In his last months as president, Donald Trump signed an executive order with the potential to upend the modern US federal bureaucracy. Known as “Schedule F”, the order laid out sweeping plans to strip upwards of 50,000 public servants of civil service protections and convert them into easily fireable political appointees. Joe Biden repealed the executive order just days after taking office in 2021, but four years later, Schedule F is back in the headlines. In Trump’s bid for re-election, the reinstatement of Schedule F appointments has become a key part of his plan to “dismantle the Deep State”, and Trump-aligned organisations have pre-vetted thousands of candidates who could fill such positions.

The creation of Schedule F appointments could represent more than a ten-fold increase in the number of political appointees in the civil service, ostensibly increasing Trump’s personal and ideological sway over government functioning. Some suggest that such an increase in political appointments could damage government accountability and capacity, compromise a nonpartisan bureaucracy, and precipitate a return to the US political spoils system of a century ago.

But reinstating Schedule F appointments on Day One of a second Trump presidency would not be so simple.

The bureaucratic hurdles to reshaping the bureaucracy

Trump’s 2020 order provided 210 days for agencies to finalise lists of “policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating” bureaucrats who could be reclassified as newly created “Schedule F” employees, with preliminary lists to be submitted within three months. Just two agencies managed to draft and submit proposed lists of affected employees within the three-month deadline. Seven more agencies requested additional time to comply with the order.

Biden’s upcoming inauguration and expected repeal of Schedule F undoubtedly slowed compliance with the order (and likely explains the apparent inaction of the vast majority of other federal agencies). But the haphazard agency submissions also reflect the enormously time-consuming administrative task of reviewing tens of thousands of positions. These lengthy bureaucratic hurdles would again have to be cleared if Schedule F were reinstated, which would require another months-long period for agencies to have sufficient time to finalise affected staff. This would delay the implementation of a Day One order by months, even in a best case scenario for a second Trump administration.

Unwinding new rules would take time

Under Biden, the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which manages the federal civil service, issued a new federal rule in April 2024 that is directly aimed at preventing the reinstatement of Schedule F. The rule specifies that career protections cannot be involuntarily removed from federal employees, narrowly defines policy-relevant positions, and creates an appeals process for employees whose positions are involuntarily reclassified. Unless and until the rule is rescinded, Schedule F would be impossible to implement in its previous form. Biden administration officials have lauded the change, with Biden calling it a “step toward combatting corruption and partisan interference”.

A future Trump administration would undoubtedly seek to unwind the Biden-era rule. Yet legally this would require a lengthy formal process of public notice, comment and drafting, unless the administration could demonstrate that doing so is “impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest”. A Trump-led OPM would also have to show (potentially before a court) that the repeal of the rule is justified and beneficial. At each stage, legal challenges from unions and civil society groups are likely, potentially limiting the order’s reach and almost certainly further delaying its implementation.

A Trump administration’s ability to fill tens of thousands of positions also remains to be seen. Slowed by a dysfunctional White House Presidential Personnel Office and Trump’s apparent disinterest, Trump had filled just half of the existing 4,000 political appointments already available to him by the end of his first year in office, despite having received tens of thousands of applications. This suggests that a second Trump administration would struggle to fill all 50,000 slated Schedule F positions with political loyalists, even with the benefit of pre-vetting. Nevertheless, Trump’s repeated attacks on “Deep Staters” and “rogue bureaucrats” would likely provoke uncertainty and turnover in the wider bureaucracy, as was the case during his first term.

The limits of federal regulation

While federal rules may delay implementation, it is legislation that would be most effective at limiting Schedule F reforms. Over the last four years, Congress has failed to pass multiple bills that would have insulated the civil service from Schedule F reforms entirely, including when Democrats controlled both chambers. The 2023 Saving the Civil Service Act currently before the Republican-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Accountability faces little prospect of passing a Congress that is filled with Republican lawmakers — including House Speaker Mike Johnson — who have expressed their support for Schedule F.

In the absence of legislation that constrains executive action, administrative hurdles would likely ensure that the federal government’s current overarching structure remains intact for at least the first year of a second Trump term. But beyond that, without Congressional action, the chief executive’s authority over the federal workforce could be set to dramatically expand if Trump wins re-election in November.