The Republican Plot to Weaponize the Government Against Political Enemies

What would the United States be like if the civil service were to become a mere handmaiden to an unscrupulous chief executive? The past offers some clues: For much of the nineteenth century, the federal bureaucracy operated in what was known as the “spoils system,” in which every new presidential administration would purge the civil service of the old guard and stack it with loyalists. This was, of course, a hothouse for corruption, but it wasn’t until this arrangement resulted in the assassination of President James Garfield that reformers gained the upper hand and passed the Pendleton Act, which established a beachhead for a merit-based system to replace the entrenched patronage system. This work wasn’t completed until the 1970s, when the post-Nixon reforms brought us the Merit Systems Protection Board.

But if Republicans have their way, it wouldn’t simply be a return to the spoils system of old. It will likely be much worse. Today’s GOP, after all, doesn’t believe in peaceful transfers of power or that the president can or should be constrained by the law. Moreover, it now conceives of itself as an instrument of retribution rather than problem solving or policymaking. Consider what Schedule F world might look like: The next Republican administration could use the federal government to punish its opponents. Democrats might find their Social Security or veterans’ benefits delayed or denied. They might no longer be able to obtain passports. Emergency disaster aid might flow only to those deemed loyal to the administration. Corporations that refuse to pay tribute might be punished. Transform the civil service from an open hand to a closed fist, and things get very frightening very quickly.

To their credit, Democrats are fighting back: Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly and Senator Tim Kaine have introduced legislation that “block[s] positions from being classified outside the existing system unless Congress consents to it” in their respective houses of Congress. And via an amendment, Connolly got similar language into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that’s currently awaiting a Senate vote. But Democrats must also find a way to raise the salience of this frightening prospect with voters ahead of the next presidential election, because whether the federal bureaucracy becomes the corrupt arm of an authoritarian regime is on the ballot in 2024.

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