OPM Tries to Thwart Political Appointees Trying to Burrow In to the Bureaucracy

Fears that officials are illegally moving into career Civil Service positions are longstanding.

The Office of Personnel Management last week issued a memo to agency leaders aimed at preventing officials appointed by President Obama from illegally “burrowing in” to career federal positions during the transition to a new administration.

In early July, lawmakers asked OPM to provide Congress with information about any agency efforts to convert appointees to career civil servants. Trump campaign officials had earlier expressed concern about the practice, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is leading Donald Trump’s transition effort, vowing to change Civil Service laws if necessary to root out any holdovers.

It is not illegal to move someone from an appointee position into a career slot in certain circumstances, but it does require oversight and approval from OPM.

In the Aug. 11 memo to agencies, OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert spelled out the requirements, noting that the agency would continue to review any such proposals, and included “pre-appointment checklists” for both competitive service positions and non-political excepted service positions.

The concern about appointees swiping career federal jobs is an old one. During the 2000 presidential election, then-President Bill Clinton’s OPM Director Janice Lachance warned agency Human Resources officers to be on the lookout for appointees trying to burrow into the bureaucracy. Fears that the practice is widespread may be overblown, however. As Government Executive’s Kellie Lunney noted at the time:  

In the fall of 1997, the General Accounting Office released a report that reviewed 36 career appointments made by 18 agencies between January 1996 and March 1997. Six of those cases raised enough suspicion of possible impropriety to warrant further review. Ultimately, GAO concluded the agencies had followed proper procedure in all six cases.

Last November, a group of House and Senate Republicans asked GAO to review whether a 2010 policy designed to limit the practice of burrowing in has been effective. We’ll soon see if anything has changed in the intervening 20 years.