Former senior officials join rising calls for an alternative to Schedule F

Along with warning of what they said would be a dangerous return of Schedule F, the group called on Congress to enact reforms to modernize the civil service.

A group of former senior officials is making a new and near last-ditch call to action aiming to prevent the possible resurrection of the controversial Schedule F executive order from the Trump administration.

The five former national security officials, who sent a letter to congressional committee leaders Thursday, are approaching the years-long Schedule F debate with what has been a steadily growing angle: They proposed a middle-ground answer to the question of federal workforce accountability.

Along with warning of what they said would be a dangerous return of Schedule F, the former officials are calling on Congress to enact specific reforms to modernize the civil service. One of their goals is to hold federal employees more accountable — the same goal the Trump administration said was the intent of Schedule F. But unlike Schedule F, the group’s recommendations would maintain merit system principles and long-standing job protections for federal workers.

“We contend that the Congress must forever preclude anything that has the potential to make partisan political loyalty the litmus test, whether express or implied, for any personnel action affecting a federal career civil servant, including senior career executives,” the former officials wrote in the letter to committee leaders. “However, at the same time, we believe that the Congress must also dramatically simplify the well-intentioned but too-cumbersome, too-attenuated and too-complicated processes that we are currently forced use to hold those same civil servants accountable.”

Former CIA Director Mike Hayden, former Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy, former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and former Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe — all senior officials during previous Republican administrations — signed the letter.

“We believe that our career federal civil servants must be accountable to the American people and those that are elected to represent them,” the group wrote. “But while that core principle is essential to the effective functioning of our democratic system of government, it is in desperate need of reform and modernization.”

Schedule F, a now-overturned Trump administration executive order that aimed to reclassify some federal employees to make them at-will workers and easier to fire, has recently gained more attention. Former Trump administration officials have been revisiting plans to revive a new policy akin to Schedule F, should the presidential election go in their favor.

The urgent call to action from the former officials is far from the only effort various stakeholders have made in the months leading up to the presidential election this fall. Separate from the letter, a new working group has recently stepped up on the topic of Schedule F as well. The group, composed mainly of academics and former public sector executives, outlined five areas — agility, accountability, collaboration, outcomes and capacity — that the next administration should focus on for creating lasting civil service reform.

“The ideas put out by Project 2025 and Schedule F are certainly worth considering. But we think that they’re the wrong solutions to the problems that we’ve got,” Don Kettl, former dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, and a leader of the working group, said in an interview. “What we wanted to do was to put together an alternative set of ideas from across the political spectrum as an alternative to think about what it is that we might be able to do to make government more efficient, more effective and ultimately more responsive.”

Moving away from a ‘status quo’

In the letter to Congress on Thursday, the former national security officials said while they don’t believe Schedule F is the answer, they also don’t want to continue what they said is the “status quo” for federal employee accountability. The group recommended striking a balance that takes action to fix the problems, while avoiding the reenactment Schedule F.

“The blueprints proffered by both sides of the political aisle are problematic,” the group wrote in the letter. “One side is firmly rooted in a status quo that inadvertently impedes accountability, while the other, if implemented, may end up politicizing the very civil servants we all want to be politically neutral.”

Ron Sanders, former chairman of the Federal Salary Council appointed by former President Donald Trump, resigned from his position in 2020 in direct response to the Schedule F executive order. For the last several months, Sanders has been working with former officials to create a plan of action to recommend to Congress. Although only five Republican former officials signed the letter to Congress this week, Sanders said the group is bipartisan and much larger.

“They’ve all had to deal with poorly performing or misbehaving employees, and they know how hard that is,” Sanders said in an interview. “They don’t think politicizing the civil service is the answer. They don’t think political loyalty should be the criterion. But they also think [the current system] is too hard.”

The letter comes just as House and Senate lawmakers are taking up the fiscal 2025 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The group said the NDAA is the best, most likely vehicle that can propel forward the proposals in the short-term.

“In part because that’s the only ‘must-pass’ bill likely to move this session — but also because, in theory, those are the committees that worry about national security, and the former officials have said this is a national security issue,” Sanders said.

