Congress warns political hires to avoid ‘burrowing’ into career positions

As President Barack Obama nears the end of his final year in the White House, a growing crowd in Congress is reminding federal agencies that its political appointees can’t roll over into the next administration.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) sent letters to four agencies requesting more information on political appointees who have switched over to the career employee track — a process known as “burrowing,”   a practice that has been frowned upon  since the Carter administration.

“The laws governing employee conversions from political to career positions are intended to prevent federal agencies from hiring employees for career positions — which do not change from one administration to the next — based on political influence,” Brady and Hatch wrote in letters to the Health and Human Services Department, the Treasury Department, the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Trade Representative — all agencies that their respective committees oversee.

Title 5 of the U.S. Code outlines the qualifications to become a federal career employee. Potential candidates, it says, should be considered based on “relative ability, knowledge, and skill, and fair and open competition.”

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The Brady-Hatch letters represent the latest alarm sounded over an issue that comes up after the end of every presidential administration, but seldom becomes the problem that government officials make it out to be.

Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert wrote a memo in January to remind agency heads of policies in place that prevent political hires from switching over to positions in the competitive service. Under current procedure, OPM reviews applications for anyone who held a political position within the last five years and wants to continue as a career appointee.

OPM updated its policy in 2010, and now conducts pre-hiring reviews on a continual basis rather than during the year before a presidential transition. Former OPM Director John Berry also provided a checklist in 2009 for human resources directors to follow when dealing with cases of political hires seeking federal career jobs.

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), and Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office urging it to review cases between June 1, 2009 and Oct. 1, 2015, in which political appointees sought civil servant positions.

The last time GAO reviewed “burrowing in” was in 2009. Auditors found that between May 1, 2005 and May 30, 2009, 26 of 42 agencies surveyed had reported hiring political appointees to career positions, filling 139 positions overall. Nearly 60 percent of those hires came in the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, Energy and Commerce.

“Agencies appeared to have used appropriate authorities and followed proper procedures in making the majority (92) of the 117 conversions reported at the GS-12 level or higher,” the report stated. “However, for seven of these conversions documentation indicates that agencies may not have adhered to merit system principles, followed proper procedures, or may have engaged in prohibited personnel practices or other improprieties. Some of the improper procedures included pre-selecting particular individuals for career positions and selecting former political appointees who appeared to have limited qualifications and/or experience relevant to the career positions.”

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