Congressional Democrats are mobilizing to prevent the Reagan administration from sending career bureaucrats of the elite, Senior Executive Service into the bureaucratric version of purgatory for political reasons. SES was created by the Carter administration. It covers nearly 8,000 top government career jobs. Most SES members live and work in Washington.
Supergraders joining the SES gave up much of their regular civil service job security for the chance at higher pay, better asignments and bonuses. To protect $50,000-per-year members from early purges by a new administration, Congress made career executives "untouchable" for the first 120 days after the inauguration. During that getting-to-know-you period (it expire in mid-may) career brass cannot be reassigned involuntarily. Nor can they be given new performance rating (that determine whether they stay or get fired) until their political bosses have been on the job for four months.
Monday's emergency-style meeting of the House Civil Service subcommittee will look at the "detailing" of Tina Hobson, an SESer at Department of Energy. dHobson, widow of civil rights activist Julius Hobson, headed the consumer affairs office unitl she had a dust-up with a new DOE official. Hobson said she was told to send an undercover "operative" to sit in on an activist community group meeting in Denver. She protested and was then reassigned to the solar and conservation office.
Hobson says she doesn't know whether her sudden detail -- she was told Friday Feb. 20 to report to her new assignment on Monday -- is punitive. At the consumer office, Hobson said, she had a staff of 30 and a budget of $6 million. She has no staff and as yet no duties in her new job. The office is to be phased out this summer.
Hobson, who tangled with officials during the Carter administration, has asked the inspector general to investigate the matter. She believes her transfer has had a "chilling" effect on some of her consumer coworkers. Armand C. Reyser, special assistant to the energy secretary who discussed sending a representative to the Denver meeting, denies using the word "operative." And Energy brass say the detail had nothing to do with the dispute over coverage of the meeting.
Monday's hearing is aimed at determining if Hobson's detail was punitive and -- yes or no -- to warn the White House of SES rules. "If this is a case of an illegal transfer," an aide said, "we might as well give them (the Reagan administration) a bloody nose right now."
Each new administration (democrat or Republican) comes to Washington convinced that senior bureaucrats are empire-protection obstructionists who owe their jobs and loyalties to the previous administration.
Nixon's people saw Johnsonian well-poisoners everywhere. Carter's crowd felt Nixon-Ford bogeymen held key career jobs. The old rules made it touch to fire senior civil servants.
Carter changed the rules. He created the SES primarily to make career bureaucrats more responsive to political appointees. Because it was created by the Democrats, GOP appointees who are unfamiliar with (or all too familar with) civil service merit mehtods, suspect it. Monday's hearing could clear the air, and set the tone for cooperative management of the SES along nonpartisan, merit lines. Or it could be round one of a four-year battle between the Democratic House and the Republican White House over control of the senior bureaucracy.