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The Schedule F Trap

Understanding what drives conservative personnel policies

Heath Brown
3Streams
Published in
4 min readJan 22, 2024

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There’s little Kevin Roberts, president of the DC think tank, the Heritage Foundation, left unclear in his interview with the New York Times’ Lulu Garcia-Navarro this weekend.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

He thinks Joe McCarthy’s motives were sound (though not some of his tactics) and is impressed with Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, but not the European Union “as it it’s constituted.” He’s not sure Biden won in 2020, but not because the evidence collected by his think tank supports that conclusion.

Roberts’ “let me be clear” leadership of the Heritage Foundation aims to be candid, brutally so. He said as much at Davos earlier this month and his appeal to his admirers is surely rooted in his wonky arrogance.

On one of its signature issues, however, things get a little murkier.

When Roberts’ explains why he favors reinstating Schedule F — the 2020 Trump effort to reclassify tens of thousands of federal officials, thereby stripping them of employment protection — he conflates two things, injecting some ambiguity into the debate and, potentially, broadening its appeal.

Roberts is crystal clear that Schedule F is something he favors. “We want Schedule F” he says to Garcia-Navarro. And, to be sure, Heritage has backed this up when it placed Schedule F as one of the centerpieces of its transition planning for the next conservative administration called Project 2025.

Why Roberts supports Schedule F is where things get murky.

At one point, he explains that federal bureaucrats “have political power. And they wield it.” And, when they do so, Roberts’ has concluded that it harms conservatives. “They have blocked conservative innovation” thousands of times over several decades.

Schedule F offers to remedy this situation by reclassifying many of these career officials who are involved in enforcing federal policy in some fashion, so that a new president could fire and replace them with loyalists.

This always happens to some extent during a presidential transition, but Schedule F — which Trump rolled out with limited success in October 2020 — offers a 10 fold expansion in the number of appointees. Roberts isn’t quite sure how many jobs this would be, but he concedes that the estimate is somewhere around 50,000, meaning these government employees, many who have worked across Republican and Democratic administrations, would be threatened with immediate replacement.

At the same time as Roberts offers this explanation, he also justifies Schedule F as a type of reduction-in-force, as a way to shrink federal employment overall. He says “I don’t know what the right number is in terms of the reduction in the number of federal employees, but it’s substantial.” This will, according to Roberts, lead to closing federal buildings and slashing “the number of unelected bureaucrats.” (Don Moynihan has written about the potential impact on government for Brookings).

If Schedule F is a personnel tool to reduce the size of the federal government, it’s not an especially effective one, since the number of federal employees tops two and half million and most have none of the policy-implementing authority required for reclassification.

If, on the other hand, Schedule F is an effort to “hasten the hiring of aligned personnel”, then it seems unlikely there would be much cost savings to be had. These new officials, now recent hires, rather than long-standing careerists, would simply fill open seats. They’d then be replaced the next time a new president is elected and the massive shuffle would start again. All those federal buildings would remain.

So which is it? It Schedule F a federal loyalty-program or a government redundancy plan?

It may not matter in the end, of course. Trust in government is low among the public, just 4 in 10 trust it, and even lower among Republicans. A proposal to cut the size of the government, even if it isn’t the real goal of the policy, is likely to garner support. Maybe Roberts’ seemingly contradictory reasoning for Schedule F is a wise political calculation.

However, public support/opposition is often misread or, at least, overstated. Recent polling reveals some nuance to how the public views the government. The public’s view of government employees is actually quite high.

According to the Partnership for Public Service, a majority of the public is supportive of the work of government employees. More than half of the public “(57%) said federal employees are doing public service” and a similar percentage “said they are hard workers.” Moreover, most government employees don’t live in the DC area, meaning the reality of cuts in government employment likely resonates differently as an anti-Washington political slogan compared to as an actual personnel plan that could leave one’s neighbor unemployed.

Personnel policies rarely get much attention during presidential campaigns. This year, that may be different, as Roberts’ support for Schedule F seems to be shared by leading Republican candidates, though their numbers are dwindling.

If this is the case, the major candidates will soon be asked these same questions and this ambiguity may begin to clear.

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Heath Brown
3Streams

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits