In theory, and largely in practice, the federal employee workforce is apolitical. People employed by the federal government are there to support the administration elected by American voters and not to use the power of government to install their own agenda.
There is even an agency that investigates actions by employees who may have gone beyond the boundaries of the law in pursuing the election of their political party or candidates. In every election cycle, the Office of Special Counsel finds examples of Hatch Act violations which can take various forms.
But, while the federal workforce is supposed to be apolitical, establishing federal employee unions has substantially altered the mix since the civil service system created before government unions existed. Federal employee unions now exist and have for some time. They are allowed to participate in political activity and they do. Money, time, and effort are devoted to electing their preferred candidates and disparaging the opposition. In the vast majority of cases, this means the federal unions are actively, publicly, and vociferously supporting Democrats.
So, while individual federal employees are subject to numerous restrictions concerning political activity, and the workforce is apolitical and hopefully runs on merit principles, the elected representatives who speak on behalf are free from many of these restraints.
In a country increasingly divided by politics, the result is a public perception the federal workforce is largely a segment of society that works on behalf of Democrats. Political donations by unions and by federal employees are one measure of which a political party is largely supported by federal employee unions and workers.
The chart below highlights data from the Center for Responsive Politics. It describes its organization as “the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.”
Here is a quick look at where most of the money goes from the unions and from employees in many federal agencies. The data does not reflect all federal employees or all federal agencies. It does include a variety of agencies and most of the larger agencies to provide an idea of how federal employees support their political beliefs.
Political Donations in 2020 by Federal Representatives
|AFGE||$2,321,246||$1,064,285 (95.85%)||$46,124 (4.15%)|
|National Assn of Letter Carriers||$6,579,094||$1,912,097 (81.43%)||$436,000 (18.57%)|
|NARFE||$1,302,529||$968,336 (74%)||$333,193 (26%)|
|NTEU||$722,951||$706,771 (97.79%)||$16,000 (2.21%)|
|American Postal Workers Union||$1,357,874||$1,159,185 (86.04%)||$188,025 (13.96%|
|National Rural Letter Carriers||$772,680||$451,155 (58.39%)||$321,525 (41.61%)|
|FAA Managers Assn||$405,500||$191,000 (47.34%)||$212,500 (52.66%)|
|National Assn of Postal Supervisors||$305,000||$272,000 (89.18%)||$33,000 (10.82%)|
|National Postal Mail Handlers||$191,592||$140,092 (75.08%)||$46,500 (24.92%)|
Obviously, in the case of the National Association of Letter Carriers, the bulk of the donations was not made directly to candidates. The Center for Responsive Politics notes, concerning all organizations, “Contributions to 527s are not included in the Individuals, PACs, Soft (Individuals), or Soft (Organization) columns, so the sum of these columns may not equal the Total column.”
To put these donations in perspective, these are relatively small. By comparison, the large teacher’s unions, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers donated $43,624,248 during this election cycle according to the Center for Responsive Politics. No doubt, a donation of more than $43 million will buy political influence.
Political Donations from Federal Employees
Several agencies have employee donations in the 2020 political cycle that total in the millions. The agency with the largest total donations was the State Department with more than $5.2 million. This agency also had the largest percentage of donations to Republicans (46.14%). The Department of Defense was a close second with more than $5.2 million donated during the same political cycle. 65% of donations from these employees went to Democrats.
The Department of Justice had more than $2.3 million in donations with 87.6% going to Democrats.
The agency with the highest percentage going to Democrats was the Federal Communications Commission (also, probably the smallest agency depicted and the one with the smallest amount of total donations). 99.29% of donations from people in this agency went to Democrats. The largest total amount going to Democrats was $3,356,391 from the Department of Defense.
The agency with the highest percentage going to Republicans was the Department of State with 46.14%. The largest total amount going to Republicans was from those working at the State Department with a total of $2,341,370.
For those who prefer to look at a longer perspective to determine if this was a unique year for political donations from federal employees and federal employee unions, there were similar results in data in 2016 (See Tallying Political Donations from Federal Employees and Unions and for federal employee unions way back in 2002. ).
Is There a “Deep State?”
