Obama administration political appointees seem to be shifting into lifetime civil-service jobs and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson wants to ensure they don't skirt hiring laws while doing so.
In the wake 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,” Johnson, chairman and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote in a Nov. 21 letter to Office of Personnel and Management acting director Beth Cobert.
“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 said.“It is imperative that we ensure our federal civilian workforce is merit-based and independent.”
Johnson requested a weekly report from Cobert “of all conversions and requests for conversions from political appointments to career positions.”
Conversions of political appointees to career civil service positions – commonly called “burrowing in” – have been a long-standing congressional concern, as some members worry that political appointees could use their clout to circumvent hiring rules and nab career civil service jobs ahead of other, qualified applicants. Once in those jobs, they could oppose the new administration, Republicans fear.
Sixty nine political appointees had converted to career civil service positions from Jan. 1, 2010, and Oct. 1, 2015, according to Sept. 2016 Government Accountability Office report. Of those, 17 were done without the required, prior approval of the Office of Personnel Management in the White House.
The Office of Personnel Management investigated 13 of those 17 cases, approving nine and denying four. In the Obama years, OPM denied 19 of the 69 conversions the GAO identified.
One conversion that OPM denied involved a political appointee who was given a civil service post at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation ahead of a “disabled veteran who appeared qualified for the position and should have received top consideration in the selection process based on active military service,” according to 2016 Government Accountability Office report.
In another case, the OPM rejected a political appointee at the U.S. Department of Education from moving to a civil-service post after it discovered the department had given an “unfair advantage” to the political appointee by “manipulating the requirements of the career position to align with the appointee’s background rather than with the position’s classified duties.”
It’s not the first time the GAO has investigated the issue.
A June 2010 GAO report analyzing conversions during the presidency of George W. Bush said “139 individuals from political to career positions from May 1, 2005, through May 30, 2009.”
The GAO said seven of those conversions “may not have adhered to merit system principles, followed proper procedures, or may have engaged in prohibited personnel practices or other improprieties.”
Earlier GAO reports stretching back to 1992 have found that, on average, between 15 and 20 percent of political appointees trying to covert to career civil servants have done so improperly.
In a Jan. 11 letter to department and agency heads, Cobert reiterated OPM policy on how political appointees may convert to career civil service positions.
“All personnel actions [must] remain free of political influence or other improprieties and meet all relevant civil service laws, rules and regulations,” Cobert wrote.
Cobert also said the requirements are not new. “It has been OPM policy since the Carter Administration," Cobert said, "and under every president since to ensure that politics play no role when agencies hire political appointees for career federal jobs.”