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A coalition of conservative leaders and former political appointees has compiled a game plan for the next conservative president to restructure the federal government’s bureaucracy to make it more cost effective, high-performing, and accountable to the people.
“The great challenge confronting a conservative president is the existential need for aggressive use of the vast powers of the executive branch to return power—including power currently held by the executive branch—to the American people,” Russ Vought, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Donald Trump, writes in the book “Mandate for Leadership,” compiled by the 2025 Presidential Transition Project. Copies of his report on the Executive Office of the President and the report on “Central Personnel Agencies” were provided exclusively to The Daily Signal for this article.
The Heritage Foundation helped launch the 2025 Presidential Transition Project (also known as Project 2025) to avoid the pitfalls Trump faced in 2017. The incoming president struggled to keep his promises to the American people, facing stiff headwinds from a hostile federal bureaucracy Trump often referred to as “the deep state.” The project aims to equip an incoming conservative president with policies to rein in this bureaucracy. (The Daily Signal is The Heritage Foundation’s news outlet.)
While the Constitution makes it “abundantly clear” that the executive power of the U.S. government “is not vested in departments or agencies” but in the president himself, Vought warns that “a president today assumes office to find a sprawling federal bureaucracy that all too often is carrying out its own policy plans and preferences—or, worse yet, the policy plans and preferences of a radical, supposedly ‘woke’ faction of the country.”
Vought encourages some changes to the Executive Office of the President of the United States—notably the elimination of the pro-abortion and pro-transgender Gender Policy Council—but the bulk of recommendations for combatting the deep state appear in the report on “Central Personnel Agencies: Managing the Bureaucracy.” Paul Dans, former chief of staff at the Office of Personnel Management under Trump and director of Project 2025 at The Heritage Foundation, co-wrote the report with Ronald Reagan-era OPM Director Donald Devine and Trump-era OPM staffer Dennis Dean Kirk, Project 2025’s associate director for personnel policy.
Dans, Devine and Kirk urge a future conservative president to reinstate many of Trump’s executive orders and issue new ones. A future president should speed up the time it takes to discipline and fire employees; restrict the power of public-sector unions; bring the salaries of federal employees more in line with private-sector workers; reassign entrenched federal employees to “Schedule F,” thereby making them at-will and easier to fire; and work to prevent members of the outgoing administration from “burrowing in.”
The status quo
Dans, Devine and Kirk trace the problem of unaccountable bureaucracy back to the progressive movement of the 20th century, which aimed to elevate professional and scientific bureaucrats. This had serious “unintended consequences,” such as making it difficult to reward good employees, hard to analyze applicants, and “almost impossible to fire all but the most incompetent civil servants.”
Federal employees often win big bonuses, even amid scandal, the authors warn. Veterans Administration executives who encouraged false reporting of waiting lists for hospital administration during the administration of Barack Obama nonetheless received “outstanding” ratings, for example. Pay increases have become automatic rather than based on performance.
To make matters worse, management cannot screen applicants for basic qualifications such as intelligence.
Under President Jimmy Carter, the Department of Justice and OPM lawyers signed a legal consent decree eliminating civil service IQ examinations, based on the claim that IQ tests discriminated on the basis of race. “Courts have ruled that even without evidence of overt, intentional discrimination, such results might suggest discrimination,” the authors note. Congress or a future administration will have to end the doctrine of disparate impact to resolve this problem.
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An entrenched bureaucracy also hampers the will of the people.
While both Republican and Democratic administrations have aimed to “infiltrate political appointees improperly into the high career civil service,” Democratic efforts have tended to succeed because “they require the cooperation of careerists, who generally lean heavily to the Left.”
The Project 2025 authors, who have extensive experience in government, warn that career staff reserve “excessive numbers of key policy positions as ‘career reserved’ to deny them” to political appointees. In practice, this means that Trump’s appointees could not direct federal policy because entrenched staff from Obama undermined the duly-elected president’s initiatives. Career staff also dominate personnel evaluation boards and lead training efforts that can undermine the administration’s goals.
1. Streamline the firing process
Firing bad employees requires a herculean effort, the authors note. They recommend restructuring the process of disciplining and terminating federal workers.
