Weeks before the 2020 election, President Trump unveiled an executive order that would have created a new class of political appointee, Schedule F. The order would have allowed a president to turn any career official with a policy advisory role into a political appointee, removing job protection and opening the door to vastly politicize the federal workforce.
President Biden rescinded the order, but Trump has made it a central feature of his re-election campaign as part of his effort to take control of “the deep state.” It’s not just Trump. Schedule F has also been more broadly accepted among Republicans, featuring in the Mandate for Leadership guide that the Heritage Foundation produces for prospective Republican presidents.
So, what would Schedule F actually mean if implemented? I took a look at research on politicization of public services. The headline finding is that increasing politicization would reduce administrative capacity, government performance, and accountability to the public and Congress.
First, let’s understand the scale of what is being proposed. Among developed countries, the U.S. is an outlier in terms of its existing level of politicization. We use about 4,000 political appointees to run the executive branch, an increase from about 3,000 in the early 1990s. Presidents often struggle to fill these slots, leading to delays in appointments and vacancies in leadership.
Supporters of Schedule F have proposed converting 50,000 career civil servants into political appointee status. That is a massive degree of additional politicization, and the most fundamental change to the civil service system since its inception in 1883. Increasing the number of political appointees would create a new venue where political polarization would undermine the quality of governance by replacing moderates with extremists. Based on donation records, research by Brian Feinstein and Abby K. Wood shows that political appointees tend to be found at ideological extremes on both the right and left, while career officials tend to be more moderate. This implies that the sort of rapid change of political appointees with a new administration would, as it did during the 19th century spoils system, engender instability. The consistency in the implementation of laws as written by Congress would decline under such circumstances.
Research consistently shows that politicization undermines government capacity and performance
The reliance on political appointees undermines government performance. A recent systemic review of empirical research on the use of merit-based processes across countries concluded that “factors such as meritocratic appointments/recruitment, tenure protection, impartiality, and professionalism are strongly associated with higher government performance and lower corruption.” Expert reviews across 52 countries point to non-politicized, merit-based hiring to be a key protector against corruption.
Many political appointees are brilliant and accomplished people, but as managers of federal programs they are associated with lower performance. Using measures of performance from the George W. Bush administration, David Lewis and co-authors shows that the lack of practical executive experience of political appointees, who typically stay in position for only 18 to 24 months, was associated with lower performance. Later research using more sophisticated analysis of the same measures confirmed the negative relationship between political appointment status and program performance, while showing that appointees selected because of their campaign or party experience were especially likely to undermine performance.
Politicization also undermines government capacity. Historical research by Sean Gailmard and John Patty shows that the protections of the U.S. civil service system generate better outcomes because they allow public officials a time horizon and security to invest in task-specific expertise in public sector skills. Politicizing the workplace does the opposite. Research during the Trump administration confirms this point, showing that more politicized environments undermine incentives for career bureaucrats to invest in their skills, and instead encourages them to look for work elsewhere. Given the well-established aging of the federal bureaucracy, Schedule F further increases the human capital crisis of the federal workforce. Since much of federal employment work is technical in nature, and requires deep knowledge of programs, this makes both task-specific knowledge and institutional experience important, and impossible to easily replace.
Politicization also creates opportunities for political favoritism and inefficiency in the use of public dollars. A review of federal procurement processes between 2003 and 2015 shows that greater politicization is associated with more non-competitive contracts and greater cost overruns. Private firms seeking contracts with more politicized agencies adjusted their staffing to match with the partisan occupants of the White House, an indicator of how they seek to take advantage of politicization at the public’s expense. The authors conclude: “that agency designs that limit appointee representation in procurement decisions reduce political favoritism.”
Schedule F would undermine accountability
The overt purpose of Schedule F is partisan politicization, centered on political loyalty to the president. But the oath that public employees take is to serve the Constitution, not the president. Schedule F frustrates the institutional design of checks and balances, especially weakening legislative power.
Research by Abby Wood and David Lewis finds that more politicized agencies are less responsive to the public and Congress. More politicized agencies are slower to respond to FOIA requests, even when controlling for agency size and workload. They conclude that: “The difficulties in responding appear to be due to poor performance of the FOIA offices, either because political actors focus more on other agency activities or because of poorer management agency-wide.”
Other research confirms the negative effects of agency politicization on responsiveness to Congress. Work by Kenneth Lowande analyzed over 24,000 congressional requests made to 13 executive agencies between 2007 and 2014. The greater the presence of political appointees, the lower the responsiveness to members of Congress, especially to members of Congress who are not part of the president’s party. This decline in responsiveness affected both policy-related requests as well as inquiries about constituency service. In other words, both elected officials and members of the general public suffer the effects of politicization in terms of lower responsiveness.
The research I describe occurred under relatively normal presidential administrations. Given the explicit hostility of Trump and senior advisers toward the administrative state, and the scale of their proposed politicization, the actual outcomes in terms of performance and democratic accountability are likely to be a good deal worse.
The last major revision of the civil service system by Congress was in 1978, with the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA). I wrote an oral history of the passage of that law. Policymakers wrestled with a desire to find a balance between more flexibility in managing the public sector with a desire to maintain a merit-based civil service system. They acted in the aftermath of abuses of civil service personnel that occurred during the Nixon administration, and minimizing a repeat of such politicization was a priority. While the authors of Schedule F claim that they are using delegated power from Congress, the consensus around the CRSA did not reflect a desire to encourage a broad tool like Schedule F to enable mass politicization of the career workforce.
The Office of Personnel Management has proposed a rule to limit the impact of Schedule F, but a future president could undo this action. Ultimately, it is up to Congress to ward off threats to its institutional powers. Congress has not passed major civil service legislation since 1978. It is past time that Congress offers a moderate and bipartisan modernization to the civil service system to reflect the reality of today’s workforce, while limiting the large-scale politicization that proponents of Schedule F are seeking.