Johnson Requests that OPM be Wary of Political Appointees “Burrowing in” to Career Positions During Transition

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to Beth Cobert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), on Monday, to request that the OPM make the committee aware of federal employees who have converted, or attempt to convert, from political appointments to career positions, a practice commonly referred to as “burrowing in.”

“With the results of the presidential election, there could be an increase in attempts by the nearly 4,000 political appointees across the federal government to convert to career positions.   I am concerned that, due to the seniority of political appointees at many agencies, there could be pressure to approve these conversions outside the standard merit-based approach to federal hiring.  It is imperative that we ensure our federal civilian workforce is merit-based and independent,” Johnson wrote in the letter.

Johnson’s letter points to an example in which “an agency that did not receive prior approval from OPM appointed a Schedule C political employee to a career competitive position over ‘a compensably disabled veteran who appeared qualified for the position and should have received top consideration in the selection process based on active military service.’”

The letter can be found here and below:

November 21, 2016

The Honorable Beth Cobert

Acting Director

Office of Personnel Management

1900 E Street, NW

Washington, DC 20415-1000

Dear Acting Director Cobert:

On February 18, 2015, I wrote to your predecessor, Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Katherine Archuleta, regarding a practice known as “burrowing in” or “conversion,” in which political appointees convert to career positions in the competitive service, the Senior Executive Service, or the excepted service.  Unlike political appointees, career employees must be selected on the basis of merit, and continue working without regard to changes in administrations.   As we progress through the presidential transition, I respectfully request more information about recent or forthcoming conversions.

With the results of the Presidential election, there could be an increase in attempts by the nearly 4,000 political appointees across the Federal government to convert to career positions.   I am concerned that, due to the seniority of political appointees at many agencies, there could be pressure to approve these conversions outside the standard merit-based approach to federal hiring.  It is imperative that we ensure our federal civilian workforce is merit-based and independent.

It is encouraging that you issued a notice on January 11, 2016, to all agency heads that all political conversions must be reviewed by OPM.   However, a review conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that some agencies implemented political conversions without receiving prior approval from OPM.   GAO also found that OPM does not adequately verify the data on political conversions reported by agencies.   In one instance, an agency that did not receive prior approval from OPM appointed a Schedule C political employee to a career competitive position over “a compensably disabled veteran who appeared qualified for the position and should have received top consideration in the selection process based on active military service.”  

As we approach the closing days of the Obama Administration, we must guard against inappropriate hiring practices to ensure merit-based federal employment and protect the independence of the federal civil service.  To assist the Committee’s oversight, I request that you provide the following information:

1. A list of all federal employees who have converted from political appointments to career positions during the period of June 30, 2016, and the date of your response, including the following information regarding each employee:

    1. The employee’s full name;
    2. The employee’s first date of employment at the department or agency;
    3. All job titles held by the employee throughout his or her tenure at the department or agency, and the dates of any title changes;
    4. All salaries received by the employee throughout his or her tenure at the department or agency and the dates of any salary changes;
    5. The date on which the employee transitioned to a career position within the department or agency; and 
    6. For any conversions for which OPM conducts a post-appointment review   
    7. OPM’s findings from the review;
    8. Recommendations provided by OPM to the violating agency;
    9. Corrective actions taken by the violating agency; and
    10. Whether the political appointee remained in the same career position.

 2. A weekly update of all conversions and requests for conversions from political appointments to career positions that occur between the date of your response, and January 20, 2017, including the following information regarding each employee:

    1. The employee’s full name;
    2. The employee’s first date of employment at the department or agency;
    3. All job titles held by the employee throughout his or her tenure at the department or agency, and the dates of any title changes;
    4. All salaries received by the employee throughout his or her tenure at the department or agency and the dates of any salary changes; and
    5. The date on which the employee transitioned to a career position within the department or agency. 
    6. For any conversions for which OPM conducts a post-appointment review:
    7. OPM’s findings from the review;
    8. Recommendations provided by OPM to the violating agency;
    9. Corrective actions taken by the violating agency; and
    10. Whether the political appointee remained in the same career position.

Please provide your response as soon as possible but no later than 5:00 p.m. on December 1, 2016, followed by weekly updates.

The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is authorized by Rule XXV of the Standing Rules of the Senate to investigate “the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness of all agencies and departments of the Government.”   Additionally, S. Res. 73 (114th Congress) authorizes the Committee to examine “the efficiency and economy of operations of all branches of the Government including the possible existence of fraud, misfeasance, malfeasance, collusion, mismanagement, incompetence, corruption or unethical practices. . . .”   For purposes of this request, please refer to the definitions and instructions in the enclosure.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue. 

 

Sincerely,

  

Ron Johnson

Chairman

 

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