Trump signed an executive order in 2018 requiring agencies to speed up the process of correcting, disciplining, or firing employees who underperform, but President Joe Biden overturned that order. The report encourages reinstating it.
If a private-sector employee faces termination, he or she often has a simple two-step process to appeal it, while federal employees facing termination have a cornucopia of alphabet-soup options to appeal. They can appeal to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, or the Office of Special Counsel—and employees often “shop” for a friendly venue, the report notes.
A conservative president should streamline the process by making the Merit Systems Protection Board the main reviewer of adverse employment actions, the authors argue.
2. Curb union power
Public-sector unions help explain how the bureaucracy has become so entrenched, the report claims. Even Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered federal government union representation incompatible with democracy, in part because strikes would amount to acts against the people. Yet President John F. Kennedy recognized federal union representation and President Jimmy Carter set public-sector bargaining in law as part of an agreement with Congress to pass the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, a reform that itself has been undermined, the authors lament.
Over time, federal agencies narrowed management rights, even though they still exist in law. A conservative president should reinstitute those rights, the report urges.
Trump issued three executive orders to restrain union abuses: one encouraging agencies to renegotiate all collective bargaining agreements, another encouraging agencies to prevent union representatives from using official time for union activity, and one more encouraging agencies to limit labor grievances and prioritize performance over seniority. Biden revoked these orders, but the report urges a future president to reinstate them.
3. Market-based pay and improving efficiency
Federal employees receive wages 22% higher than wages for similar private-sector workers, according to a 2016 Heritage Foundation study. With the value of employee benefits factored in, that ratio rises to between 30% and 40%. An American Enterprise Institute study found a 14% pay premium and a 61% total compensation premium. They receive more vacation and paid sick leave, retire earlier (normally at age 55 after 30 years), enjoy richer pension annuities, and receive automatic cost-of-living adjustments based on where they retire.
The Project 2025 report encourages moving “closer to a market model for federal pay and benefits.”
Republicans in the House of Representatives supported legislation to increase the weight of performance over time-of-service in the federal bureaucracy, but fierce opposition from unions kept these efforts from advancing. The report encourages a conservative president to “insist that performance be first.”
It also encourages a president to streamline the bureaucracy, acting on a Government Accountability Office report finding almost a hundred actions that the executive branch or Congress could take to improve efficiency and eliminate duplicate functions across the administration. Congress did not approve the Trump administration’s proposed consolidations.
4. Schedule F
Any conservative president must counter the influence of leftist bureaucrats who have entrenched themselves as career civil servants, the report warns. The president, not career civil servants, has the duty to enforce the law, and therefore “career civil servants by themselves should not lead major policy changes and reforms.”
In October 2020, Trump created a new category of federal employee: Schedule F. His executive order directed agency heads to prepare a list of federal employees in “positions of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character that are not normally subject to change as a result of a Presidential transition.” The order created exceptions from civil service rules when careerists hold such positions, allowing agency heads to transfer them and make them functionally at-will employees, much easier to fire.
The report encourages a future president to reestablish Trump’s Schedule F order, which Biden reversed.
The report also encourages a future president not to cut political appointees as a cost-cutting measure. It faults the Trump administration for failing to remove political appointees from the Obama administration, instead relying on them and on career civil servants to run the government while Trump’s appointees struggled to receive Senate approval. This “led to a lack of agency control.”
The Trump administration appointed fewer political appointees early on—in part due to “historically high partisan congressional obstructions” but also because some officials said they limited the number of political appointees “as a way to cut federal spending.”
“Whatever the reasoning, this had the effect of permanently hampering the rollout of the new President’s agenda,” the report notes. “Thus, in those critical early years, much of the government relied on senior careerists and holdover Obama appointees to carry out the sensitive responsibilities that would otherwise belong to the new president’s appointees.”
The report recommends “a freeze on all top career-position hiring to prevent ‘burrowing-in’ by outgoing political appointees.”
Any conservative president elected in 2024 or 2028 will face immense challenges from the bureaucracy, and this report presents a roadmap for combatting any deep state efforts to block his or her agenda.
Article cross-posted from The Daily Signal.
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