The Trump administration may have done far more burrowing in than usual, but they did not create the problem. Political appointees sometimes decide they want a career civil service job and their bosses are happy to help. After all, they thought highly enough of the appointees to appoint them once already. In fact, the career civil service was initially only a small percentage of federal jobs. In the years following the passage of the Pendleton Act that created the career civil service, a series of one-term presidents increased the number of career jobs to take care of their appointees. So burrowing in is as old as the career civil service itself.
The problem with burrowing in is that it diminishes trust in the merit system. Even when the political appointees are highly qualified, few observers trust that the appointment process was fair. There is something to be said for that perception. When I think of the burrowing cases I have reviewed over the years, the common thread is that the person had inside knowledge of the agency and a connection to people making hiring decisions. Without that knowledge and connection, the likelihood is that they would not have been hired for the career job.
That does not mean someone did something illegal. Having inside knowledge and knowing the decision makers applies to career employees in agencies too. The difference is the appearance. Someone coming in as a political appointee in an agency where the individual has no experience and then suddenly getting a good permanent job just looks bad. Sometimes it is bad, when the job was created primarily to provide a home for an appointee.
So how do we fix it? There are two ways that I think are workable. The first would be for the Biden administration to add a restriction to their ethics pledge that prohibits appointees from applying for a permanent federal job while they occupy a political position in the administration. I would go a step further, and ask that they agree not to apply for or accept a permanent federal job within one year of leaving the administration. That cooling off period would make it unlikely that the appointee would show up a year later and be hired into a career job. Even if they did, it would have a far better appearance than leaving the political job on Friday and starting the career job on Monday.
A better solution is for Congress to amend the law to put the same kind of restriction in place. At a minimum, appointees at any grade level should not be allowed to apply for or accept a permanent federal job while they are occupying a political position. Adding the cooling off period for a year would most likely make the burrowing in problem go away. An administration in its last year is unlikely to go out and try to put many of their former appointees in career jobs. As some people say, absence makes the heart go yonder.
We have experience that shows that this type of restriction could work. When the Department of Defense had restrictions on retiring military being rehired as civil servants in the 180 days following retirement, there were far fewer retired military who promptly came back as civilians. When those restrictions were lifted, the floodgates opened and the numbers increased dramatically, particularly in higher graded jobs.
The credibility of the career civil service is a fundamental building block in restoring trust in government. Citizens need to know that their government is not hiring people based on their politics. Reducing the instances of burrowing in is an important step in that process.
I know some people will argue that burrowing in is not a problem in their administration. I have heard far too many people say that hiring people from their administration is OK, because their political appointees are good. Not surprisingly, the Democrats and Republicans both think their appointees are great, but those from the other party are not.
The final argument I hear is that it would be unfair to deny appointees an opportunity for a career civil service job. Waiting a year before applying for a career job is not a big loss. No one is forced to accept a political appointment. In fact, the line of people wanting one is significant. Political appointees develop connections that make them very employable in many places, so a one-year cooling off period is not going to make them homeless.
If we want burrowing in to go away, the only way to really fix this problem is to make it go away for administrations of any party. The Biden administration could make it happen now for their own appointees, but that would not prevent a future president from reversing the policy. That’s why Congress should act.
Jeff Neal authors the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.