President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, a dark speech laced with anti-immigrant rhetoric, and one controversial passage that could have a lasting impact on how government functions.
Within Trump’s speech was a call for Congress to make it easier for cabinet secretaries to fire federal civil servants.
“Tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” Trump said.
Trump tied the comment to a law Congress passed that makes it easier for the veterans affairs secretary to fire employees for “misconduct or performance” — legislation borne out of a crisis at the VA that led to long wait times for medical care.
However, there’s a reason why it’s not easier to simply fire civil servants. Congress, in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, wanted to ensure that career federal employees couldn’t be fired for political reasons.
Congress, in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, wanted to ensure that career federal employees couldn’t be fired for political reasons.
The CSRA, “prohibits, generally, taking or influencing personnel actions for political or other non-merit reasons and nepotism.” Yet Trump’s call to allow cabinet secretaries to fire employees “who undermine the public trust or fail the American people” could open federal employees up to being fired for political reasons.
For example, this language could allow Attorney General Jeff Sessions to determine that an FBI agent who is investigating Trump was “undermining public trust” and could dismiss them.
Experts who watched the speech are sounding the alarm over Trump’s call to make it easier to fire career civil servants for that very reason.
“POTUS calling on Congress to remove civil service protections for feds serves the goal of politicizing the career ranks, and it comes on the heels of Paul Ryan saying he wants to ‘cleanse’ the FBI,” Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, tweeted Tuesday night after the speech. “There’s a reason America did away with the spoils system. (Hint: banana republic)”
“Trump’s call to empower politicians to remove federal employees who violate the public trust is deeply sinister,” Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on political theory at Harvard, tweeted. “If actually implemented, it could form the core of a huge purge of independent-minded public servants.”