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Some Trump officials are ‘burrowing’ into government jobs. What does that mean, exactly?

What’s more, Trump is trying to strip away civil service protections from more government jobs.

The White House on Dec. 11, 2020. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
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As the Trump administration ends, Trump political appointees are reportedly burrowing into permanent government jobs. For instance, one political appointee was recently hired as the White House’s chief national security lawyer — a permanent “career” position protected by civil service regulations — even though he reportedly lacked intelligence expertise.

It’s called “burrowing” because when political appointees become permanent career employees, they often appear to circumvent the normally open and nonpartisan competitive selection process for government jobs. Burrowing can raise eyebrows if ideologically-oriented people appear to be entrenching themselves into the bureaucracy to push their points of view. Critics argue that the practice assaults public expectations that government employees will carry out a representative government’s decisions with neutral competence.

Here’s what to know about burrowing in.

Burrowing is legal and strictly regulated

The legal term for burrowing is “conversion,” and it is regulated by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Any federal agency wishing to hire political appointees into career civil service must first get clearance from OPM’s Merit System Accountability and Compliance Division (MSAC). That requires showing that the proposed hiring process was open, fair and based on the criteria established for the position. Since 2010, OPM has required clearance for all conversions.

Transparency about burrowing has been steadily improving since 1981, when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) first reported on the issue. From 1982 to 2017, GAO has conducted 17 more investigations and has catalogued most of the political conversions, naming the people involved.

Since 2016, the Presidential Transitions Act has required OPM to report all political conversions to Congress annually, and quarterly during presidential election years. But those OPM reports have never been made public. The first three quarterly reports of 2020 were leaked, but most conversions probably happened after the election. The fourth-quarter report has not been delivered to Congress.

GAO’s most recent report was in August 2017. Even if a member of Congress immediately requests another report in 2021, it may take time to conduct the study; GAO usually conducts a comprehensive search and doesn’t simply accept OPM’s catalogue. We may not know how many Trump appointees burrowed into the permanent bureaucracy until 2022, unless that fourth-quarter OPM report becomes public.

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Burrowing is somewhat rare

On average, between 1995 and 2017, only about 50 political appointees converted into permanent civil service employees each year. That’s less than 1 percent of all career hires at the supervisory level. The most recent GAO report discovered only 99 civil service job offers to political appointees between 2010 and 2016, under Obama. Conversions were twice as common in the 1980s and 1990s, until Congress repealed a special civil service hiring advantage enjoyed by legislative staff.

Interestingly, OPM appears to be scrutinizing conversions more closely over time. Of those 99 conversion attempts, OPM’s MSAC Division rejected 21. We know from the leaked OPM reports that the agency rejected five of 26 conversion attempts in 2020.

Most burrowing appears to happen among “Schedule C” appointees, or lower-level political appointees, who apply for jobs in the competitive civil service at the GS-13 level and below, which cover professional but nonsupervisory positions. But about a third involve appointees seeking the highest management positions in agencies, at the GS-14, GS-15 and career Senior Executive Service ranges.

Burrowing is widely noticed and resented

In 2008, I worked with two other political scientists, Anthony Bertelli and David Lewis, to conduct a survey of the 7,500 most prominent officials of the executive branch, in what became the first wave of the Survey on the Future of Government Service. I found that more than 2 in 5 senior government executives were aware of a recent instance of political burrowing in their own agency. According to survey results, career civil servants reported much lower assessments of an agency’s politically appointed leadership in agencies where political conversion was most frequent. Or it could be the other way around: Political appointees might burrow into agencies with poor relationships between career and political staff. Either way, as political scientist Paul Light said, “It’s a small number of people … but it creates a lot of upset.”

Why does this matter? Scholars have long recognized that agencies perform best when staff feel loyal to the organization and its leadership. If an agency’s permanent professional staffers distrust their leaders’ competence and resent those who sneaked in through the back door, effectiveness suffers.

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Trump tried to increase the number of political appointees

Since the Reagan administration, most blue-ribbon commissions designed to reform the federal government bureaucracy have tried to reduce the number of political appointees. President Trump has done the opposite, issuing an executive order barely two weeks before the 2020 elections that would create a new category of executives exempt from merit-based criteria for hiring and firing. OPM labeled this group “Schedule F.” This order directs all federal agencies to assemble a list of high-level career senior and civil service positions that could be reclassified as Schedule F, essentially turning permanent staff into at-will appointees. The Office of Management and Budget immediately assembled its list, determining that nearly 90 percent of its career bureaucrats’ positions could be reclassified into Schedule F. Critics worry that this could be used to purge career bureaucrats and allow a new kind of burrowing not subject to OPM clearance, damaging the permanent civil service and its commitment to political neutrality.

Democratic members of the House tried but failed to block implementation of the order. Civil servants are likely to bring lawsuits challenging any efforts to shift them into this new and unprotected personnel category. Biden may be able to eliminate Schedule F through executive orders. After all, any newly installed Schedule F staff will not have civil service protections the way burrowers would.

The United States moved away from a politically corrupt spoils system in 1883, when the Pendleton Act created the civil service. Insulating the vast majority of government workers from political pressure means that they do their jobs based on experience and expertise, not whose political campaign they supported. Burrowing threatens the integrity of that neutral hiring process. While not that common, it is widely noticed and corrodes morale in agencies Americans count on for professional implementation of the nation’s laws.

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David C. Nixon (@nixondavidc) is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Hawaii and writes on political appointments.