In another 23% of cases, agencies failed to seek permission before letting political appointees “burrow in.”
Federal agencies generally followed the rules and refrained from exerting political pressure when converting appointees into career positions during the end of the Obama administration and through the Trump administration, according to a new report, though they failed to ask permission for the conversions prior to making them in 23% of the cases.
The ever-controversial practice known as “burrowing” is legal, but must be completed following a strict set of procedures to ensure political appointees are qualified for the career jobs for which they are hired. The Office of Personnel Management has to sign off on the hires before agencies extend offers to ensure civil service laws are followed and the selections are free from political influence.
OPM vetted 161 agency requests to allow political appointees to burrow between March 2016 and President Trump’s last day in office, Jan. 20, 2021, according to an audit from the Government Accountability Office. Thirty-seven of those, however, took place after an agency already made the hire, bucking OPM guidance. In 10 of those cases, OPM deemed the hires were improper and agencies took steps to address the concerns. Of the cases in which agencies properly requested permission before making the hire, OPM rejected 22.
All told, OPM denied about 20% of the requests to allow political appointees to burrow. Of those OPM approved, 114 former political appointees accepted career jobs.
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. A 2015 law also requires OPM to verify that approved conversions actually occur.
“OPM’s pre-appointment reviews of these hires help safeguard the merit system principles and ensure that hiring into the career civil service is not based on political considerations,” GAO said.
Lawmakers have long sought to crack down on political appointees who burrow in, and congressional Republicans and the Trump administration placed particular emphasis on it following Obama’s presidency. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who at the time was leading Donald Trump’s transition effort, vowed in 2016 to change civil service laws if necessary to root out any holdovers. Following Trump’s election, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked OPM for weekly updates on all conversion requests throughout the post-election transition period.
OPM has issued memoranda to agencies reminding them of their responsibilities to get pre-clearance for hiring political appointees into career roles in several instances, including in 2016, 2018, 2021 and 2022. Still, agencies have at times failed to keep up with their requirements to receive pre-clearance from OPM, citing a difficulty in identifying when applicants had previously served in political roles. Agencies are supposed to ask potential hires whether they ever held such jobs, according to OPM guidance, but some have failed to do so. Congress has enacted the 2022 Periodically Listing Updates to Management (PLUM) Act, which will create a public database of all political appointees that OPM said agencies can utilize for the purposes of burrowing rules compliance.
Of the conversions OPM rejected, it flagged cases involving agencies giving unauthorized advantages to the hire, handling veterans’ preference improperly and submitting insufficient documentation. OPM referred nine of the cases to the Office of Special Counsel—the independent agency tasked with enforcing civil service law—for potential violations of prohibited personnel practices. OSC was only able to identify wrongdoing in two instances.
GAO noted certain agencies do not fall under OPM’s purview for review, such as the Intelligence Community, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.