By Carol D. Leonnig and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Democrats in the Senate called on President Bush to halt any effort by his administration to place political appointees in career jobs just weeks before his team leaves office.
But the White House yesterday said there is no orchestrated effort to embed Bush loyalists in the federal workforce before Barack Obama's inauguration Jan. 20. As happens with any handover of administration, hundreds of current officials in political jobs will be forced to relinquish their posts, and career workers will stay on.
Spokeswoman Dana Perino said that as a "matter of policy, the White House has not encouraged noncareer appointees to seek career positions in order to further the president's policies. The White House doesn't play a role in that career hiring process."
Perino stressed that career employees rate a political appointee's qualifications for a career position, and that the federal Office of Personnel Management oversees those decisions in the final 11 months of an administration.
Between March 1 and Nov. 3, according to numbers released by the OPM, the Bush administration allowed 20 political appointees to become career civil servants. Six appointees to the Senior Executive Service, the government's most prestigious and highly paid employees, have received approval to take career jobs at the same level. Fourteen other political, or "Schedule C," appointees have also been approved to take career jobs. One candidate was turned down by the OPM, and two were withdrawn by the submitting agency.
Yesterday, after The Washington Post published an article about the practice known as "burrowing in," OPM Associate Director Kevin Mahoney declined to disclose which appointees his office had approved for career positions, at which agencies and for which jobs. He said it has been his office's practice "over the last several years" to refer questions about the approvals to agencies that sought the career status for political aides.
The OPM reviews whether the political employee is qualified and evaluates him or her against any other applicants. The goal, Mahoney said, is to ensure that an agency is not creating a soft landing spot for a political aide.
Some agencies that have sought approvals to reclassify political aides stressed that the OPM process is nonpartisan.
Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote to Bush, saying that the recent transfers suggest a "regrettable, but entirely foreseeable" last-minute rush to fill jobs with administration allies. The senators urged Bush to keep his pledge of a smooth transition without partisan maneuvering.
"Today's report reveals that senior members of your administration are undermining your public commitment to ease the transition by reorganizing agencies at the eleventh hour and installing political appointees in key positions for which they may not be qualified," they wrote. "We respectfully urge you to stand by your public commitment to a smooth transition by directing executive agencies immediately to halt any conversions of political appointees to career positions."
Democrats on Capitol Hill and career employees in various agencies said the personnel moves come as administration officials scramble to complete policy and regulatory initiatives on issues including drinking-water standards, air quality at national parks, workplace safety and mountaintop mining.
The Government Accountability Office has long tracked such political-to-career conversions, and it reported in May 2006 that during the first four years of the Bush administration, 144 political appointments were converted to career positions. Thirty-six were at the Health and Human Services Department, 23 were at the Justice Department, 21 were at the Defense Department and 15 were at the Treasury Department.
The new career positions included the post of senior public affairs adviser at the Pentagon, the Interior Department's top lawyer in the Rocky Mountain region, two trial lawyer slots in the civil rights division of the Justice Department and two legal positions at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The OPM, which oversees and polices the conversion process, transferred five political appointees to career positions.
In its report, the GAO concluded that administration officials apparently did not follow appropriate procedures in 18 of these conversions and that some workers were not qualified.
A similar GAO study covering the past four years is underway, but analysts are awaiting information from agencies and have reached no conclusions.
While political appointees also burrowed into career jobs under Bill Clinton and other presidents, Jimmy Carter blocked the practice after his loss in 1980 to Ronald Reagan. "I can still remember Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt making the announcement on a teleconference call," recalled Bob Krause, who served as a regional representative for the transportation secretary. "Carter's integrity on the subject deserves recognition."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.