For almost 150 years, much of the federal government has operated on principles that, in part, ensure its independence from executive power. Should Trump succeed in retaking the presidency, he could carry out a long-held conservative plan to destroy that.
Meet the civil service
The civil service, in the US, basically means any non-military individuals who are employed by the government, either federal, state, or local. They aren’t elected.
After independence, the number of civil servants in the US government was minimal. Workers usually stayed in their offices for a long time.
The new system
All that changed in the nineteenth century. Appointments and removals of civil servants became widespread and were often done to reward or punish someone’s loyalty to a party or politician.
In 1881, President James Garfield was assassinated by a gunman who was angry, in part, at not being given a diplomatic posting in return for his supposed influence on Garfield’s electoral victory. That contributed to calls for the end of the spoils system.
In 1883, the spoils system was ended, and the current system was established. It’s now known as the competitive civil service because appointments are based on merit, determined by an individual’s performance in various examinations.
The service protects itself
Appointment by merit is all well and good—but only if people can’t be arbitrarily removed by their political enemies. To prevent this, various protections were added to civil service workers over time, ensuring they could only be fired for just causes.
What that means
The idea of this system is to insulate the workings of much of the federal government from partisan squabbling. Say, for example, a president wants to push an agency to do something it believes is improper or illegal, the agency can refuse without having to worry about being decimated in punishment.
Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, conservatives have attempted to reduce the size of the federal government. In 1982, Reagan established a commission of private-sector notables to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Sound familiar?
Despite the commission’s thousands of recommendations and many more attempts, conservatives have generally been unsuccessful at slashing the government. Spending has increased, and the federal workforce has not been reduced.
Under President Donald Trump, the deficit increased every single year. This is just one reason that critics like Noam Chomsky have accused conservatives of not wanting to truly reduce government but instead make it more explicitly work towards conservative goals.
Trump attempts to meddle
Trump allegedly already made several attempts to gain power over the civil service during his first term. Perhaps the most daring was his 2020 executive order that aimed to remove protections from thousands of federal employees.
Trump is stopped
Trump also had several of his more extreme policies blocked by civil agencies. The Supreme Court, for example, blocked his attempt to add a question about citizenship to the US census.
A second chance
Thanks to the last-minute appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, a second-term Trump would find himself working with a far more receptive Supreme Court than during his first term. While they might be hostile to attempts to curb their own power, they could be willing to let Trump decimate the civil service.
The basis of Trump’s plan is called the “unitary executive principle.” Proponents of this theory argue that the Constitution gives the president basically unchecked power over the executive branch.
A dark future for the government
Should Trump succeed in asserting power over the civil service, it could mean a return to the days of the spoils system. Individuals in a range of critical positions, with responsibility for various crucial parts of federal governance, could find themselves at risk of losing their jobs should they refuse to carry out Trump’s orders.
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