Fight to The Finish

As the Bush administration winds down, tensions between careerists and political appointees heat up.

Rebecca McGinley exemplifies the best of career civil servants, or the worst of political appointees, depending on whom you ask.

For some, she is a bright, hardworking young lawyer who was hired into government for her skills. She is an apolitical workhorse who naturally transitioned from a political appointment to a career federal job. For others, McGinley is a Republican political crony, improperly using connections to win special treatment and "burrowing" into a career job, demoralizing her co-workers.

In April, the national nonprofit advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility raised the alarm on McGinley, an attorney at the Office of Special Counsel, accusing her of burrowing in.

Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch, an appointee, hired McGinley as principal special assistant, a political appointment, when he came to the agency in January 2004. Later, he moved her to another political slot, deputy special counsel, for a brief period before hiring her as a career attorney in the investigation and prosecution division, reporting to a career supervisor. Shortly thereafter, McGinley took a six-month detail at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. Only career employees can receive detail assignments.

PEER is publicizing an anonymous account from an OSC staffer who says that Bloch converted McGinley because he "owed" her. "The top federal officer charged with protecting the merit system [is violating] core merit principles with impunity," says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "The special counsel is supposed to enforce anti-cronyism rules but, under Scott Bloch, cronyism has become the prime management directive at OSC."

Then there's the other version. OSC spokesman James Mitchell says McGinley is hardly a crony; Bloch didn't know her before he hired her. Indeed, in the alumni magazine of her alma mater, Central Missouri State University, McGinley says as much: "When an attorney friend called and informed me that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel was looking to hire someone like me, I immediately made the call," she said.

Mitchell says McGinley's reputation is as a workhorse, not an elephant.

"She had a reputation of being able to go through big piles of cases," Mitchell says. "Scott doesn't even know how she votes . . . she just rolled up her sleeves and dug in with the career force."

McGinley is not alone in facing scru-tiny. At the Justice Department, another young attorney resigned after her role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys was questioned. The Washington Post quoted an anonymous former career Justice official who said that Bush appointee Monica Goodling, senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and liaison to the White House, "forced many very talented career people out of main Justice so she could replace them with junior people that were either loyal to the administration or would score her some points."

As we enter the final 18 months of President Bush's tenure with the Democrats now controlling Congress, the age-old tension between career employees and political appointees is heating up.

Rare Peek

Almost a decade ago, the most respected career executives in government gathered for a morning of reflection. They belonged to an elite group-winners of the Presidential Rank Award. About 60 are feted each year in the State Department's glittering diplomatic reception rooms for their "strength, integrity, industry and a relentless commitment to excellence in public service." In 1998, away from the wine and chandeliers, the group met in a quieter setting, as they do every year. The objective of their meeting was an intellectual one: to examine their relationships with political appointees. The gathering was run by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Senior Executives Association, which documented the discussion. The resulting monograph was a rare, candid peek into the tension between political and career employees.

"If a political and a careerist were both told to get ice," one government official said, "we'd go get a glacier, slow moving and large. They'd go get a hailstorm."

"My single biggest job is to act as a dam to keep [some policies] from getting further down the line," another careerist said of political appointees' eagerness to make policy changes.

Such tension makes for good policy, says George Krause, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies bureaucracies. "Their biases offset one another," he says. "Political executives are only thinking of the short term, whereas civil servants are thinking of the long term. They're invested in the agency and its long-term mission, and they don't want to look foolish if they're too optimist or sanguine."

The tension seldom is discussed openly. The anonymity of that day's discussion allowed career executives to share with unusual frankness their secrets about handling political counterparts.

"We are loyal to the government of the day," another official said. "A lot of times [political appointees] have sort of a vague vision, but when you ask them, 'What do you mean by this' or "How are you going to get this done,' that's when you lose their attention. When you go in and say, 'It sounds like you're going this way and here are three ways we can get it done,' they love it."

"It's kind of like the elephant in the living room that no one talks about but everyone knows is there," says Carol Bonosaro, president of SEA, which advocates for members of the Senior Executive Service, the top careerists in government, and sponsors the rank award dinners. This year, the newest crop of award winners will discuss the topic again, with a focus on whether political appointees are using career employees' talents to the fullest. Nine years later, careerists still question whether politicals value them.

