December 14, 2016
Zach Regen, Fellow, Partnership for Public Service
If you're a political junkie, you probably have heard of “political burrowing,” a topic that often comes up during election years.
Burrowing is a term used when a political appointee converts to a merit-based civil service position. For the sake of clarification, a political appointee is someone named to a non-career position by the president while a civil service job is held by a career public servant who has been competitively hired. At any given time, there are approximately 4,000 political appointees serving in government who work with 2.1 million career civil servants.
How Does An Appointee Convert?
In order for this change of status to take place, the agency converting a political appointee must submit a request to the Office of Personnel Management for approval. The request includes the information about the appointee’s current position as well as the civil service job. OPM may either approve or deny the request. OPM also must submit the names of all of those who converted to civil service jobs to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
This transfer of position is defined in section 4 of Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015.
This past summer, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, requested agencies that had a political appointee convert to a career position since Sept. 1, 2015 supply him with documentation. Chaffetz expressed concern that burrowing might be widespread given the impending change of administrations and that some political appointees may have been given permanent jobs at the expense of more qualified career applicants. Details of this inquiry have not been released.
How Common is Burrowing?
The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, has been asked over the years to examine the frequency of burrowing and has never found the practice to be widespread.
Earlier this year, the GAO published a study which found that of the 30 agencies reviewed, 28 reported converting 69 individuals from political to career positions from Jan. 1, 2010 through Oct. 1, 2015. The GAO found that some conversions during this six-year timeframe were completed without OPM’s approval as required by regulation. OPM officials told the GAO they are working to enhance their monitoring and will increase the frequency of the reviews.
A previous GAO report also found a small number of conversions given the size of the workforce. Twenty six of 42 departments and agencies selected for review reported converting 139 political appointees to a civil service job from May 1, 2005 through May 30, 2009. The GAO said there were 7 cases of possible disregard for normal merit procedures.
In an earlier study of 45 agencies surveyed by GAO from October 1998 to April 2001, there were 100 reported instances of employees converting from political jobs and 11 converting from congressional staff positions. The GAO said there were 17 instances where the appointments could give the appearance that individuals had received political favoritism or preferences.
While there is potential for abuse of political appointees converting to career jobs, the evidence to date from the GAO studies suggests the practice given the number of appointees and the size of the federal workforce, has been limited, and that abuse of the process has not been a major issue.