Last week, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) introduced a bipartisan amendment to the 2025 NDAA that would in effect prevent a presidential administration from creating Schedule F or a similar type of excepted employee classification.

At this point in the process for the 2025 NDAA, any further changes to the legislation would have to come from a Congress member introducing a floor amendment. NARFE National President William Shackelford urged lawmakers to move Connolly’s amendment to a floor vote.

“It is clearly germane to the NDAA due to its application to DoD civilian employees, 700,000 of whom make up more than a third of the federal workforce,” Shackelford said in a June 4 letter. “Moreover, past NDAAs have routinely included governmentwide federal workforce provisions due to their impact on the DoD civilian workforce.”

A spokeswoman for House Oversight and Accountability Committee Democrats declined to comment on whether any committee members had plans to introduce an amendment on the floor related to the further civil service reform recommendations in the letter. But she expressed agreement with the intentions of the former officials.

“[We] agree with this impressive bipartisan group of public servants that public service must be based on qualifications and merit, not political fealty,” the spokeswoman said in a statement to Federal News Network. “Wholesale firing of federal experts who use data, science and law to improve federal government is not acceptable. We hope our Republican counterparts will join Democrats in discussions to revitalize and improve the federal workforce rather than blindly following Trump into causing irreparable harm to essential government services.”

The approach to civil service reform

In the letter sent Thursday, the former officials proposed to Congress a three-part approach to both block Schedule F and create a more efficient way to manage the accountability of federal employees.

The first part of the proposal recommended modernizing the performance management system of federal workers. Simplifying and expediting the adverse action process, the former officials said, would make it easier and faster to hold federal employees accountable, while still maintaining merit-based protections.

Part of the problem, Sanders said, is how long it can take to resolve employees’ cases with the often-lengthy appeals process.

“On taking an adverse action, on appealing it and on adjudicating it — everybody, I think, can agree there need to be time limits, so that the system moves along,” Sanders said.

Another component of the group’s proposal focuses specifically on keeping national security, intelligence and law enforcement positions free from what they said is partisan influence.

“For example, you may want to consider a statutory ban on any measure that potentially threatens to undermine those merit-based principles,” the former officials wrote.

And lastly, the group proposed instating periodic reviews of the balance between political appointees and career civil servants in the Defense Department, as well as other national security and intelligence agencies.

After President Joe Biden repealed the Schedule F executive order in early 2021, the Biden administration took further action to try to hedge against the policy’s return in a future administration. In April, the Office of Personnel Management finalized a rule aiming to reinforce worker protections for the classes of federal employees that Schedule F targeted.

It’s one of the strongest steps possible from an administration, but James Sherk, former special assistant to the President on the White House domestic policy council, and the policy lead on the original Schedule F executive order, said OPM’s final rule would not stop a future administration from reviving a similar policy down the road.

In May, Acting OPM Director Rob Shriver defended the agency’s final rule and warned Oversight committee lawmakers that the return of Schedule F would have a “chilling effect” on career federal employees.

The new recommendations from the former officials somewhat diverge from other views from some federal unions and advocacy groups that have said the government’s performance management system is not broken, and that instead focus more on maintaining the protections for employees that Schedule F sought to remove.

But strategically, Sanders said, the approach to preventing a return of Schedule F may be to take a “positive” action rather than simply trying to ban Schedule F from coming back. For instance, he said, even when Democrats held the majority in both the House and Senate, they were unable to pass legislation aiming to block Schedule F’s return in a future administration. Instead, a better path may be to try to enact legislation akin to OPM’s final rule.

“I’m not sure an outright, overt ban is going to prevail,” Sanders said. “But you could do something like the OPM rule, which in law would make it almost impossible to hire or fire somebody on the basis of their political ideology.”

With just months before the presidential election coming this fall, the clock is ticking for Congress to take action and find a possible compromise to civil service reform and on the topic of Schedule F.

“That’s the reason why we are rushing. If Biden wins, it’s status quo, they don’t have to change anything. If Trump wins, it’s Schedule F and Project 2025,” Sanders said. “Republicans are going to have to give on Schedule F. Democrats are going to have to give on accountability. But our main objective is to just get people talking publicly about this instead of hiding behind the two extremes.”

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