Bonosaro's group has begun taking the tension public. In February, SEA announced its 2007 legislative priority: the "restoration of career leadership." It's not a George W. Bush thing; SEA leaders say career employees' powers slowly have been reduced over 20 years. They break down the subject into a number of separate issues. The first is McGinley's charge, burrowing in. It's a term used when appointees improperly move into career positions, extending their political party's influence past the next election.

In this arena, there's the case of William Cowen, solicitor at the National Labor Relations Board. NLRB is often at the center of controversial political decisions in the union world. Last year, for instance, the board ruled in the Kentucky River cases that many workers were ineligible for union membership because of supervisory duties. Thousands of nurses were deemed supervisors even if they had few managing duties, such as scheduling other nurses.

In January, Cowen took the NLRB solicitor's job, a career position as the board's chief legal officer and adviser on questions of law and policy. Before that, however, he had two political jobs, first as a recess appointee by President Bush to one of the five board member slots. After Cowen's one-year recess appointment expired, the head of the board, Robert Battista, hired him as his executive assistant. Cowen's move from a partisan position to the supposedly neutral agency adviser spot has caused some of his colleagues to bristle.

But Cowen insists his career switch is not burrowing in. "Burrowing in is not a concept that applies," Cowen says. Burrowing in is "when someone who is not qualified for a position is inserted for political reasons. My résumé speaks for itself on my qualifications." Indeed, Cowen began his legal career in 1979 at NLRB. He stayed for six years before entering a private labor law practice.

Regardless of résumés, the Office of Personnel Management sends out a memo during each presidential transition, warning agency heads not to permit burrowing in. Near the end of President Bill Clinton's tenure, in March 2000, then-OPM Director Janice Lachance issued a memo forbidding the conversion of Schedule C appointees to competitive positions without OPM approval.

On the flip side, agencies sometimes switch from traditionally career positions to political ones. It's another one of SEA's concerns, one it shares with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. In January, just before the Democrats officially took control of Congress, Kerry shot off one of his first letters as the head of the Senate Small Business Committee to Donald Winter, secretary of the Navy. Kerry questioned Winter's recent decision to convert the chief of the Navy Small Business Program from a career to a political position. "This is un-acceptable," Kerry wrote. "For program continuity and consistency, it is critical that this position remain a career SES."

Kerry told Winter he believed that "the staff that is charged with managing the day-to-day contracting and procurement process for the federal government should be as free from political influence as possible." Winter didn't budge. In his March 20 response, he told Kerry that his "decision to offer the position to a well qualified and experienced appointee from the private sector offers the department a valuable and renewable source of ideas."

'Creep Downward'

The Navy's small business position is no anomaly, according to John Euler, former chairman of the SEA board and retired Justice Department senior executive who served twice in Iraq in civilian roles. "I think over the last couple of administrations, there's really been a creep downward of political-level appointments," he says.

Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, introduced a bill in February to elevate a careerist to the Homeland Security Department's No. 3 spot as undersecretary for management. Not surprisingly, DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson doesn't like that idea, because it would diminish his own authority. But, he says, he and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff are prioritizing the promotion of career employees to "visible" positions across the department to ensure a smooth transition into the next administration.

"When I was working [at the Transportation Department] for Andy Card . . . he said to me the very first morning that I started work for him-that was his first morning as secretary of transportation-he said let's make certain that in this department we treat the career people and political people as the same team," Jackson says. "No difference, no caste system, no prejudice one way or another. If somebody proves they're not worthy of trust, we'll deal with that as it happens. Let's start from this basis. That's exactly the right way to govern the federal government."

Euler says he admired and respected the political appointees in the civil division at Justice, but there was a difference in teams. "A lot of the sort of what I would call operational policy-level work, I think, has been taken over by political appointees instead of the career senior people," Euler says. "There was much more micromanagement on things like briefs you would file in court and what we were doing piece by piece in litigation. It was important litigation, but the level of editing and rewriting was uncalled for."

