Obama Freezes SES Hiring and Gives Appointees a Resignation Deadline

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

The Obama administration has issued a freeze on hiring new top career officials through the remainder of his presidency, effective Dec. 7, saying the pause will better empower President-elect Donald Trump’s appointees to influence their agencies upon taking office.

The Office of Personnel Management will impose a governmentwide moratorium on Qualifications Review Board cases required to approve the appointments of individuals to SES positions. OPM said the freeze is “intended to preserve the prerogatives of an incoming agency head.”

The announcement follows President Obama's request that all non-termed political appointees send him their resignations by Dec. 7, the same day the moratorium will go into effect. Outgoing presidents traditionally request all appointees, who serve at the pleasure of the president, submit resignations effective immediately upon the new president’s swearing in to office. That step, as explained in the Partnership for Public Service’s Presidential Transition Guide, helps “to clear the decks for the new administration.”

OPM acting Director Beth Cobert said the resignations will “provide the maximum flexibility” for Trump to assemble his administration.

Cobert said OPM was following precedent in issuing the SES freeze prior to the upcoming change in office. The agency will not accept submissions of any new QRB cases, but will process those submitted prior to the Dec. 7 cutoff. Cobert encouraged agencies to continue evaluating potential SES candidates up until they reach the review board stage and to submit their cases “immediately” upon the announcement of a new agency head being appointed. Each agency can request OPM resumes processing their SES candidates only after a new leader is appointed. 

OPM is providing for some exceptions to the freeze; Cobert said agencies must balance the leverage the administration wants to provide to Trump’s team with “the need to ensure the continuity of agency operations during such transitions.” An agency whose director was not required to submit a resignation, such as those with fixed-term appointments, can continue to submit SES candidates for qualification reviews. SES candidates who have completed the development program and who are eligible for non-competitive appointment can also have their cases reviewed throughout the transition process. OPM will also consider, on a case-by-case basis, agency requests to fill SES positions because of a “critical need.”

In addition to agencies with termed leadership, Obama carved out U.S. Marshals, U.S. Attorneys, inspectors general and individuals serving on part-time boards and commissions as appointees who do not need to submit their resignations. The Trump administration could also reject the resignations of some officials to preserve continuity as it fills the more than 4,000 openings throughout government.

Federal agencies should have in September named career employees to serve in acting capacities for “critical non-career positions” that become vacant as Trump takes office, according to the General Services Administration. Those temporary positions will help fill “potential gaps between the exit and onboarding of senior political appointees between administrations,” GSA said. 

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