Senator Requests Weekly Updates on Appointees Burrowing In

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., wants reports of any appointees converting to civil service positions. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., wants reports of any appointees converting to civil service positions. AP file photo

A Republican senator with the most direct authority over the federal workforce in the upper chamber is asking for regular updates from the Obama administration on political appointees who become career employees, adding another layer of executive and legislative branch oversight of the practice.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chairs the Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee, wrote to Office of Personnel Management acting Director Beth Cobert to ask for a weekly update on all conversion requests made by federal agencies. By law, all of those requests must be approved by OPM. Johnson asked for the name, salary and career information of all the appointees agencies are looking to place in career jobs, as well as details of the reviews OPM has already conducted.

The senator, who was considered one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents up for re-election this year before winning a second term, also asked for the same information on all appointees who “burrowed in” to their jobs since June 30.

Cases of burrowing are relatively rare, though lawmakers always demand significant oversight. Just 69 appointees converted into career employees between Jan. 1, 2010 and Oct. 1, 2015, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office. GAO did find, however, 25 percent of burrowers did so without proper authorization. Johnson cited those findings in asking for more information from OPM.

“As we approach the closing days of the Obama administration,” Johnson wrote, “we must guard against inappropriate hiring practices to ensure merit-based federal employment and protect the independence of the federal civil service.”

GAO said OPM should increase monitoring of conversions so no one attempting to burrow in does so without appropriate oversight. The HR agency denied it lacked a system to catch conversions, but said it had already put in place additional measures to bolster its efforts. A 2015 law also requires OPM to verify that approved conversions actually occur.

Political-to-career conversions are down from GAO’s last report on the subject; the auditors identified 139 cases between May 2005 and May 2009. GAO conducted its updated investigation after four Republican lawmakers requested it last year. In August, acting OPM Director Beth Cobert sent a memorandum to agencies reminding them of their responsibilities in hiring political appointees and reporting their 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.

Trump campaign officials earlier this year expressed concern about the practice, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who at the time was leading Donald Trump’s transition effort, vowing to change civil service laws if necessary to root out any holdovers.

Johnson’s request follows a similar ask from his House counterpart, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, earlier this year. President Obama recently requested all political appointees to announce by early December their intention to resign when President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in to office. 

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