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Project 2025: Managing the bureaucracy

White House

Whoever occupies the Whtie House next year will have the opportunity to make the federal workforce more efficient.

DEA/M. BORCHI/Getty Images

Breslin is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair of Political Science at Skidmore College and author of “A Constitution for the Living: Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation’s Fundamental Law.”

This is part of a series offering a nonpartisan counter to Project 2025, a conservative guideline to reforming government and policymaking during the first 180 days of a second Trump administration. The Fulcrum's "Cross-Partisan Project 2025" relies on unbiased critical thinking, reexamines outdated assumptions, and uses reason, scientific evidence, and data in analyzing and critiquing Project 2025

Efficiency is not a word that often comes to mind when contemplating the federal bureaucracy. At almost 3 million workers strong, and representing an eye-popping 2 percent of the entire American labor force, the federal bureaucracy is a behemoth. Add to that eight times as many federal contractors and no one — not Democrats and not Republicans — can claim the bureaucratic sector is streamlined.

Donald Devine, Dennis Dean Kirk and Paul Dans, the authors of chapter 3 of the Heritage Foundation’s “Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise” (aka Project 2025), understand the numbers. And the problem. Or at least I thought they did.


They accurately trace the early history of America’s civil service to the 1883 Pendleton Act, which sought to eradicate the patronage system then in place. They correctly laud Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan for trying to introduce a more intensive merit-based system for hiring and promotion. They even give a shoutout to Democrat Barack Obama for floating a new merit examination in his second term. The message from Project 2025 is clear: Patronage is bad; merit is good.

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Couldn’t agree more.

The problem is the one person to whom they are speaking — Project 2025’s singular audience, Donald Trump — doesn’t seem to concur. The former president has been crystal clear about his intentions to remake the federal bureaucracy in his image. Those close to Trump concede that, should he retake the White House, he intends to reintroduce Schedule F, an obscure executive order from his first term that allows presidents to fire, at will, any federal bureaucrat who is seen as disloyal or resistant to the will of the country’s chief executive, including the most meritorious of civil servants.

That’s right. Civil servants could be dismissed not because they are underperforming, but because they are unfaithful to a particular president. And who would slide into those vacant positions? Patrons, backers, loyalists of the president — precisely those folks who were chased from their jobs by the Pendleton Act, the Carter and Reagan initiatives, and the Obama examination. Patronage, to the authors of the Project 2025 report, appears to be bad in theory only.

A quick tutorial about the federal bureaucracy is warranted. U.S. civil servants take an oath to the Constitution, not to any president. They keep their jobs through presidential transitions because the work is often highly specialized, appreciably complex, and essential for the efficient — yes, I said it — running of the federal government. Joe Biden inherited thousands of Trump appointees just as Donald Trump inherited thousands of Obama hires. Career civil servants are accustomed to the partisan pendulum swinging back and forth. They are professionals. Most can be unbiased when necessary, and all are sacrificing something in their lives: higher pay in the private sector, more time with family and friends, little or no applause for innovative ideas or public credit for a job well done, maybe even their own political ambitions.

To give them a Schedule F ultimatum — remain loyal to a singular man or risk being canned — has serious consequences, including for the nation’s safety and security. I’m glad I’m not the Grade 6 civil servant who lives paycheck to paycheck and comes into some highly sensitive and gravely alarming intelligence. The power to fire, at will, a bureaucrat — or 10, or a 100 or, as Trump has indicated, thousands — is as foolish and unwise as it is dangerous.

A cross-partisan approach to bureaucratic inefficiency is needed. How about these simple ideas?

  • Continue merit exams, but lessen their importance in hiring and promotion. They must be part of a larger assemblage of tools for hiring.
  • There is value in implementing some diversity initiatives in hiring, retention and promotion because, presumably, the decisions that emerge from these agencies will then reflect the widest possible understanding of the real impact of governmental policies. In short, DEIB initiatives can’t trump all influences, but they should be an important component of the policy-making conversation.
  • Managers at all levels should be backed when the evidence is clear that some workers are underperforming. Put another way, people in positions of authority have to be robustly supported by their superiors when they are about to demote or fire someone.
  • Add resources to those offices responsible for investigating bias, discrimination and retaliation.
  • Identify a reasonable target for reducing the size of the bureaucracy over a 10-year horizon (not four or eight). Use attrition rather than Schedule F as the primary means of reducing the workforce.

A famous politician once captured perfectly the cross-partisan way. Consider his words, with my (admittedly imperfect) labels:

“Government,” he declared, “can be a positive source for good. I believe government's purpose basically is to allow those blessed with talent to go as far as they can on their own [which is a consistent Republican refrain]. But I believe that the government also has an obligation to assist those who, for whatever inscrutable reason, have been left out by fate [Democratic]. Of course, we should have only the government we need [Republican]. But we must have and we will insist on all the government we need [Democratic].”

The message is neither Republican nor Democratic. It is American. The famous politician? The late Mario M. Cuomo.


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