil Service laws would go beyond endangering just former political appointees who are now in non-political positions. It would, in by Christie’s own admission, make it easy for Trump to fire whomever he pleases, just like he does on his TV show. It would open the gates to the kind of nineteenth century-style political patronage that the civil service laws were intended to abolish, when political litmus tests were standard for every government job from mail clerk to Postmaster General.

In fact, it was this kind of patronage that contributed to the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 by Charles Guiteau, a mentally unstable man who was furious that Garfield didn’t give him a government job in return for guaranteeing Garfield’s election thanks to a speech that Guiteau gave that nobody remembered. Garfield’s assassination was the last straw for a populace already outraged over the “spoils system” which saw the wholesale replacement of federal employees every time the government changed hands.

So imagine now a scenario where a new law goes through allowing those protections to be eliminated if the president or one of his minions doesn’t like the politics of some federal workers. There is precedent for that, from 1950 to 1953, when thousands were fired from government jobs because the were supposedly “subversives.” A particular kind of “subversive” sought during those times were gay people, a witch hunt that was codified in a 1953 Executive Order signed by Eisenhower. For the next twenty-two years, it was the official written policy to prohibit hiring and employing gay people by federal employment, and for the next twenty-two years, thousands of gay people, or simply people accused of being gay, were fired. One such firing turned Frank Kameny into an aggressive gay rights pioneer and a perennial thorn in the Civil Service Commission’s side until 1975, when the Commission finally modified its policy following a string of defeats in the courts.

So Trump now wants to replace a system designed to protect government employees from being fired for political purposes and replace it with a system specially designed to specifically allow employees from being fired for political purposes. Purges like what he has in mind are dangerous territory, especially in the hands of someone who already sees no constitutional problem with instituting a religious test banning Muslims from entering the U.S. So why stop with Democrats? Why wouldn’t he purge civil service employees based on religion? Or, given Trump’s famously thin skin and fondness for vendettas, just someone — anyone — he doesn’t like?

It’s hard to know whether this proposal would actually go anywhere, but with this Republican Congress, it’s hard to dismiss it outright. More importantly, though, this gives us a very clear view of the mindset inside the Trump campaign, which already has shown it has no concern about the nuts and bolts of the constitution or for laws, rules, norms, history, facts, etc. If you want to know what Trump’s American might look like, you might want to check out Turkey or Russia right about now. Especially Russia. He admires Putin.

Joe Beckmann

July 21st, 2016

By an odd series of coincidences, I began a sequence of recent (since 2005 or so) books that underscores how and why this history is so critical, as well as so critical to report.

I began with Rodger McDaniel’s “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins” on Lester Hunt’s suicide in his Senate office in 1953. Hunt faced a challenge by McCarthy because Lester Hunt, Jr., had recently been arrested for gay sex in a DC park, and Hunt was a progressive Democrat who McCarthy could now target. I learned how similar McCarthy’s bullying is to Trump’s, with no context…yet.

Then I read Nick von Hoffman’s “Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky” on how von Hoffman and Lester Hunt, Jr., worked for a decade for Alinsky and learned about “real” politics. It’s a brilliant book, but, beyond that brilliance, it denotes the failure of reactionary politics to do anything positive at all. And that led me to look at Larry Tye’s new best seller, “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.”

Since Kennedy’s first wave of politics was on McCarthy’s staff, it helped frame my next read, von Hoffman’s other (earlier) book on that era, “Citizen Cohn,” on Roy Cohn who was Kennedy’s enemy and who, two decades later, was one of Trump’s most successful attorneys.

What each of these books documents – sometimes in lurid, sometimes just in spot lights – is a kind of cozy, backroom dealing that the Republican Convention this week so brutally mirrors: the art of the deal is rarely in the spotlight, and the crooks of McCarthy’s era are still quite active in key leadership roles.


July 21st, 2016

I’d suggest also reading Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization”. He’s a bit of a conservative git, but his analysis on the fall of various civilizations, including the fall of the western civilization that we seem to be in the middle of, is fascinating, insightful, and scary.

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