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‘Burrowing in’ increased slightly under Bush, report shows

New numbers rekindle debate over whether moving political appointees to career jobs can be beneficial.

A new report suggests that the Bush administration moved slightly more political appointees into career federal jobs than the Clinton administration. Those numbers have reopened a perennial debate about whether such conversions are necessarily a bad thing.

The Government Accountability Office found that between May 1, 2005, and May 30, 2009, 143 political appointees and congressional employees moved into career civil service positions -- a practice known as burrowing in -- at 26 departments and agencies. Another 16 departments and agencies did not fill any civil service openings with political appointees during that period. The Justice Department made the most conversions, turning 32 political appointees into civil servants. The Homeland Security Department followed with 18, and the Defense Department had 13.

By comparison, 111 political appointees and congressional employees moved into civil service jobs during Clinton's second term. And during George W. Bush's first term, 144 political appointees moved into career jobs.

"They're actually quite modest," said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, of the Bush administration numbers. "Last fiscal year…. there were 142,000-plus new hires to government. So there was a huge intake, and we're looking at a total number of conversions of 143."

Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said it was important to scrutinize end-of-administration transitions into the civil service to make sure political appointees were not staying on to continue a political agenda. He noted that it can be frustrating for career employees to watch appointees join a workforce many had disparaged.

"Now some of them are civil servants themselves, getting paid by the very taxpayers they were attempting to cut critical programs for," he said. "How is that for hypocrisy?"

But Palguta said the regular and heavy scrutiny of burrowing in discouraged administrations from abusing the practice, and provided a mechanism for removing employees who were given jobs for ideological rather than merit-based reasons. He added political appointees ought to have the right to compete for open civil service jobs.

"Where some political appointees have developed knowledge and skills that could be well-used, we might want to encourage them to continue their service to the country in the career workforce," he said. "But we want to make sure that it's because they're best-qualified for a position."

William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, agreed political appointees should not be barred from joining the civil service as long as their motivations did not undermine programs or a new administration's agenda.

GAO will release a follow-up report with more details on George W. Bush's second-term conversions.