The Burrowing of the Bushies
By Dan Froomkin
Originally published November 18, 2008 in White House Watch on Washington Post
It happens every time a president leaves office: Some of his political appointees don't want to go, so they "burrow in" to the civil service.
There are relatively benign reasons for burrowing in, such as financial security. But there is also the potential for ideological mischief-making.
So the question we ask ourselves today is: Are Bush and Cheney loyalists entrenching themselves into the federal bureaucracy in order to make it difficult for their successors to roll back their policies?
The burrowing-in of the Bushies has been underway in various agencies for some time now, and there are signs that as a result, the Obama administration could face resistance from within on some key areas.
Juliet Eilperin and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts.
"The transfer of political appointees into permanent federal positions, called 'burrowing' by career officials, creates security for those employees, and at least initially will deprive the incoming Obama administration of the chance to install its preferred appointees in some key jobs. . . .
"Between March 1 and Nov. 3, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the Bush administration allowed 20 political appointees to become career civil servants."
Alarming? One the one hand, Eilperin and Leonnig write: "The practice of placing political appointees into permanent civil service posts before an administration ends is not new. In its last 12 months, the Clinton administration approved 47 such moves, including seven at the senior executive level. Federal employees with civil service status receive job protections that make it very difficult for managers to remove them."
But on the other, they note: "The personnel moves come as Bush administration officials are scrambling to cement in place policy and regulatory initiatives that touch on issues such as federal drinking-water standards, air quality at national parks, mountaintop mining and fisheries limits."
The announced goal of the Interior Department move was to reduce disruptive turnover, but "environmental advocates, and some rank-and-file Interior officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting their careers, said the reassignments represent the Bush administration's effort to leave a lasting imprint on environmental policy," Eilperin and Leonnig report.
Joe Davidson wrote in his Washington Post Federal Diary column earlier this month that "this is burrowing season." He called attention to an October report from the Congressional Research Service which warned:
"While such conversions may occur at any time, frequently they do so during the transition period when one administration is preparing to leave office and another administration is preparing to assume office."
Carrie Johnson wrote in The Washington Post in July: "Two leading Senate Democrats asked Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey yesterday to 'exercise vigilance' and ensure that political appointees do not improperly wheedle their way into permanent slots at the beleaguered Justice Department.
"Sens. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) wrote to department leaders seeking 'personal assurances' that they would monitor employment decisions at Justice as the Bush administration draws to a close.
"'When unqualified political appointees take over jobs better left to skilled candidates, it threatens the agency's professionalism and independence,' Schumer said. 'We don't need ideological stowaways undermining the work of the next administration.'"
But Daniel Schulman writes in the current issue of Mother Jones that "last-minute vigilance is often too little too late, says Carol Bonosaro, the president of the Senior Executives Association, whose nearly 3,000 members span the federal bureaucracy. 'If you're smart,' she says, 'you do it earlier.' . . .
"As early as 2006, the Government Accountability Office reported that 144 employees in 23 agencies had converted from noncareer to career positions. In some cases, jobs seemed tailored to the strengths of the applicants, if not created for them outright. In others, standard competitive hiring procedures appeared absent. And in three instances, political staffers received career positions even though they lacked the requisite 'qualifications and/or experience.' . . .
"The current White House has even managed a variation on burrowing that bypasses the political appointment process -- directly seeding the civil service with ideologues whose influence may be felt for decades to come."
Ben Whitford wrote earlier this month in Plenty magazine about potential obstructions that Obama will face at the Environmental Protection Agency in particular: "[S]ome observers worry that over the past eight years, Bush loyalists have 'burrowed down' (in agency parlance) from appointed positions to permanent staff jobs from which they could potentially block efforts to put the agency back on track. There are no precise numbers, says Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Science Integrity Program, but it's likely that across the federal government many hundreds of Bush appointees have secured permanent positions, often in key roles from which they could effectively impede reform. 'We're going to be working to keep track of these folks,' says Grifo. 'We can't assume a priori that every single appointee who's stayed on is going to be evil the rest of their days, but we're going to be watching very closely.'"
In some cases, of course, the burrowing is not ideological in nature. Christopher Lee wrote in The Washington Post last year: "[N]o matter how much some in the Bush administration seem to look down on government, no matter how many say they long to return to the private sector or spend more time with family, a few political folks, in the end, will decide that they would rather not part ways with Uncle Sam. So they will try to stick around, angling to turn their short-term stint in an administration of their choice into a permanent job amid the ranks of career civil servants and federal executives.
"'Remember, not everybody who comes in is going to have a very high-profile job where they are going to be able to leave and make really good money,' said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents career executives in the federal government. 'Not everyone has had necessarily a strong enough background to go back out. They may just have been a campaign worker.'
"Burrowing in often looks like an especially good option to younger political appointees, people in their 20s who hold positions such as deputy chief of staff or assistant to the assistant secretary, said Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University. Most cannot easily make the leap to a lucrative job on K Street or elsewhere, he said.
"'The paycheck is the driver here,' Light said. 'A lot of appointees will think, "I don't have anywhere to go." . . . My sense is that they burrow in because there is pay, benefits and security involved -- precisely the things that they complain about as barriers to effective [government] performance.' "
Or, as Dale McFeaters writes in his Scripps Howard opinion column: "Republicans may deride Washington bureaucrats, but when their party is thrown out of office they desperately want to be one."