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The civil service is the civilian workforce of the U.S. federal government, currently numbering about 2.2 million employees. These employees perform virtually all the functions of the federal government, from operating our national parks to protecting our national security.

Over 70 percent of them work in defense and security-related departments, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, and nearly one-third of civil servants are veterans. The total number of federal civil servants today is roughly the same as it was in the late 1960s, although the U.S. population has since grown by more than 60 percent.

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For nearly 150 years, federal law has sought to ensure these employees are hired and fired based on merit and are empowered to exercise independent judgment without fear of political retaliation. These legal protections help the government to serve the public as a whole, rather than a president’s personal or political agenda. 

Federal law requires civil servants to be hired and fired based on merit to protect their ability to exercise independent, expert judgment without fear of political reprisals. This is sometimes referred to as the “merit system.” The rules implementing this federal merit system are complex, but providing targeted government employees with actions for recourse, including the right to appeal the decision to the Merit System Protection Board, is foundational. This current system that the civil service operates under is being threatened by a proposal known as Schedule F. For more information, see our Schedule F explainer here.

Not all government employees are subject to the merit system. The government is also staffed by about 4,000 political appointees, including 1,700 that must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. These individuals are at-will employees who are typically replaced with each new administration. The United States is an outlier in having thousands of political appointees. According to Vanderbilt University political science professor David E. Lewis, “Other developed democracies have between a few dozen and a few hundred political appointees.”

Why do we have a nonpartisan civil service?

For most of the 1800s, the federal government largely operated under the “spoils system,” wherein new presidents had a free hand to remove and replace federal employees — and they did so “wholesale,” generally to reward political allies. At the time, customs houses and the postal office were among the most important government services, and both were rife with corruption. 

The spoils system became synonymous with graft and degraded critical government services. 

Beginning with the enactment of the Pendleton Act in 1883, which instituted a competitive hiring process and protected workers from partisan-based removal, the U.S. government slowly developed a professionalized, public-oriented civil service. The Pendleton Act was followed by a series of statutes and regulations that culminated in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which largely created our current “merit system.”

What could happen if the civil service is politicized? 

One agency that illustrates how a politicized civil service could impact the American people is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with ensuring the safety of many foods, medicines, medical devices, and other products. 

A well-functioning FDA ensures that Americans can trust the safety of FDA-regulated products, which, according to the agency, “account for about 21 cents of every dollar spent by U.S. consumers.” The capacity of the FDA is also a main factor in determining the speed at which new medicines become available, and in ensuring sufficient public confidence such that companies that develop medicines and medical treatments choose to do so in the United States rather than taking jobs and medical innovations overseas. 

However, the FDA’s work is difficult; it requires a highly trained workforce composed of expert doctors, statisticians, biologists, and others, many of whom could easily obtain high-paying jobs in the private sector. Already, there are concerns that the number of departures and early retirements that occurred during the Trump Administration have damaged the FDA’s capacity. 

During the Trump Administration, experts at the FDA faced unprecedented levels of political pressure, such as the insistence that the agency speed approvals and provide emergency authorizations for dubious and discredited drugs like hydroxychloroquine, the wrongful use of which one study claims is linked to nearly 17,000 deaths across six countries. President Trump publicly accused his own FDA of slow-walking new medical approvals to hurt his reelection odds. A top White House official reportedly told FDA officials: “You are all Deep State, and you need to get on Trump Time.”

Protect Democracy conducted interviews with several former FDA officials who said that politicizing the agency and replacing nonpolitical experts with political appointees would cause serious harm. 

“You really need your best people at the FDA,” said Dr. Jesse Goodman, the FDA’s former Chief Scientist. “They are involved in making very complex decisions, and the better scientists, the better clinical training they have, the better those decisions are going to be, and that’s not just good for protecting the American public, but also helping solve problems and getting products that are needed to the American public.”

If political pressure intensifies — for example, if a significant portion of FDA experts are replaced with political appointees or otherwise pressured into making non-expert decisions — the consequences could be severe for both medicine-related businesses and for patients in need of treatments. “If people feel like decisions are being made for the wrong reasons, people will start resigning,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former deputy commissioner of the FDA. “Without an effective FDA, there would be a large cloud hanging over critical decisions for drugs and medical devices.”

