Obama Admin. Cracks Down On Burrowing — Right Cries Foul

November 13, 2009 7:33 a.m.

In what may be another small dose of that precious change we can believe in, the Obama administration is taking steps to crack down on one of the Bushies’ favored tactics for politicizing government: burrowing.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, we told you about some political appointees who had landed career jobs, with civil-service protections, at their departments — allowing them to continue to exert influence under the new government, and making them difficult to remove. In fact, the Bushies were far from the first group to try this. The Washington Monthly‘s Charles Peters, who has chronicled the workings of the federal government since the 1960s, used to call it the “headless nail” phenomenon.But now the Obama administration is trying to at least make it more difficult. A recent memo from John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, announced that starting January 1, his office will have to sign off every time a political appointee who was appointed during the last 5 years is hired for a career position. Right now, OPM approval is only required during a presidential election year.

Berry wrote in his memo that political appointees can’t be excluded from consideration for career jobs, but they also “must not be given preference or special advantages” — as appears to have happened in the past.

Some on the right have sounded the alarm over Berry’s memo, arguing that it unfairly discriminates against political appointees, and suggesting it’s designed to weed out Bush appointees whose political outlooks differ from that of the new administration.

But two experts we spoke to dismissed those concerns. Paul Light, an expert on the federal bureaucracy at the Brookings Institution, called the new policy “not a prohibition, but tighter review.”

And Bill Bransford, who as general counsel to the Senior Executives Association has studied the burrowing phenomenon, called the memo “appropriate.”

In the past, Bransford told TPMmuckraker, the process has been marred by a lack of transparency from OPM. So when political appointees have been hired for career posts, there have been legitimate concerns about political interference. The new policy, he explained, begins to fix that. “Having that new level of review by OPM should give some comfort to the public that the political appointees who do receive career positions are in fact the most qualified,” he said.

Still, from a raw political viewpoint, there could be a downside. Light said that because the Obama administration, when it leaves office, will inevitably want to burrow its own appointees into career jobs, “they will rue the day they did this.”

For now, though, count this as a strike against the politicization of government that the Bushies raised to an art form.

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