The turnover at the top is only the start.

The building wave of Cabinet departures will ripple through the sub-Cabinet over the next several months, leading many political appointees to leave or transfer jobs inside the government.

Longtime federal managers and employees have seen it all before and know how to keep swimming. But "there are a lot of waves on the seashore," as New York University Professor Paul C. Light put it yesterday, and federal employees need to be careful so they "don't drown in the riptide."

Although most career employees safely float through the transitions between presidential terms, the shake-up in President Bush's Cabinet will probably have some impact -- slowing efforts to carry out White House policies and making it more difficult for agencies to fend off spending cuts.

"It is unsettling when your boss takes off, unless you consider your boss a blithering idiot," said Light, who headed a bipartisan study group from 1999 to 2003 that examined the presidential appointments process.

Robert M. Tobias, a former federal labor leader who studies federal policy issues as head of an American University institute, said that "whatever is underway will be interrupted" by the transition to Bush's second term.

"Public policy implementation depends an awful lot on who's at the top and what their priorities are," Tobias said. "Very few career employees will continue to proceed until they find out what the new person wants."

The White House announced yesterday that four Cabinet secretaries would depart, bringing to six, at least, the number of Cabinet chairs to be filled. Of the departing appointees, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will probably be the one most missed by federal employees.

"He brought this tremendous ability to lead," said Louise K. Crane, a vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. On Capitol Hill, she said, Powell "used his enormous credibility" to get adequate funding for hiring and training of employees and for improvements to embassy security.

John W. Limbert, president of the association, noted that Foreign Service officers volunteered to serve in Iraq in numbers that exceeded Powell's request. "That is a direct result of loyalty. He shows loyalty to his people," Limbert said.

Light and Tobias said federal employees across government, not just diplomats, will miss Powell. "He represented a breath of fresh air and a deep commitment to public service," Light said.

Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, cautioned that the extent of the turnover among Bush political appointees "remains to be seen."

The Senate will probably move quickly to confirm Cabinet secretaries, McGinnis said, but some lower-level replacements may not get hearings for several months.

The Presidential Appointee Initiative, which was headed by Light, found it takes longer than ever -- an average of 8.7 months -- for a nominee to clear the Senate and take office.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that departing Cabinet secretaries "are committed to making sure that this is a smooth transition and that the change in who is heading that department will come about in as smooth a fashion as possible."

But Light said that "first- to second-term transitions are very intense" and may be more so this time because Bush has no heir apparent to help unify appointees for a second term.

Looking Forward

The American Association for Budget and Program Analysis will hold its fall symposium -- "Is the Past Prologue? What Is in Store for the Next Four Years" -- on Friday at the Capital Hilton Hotel.

Speakers will include Clay Johnson III of the Office of Management and Budget and Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

For details, go to www.aabpa.org. To register, call Chris Lawson at 703-941-4300.

GEHA on Diary Live

Richard G. Miles, president of the Government Employees Hospital Association, will discuss health insurance options for federal employees and retirees at noon today on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com. Please join us with your questions and comments.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com