In Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Mikado,” the character Ko-Ko, in his role as Lord High Executioner, keeps a list of potential victims should he ever actually be called upon to conduct an execution. He sings, “As someday it may happen that a victim must be found/I’ve got a little list of society offenders who might well be underground/and who never would be missed.”
As head of Donald Trump’s transition team, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reportedly said he is drawing up a list of Obama appointees who would be fired by a Trump administration should he have the opportunity to conduct such a purge. The targets would no doubt be Obama appointees in their current positions and others who may have “burrowed in” by moving from political to career civil service positions.
In truth, Christie need not make a Ko-Ko-like list of current appointees. He can find them in the “Plum Book,” officially titled “United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions,” which lists all of the politically appointed positions in the federal government complete with the names of the incumbents. There are nearly 3,000 such political positions. All of them serve at the pleasure of the president and none has civil service protection from being fired.
Wide turnover expected
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In fact, these appointees expect to be fired. In each presidential transition there is a nearly total turnover in political personnel. The outgoing administration will usually process the resignations of most of the senior Senate-confirmed political appointees by Inauguration Day. It may also require the resignations of lower-level appointees, but it is not unusual to leave them in place for a month or two, if the incoming administration agrees, simply to ease their transitions to jobs outside the government and lighten the out-processing paperwork burden.
This wide turnover in political appointees occurs even if the party of the president doesn’t change. An incoming Hillary Clinton administration would likely replace most Obama appointees, just as the incoming administration of George H.W. Bush did with Reagan appointees.
On the other hand, “burrowing in” is a tactic used by some appointees to stay in a government job by changing status from political appointee to career civil service employee. Two common ways of accomplishing this are converting the incumbent’s position from political to career or by applying and getting selected for an open civil service position, sometimes by circumventing established procedures for recruitment and selection.
Those who ‘burrow’
To prevent burrowing in, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management reviews applications for anyone who held a political position within the last five years and wants to continue as a career appointee. The OPM’s policies regarding burrowing in are long-standing, and in January the OPM issued a reminder to the heads of all federal agencies to “ensure all personnel actions remain free of political influence or other improprieties and meet all relevant civil service laws, rules, and regulations.”
The itch to cleanse the government of remnants of the previous administration is always strong as incoming administrations are naturally suspicious that opponents lurk in the bureaucracy. In fact, this is a minor problem and can distract from a much more pressing challenge. There are more than 2.1 million federal civilian employees. For the most part they are responsive, nonpolitical and professionally competent. To take control of this huge enterprise, a new administration must find, recruit and appoint people qualified and willing to lead this bureaucracy, particularly those 800 or so nominees for high-level Senate-confirmed positions. This job needs to start now if the incoming administration is to be ready to govern from the start.
As presidential scholar James Pfiffner has pointed out, “the pace of appointments has consistently slowed over the past half century.” Pfiffner calculates that in his first 100 days, President Obama had filled only 17 percent of his Senate-confirmed positions and that at the end of his first year in office he had filled only 64 percent of these posts, compared with 86 percent by President Reagan.
Filling these positions is the real personnel challenge for transition leaders. Worrying about holdovers from the previous administration and coming up with a list similar to Ko-Ko’s are an unnecessary distraction.
Douglas A. Brook is a visiting professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He was acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during the outgoing transition of the George H.W. Bush administration.