Salem, 2017.

Chester Arthur is one of America’s less memorable commanders-in-chief. Most people, myself included, would before this week have simply remembered him as the guy with the great muttonchop sideburns. But  Arthur oversaw reform of the machinery of government, turning what had been a system of patronage into one where employees were civil servants, whose employment was not dependent upon political office-holders. (That James Garfield had been assassinated by a man disappointed that he had not been granted a government job probably didn’t hurt the reform effort.) During Arthur’s presidency, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which among other things protected federal employees from removal for political reasons.

Congress still can’t remove civil servants for political reasons. Nonetheless, they can subject employees to a myriad of annoyances both large and small. (When The Rocket Scientist first started at NASA, civil servants had some small amount of their salary deducted because someone had come up with a number of hours it was determined they wasted.) And now, at least  on paper, they can destroy their livelihood.

Last week, the House revived a dead budgetary rule — the Holman Rule –which allows individual members of Congress to slash budgets for individual programs — or individual  federal employees — to one dollar. Heretofore, Congress controlled the budgets for agencies, rarely specific projects and never individual non-political federal employees.

I have read articles seeking to reassure federal employees that this was never used against individual employees, only programs. Firstly, having your program destroyed carries a terrible price, both personally and professionally, especially for scientists. People spend years of their lives on projects, sometimes. But true, that sometimes happens.

But, secondly, we are in a whole new era. The Trump transition team requested DOE turn over all the names of individual scientists who worked on climate change or alternative energy projects, down to a list of people who had attended conferences on those subjects. DOE, sensibly, turned down that request. Once Trump is president, they won’t be able to. Not just DOE, either: several agencies (including NASA) do work about climate change. And in Justice, there are attorneys working on civil rights, including LGBT rights, that  might suddenly worry about their jobs. And any politicization of the CDC would be terrible.

And that could be the beginning. Donald Trump demands loyalty; what if the Administration demanded loyalty oaths (other than the usual, to uphold and defend the Constitution) from its people? Congress passes the budget, but Trump has enough lackeys in both houses to get something like that through. And what representative or senator would hold up a massive budget bill to protect a few civil servants?

People with “alternative lifestyles” (as some religious conservatives would phrase it) would be vulnerable in case of an all-out assault on the civil liberties of federal employees. Yes, that’s a dystopian view of the future; but on the other hand, would you have ever thought a President would nominate a man for Secretary of State whose only job experience was running a major oil company?

Congress needs to act. The sunset provision they included is not enough. They need to drop the Holman Rule entirely, or alternatively pass a rule preventing it from being used against individual non-political employees.

The time to stop the witch hunt is when the village elders are sharpening the pitchforks, not when there’s a dead body in the dunking pool.

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