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Political Appointees 'Burrowing In'

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

It is the season for that quadrennial Washington tradition known as "burrowing in."

It happens in every administration. As the clock winds down on a presidential term, political appointees across the federal bureaucracy start to worry about finding a paying gig to replace the one whose end is near.

And no matter how much some in the Bush administration seem to look down on government, no matter how many say they long to return to the private sector or spend more time with family, a few political folks, in the end, will decide that they would rather not part ways with Uncle Sam. So they will try to stick around, angling to turn their short-term stint in an administration of their choice into a permanent job amid the ranks of career civil servants and federal executives.

"Remember, not everybody who comes in is going to have a very high-profile job where they are going to be able to leave and make really good money," said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents career executives in the federal government. "Not everyone has had necessarily a strong enough background to go back out. They may just have been a campaign worker."

Burrowing in often looks like an especially good option to younger political appointees, people in their 20s who hold positions such as deputy chief of staff or assistant to the assistant secretary, said Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University. Most cannot easily make the leap to a lucrative job on K Street or elsewhere, he said.

"The paycheck is the driver here," Light said. "A lot of appointees will think, 'I don't have anywhere to go.' . . . My sense is that they burrow in because there is pay, benefits and security involved -- precisely the things that they complain about as barriers to effective [government] performance."

Just as perennial as burrowing in is the concern it raises that federal jobs that by law are supposed to be open to public competition and awarded on merit will instead go to people as political rewards. So the Office of Personnel Management reviews all civil service and executive service hirings that involve political appointees in presidential election years, and sends out a memo to agency heads every four years reminding them of that.

Still, some bad apples get picked. At request of Congress, the Government Accountability Office has examined what it calls "conversions" of employees from political to career positions during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

"A merit-based federal workforce is essential to ensuring a competent and effective government that will enforce laws fairly across administrations," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In the most recent report, released in May 2006, investigators found that 23 agencies hired 144 political appointees into career positions from May 2001 to April 2005. In at least 18 cases the agencies did not follow proper procedures, the GAO found, citing problems such as hiring appointees with limited qualifications, creating positions for specific individuals and disregarding veterans' preference laws.

In one case, for example, a confidential assistant to then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson beat out 52 other applicants for the newly reestablished position of policy coordinator in the secretary's office. The job appeared to be tailor-made for the appointee, the GAO said. The new and old jobs even had identical salaries, $57,550. Although the appointee received the highest numerical rating among applicants, the file contained no documentation to show how points were assigned -- and the person doing the hiring was the appointee's old boss.

The Clinton administration had its share of converts, too. Between October 1998 and April 2001, 111 political appointees and congressional aides landed career jobs in 45 executive-branch agencies, the GAO found in a report released in February 2002. In 17 cases, "the circumstances surrounding the appointment could, in our opinion, give the appearance that the appointees had received political favoritism or preferences," investigators wrote.

In one instance, the Small Business Administration canceled a job opening when a disabled veteran rated ahead of an appointee, and then detailed the appointee to the position in an acting capacity.

The converts amount to only a drop in the federal bucket, considering that the government has 1.8 million employees. Still, it doesn't take many to damage morale.

"Even if you have someone who, all other things being equal, might well have been selected for the job, it still has an odor about it," Bonosaro said.

"It's a small number of people," Light said, "but it creates a lot of upset."

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