As Political Climate Changes, Appointees Begin Burrowing In

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Some animals burrow to secure protection from the elements. Rabbits, moles, gophers and groundhogs are examples of burrowing critters.

Another animal that sometimes burrows in and around Washington is the mammalian species known as the political appointee.

As the political climate changes, officials appointed by the outgoing administration are looking for a safe place to nest. For some, that would be a career position in a new administration run by John McCain or Barack Obama.

Moving from an appointed position to a career job is known as burrowing in. It's not illegal and often not inappropriate, but it can look like the fix is in for the anointed to get the gig.

And this is burrowing season.

"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," says a report issued last month by the Congressional Research Service.

Burrowers make up a very small portion of the government's 1.9 million civilian workforce. Conversions of fixed-term NASA appointees to career service, for example, have leaped in recent years, from 266 in fiscal year 2003 to 734 in 2007. So far, the Office of Personnel Management has rejected one proposed conversion out of 21 requested.

Perhaps most of those who do convert from appointed to career positions are well-qualified for their new jobs. But talk in government circles reflects a concern much greater than the numbers. The danger is in the appearance, valid or not, of favoritism.

CRS warned that the rank-and-file might view converted employees as intruders taking opportunities from civil servants. Or, the report added, some in the bureaucracies might be suspicious that the converted "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.

"Both perceptions may increase the tension between noncareer and career staff, thereby hindering the effective operation of government at a time when the desirability of creating 'common ground' between these staffs to facilitate government performance has been emphasized," CRS concludes.

Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, shares the concern that converted employees might be suspected of holding loyalties to a previous administration and says that could sully the entire corps of government executives. Burrowers "can serve to give an incoming administration a slanted picture of the career executive service, namely to lead to some suspicion with regard to career executives," she said.

That last scenario, especially, could apply when moving from the administration of one party to another, as would happen if Obama wins today.

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