Now is the time for 'burrowing in'

WASHINGTON -- Significant turnover in the federal work force is inevitable when a new administration takes over, and Democrats have already begun pulling the rug out from under Republican political appointees.

On Nov. 4, Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., sent letters to each federal agency warning them that he will monitor the conversion of government appointees to career employees.


Pryor, a long-time friend of President-elect Bill Clinton, fears that appointees at risk of losing well-paying jobs will try to "burrow in" -- to use their influence to land career civil service or Senior Executive Service positions.

Converting from a political to a career job is perfectly acceptable, according to federal personnel guide lines, as long as appointees are qualified for their new jobs and vacancies are filled competitively. But it hasn't always worked that way in years past, and it looks like it isn't this time around either.


In the two weeks since Pryor sent out his letter, his federal service subcommittee has received "quite a number of phone calls alerting us to places where possible questionable activity is happening," said staffer Kim Weaver.

Weaver would not say which agencies have been accused of impropriety. But she did say the information would be forwarded to the General Accounting Office, an investigative agency that Congress uses to keep tabs on the executive branch.

With every new administration, Congress asks the GAO to monitor the conversion of political appointees. In previous years, reports merely counted the numbers of appointees switching to career positions. But this year, the GAO will analyze whether the jobs were obtained fairly.

Turnover of appointees is expected to be much higher this time than in recent years because the new administration is of a different political party. Clinton is not expected to welcome vast numbers of Bush appointees to his bureaucracy.

In a press release accompanying this year's request for a GAO investigation, Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., the chairman of the post office committee, issued this stern warning: "Political appointees should be on notice. The GAO and the Post Office and Civil Service Committee will be reviewing every conversion to make sure the merit selection system is not circumvented. This Committee will hold hearings if it has to."

Three GAO analysts, armed with the guidelines of the federal merit system, already have begun planning the probe. But how to determine if a given applicant was unfairly favored?

"It's very difficult," says Dick Caradine, a GAO assistant director. But in general, investigators will look for signs of unfair hiring, such as whether proper notice was given before the job vacancy was filled. They also plan to compare the job descriptions of new and old positions to be sure that a political job has not been converted to a career one, and the appointee hired to fill it.

In addition to worrying about the GAO and members of Congress, Republican appointees who wish to remain ensconced in the bureaucracy also will have to contend with the American Federation of Government Employees, the country's largest federal workers' union.


AFGE's bargaining councils will monitor the employment of "political people who have been egregious over the last 12 years -- anti-woman, anti-employee, anti-labor, whatever. Then we're going to tell the Clinton people," said union president John Sturdivant.

The union, said Sturdivant, is not involved in "a witch hunt." AFGE will operate "as a kind of monitoring organization to make sure forces opposed to all things President-elect Clinton has got elected on are not in a position to thwart those positions," he said.

Political appointees may not be the only ones who should worry about the changing of the guard.

Career civil servants viewed as being too close to the Bush administration may find themselves "exiled to the turkey farm," said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

When Ronald Reagan took the reins from Jimmy Carter in 1980, for example, "careerists who had played significant and appropriate roles . . . were seen as quasi-political types," Bonosaro said.

Some of them were put in new jobs "with few significant responsibilities and small staffs -- an absolute waste of their talent, experience, and of taxpayers' money," she said. Clinton appears to "understand the role of the career service and is supportive of it," said Bonosaro.