The Trump administration-appointed head of a key advisory council on the civil service has resigned over an executive order to strip away protections against political interference in hiring and firing of a large portion of the career federal workforce.
The order, which could impact tens of thousands or more career positions involved in making or carrying out policy, “is nothing more than a smoke screen for what is clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the President, or failing that, to enable their removal with little if any due process,” Ronald Sanders wrote in his letter of resignation Sunday from the Federal Salary Council.
“I simply cannot be part of an Administration that seeks . . . to replace apolitical expertise with political obeisance. Career Federal employees are legally and duty- bound to be nonpartisan; they take an oath to preserve and protect our Constitution and the rule of law . . . not to be loyal to a particular President or Administration,” he wrote.
Sanders has served in federal personnel positions across four decades, starting as a local labor relations officer for management and going on to senior positions at the Defense Department, IRS, Office of Personnel Management and the intelligence community, among other roles.
Now the director of the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida, Sanders was appointed in 2018 to head the salary council, which oversees an annual comparison of federal vs. private-sector salaries and the locality-based pay system for the large majority of the 2.1 million executive branch employees.
His resignation comes just days after the latest annual meeting of the council, where Sanders argued for what he called the management point of view on several issues, including granting higher pay for federal employees working in certain areas. He also again questioned the methods the council uses in determining the “pay gap” with the private sector, which showed federal employees behind by 23 percent on average.
However, later that day President Donald Trump issued an executive order to redesignate career employees in “confidential, policy-determining, policy making, and policy-advocating positions” as falling under a set of rules that primarily applies to political appointees. Such “excepted service” positions do not require competition in hiring, nor even public notice that a position is available, do not allow for union representation and do not allow for appeals of disciplinary actions including firing.
In resigning, Sanders said that although he is a lifelong Republican, he “cannot in good conscience continue” to serve the administration. Trump’s order “seeks to make loyalty to him the litmus test for many thousands of career civil servants, and that is something I cannot be part of.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., called Sanders’ resignation “unfortunate but honorable.”
“Everyone should be outraged by Trump’s radical attack on the federal workforce, which seeks to take America’s civil service back 137 years to a time when political loyalty was deemed more important than merit or skill,” he said in a statement.
“It’s extremely late in the day to do the right thing but he’s doing the right thing,” said Jacqueline Simon, a member of the salary council who often clashed with Sanders over policy matters.
“This executive order was somehow either a last straw or a bridge too far,” said Simon, public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees. “I think it’s the worst thing Trump has done on the civil service.”