There have been a number of allegations the federal government workforce sometimes operates as a “deep state” on behalf of Democrats. Various reports involving FBI and Justice Department employees and actions or decisions reportedly supporting or subverting the Trump campaign have been a staple in the news. The belief by some supporters of President Trump was captured in this comment reported by CNN from Mick Mulvaney, who held significant positions during the Trump administration, reflects this belief:
Asked whether a “deep state” of government employees is actively undermining Trump’s agenda, Mulvaney replied that was “absolutely” the case. “One-hundred percent true,” he told the crowd, adding that he viewed civil servants as employees who should be carrying out the administration’s policies. Federal workers are not in their jobs to “make decisions” and should quit if they disagree with Trump’s agenda, Mulvaney continued. One attendee at the event said Mulvaney was “emphatic” that Democratic-leaning government employees are attempting to thwart Trump at every turn.
Political donations that are made reflect a strong allegiance to a candidate. From federal employees, their donations reflect an overall political allegiance to Democrats. There is clearly a larger number who contribute to Democrats than Republicans.
For the 2020 election cycle, total contributions from employees in the following agencies came to $37,368,311. A total of $27,141,594 was donated to Democrats by employees in the agencies listed below. A total of $9,026,820 was donated to Republicans. Stated differently, 72.63% of donations went to Democrats and 24.15% went to Republicans.
|Health & Human Services||$3,443,434||$3,064,855|
|Dept. of State||$5,245,868||$2,732,658 (53.86%||$2,341,370 (46.14%)|
|Postal Service||$4,445,075||$2,681,875 (61.82%)||$1,656,065 (38.18%)|
|Veterans Affairs||$3,993,226||$2,999,402 (77.68%)||$861,726 (22.32%)|
|Dept. of Agriculture||$841,971||$709,471 (87.76%)||$98,915 (12.24%)|
|Dept. of Defense||$5,211,100||$3,356,391 (65.93%)||$1,734,536 (34.07%)|
|Dept. of Justice||$2,360,873||$2,020,588 (87.6%)||$286,083|
|Dept. of Energy||$1,658,635||$1,478,192 (92.83%)||$114,235 (7.17%)|
|Dept. of Commerce||$2,330,924||$1,816,565 (80.4%)||$442,942 (19.6%)|
|Dept. of Interior||$1,524,952||$1,306,823 (91.1%)||$127,438 (8.89%)|
|Dept. of Homeland Security||$1,856,464||$1,280,630 (70.65%||$531,994|
|Environmental Protection Agency||$1,814,107||$1,581,809 (90.12%)||$173,459 (9.88%)|
|Dept. of Education||$260,634||$246,709 (97.06%||$7,460 (2.94%)|
|Dept. of Labor||$517,588||$455,229 (91.81%)||$40,627 (8.19%)|
|Dept. of Treasury||$1,669,778||$1,224,968 (76.29%)||$380,624 (23.71%)|
|Federal Communications Commission||$193,682||$185,429 (99.29%)||$1,334 (0.71%)|
Draining the Swamp
The reasons for supporting a candidate or political party are varied. Employees in some agencies may have an allegiance to a party where they believe that party provides more political or financial support to that agency’s mission. In other cases, employees may react with their donations to a belief one party will provide greater benefits or more job security. Others may support a candidate or party in the belief the overall political philosophy of that party is more aligned with their personal beliefs.
Federal employee organizations strongly opposed actions by the Trump administration with frequent visits to the legal system to delay or inhibit Trump administration policies and with actively engaging in political action supporting Democrats. That support does not go unnoticed by elected officials. When the candidates receiving support win an election, their decisions are likely to be more supportive of the unions. Conversely, when their candidates do not win, the decisions are generally not supportive or, “anti-union” according to various press releases attacking these decisions or policies.
There is no way to know with certainty if these actions or the differential in political donations contribute to the belief there is a “deep state” of career federal employees. It is also possible union political activity and differential in political donations actions from federal employees may have been a factor in an Executive Order issued by President Trump to create a new class of federal employees (Schedule F) with limited hiring restrictions and appeal rights.
In other words, the new schedule would have applied to “Positions of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character not normally subject to change as a result of a Presidential transition shall be listed in Schedule F.”
An observer of politics and the federal government’s civil service may have seen the Schedule F Executive Order as a way to “drain the swamp”—a phrase often mentioned by presidential candidate Donald Trump when referring to how the federal government and those supporting it function on a daily basis.
In any event, the Executive Orders creating so much hostility among federal employee groups (including the one creating Schedule F) was quickly rescinded by President Biden after taking office.