Biden aims to beef up safeguards for government workers as GOP hopefuls vow to slash workforce

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration on Friday took steps meant to strengthen protections for government employees as leading Republican presidential candidates, including former President Donald Trump, campaign on shrinking and remaking the federal workforce.

The effort outlined by the Office of Personnel Management includes clarifications that federal employees can’t lose certain civil service protections unless they give them up voluntarily, and a provision meant to ensure that certain rules covering political appointees won’t be “misapplied” to career, nonpolitical workers, according to the agency.

It would also, in effect, make it tougher to shift federal workers to a classification status that would make it easier for the employees to be stripped of their civil service protections, OPM said.

The announcement comes as Trump allies and other conservative outside groups begin mapping out a government-wide effort that would dismantle what Republicans call a “deep state” bureaucracy that would be in place to thwart Trump or a Trump-like figure should the party retake the White House in 2024. That push could lead to the firing of as many as 50,000 federal workers.

In a statement, the current OPM director, Kiran Ahuja, said the proposal is meant to help ensure that the 2.2 million federal workers in nonpolitical positions “can carry out their duties without fear of political reprisal.”

“Career federal employees deliver critical services for Americans in every community," Ahuja said. “Prior attempts to needlessly politicize their work risked harming the American people.”

The OPM's proposal follows President Joe Biden's move soon after his inauguration to revoke a Trump-era executive order that would make it easier to fire tens of thousands of federal workers by reclassifying them as essentially at-will employees. That order from Trump, called “Schedule F,” would form the foundation for much of the conservative remaking of the federal workforce, and Trump, as well as other contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, have said they would reinstate it.

Russ Vought, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump, said Friday that OPM's announcement only underscores that Schedule F is legally sound, “is going to succeed spectacularly and the only chance to stop it is to install procedural roadblocks.”

"Fortunately, from experience, I know that once a president issues an executive order setting it as a policy, it will have the intended impact of moving toward a professional, experienced, and mission-focused workforce," said Vought, now the president of Center for Renewing America, a conservative think tank led by former Trump administration officials. "In the meantime, we will vigorously be opposing OPM’s new rule at every turn.”

Other Republican presidential contenders have embraced Trump's stance of dismantling the current federal workforce, capitalizing on the growing suspicion from their base that in the government lies a so-called “deep state” that worked against Trump's priorities while he was in office.

For instance, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy vowed during remarks at the America First Policy Institute in Washington earlier this week that he would aim to cut the federal workforce by half during his first year as president and by 75% throughout his first term.

Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees labor union, said he applauds the administration for the rulemaking. The union represents 750,000 federal and D.C. government workers.

“I have to commend the administration for such a bold move,” he said. “Political appointees can be used to do a lot of things that are unethical if you ask me. This puts a stop to that.”

AP writer Fatima Hussein contributed to this report.