Coleen Klasmeier, a lawyer who previously worked in the Office of the Chief Counsel at the FDA, expressed concern that a decline in capacity and trust in the agency could lead to the FDA losing its status as the “gold standard” agency internationally, an “armageddon scenario” for the industries that rely on the agency to validate the effectiveness of their products. In Klasmeier’s words, it would be “absolutely devastating to patients and to our competitive position in the world.”

How would a partisan civil service impact federal spending?

When government contracts are not awarded based on merit, they typically cost taxpayers more money. A study published by the American Journal of Political Science in 2020 found that:

[E]xecutive departments, particularly more politicized department-wide offices, are the most likely to have contracts characterized by noncompetitive procedures and outcomes, indicating favoritism. Politically responsive agencies—but only those—give out more noncompetitive contracts in battleground states. We also observe greater turnover in firms receiving government contracts after a party change in the White House, but only in the more politicized agencies.

This is important, as government contracts comprise a substantial portion of the federal budget. In 2022, the federal government spent almost $700 billion on contracts. In that year, government contracts alone accounted for nearly 3 percent of the entire gross domestic product of the United States ($25.46 trillion). According to a “back-of-the-envelope calculation” in the study, by eliminating additional cost overruns incurred only on these noncompetitive contracts, “the federal government could have saved $25.1 billion per year, which is approximately the total annual procurement spending of the Department of Energy.”

Why is a professional class of civil servants important for democracy?

When authoritarian leaders attempt to consolidate power, they typically try to take control of the civil professionals, which usually results in a decline in government-provided services. 

In Hungary, for example, one of Viktor Orbán’s first acts upon retaking the office of Prime Minister in 2010 was to dismantle civil servants’ labor protections, allowing political appointees to remove career employees without cause. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro fired over 3,500 career officials on his third day in office. And in Poland, the Law and Justice Party, under Jarosław Kaczyński, moved to weaken the country’s Civil Service Act just one month after taking power.

In all three cases, these moves reintroduced patronage politics at the expense of government services. In one index that compares economic and governance indicators across 137 countries, Hungary steadily moved from being one of the top performers, ranked #15 in “government performance” when Orbán took office in 2010, to almost the bottom third, with a rank of #87 in 2024. Among other problems, retiree pensions have steadily decreased, “corruption is pervasive,” and “the efficiency and quality of basic public services such as water, sanitation and electricity have declined.” In the same index, Brazil went from #26 in government performance before Bolsonaro took office in 2019 to #77 in 2022 when he left. Poland, under the tenure of the Law and Justice Party, saw a somewhat less steep decline on the performance index, but was beset by a massive corruption scandal, the cash-for-visas scheme, in which upwards of 250,000 visas were issued to non-EU citizens in exchange for bribes.

Similarly, it’s not uncommon for autocrats to reward contracts to allies. In Hungary, for example, where Viktor Orbán and his governing Fidesz Party have gradually eroded democracy and shut out political competition, “companies close to Orbán were found to be six times more likely to win public tenders than they would have been in a competitive market.” Lőrinc Mészarós, a childhood friend of Orbán, was an early beneficiary of this non-competitive contracting process. Before 2010, he was a gas technician “on the verge of bankruptcy.” Today he’s worth an estimated $1.7 billion after companies belonging to him and his family were awarded an outsized portion of government contracts.

Referring to Trump’s Schedule F plan for his second administration, Georgetown Professor Donald P. Moynihan, an expert on the administrative state, said politicizing the civil service would be “a catastrophe for government performance.” Professor Lewis, an expert on the federal government, elaborated more on this idea in an interview with Protect Democracy. Lewis said:

People forget that most of what government does has broad bipartisan support; these programs were all created by majorities in both chambers [of Congress] and signed into law by the president. We all want to control loose nukes and map the ocean floor and have planes land on time. If you break the civil service, you risk our ability to keep the country safe and make the economy work well and do the things the public wants done.

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About the Authors

Alex Tausanovitch

Policy Advocate

Alex Tausanovitch does research, writing and advocacy focused on defending the rule of law and strengthening democratic institutions.

Michael Angeloni

Research Associate

Michael Angeloni is a Research Associate at Protect Democracy, where he supports the organization’s work to constrain executive overreach that undermines the rule of law.

William Ford

Policy Advocate

William Ford is a Policy Specialist at Protect Democracy, where he supports the organization’s work to strengthen legislative guardrails against abuses of executive power.

Erica Newland


Erica Newland’s work focuses on presidential election reform, Department of Justice reform, and securing accountability for abuses of power.