Beyond Schedule F
Conservatives should reclaim a more balanced federalism.
Taming the unfettered growth of the federal administrative state has been a long-term goal of conservatives. But, despite strong rhetorical commitment to “drain the swamp,” the Trump administration largely failed to bring about structural change. Most of the years in office were spent attempting to fill open spots with loyalists to prevent the endemic bureaucratic resistance the White House faced.
The introduction of the Schedule F classification, devised by Domestic Policy Council James Sherk as a way to remove resistive civil service employees, was the only initiative with any real promise of structural reform. In creating a new designation for civil servants, the approach would bypass most of their protections to effectively create positions that could be hired and fired at will. But the executive order was issued late, in October 2020, ensuring that the incoming Biden administration could make quick work of the initiative.
Since the end of the Trump administration, conservatives have continued to advocate for the idea of Schedule F as a way to address the problem of the administrative state, with some estimates identifying as many as 50,000 employees to be removed in the early days of the next Republican administration. Presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis has made this much clear, identifying the approach as a way to “clear out” officials at the CDC, NIA, and the FDA. Last July, fourteen Republican members of the House of Representatives attempted to turn all federal staff into at-will employees.
However, conservative advocates of Schedule F continue to misidentify and overlook the real problem. The successful implementation of the Schedule F designation would only produce a more aggressive, overburdened, and politicized executive branch, further de-constitutionalizing the full scope of the necessary balance of powers.
Instead, conservatives need to set their aim at the executive-led federal government itself. This attack should not just alter the leaning of the administrative apparatus, but play the bureaucracy off of powerful, independent, and pluralistic states that go their own way, beyond Democratic and Republican labels.
The main dilemma is that the United States has subdued its balance of powers. The deepening problem of the American republic concerns the continuing orientation of the administrative, coercive, and policy-making process around the executive branch. This increased pre-eminence not only brings narrow partisan interest to the forefront, but also enables a real national ruling class: the dense layer of administrative professionals and officials that frustrate efforts for change, directing the chorus of continual national consolidation and expansion against the agendas of any particular president.
The technocratic evocation of crisis this ruling class appeals to is obvious enough, as the apparent complexity of national security, pandemic management, infrastructure, and education calls for the deference of duly elected representatives to permanent “experts.” And the Trump presidency was defined by repeated efforts at administrative subterfuge, whether whistleblowers, the supposed “resistance,” or policy directives “lost” in the bureaucratic shuffle. But the common political response to the challenge, exemplified by Trump’s recent leadership, reflects a long-term trend toward a very personal and deeply frustrating form of politics that fails to move the dial.
The scope of executive power means that most hope for change or democratic accountability has been directed to individual presidential candidates. Paradoxically, however, the overloading of the presidency, when paired with a deep lack of power for individual presidents vis-a-vis the administrative apparatus, means that these hopes are almost always dashed. Change can now seemingly come only from problematic forms of institutional maneuvering, as many partisans are now prepared to open the black box of judicial, congressional, and electoral reform.
A return to the founders demonstrates that the model of the American republic was not only a balance of powers within the central government, but also a balance between governments. Madison argues this throughout the Federalist Papers, developing the idea of the extended republic. A full appreciation of the range of interests and competing spheres of power across state and federal lines not only makes centralization more difficult, but it means that a more diverse range of voices are incorporated into the decision-making process.
This was largely in place throughout American history, as the role of the states not only shaped decentralized political parties but always required presidents, despite taking on extra wartime powers, to almost always revert to the prior status quo. It was only following the Second World War when foreign policy and welfare state initiatives incentivized permanent executive expansion into state-level jurisdiction.
While it has lacked salience in recent years, the idea of “states' rights” have been a prototypical, even cliché, aspect of the Republican party’s policy program. But an effective states' rights agenda involves a crucial difference from past efforts: that states, and the conservatives within them, must complicate their relationship to the Republican Party label and consciously turn away from D.C. to local issues.
States, for all their limited role, are now nothing more than arenas or testing grounds for national politics. This not only applies to career prospects, but the fact that states exclusively serve as areas to enact, signal, or pursue political projects generated at the national level. They do little other than facilitate policy agreements with the federal executive branch, further increasing the latter’s power at the former’s expense.
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Comparisons to other federations show that the United States can embark on a separate institutional path. Canada, for example, retains one of the most decentralized federations in the world, involving provinces that break from the federal party structure. Provincial leaders are powerful players, acting as a counterweight to the prime minister, as the latter often needs their approval to pursue certain policy or administrative initiatives. Strong provincial government, more importantly, produces a state of local rootedness: Unique identities and cultural differences are maintained throughout the country, as different identities, interests, and ambitions are played off each other.
The contemporary power of the federal government is a clear cause of the weak states that have developed in America, requiring a concentrated rollback of the former’s activities. Still, the baseline jurisdiction the Constitution provides to states, coupled with a deliberate effort to assert that authority, constitutes a viable political approach.
More independent, powerful, and diverse constituent parts enrich a republic; it is time for conservatives to reengage with their state identities, and through a grassroots democratic process, proceed down their own paths, apart from the preoccupations of federal politicians.