Imagine being a student in college — perhaps in a master’s or doctorate program — and saving your thesis paper for the night before it’s due.
Your thesis is supposed to be the culmination of months, if not years, of work. It’s supposed to showcase research, original thought and expertise in your discipline.
You lobbied your advisor for some extra time. First a 10-week extension. Then an extra week. Then two more days. Then one more!
But you procrastinated, and while you’ve plotted out the broad strokes of the arguments you want to make and done some research, you saved the writing itself for the next 24 hours before the due date.
Sounds nuts, doesn’t it?
But that’s more or less what happened last week, when Congress, after months of failed negotiations over just about everything, achieved a year’s-worth of work in less than 24 hours. More specifically, it appropriated trillions of dollars in agency spending and economic relief for millions of Americans during a global pandemic.
Lawmakers even threw in a couple of policy provisions for good measure. After all, it’s the end of the year, and this bill must pass.
House and Senate appropriators released the text of a massive omnibus spending and COVID-19 relief package around 1:00 p.m. last Monday. The bill was nearly 5,600 pages long. OK, it was 5,593 pages, if we’re counting.
By 4:00 p.m., the House started a series of votes on the measure.
Just before midnight, the world’s most deliberative body passed the $2.3 trillion spending and relief package, sending it to the president’s desk. Debate on the measure lasted about an hour.
If we’re being technical about it, the Senate actually didn’t send the 5,593-page bill to the president’s desk that night. Because of its size, the bill included a seven-day continuing resolution as a buffer, giving congressional leaders time to dot the “is” and cross the “ts,” print the legislation, enroll it and then send it to President Donald Trump for his signature.
To put it in the simplest terms possible, Congress introduced, debated, voted and then passed one of the largest bills ever into law within the span of 11 hours. I’m not kidding.
Some members of Congress were outraged. Others just wanted to go home.
Of course, there are some differences between the thesis and Congress examples. If you were writing your thesis in 24 hours, you probably wouldn’t get your degree. And the work of researching, writing and debating a massive, multi-trillion-dollar omnibus bill doesn’t come from just one person. Hundreds of Hill staffers and their bosses were responsible for this massive spending package.
Are you surprised then that Congress managed to leave something out?
Despite its size, the omnibus spending package didn’t include a provision that many federal employee and good government groups, plus a few House and Senate Democrats, had been hoping for.
They wanted a provision that would have blocked agencies from using any funds to implement the president’s still-relatively-recent Schedule F executive order.
The order gave agencies the authority to reclassify career federal employees in certain kinds of policy-making positions to a new class of quasi-political appointees known as Schedule F. Any career feds who are reclassified would lose their civil service protections in the process, and their agency heads could fire them at will.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who had co-sponsored standalone legislation designed to limit the Schedule F executive order, blamed Republicans for blocking the provision in the end-of-year omnibus.
Both promised to work with the incoming Biden administration to quickly repeal the Schedule F executive order in the new year.
But federal employee groups say it’s simply not enough to count on the new administration to quickly repeal the executive order.
Most agencies have been keeping their Schedule F implementation plans under tight wraps. But there’s evidence some are quietly developing rosters of employees as prospective candidates for the new Schedule F.
At least one agency has already submitted a roster of possible Schedule F candidates to the Office of Personnel Management for review and approval. No surprise, a small policy agency like the Office of Management and Budget found 88% of its employees are eligible for Schedule F.
Other agencies are preparing their own lists to submit to OPM. What remains unknown, at least at this point in late December, is how quickly OPM might approve these Schedule F lists and give agencies the go-ahead to begin the reclassification process.
Bigger questions arise when you consider what reclassification might really look like — and who might lose their jobs or gain new ones in the process. Federal employee groups fear the executive order could open the door for current political appointees to “burrow” into their positions through Schedule F.
No surprise then, that federal employee groups had a thing or two to say about Congress’ failure to block the executive order.
The National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association said Congress’ failure to take action on Schedule F will give agencies the green light to implement it between now and Jan. 20.
NARFE and the Senior Executive Association argued Congress had shrugged off its responsibilities and failed to provide a proper check on the executive branch. Allowing Schedule F to continue, they said, means agencies can put politics ahead of apolitical, merit-based expertise.
“Unfortunately, Congress has abrogated its responsibility to ensure checks on either the current or future administration’s implementation of the executive order and use of the new authority,” Ken Thomas, NARFE’s national president, said. “It is irresponsible to provide trillions in funding in the hopes that government will run smoothly, while declining to do anything to ensure the result. Full scale implementation of Schedule F and use of the authority to remove employees would not only undermine distribution of appropriated funds but also funds authorized through the COVID relief package.”
It would be naïve to suggest lawmakers accidentally left out the language blocking the Schedule F executive order. But in its rush to get everything done, Congress didn’t have much time to fully debate the issue and understand the nuances of the president’s executive order either.
Instead, Congress forced itself to make the bare minimum — appropriating trillions of dollars for federal agencies and crafting economic relief policies — the only priority.
“Once again, lawmakers waited until the last minute to do their most critical constitutional job — exercise the power of the purse and fund the government,” Bob Corsi, SEA’s interim president, said in a lengthy statement. “Through this power, Congress provides oversight of the executive branch. When lawmakers wait until the last minute to push large, rushed appropriations packages negotiated only through leadership, they come up short in their responsibility to act as a check on the presidency. The appropriations process for executive branch agencies is broken and the procrastination approach from Congress is deeply damaging.”
There was little room for much else.
Nearly Useless Factoid
Octopuses like to punch fish.