Could President Trump purge the government of Obama appointees?

The Trump campaign has a list of Obama appointees it plans to fire if Donald Trump wins the presidency, according to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Chuck Burton/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a March rally in Hickory, N.C.

On the road to the Republican nomination, Donald Trump used the halo of authority conjured by his reality-TV catchphrase to project himself as a strong leader. If he’s elected president, the firings could get very real.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally who leads the campaign’s White House transition team, told a room of Republican donors at a closed-door meeting that a Trump presidency could target Obama-administration appointees for firings, saying the campaign was already developing a list of names.

According to Reuters, which broke the news based on an audio recording of the meeting, Governor Christie said that if Mr. Trump were elected, he could push Congress to enact reforms stripping protections from federal civil-service workers, in order to root out Obama-era appointees who had taken career positions.

"It's called burrowing," Christie said. "You take them from the political appointee side into the civil service side, in order to try to set up … roadblocks for your successor."

"One of the things I have suggested to Donald is that we have to immediately ask the Republican Congress to change the civil service laws. Because if they do, it will make it a lot easier to fire those people."

Some experts say such a step could expose a bureaucratic class with relatively muted partisan tendencies to the rancor and inconstancy of power transitions, and reverse a centuries-long shift away from patronage politics.

"We've had these debates," said Sean Theriault, a professor at UT Austin who specializes in political partisanship in Congress, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "You need professionals just like you need politically sensitive people."

The modern merit-based system for public service dates back to the 1883 Pendelton Act, which made entrance exams mandatory for civil-service posts and prohibited mandatory campaign contributions. Historians cite it as a landmark reform that helped turn national politics away from the spoils system, in which presidents and their parties would perform wholesale re-staffing of federal agencies. 

Appointees account for just more than 3,000 federal employees, with less than a thousand appointed by Obama and past presidents, according to Reuters. That's compared to more than 4 million people working as federal servants as of 2014, including some 2.6 million working in the executive branch, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

While civil servants have some protections, "functionally nothing" prevents political appointees from being fired when a new administration takes office, says John Hudak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and expert on bureaucratic processes. But they often bring significant expertise to their jobs. "They're not donors or the president's buddies. Probably they're people Trump and [vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike] Pence would love to have working under them," he told the Monitor.

In past years, few political appointees ended up "burrowing in" to careers in the federal government. 

In 2012, the Congressional Budget Office cited an Associated Press report saying that during the eight years of the Clinton administration, 158 presidential appointees moved into civil service jobs. Roughly the same number did so under the administration of George W. Bush.

Most appointees leave their posts when a new, rival administration arrives, noted Dr. Hudak. But the importance of their roles in governance – and the possibility of backlash – tends to make massive firings a difficult proposition.

"There's the risk of a real politicization of the federal workforce. While Gov. Christie and Donald Trump might like that now, they won't like it under a Democratic president. It's very short-sighted," said Hudak.

Such a proposal probably could not make it through Congress, says Dr. Theriault, but it could "open the door" for future attempts at similar legislation.

"This needs to be rebuked so we can preserve the professionalism of bureaucracy and not go back to the spoils system," he said.

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