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Eye Opener: Making political 'burrowing' harder

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

Happy Monday! It may soon get much harder for political appointees to "burrow" into their agencies at any time -- not just during presidential election years.

Currently agencies must only seek permission from the Office of Personnel Management to move a political appointee into a career job during a presidential election year. But starting Jan. 1, OPM will have to approve every transfer of a current or recent political appointee into a career position. The order came in a memo issued late last week by OPM Director John Berry.

By burrowing, political officials earn civil service job protections that make it difficult for managers to remove them. The practice may also deprive an incoming presidential administration of a chance to name its preferred candidates to top jobs.

But in his memo, Berry said "I believe we must hold ourselves and the government to a higher standard, one that honors and supports the president’s strong commitment to a government that is transparent and open. OPM’s responsibility to uphold the merit system is not limited to presidential election years nor to competitive service appointments."

"While political appointees may not be excluded from consideration for federal jobs because of their political affiliation, they must not be given preference or special advantages," Berry said. Agency requests will be reviewed by OPM's career senior executives in order to avoid any suggestion of political influence by Berry or other appointees.

A 2008 Congressional Research report (pdf) confirmed that "burrowing" normally occurs during a presidential transition. Forty-seven Clinton administration appointees stayed put, while the Bush administration approved at least 20 such personnel moves in 2008.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Partnership for Public Service Founder Dies: Samuel J. Heyman, 70, died unexpectedly of unknown causes on Saturday. He established the Partnership in 2001 in an effort to promote public service. Partnership CEO Max Stier called Heyman "a bold and visionary philanthropist who saw that a path to great social change was to invest in the capacity of our nation’s government. He conceived of an organization that would restore prestige to government service and inspire a new generation into its ranks. Mr. Heyman never shrank from a challenge, and the Partnership benefited tremendously from his bold leadership as Chairman, his vision and his support." President George W. Bush awarded Heyman the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2008.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | November 9, 2009; 5:55 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener, Revolving Door  
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The simple solution is to prohibit Schedule C's from applying for civil service jobs while the president that was in office is still in office. Mr. Berry is wrong. This is not discriminatory based on political affiliation, I know Dems who held political appointment during the Bush years and Republican who held positions during Democratic admins. It is more like a non-compete clause in a normal work contract. If you work for a company then you can not take a job with a competitor for so long after you leave. Even if you agree with Mr. Berry, I would say that simply allowing them to apply is special treatment, they have received special access and experience because of their appointments they should not be able to use that restricted access experience to compete against others, those of other political affiliation, who have not had access to those experience. It is like denying blacks access to grad schools but then claiming that your hiring is not discriminatory because you interview anyone with a grad degree. No one who gets a political appointment complain about a temporary ban on conversion can anymore than they can complain that rules banning them from holding stocks in areas they regulate is discriminatory based on political affiliation.

Posted by: crete | November 9, 2009 7:14 AM | Report abuse

How is "seeking permission from OPM" different from "OPM ... approv[ing]"?

Posted by: olita_the_otter | November 9, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

"Burrowing" is one of the major diseases of Federal Civil Service. Aggressive campaign fund-raisers are awarded with lucrative appointments in various agencies, despite their lack of experience and appropriate skill sets. The secret is to keep them occupied with out-of-town events (speeches, dedications, good-will tours) so they will miss the meetings where important decisions are made by experienced career civil servants.

Posted by: doncoleman1 | November 10, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I'll bet you a cup of coffee that there is a strong correlation between those political appointees who have "burrowed" into a federal agency and the problems of that agency. Putting an inexperienced person in a federal management role is not unlike the "square peg in a round hole."

Posted by: doncoleman1 | November 10, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

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