Trumpian “accountability” throws us back to the spoils system
A visitor leaves a Veterans' health care center in Sacramento, Calif. President Trump has tried to blame service delivery problems at the VA on front line workers while it was actually those workers who blew the whistle on managerial officials responsible for those problems. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP

WASHINGTON—Back to the spoils system?

Under the guise of “accountability,” GOP President Donald Trump wants to make it easier – a lot easier – to fire federal workers, with little due process and on short notice.

And that upsets J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal workers’ union, with 310,000 members and rising.

Trump included a line in his State of the Union address demanding lawmakers “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.”

He got such power at the Veterans Affairs Department last year, in the wake of scandals which saw VA managers – not the rank-and-file workers whom AFGE represents – lie about treatment of ailing veterans. AFGE wound up defending VA “whistleblowers” who disclosed the false records.

Now Trump wants the same power over the rest of the nation’s two million federal workers. Cox, a retired VA psychiatric nurse, believes the firings would be politically motivated and a throwback to the spoils system initiated by President Andrew Jackson in the 1800’s.

“What the president is actually asking Congress to do is give all of his Cabinet secretaries the power to fire federal employees they consider not loyal to the administration and its political agenda. Make no mistake: This is a plan to politicize federal employment and allow the administration to hire and fire on the basis of politics rather than merit,” Cox said.

“Our current system makes sure federal employees are hired and fired solely on the basis of whether they have the knowledge, skills, and ability to do the job. Politics plays no role whatsoever in that evaluation. The apolitical civil service is an important foundation of our democracy, and it represents a sacred trust with citizens that their taxes will not ever go to rewarding an administration’s friends or punishing its enemies.”

Trump is not the first GOP president to try to stack the government by firing career workers and replacing them with ideological and political allies. While at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President George W. Bush, current Trump Labor Secretary Alex Acosta looked the other way while his ideological #2 tried the same tactic there.

And Republican Richard Nixon wanted to clear out several agencies, including the IRS, for ideological or bigoted reasons.

Cox also said the VA firing law isn’t showing the “improvements” among managers Trump promised. “The reality is they are celebrating firing veterans and decreasing the access to and level of care our veterans have earned.” Some 1,442 VA workers have been fired since the law passed, most of them “the lowest paid employees of the agencies, those who earned less than $30,000 annually, and many of these fired employees are veterans with service-connected disabilities.”

“Meanwhile, only 14 supervisors were removed from their roles. Few acknowledge the 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA was caused by bad managers gaming waitlists for bigger bonuses, and it was the frontline workers who blew the whistle. And now, we have an administration targeting frontline workers for termination.”

“Accountability starts at the top,” with Trump, Cox said.

But right-wing House Republicans are hatching schemes to implement the president’s plan and return to favoritism in the federal workforce.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who pushed the VA firing bill through – including its provisions for short appeal times and lack of due process – applauded Trump’s comment and supports Trump’s plan to use that law “as a model for instilling true accountability through the rest of the federal government.” So does its Senate sponsor, Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

And Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., said a measure, HR559, which he introduced, would achieve what Trump wants. It would let agency heads to fire any worker, employee, provided they give a notice in writing.

Loudermilk’s bill would give workers seven days to appeal being fired to the board that rules on worker-boss relations in the federal government. The VA law gave the workers 14 days to appeal a firing. The board would have up to a month to decide and its decision would be final. If the board took no action, the worker would be canned. And in the intervening time, the worker wouldn’t get paid.

Loudermilk claimed his bill would “provide a desperately needed update to federal law to ensure efficiency, transparency, and accountability within the civil service — answering the president’s call to empower his team to initiate the changes needed to make America great again.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.