Congressional Republicans are warning the departing Obama administration against moving any more political appointees into career-service government jobs, a practice known as “burrowing in.”
Government auditors found 69 Obama political appointees who moved into career jobs from 2010 to 2015, and 17 of them didn’t receive the required approval from the Office of Personnel Management. With President-elect Donald Trump preparing to fill about 4,000 political appointments, Republican lawmakers say there is more motivation for Democratic appointees to try to latch onto protected career positions.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, has asked acting OPM Director Beth Cobert for weekly reports on all conversions or attempted conversions, including the names, titles and salaries of federal employees who have switched from political appointments to career positions since June 30.
“With the results of the presidential election, there could be an increase in attempts by the nearly 4,000 political appointees across the federal government to convert to career positions,” Mr. Johnson wrote in a letter last week. “I am concerned that, due to the seniority of political appointees at many agencies, there could be pressure to approve these conversions outside the standard merit-based approach to federal hiring.”
The Department of Homeland Security had the highest number of conversions during a review by the Government Accountability Office, with nine. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson last week. Allowing more Obama appointees to keep jobs next year would be unfair to the next administration, he said.
“The President-elect has the right to pick his own team, and allowing Obama appointees to embed themselves into the bureaucracy for the long haul could create unnecessary interference with this process,” Mr. McCaul said in a statement. “DHS must adhere to the law and ensure its federal workforce is independent and free from political influence.”
In his letter to Mr. Johnson, Mr. McCaul noted that the Homeland Security Department since 2009 has converted political appointees to career senior executive service positions, “including, but not limited to, the deputy undersecretary for science and technology and the assistant administrator for response at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”
Homeland Security is providing the committee with quarterly updates on political appointees converting to career jobs, but Mr. McCaul said he also wants information on the number of recent promotions in the senior executive service.
In its report in late September, the GAO said the number of political appointees who convert to career jobs is small. The 69 employees in 28 federal agencies who burrowed into career jobs represented less than 0.1 percent of the total number of career and appointed jobs in the executive branch.
Even when agencies are caught making such moves without prior approval, corrective action is often slow in coming, if it comes at all.
For example, OPM determined that it would not have approved the March 2011 conversion of a Department of Education political appointee to a career competitive position. OPM said it appeared the Education Department gave the political appointee an “unfair advantage in the hiring process by manipulating the requirements of the career position to align with the appointee’s background rather than with the position’s classified duties.”
OPM referred the case to the Office of Special Counsel, which found that Education Department officials did commit prohibited personnel practices and recommended disciplinary action against two managers.
But both of the managers involved in the case retired before disciplinary action could be started, and the political appointee in question was hired for the job anyway. That employee left the government “shortly thereafter,” the GAO said.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, called the GAO’s findings “troubling.”
“One of the reasons the federal government has laws on merit-based hiring is to prevent cronyism and political favoritism,” Mr. Thune said.
The Obama administration certainly didn’t invent the practice of burrowing in.
The George W. Bush administration allowed 135 political appointees to convert to career jobs from January 2001 to June 2008, according to an Associated Press review of OPM records. The investigation found at least 26 such cases approved during Mr. Bush’s final year in office.
A Congressional Research Service report in November said conversions from political jobs to career positions are “permissible when laws and regulations governing career appointments are followed.”
“While such conversions may occur at any time, frequently they do so during the transition period when one administration is preparing to leave office and another administration is preparing to assume office,” the report said.
Paul Light, a professor of government at New York University who studied political appointees over several administrations, found that pay, benefits and job security of career positions are some of the factors that motivate federal employees to “burrow in.”
CRS said the practice can foster the belief that “the individual who is converted to a career position may seek to undermine the work of the new administration whose policies may be at odds with those that he or she espoused when serving in the appointed capacity.”
Mr. Johnson said GAO found that OPM “does not adequately verify the data on political conversions reported by agencies.”
“In one instance, an agency that did not receive prior approval from OPM appointed a Schedule C political employee to a career competitive position over ‘a compensably disabled veteran who appeared qualified for the position and should have received top consideration in the selection process based on active military service,’” Mr. Johnson told OPM. “As we approach the closing days of the Obama administration, we must guard against inappropriate hiring practices to ensure merit-based federal employment and protect the independence of the federal civil service.”