Republicans in Congress have been warning the outgoing Obama administration for some time not to move political appointees into career jobs just before the president leaves office.

This no-no, known in government jargon as “burrowing in” to the civil service, happens to varying degrees before and during every transition of power in Washington. The concern in both political parties is that political appointees may convert to career jobs for which they are not qualified and have not competed.

If Hillary Clinton had won the White House, it’s safe to assume that the temptation of a secure civil service job with another Democratic administration would have been strong.

But even with Donald Trump moving into the White House in January, a top Senate Republican is concerned that soon-to-be-displaced Obama loyalists might well want to join the Trump administration.

On Monday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, wrote Obama officials a stern letter warning that conversions to career positions are unseemly.

“As we approach the closing days of the Obama administration, we must guard against inappropriate hiring practices to ensure merit-based federal employment and protect the independence of the federal civil service,” Johnson wrote in a letter to Beth Cobert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.
The senator continued:
“With the results of the Presidential election, there could be an increase in attempts by the nearly 4,000 political appointees across the Federal government to convert to career positions. I am concerned that, due to the seniority of political appointees at many agencies, there could be pressure to approve these conversions outside the standard merit-based approach to federal hiring.”
Johnson asked Cobert for a list of federal employees who have converted from political to career positions since June, including their names, job titles, salaries and how the position was approved. He also asked for weekly updates on burrowing in, if it exists, until Trump takes office Jan. 20.

An OPM official responded that the agency takes its role in stopping the practice seriously.

“One of [our] primary functions is to promote and safeguard the merit system principles that provide the people of the United States with a competent, honest, and productive Federal workforce — and we take that mission seriously,” agency spokesman Sam Schumach said in an email.

He said the agency “routinely investigates” hiring decisions “that are counter to the merit system principles upon which OPM was founded. We look forward to working with the committee as they provide the necessary oversight of this important program.”

The personnel agency is supposed to review all proposed conversions from political jobs to civil service ones, and in January, Cobert reminded agency heads of this responsibility. This process came under fire last fall from the Government Accountability Office, which questioned the effectiveness of OPM’s oversight.

Auditors found that 69 people moved from political to career jobs from 2010 to 2015 at about two dozen agencies. Of these, 17 conversions took place without approval from OPM, which was not consulted.

Experts have offered different theories on why burrowing goes on, from financial concerns to the employee’s desire to have an imprint on the agenda of the incoming administration.

With the Trump and Obama administrations divided on just about every area of policy and politics, whether any Obama appointees will want to serve a Trump administration remains to be seen.