A key Donald Trump ally unveiled this week how the Republican nominee would reform the civil service as president, and it could dramatically change the protections federal employees currently enjoy.
Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., who is heading up Trump’s transition effort, told a group of donors at a private meeting he is helping compile a list of Obama appointees in executive branch positions at risk of being converted into career employees before the administration leaves office in January. That process, known as “burrowing in,” is legal but requires oversight and approval from the Office of Personnel Management.
To root out potential burrowers, Christie said -- according to Reuters, which first reported the story -- he is recommending Trump immediately work with Congress to change civil service laws. While the governor did not get into specifics, the process would likely mirror Republican efforts already under way to limit or strip entirely federal workers’ due process rights.
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Opponents of those reform proposals have said civil service laws exist in part to avoid wholesale firings from one administration to the next in order to maintain institutional knowledge and prevent hirings based solely on political patronage.
Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which houses the Center for Presidential Transition to help the next administration take office, agreed burrowing was a “legitimate concern,” but noted there are already protections in place. In addition to OPM’s reviews, the Government Accountability Office has generally investigated the prevalence of burrowing after transitions take place.
Stier said it is important to remain “vigilant” about agencies converting appointees into career workers, but not to step too far.
“The flip side is to make sure we have a system that a new political team isn’t able to get rid of people for non-merit reasons either,” he said.
Christie called the current removal process “cumbersome” and “time consuming,” according to Reuters, but said his suggestions to Trump would “make it a lot easier to fire those people.” The governor, referencing the Republican nominee’s previous job as host of The Apprentice, added, “As you know from his other career, Donald likes to fire people.”
Burrowing political appointees form a “roadblock” akin to the Clinton administration tampering with the White House keyboards before President George W. Bush took office, Christie said. The burrowing process has already come under the current Congress’ microscope, with both the House and Senate launching probes in recent months to further review the conversions.
OPM in 2010 announced that agencies would need its permission before giving current or recent political appointees competitive or nonpolitical excepted service positions. The new policy applied to jobs at all levels. Previously, the personnel agency oversaw such moves only during election years, unless the appointees were transferring to Senior Executive Service positions.
If Trump is able to get his reforms through Congress, he could run into trouble enforcing them. To date, Congress has only passed targeted civil service reform focusing on senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department. A 2014 law enabled VA to expedite the removal process for those managers, while leaving some appeal rights in place. Still, the Justice Department recently announced it would not defend those reforms in court due to concerns over constitutionality. VA has said it will no longer use the authority Congress granted it in 2014 to quickly remove top managers accused of wrongdoing, sending lawmakers back to the drawing board.