- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

When a top political appointee leaves office early — that is before his term is up or while he is still breathing — there is always speculation about why. That is partly because there are more insiders, real and imagined, inside the Beltway than anywhere else.

When it comes to premature departures, the most interested people are those who work inside a think tank or for the press or who are unemployed or underemployed news junkies.

For the average American, even for employees of the agency or department that is literally losing its head, it is a matter of interest, but not much. Most people have other things to do — like earn a living, get their children to and from school or even plan the family vacation — to spend too much time speculating on the “how come” question.

So it was with amusement that many career feds read that the surprise early departure of Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, is cause for alarm.

One writer and one union speculated that her departure effective Jan. 31 has many feds worrying about their future: Will they have a federal job this time next year or will there be a federal establishment this time next year? Upon questioning, the union said it had issued the same dire warnings just about every year for the past dozen years.

What we do know for sure is that Mrs. James is leaving before her term is up. That means either that she wasn’t going to be reappointed or she didn’t want to be reappointed, or something else.

Her earlier-than-we-expected departure is not that unusual.

Two-term directors of the Office of Personnel Management and its predecessor, the Civil Service Commission, are relatively rare. So the fact that Mrs. James, who by most counts did a good job, is leaving doesn’t necessarily signal a sea change in the federal government.

January is the start of what is often the silly season for federal workers. New budget numbers are leaked — sometimes they are right, sometimes not — and there is always speculation that there will be a federal pay freeze or a freeze on federal retirement benefits or a freeze on federal hiring.

Congress will issue its annual hit list of ways that the government could save money, including putting federal retirement benefits under a tighter cost-of-living formula or changing federal pension rules so that employees have to work longer to maintain their benefits.

The fact that these warnings are issued each year and haven’t come to pass is easily forgotten.

Lobbyists, journalists and members of special-interest groups do best when they can scare the liver out of a large enough group of people. After all, without the threat of storms, weather forecasters would be less in demand. Bad news, especially in a town chock-full of pundits, politicians and lawyers, makes for full — if not always necessary — employment.

And, so as not to write myself out of a job, be advised that every silver lining does have a cloud. The fact is that just because none of the bad things forecast for feds has come to pass doesn’t mean that someday, maybe this year, they won’t happen. So stick with us.

Heck, I’ve got to eat just like everybody else.

Meantime, enjoy what should be a short workweek for most Washington area feds. And if you are required to work this week — helping keep the nation’s Capitol safe and operational — a special thanks. Most people don’t know what most of you do, which proves you are doing your job. But a lot of us know that you are important.

Mike Causey, senior editor at FederalNewsRadio.com, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey@federalnewsradio.com.

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