Once again I turn to Heather Cox Richardson for a story and background that has pretty much evaded the mainstream press as they cover the Republican corona virus disaster. Richardson goes behind the scenes of the shocking demotion of Dr. Rick Bright from director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA. Bright claims he was demoted because he disagreed with the president over the effectiveness of the presidentially hyped hydroxychloroquine.
“On its surface, the story doesn’t seem terribly important. A number of congressional committees have asked the Office of Personnel Management for updates on how the OPM is handling working conditions for federal employees during the coronavirus crisis. OPM is declining to answer the requests. “It has always been difficult to get information from this administration, but the refusal to provide Congress with a basic briefing during a pandemic is especially egregious,” said a Democratic Senate aide to Politico reporter Daniel Lippman. “We’ve never been denied a briefing like this before.”
But the story is actually very significant. The OPM oversees the 2 million workers in the federal government. In mid-February, after Republican Senators acquitted him in his impeachment trial, Trump set out to purge the federal workforce of civil servants, whom he sees as “snakes,” and replace them with political appointees loyal to him.
To head the Presidential Personnel Office, which recruits candidates for the executive branch, Trump brought in John McEntee, who had been fired from a former position in the White House by former chief of staff John Kelly over a security clearance. On March 17, McEntee forced the director of the Office of Personnel Management, Dale Cabaniss, who had significant personnel experience, to resign. Michael Rigas, formerly of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, took his place. (Phew. I know… but this is going somewhere important.)
The change from Cabaniss to Rigas at the head of OPM transpired just as the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the nation hard.
Rigas has said he believes the 1883 Pendleton Act is unconstitutional. Congress passed the Pendleton Act, also known as the Civil Service Act, after a mentally-ill office seeker shot President James Garfield in 1881. Until then, government positions had been handed out to political loyalists, regardless of their capacity to do the job, but the assassination created a public outcry. Charles Guiteau shot Garfield with the expectation that, once elevated to the presidency, Garfield’s vice president would give Guiteau the position his delusions made him think he deserved. The assassination built momentum behind the idea that government should be non-partisan, and that positions should be filled by people actually equipped to do the job. This sentiment has ruled the nation ever since.”
Civil Service professionalized the government bureaucracy and made it much more efficient. It has not been messed with much since its implementation nearly 137 years ago. The Bush 2 administration tried to screw with it by making political appointees protected under the law so that the Obama Administration could not fire Bush political appointees. I am not sure, but I believe that attempt was voided by the courts.
Here again is another instance where the current administration has simply decided that existing law that has withstood the test of time simply doesn’t apply to them. Now the current administration wants to remove qualified civil servants and load the system up with Trump loyalists. This will deeply damage the government bureaucracy which we depend on to function smoothly for things like Social Security, agricultural information and disbursement of funds to states and cities under various laws. Just imagine if some low level bureaucrat can now decide to hold up your Social Security check because she has decided she thinks the law is unconstitutional.
There are still 9 months for Trump and his party to destroy what in January of 2017 was a well functioning government.