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As an example, let's say President Biden orders the FBI to prepare and release a report to the general public by a certain deadline. The deadline arrives but the FBI's employees either fail to meet the deadline or do a poor job. The head of the FBI explains that he did everything he could, but his subordinates were lazy and/or incompetent, so they couldn't get the job done. Could the President (or the head of the FBI) then decide to fire the employees involved for poor performance? In a US corporation the obvious answer is "yes" (thanks to at-will employment), but what about the Federal government?

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  • The President can fire about four thousand of the over two million civilian civil servants. Only two of those four thousand people work for the FBI. Jan 16, 2023 at 13:37
  • competent managers don't blame their subordinates for departmental failures.
    – LeLetter
    Jan 17, 2023 at 17:02
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    @LeLetter competent managers fire incompetent subordinates all the time (in the private sector) Jan 17, 2023 at 17:16
  • @JonathanReez, yes, so the scenario you outlined would never happen. Head of the FBI or FBI project leads would fire low-performing employees, and report back to the president that they were taking accountibility for the failures.
    – LeLetter
    Jan 17, 2023 at 18:57
  • @LeLetter That would imply that the employees demonstrated poor performance before being fired. That's what this is. The demonstration of poor performance before the firing. Jun 2, 2023 at 13:23

2 Answers 2

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Generally the president cannot, but an employee's direct supervisors can institute adverse actions of one form or another for poor performance. These can extend to dismissal, but missing a deadline would not lead directly to dismissal; most federal employees are protected by civil service regulations or similar provisions, so discipline is supposed to be fair and proportional, and employees are entitled to challenge wrongful disciplinary action.

The point of these regulations is to protect federal employees from being fired or otherwise improperly influenced by political appointees and, by extension, the president. If you are interested in learning more about these protections, you probably want to start with the United States Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, both created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

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    I am of the opinion that the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 is more relevant than is the is Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 as the former law changed the US civil service from a spoils system to a merit-based system. Jan 16, 2023 at 13:34
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Not currently, but it's (theoretically) within his power to change the law to do so.

Federal employees have Civil Service protections through the Civil Service act, but Trump, at the end of his term, issued Executive Order 13957 that gave the power to involuntarily move civil service employees to a fireable "Schedule F". The legal justification/theory is that the 3 branches of government are supposed to be separate and so a law passed by the Legislative branch (Civil Service Act) cannot constrain the head of the Executive branch from running the branch how they see fit.

Biden repealed that order as his first act and there's not a chance in hell he would re-instate it, but theoretically, he could.

Of course, there would be lawsuits and in practice it would depend on what the opinion of the majority of the Supreme Court decides about whether the Legislative branch can in fact constrain the internal affairs of the Executive branch like that, since it's not spelled out in the Constitution anywhere. Given the court's make-up, whether a conservative majority would rule for Biden, if it would help a Republican president later (or some Liberals could agree, since it's their guy asking for it), is completely up in the air IMO.

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    How does this decision fit into this? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers_v._United_States
    – wonderbear
    Jan 16, 2023 at 8:56
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    "The legal justification/theory is that the 3 branches of government are supposed to be separate and so a law passed by the Legislative branch (Civil Service Act) cannot constrain the head of the Executive branch from running the branch how they see fit": this is of course absurd. The reason the executive branch is called "executive" is that its very purpose is to execute the laws passed by congress, laws that have since the beginning of the federal government dictated how the executive branch is to be organized.
    – phoog
    Jan 16, 2023 at 9:07
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    @phoog of course, the real problem is that unelected government bureaucrats often attempt to sabotage both the executive and the legislature: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/72098/…. The spoils system was of course far worse, but it's unclear if the current system is that great either. Jan 17, 2023 at 1:51
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    @phoog It's not particularly absurd. Article II of the US Constitution opens with the words, "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." If a person working in the Executive Branch has a level of job security that can override the President's wishes, then by definition they have their portion of "the executive Power" vested in themselves, which is in violation of the plain text of the Constitution. Jan 17, 2023 at 4:12
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    @Nobody that’s why we have whistleblower protections. You should be free to report on the governments bad activities without being sent to jail. Sabotaging the instructions is not the way to do it. Jan 17, 2023 at 14:45

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