The Burrowing of the Bushies

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, November 18, 2008; 1:11 PM

It happens every time a president leaves office: Some of his political appointees don't want to go, so they "burrow in" to the civil service.

There are relatively benign reasons for burrowing in, such as financial security. But there is also the potential for ideological mischief-making.

So the question we ask ourselves today is: Are Bush and Cheney loyalists entrenching themselves into the federal bureaucracy in order to make it difficult for their successors to roll back their policies?

The burrowing-in of the Bushies has been underway in various agencies for some time now, and there are signs that as a result, the Obama administration could face resistance from within on some key areas.

Juliet Eilperin and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts.

"The transfer of political appointees into permanent federal positions, called 'burrowing' by career officials, creates security for those employees, and at least initially will deprive the incoming Obama administration of the chance to install its preferred appointees in some key jobs. . . .

"Between March 1 and Nov. 3, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the Bush administration allowed 20 political appointees to become career civil servants."

Alarming? One the one hand, Eilperin and Leonnig write: "The practice of placing political appointees into permanent civil service posts before an administration ends is not new. In its last 12 months, the Clinton administration approved 47 such moves, including seven at the senior executive level. Federal employees with civil service status receive job protections that make it very difficult for managers to remove them."

But on the other, they note: "The personnel moves come as Bush administration officials are scrambling to cement in place policy and regulatory initiatives that touch on issues such as federal drinking-water standards, air quality at national parks, mountaintop mining and fisheries limits."

The announced goal of the Interior Department move was to reduce disruptive turnover, but "environmental advocates, and some rank-and-file Interior officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting their careers, said the reassignments represent the Bush administration's effort to leave a lasting imprint on environmental policy," Eilperin and Leonnig report.

Joe Davidson wrote in his Washington Post Federal Diary column earlier this month that "this is burrowing season." He called attention to an October report from the Congressional Research Service which warned:

"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."

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