By Lyndsey Layton and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 13, 2008
As the national unemployment rate climbs to a 14-year high, a treasure trove of about 8,000 new jobs surfaced in one place on Capitol Hill yesterday. The federal government published the Plum Book, an inventory of positions that will soon be vacated by the Bush administration and open for hire.
The 209-page paperback, officially titled "The United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions," is exciting reading for people coveting jobs in the incoming Obama administration. It details the positions -- some high-level, some almost comically obscure -- that are likely to change hands as a Democrat moves into the White House after eight years of Republican rule.
The Marine Mammal Commission has three openings, each paying $100,000 a year. The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation will need a new executive secretary who will earn $139,600 to $191,300 a year. And at the Department of Health and Human Services, there's an opening for a confidential assistant to the deputy director of child support enforcement in the Administration for Children and Families (whew), for an annual salary of $48,148 to $62,593, depending on experience.
While the Plum Book may seem like one humongous neon "help wanted" sign, job seekers may not want to pack their bags and head for Washington just yet.
Many of the positions are highly specific, such as assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. Some, like the jobs that will turn over in the vice president's office, are not included because the office technically is not part of either the executive branch or the legislative branch.
All of the listed posts require political connections. About one-third of the jobs are strictly presidential appointments -- that is, patronage positions that will go largely to Democrats who know how to network.
"This isn't an open job search," said Paul C. Light, an expert in federal government who teaches at New York University. "If you don't have someone who's going to take your résumé in on your behalf, don't sell your house. Everyone thumbs through this and likes to imagine themselves in these jobs. But it's really more like the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue -- a lot of people pick it up and say, 'Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have that tiara?' "
Published every four years, the Plum Book is about 1,000 jobs heavier this year than it was in 2004, evidence that the federal government has expanded. Priced at $38 at the government's bookstore on North Capitol Street or available online for purchase or viewing (http://www.gpoaccess.gov/plumbook/2008), it announces every political job in the outgoing administration, including the name of the officeholder and the current salary.
Pay runs the range -- from well-compensated jobs such as chief of staff at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, who earns $221,100 a year, to a member of the Arctic Research Commission, a part-time, four-year post paying $571 annually.
All that specific information is helpful not just to job seekers but also to those who want to do business with the new government.
Bill Dingell, a software vendor to federal agencies, picked up his copy of the Plum Book yesterday afternoon. "It tells you which are appointed and which are career, so you know who's leaving and who's landing," he said.
Gary Somerset, a spokesman for the Government Printing Office, said that the bookstore sold 150 copies yesterday and that 200 more were purchased online. The number of page views of the online version of the book was not available last night.
One of the buyers is a 34-year-old woman who quit her job in public health and moved from Chicago to Washington on Sunday in the hope of snagging a job in the new administration.
"I don't know how to do this, but I thought getting the Plum Book would be the first step to see what the jobs are," said the woman, who had volunteered for Barack Obama's campaign and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared that publicity could hurt her job prospects. She read about the book and showed up at the government bookstore yesterday to claim her copy and begin her job hunt.
Mark D. Gearan, deputy director of Bill Clinton's 1992 transition and now president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said the Plum Book "gives people a good overview of responsibilities and opportunities." He added: "People are coming at you from all directions -- the campaign, private and public sectors -- and so it's a good starting point."
Gearan says he still vividly recalls the landslide of job applications his office received after the election. He was startled by the quantity of material that some applicants submitted. "It reminds me of the old college counselors' saying: 'The thicker the file, the thicker the applicant,' " he said.
Chase Untermeyer, who handled political appointments for President George H.W. Bush in 1988, found the Plum Book marginally useful.
"It's less valuable than it appears. All it is is snapshots of the jobs the outgoing administration filled," he said. "The new administration might abolish many of those positions. They might not want a director of fish and fowl. . . . The real value for me was as a reference for salary levels."
The incoming Eisenhower administration produced the first comprehensive political job list in 1952.
Democrats had controlled all the political jobs in the prior two decades, and the Republican Party urged the compilation of a list of government positions that would be available to Republicans.
The Plum Book appeared again in 1960 and has since been published after every presidential election.
For all the hundreds of unusual posts described in the book, one appears to be missing: job counselor for outgoing administration employees.