And now, close review has been codified, at least for regulations. In January, President Bush issued an executive order requiring agencies to have a politically run policy shop oversee regulations. In the press, the order was portrayed as a business win over government regulation. Policy shops now have to justify the "specific market failure" that their regulation is addressing. But within agencies, the order was viewed as a win for polit- ical appointees over career employees.

"Typically, regulations and the development thereof had been seen as in essence involving legal questions: 'Let's delineate and further detail what the legislation meant,' " says SEA's Bonosaro. "Now by inserting greater political review, it is a clear message that it is seen to have political dimensions."

Care and Feeding

Successfully navigating their relationships with political bosses is a big part of what lands those 60-odd distinguished executives their Presidential Rank Awards each year. "Learning how to engage effectively with political appointees is learned on the job," says Peter Zimmerman, a professor at the Kennedy school who leads the morning reflections with the winners.

The execs in Zimmerman's 1998 session laid out a few tips:

  • Drop a note to a new executive to "plant a seed that you're on the team."
  • Develop relationships with appointees' key advisers.
  • Project confidence.
  • Research an appointee's background and find commonalities.
  • Don't become just a "yes" person, but don't become an obstructionist, either.

Some career employees in the current administration have mastered the care and feeding of appointees, earning respect in the political world and even appointments of their own. Take Ryan Crocker, a career Foreign Service officer who was tapped as ambassador to Iraq. There's also Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and a career Navy officer with decades of experience in the Defense Department, and Charlie Allen, DHS' assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis, who started his CIA career in 1958.

Having former career employees at the top is good for agency management, says David E. Lewis, a Princeton University politics professor who is writing a book on the subject, Politicizing Administration: Policy and Patronage in Presidential Appointments (Princeton University Press). He uses scores from the Bush administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool, management grades for agencies, and from OPM's survey of the federal workforce to determine which agencies are thriving. "Agencies run by appointees and those that have a higher percentage of appointees get lower evaluations," he says.

But higher management scores and higher employee approval don't necessarily mean more success in applying and creating policy. Bush's executive order reminds the federal workforce that's his goal.

Lewis has found that Republicans tend to put more appointees in agencies they consider liberal-the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development departments, for example. Democratic administrations layer their appointees into what are perceived to be more conservative agencies, such as the Defense and Treasury departments. Layering of political appointees, adding new links to the chain of command, is another focus of SEA's legislative agenda. The number of levels of appointees at many agencies is "excessive," according to the association, and the effect is "to move career executives further from top political leadership."

Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service, says President Kennedy appointed about 90 assistant secretaries in 1960 compared with more than 200 installed by President Bush. Many of the extra slots were mandated by Congress to oversee new programs or beef up management.

"Information has difficulty getting up the hierarchy, guidance has a hard time getting down," Light says. "There's lots of distortion. It is implicated in every major meltdown over the last 30 years from the Challenger to Hurricane Katrina." While political appointees make up much less than 1 percent of all federal employees, they account for 40 percent to 60 percent of the layers in government, Light says.

SEA wants hard numbers to demonstrate its suspicions, but so far, they don't exist. OPM publishes the Plum Book, listing political appointments, every four years. The last one is from 2004. Among other things, SEA wants to know the number of positions fenced off as career-reserved SES positions. In the 2000 Plum Book, 2,802 positions were listed as "general" and as "filled by SES career appointments or vacant." In 2004, 4,555 such positions were listed, leading some to wonder whether positions previously designated as career reserved are now general and therefore open to appointees. "We need data; we need hard information," SEA's Bonosaro says. "What Congress can do is help get us the facts."

Democrats appear willing to help. In May 2006, after the Government Account- ability Office released a report on 18 cases of improper burrowing, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Danny Davis, D-Ill., then in the minority, listened. They wrote to OPM Director Linda Springer, saying such cases "are a threat to the civil service system both because they implant less qualified personnel into the government and because they tarnish the integrity of the federal merit-based hiring system." Waxman and Davis asked Springer to go beyond GAO's recommendation to review the situation and change its policy for the future.

Springer responded that no changes were necessary at this time. Now Waxman heads the Government Reform Committee and Davis leads its subcommittee on the federal workforce.

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