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Official On Why He Resigned From Federal Salary Council

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The federal government here in Washington and around the country is run by civil servants - people who provide consistency, deep expertise, even as administrations change. The idea is that politicians and their political appointees may come and go, but thousands of lawyers and scientists and other specialists - they stay put.

Well, a new executive order issued by President Trump puts tens of thousands of those jobs at risk, prompting our next guest to resign in protest, writing that Trump's order is, quote, "nothing more than a smokescreen 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," end quote. Those are the words of Ron Sanders. He resigned yesterday as chair of the Federal Salary Council, and he joins us now.

Mr. Sanders, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RON SANDERS: Oh, thanks for having me.

KELLY: When did you first hear about this executive order? Where were you?

SANDERS: I was at home, and I heard about it late last week. And all of a sudden, the email airways started burning up with folks who said, have you seen this executive order? And so I clicked on the link and looked at it pretty much for the first time just as everyone else was seeing it.

KELLY: And what was your reaction just in real time?

SANDERS: Gulp, you know, on first reading. And then, after taking a few deep breaths, reading it again and again, it read as pretty problematic.

KELLY: Well, walk me through that. For people listening and trying to get their heads around this, an executive order that can feel a little deep in the weeds of federal bureaucracy, just explain in layman's terms what it is that you immediately found problematic.

SANDERS: Deep in the weeds is an understatement. The executive order could - and I emphasize the word could - be used as a very sharp, two-edged sword. On one hand, it could be used to what's called burrow in political appointees - that is, take a political appointee who's only there for a particular administration and put him or her in civil service. They're hard to root out. They're hard to find. But burrowing in has been happening a long time, and it is not supposed to.

The other one involves career civil servants who are currently in place. Those civil servants receive job protections. Those job protections are not to keep them employed for life. Those job protections are there to ensure that they can speak truth to power without fear of their jobs, to provide the technical advice and assistance whether a political appointee wants to hear it or not. And they shouldn't have to hesitate in that regard for fear that if the political appointee disagrees with them, they may lose their job. And so when I read it along with everyone else, my first reaction was, holy blank. This is problematic.

KELLY: Although the president's argument, at least as it's laid out in the executive order, is that this is about increasing accountability in Washington, that this will improve the effectiveness of the federal government.

SANDERS: Well, it all depends on your definition of accountability. If accountability is to legitimate performance standards - quality, quantity, timeliness, effectiveness - as I said in my resignation letter, I've spent close to four decades trying to ensure that civil servants are accountable for high performance. And that's one of the conclusions I reached in reading the executive order - is that that's frankly a pretext. The definition of accountability that I think has become apparent here is political accountability, literally political loyalty. Do you agree with me or not? I don't care what the reasons are. And if you don't agree with me, I'm going to replace you with somebody who does.

KELLY: I want people listening to know you are a lifelong Republican and a public servant of nearly four decades, correct?

SANDERS: That is correct.

KELLY: What do you hope to achieve by resigning? I mean, the executive order is not going to get immediately withdrawn as a result of this. So what do you hope happens? Do you - are you hoping other people will follow you out the door?

SANDERS: Well, no. That wasn't my intention in resigning. I resigned just because personally, I couldn't continue to serve this administration with this executive order in place. That was it - just a matter of personal conscience. I'm not sure our citizens understand the role of the career civil service. I happen to think it's a national treasure. I happen to think it's the best in the world. It's absolutely critical because of the complexity of that world - the laws, the rules, the regulations, the scientific theories, all of the things that go into public policy. Somebody has to understand that you can't look at the CliffNotes (ph) and get it. You need people with deep technical expertise who are there regardless of party who provide neutral competence to whoever is in power.

KELLY: Mr. Sanders, thank you.

SANDERS: Oh, thank you.

KELLY: Ron Sanders is the former chair of the Federal Salary Council. He resigned yesterday over an executive order that removes job protections for many civil servants. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.