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Trump's shadow? Virginia senators seek to protect federal employees

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Trump and Pence back in Washington for rival speeches

FILE — Former President Donald Trump points to the crowd as he arrives to speak at a rally July 22, in Prescott, Ariz.

A month before his election loss to Joe Biden, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order to create a new category of federal employees who would serve at the will of the president, without legal protections customary for civil servants.

Days after his inauguration, Biden repealed the order creating “Schedule F,” but Virginia’s two senators joined with four other Democratic senators from Maryland and California this week to prevent a president from imposing similar requirements on federal workers without congressional consent.

“If you’re a senator from Virginia, you really ought to care about the federal workforce because we have a disproportionately high number of people who work in the federal government,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Tuesday in a media briefing.

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Kaine had just introduced the “Preventing a Patronage System Act” with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.; Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats; and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, both California Democrats, all representing states with big federal workforces.

Their concern is maintaining a merit-based system for federal employees, rather than an “at-will” system of appointments that a president could use to enforce loyalty tests and fire those who disagree.

Looming over the legislation is Trump, who has vowed to reimpose “Schedule F” and similar controls on federal employees immediately if reelected as president, political news service Axios reported last month.

“He would like to run roughshod over the federal workforce,” Kaine said. “And instead of valuing people based on their professional expertise, he would want to put as many people into a Schedule F scenario as possible, where they would have no civil service protections and their employment would be completely subject to the whims of an employer.”

It’s also a big concern of Rep. Don Beyer, D-8th, whose Northern Virginia district holds the largest concentration of federal employees of any congressional district in the country, followed closely by Virginia’s 11th Congressional District, represented by Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly. Three years ago, Pew estimated the number of federal workers in the 8th District at 86,900.

The Office of Personnel Management estimates the total number of civilian federal employees in Virginia at 144,295 — second only to California — and total military at 88,915, the highest of any state.

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Beyer and Connolly raised the concern in testimony to an otherwise empty House of Representatives chamber at 2 a.m. one morning this year to include similar protections in the National Defense Reauthorization Act, which subsequently passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

“I understand the occasional president’s frustration that you can’t fire employees who disagree with you,” Beyer said Tuesday.

But he said a professional, merit-based system is superior to political patronage because it allows the federal government to operate more effectively, regardless of which party controls the White House.

“In theory, we want to have an executive branch that is steadily moving forward,” Beyer said.

Warner, who lives in Alexandria, said, “Civil servants are our best asset.”

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“These dedicated individuals are subject-matter experts who work in a nonpartisan way to power our nation and carry out fundamental functions of government,” he said in a statement. “This legislation will safeguard the integrity of our government by ensuring that a president cannot act unilaterally to politicize key public service roles or strip civil servants of critical rights and protections.”

Veteran political observer Larry Sabato doesn’t think the newly proposed legislation has any chance of passing the Senate, but he still thinks it’s necessary, even if Trump doesn’t become president again.

“Federal employees have every right to be fearful,” said Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Trump has set the agenda, even if he’s not president.”

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