Discovering political employees who burrow into the career ranks is hard enough, but doing something about it during a presidential transition requires leadership at a time when everyone in power is relinquishing it. It is an early lesson for the incoming Obama-Biden administration; the federal government is a huge and labyrinthine organism comprising many smaller behaviors often difficult to trace, much less govern.
This is despite the fact that Clay Johnson III, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management and one of President George W. Bush's closest friends in the White House, has helped lead a smooth transition. Johnson acted well in advance -- during the primaries -- to address long-standing security clearance problems that he knew would plague an incoming administration. Will he step up to the plate against burrowing?
The time to take action against burrowers is now. The people approving and benefiting from burrowing in should be identified, enabling personnel actions reversed, and the offending parties led out of government. The Democrats coming into office should use their relationship with the outgoing Bush administration as well as their power on Capitol Hill to take action.
Burrowing in by political employees corrodes the foundation and merit principles on which a nonpartisan career service in government is built. We depend on that cadre of employees, particularly during the transition period between new presidents. Anyone who has ever experienced the beginning of a new administration knows that the real transition begins on Jan. 20. It lasts for months, and in some cases, much longer.
Unfortunately, burrowing in and the process for doing something about it, has more in common with whistleblowing than it does with a presidential transition. Similar to whistleblowing, the discovery of individuals burrowing into the career jobs from political appointments has involved reports surfacing from inside government, media coverage, and organized action by federal unions and associations -- followed by silence from the Office of Personnel Management.
Help from Congress, another partner in whistleblower cases and curbing abuse of political power, is necessary for vigorous oversight and its ability to reach directly into the practice of burrowing in and halt it. But can Congress quickly change its approach to cases involving abuses by officials with responsibility for core government operations during the Bush administration?
President Bush triggered a range of actions with his own unprecedented and improper removal of inspectors general -- all appointed by President Clinton -- at the Agriculture and Education departments and at NASA. Robert Cobb, Bush's choice as NASA inspector general, was investigated in 2007 by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency over allegations of improper conduct and a lack of independence; yet he remains in the job. GSA Administrator Lurita Doan, fired last spring, was the subject of well-documented conflicts of interest and procurement irregularities. Special Counsel Scott Bloch remained in office for most of his five-year term despite a flurry of actions that no one believed appropriate for someone in his position. Bloch was forced out of his job by the White House in October.
In the Senate, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over the issue of burrowing in, and its chairman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., now assumes a higher profile. House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is switching committees to lead the Energy and Commerce panel, and Tom Davis, R-Va., Government Reform's ranking Republican, is retiring from Congress. As Lieberman prepares for a mass influx of political nominations for the executive branch, will he step forward with the renewed personal confidence and political trust of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to stop burrowers?
OMB's Johnson is likely the only person close enough to the president who is personally committed to leading a respectable transition effort by the Bush administration and who has a big enough presence to step up against burrowers. Burrowing is Washington inside baseball, and Johnson does his best when others are reluctant to take on challenges that are obvious to everyone. Let's see him swing one more time.
Steven L. Katz is former chief counsel to the chairman of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. He also served in the Clinton White House Office of Presidential Personnel and as counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee during the tenure of then-chairman John Glenn, D-Ohio.