Thursday, November 19, 2009

No Political Purge

There has been a story flying around the internet in recent days that the Obama administration intends to purge Republicans from the bureaucracy by using a new federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) rule requiring that all applicants for career civil service jobs who held political jobs "within the past five years" be approved by OPM. The assertion is that “past five years” can only refer to Bush appointees, and that OPM’s memo authorizes the agency to ferret out Republican civil service hires and find some bureaucratic pretext to kick them out.

A close reading of the OPM memo and statements by Elaine Kaplan, OPM General Counsel, provide reassurance that, however the Obama administration plans to handle Republicans working in the bureaucracy, this OPM rule is not intended to affect them.

OPM has long had the authority to evaluate political appointees' fitness for career civil service jobs, and as the memo pointed out, currently vets certain political appointees seeking career service during presidential election years only. The memo explains their intention to extend this vetting procedure in the future to all new applicants having held political appointments within five years from the time of their application.

This idea did not originate with the Obama administration. According to General Counsel Kaplan, discussions about this proposal were the result of longstanding criticisms from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Senior Executive Association and others, about how political appointees often avoid the competitive employment process, thereby denying the position in question to possibly better qualified applicants. The proposal was developed by the Center for Merit Systems Accountability, an office within OPM that has studied and advised on such issues since OPM was created.

The controversy appears to have come originally from Instapundit, was picked up by Redstate, and Rush Limbaugh commented on it, identifying Redstate and Instapundit as the source. Media Matters for America, the widely recognized Soros-funded shill for all things Democrat, pounced on Rush immediately for "falsely hyping" OPM's power to fire political appointees.

The memo states:

Beginning January 1, 2010, agencies must seek prior approval from OPM before they can appoint a current or recent political appointee to a competitive or non-political excepted service position at any level under the provisions of title 5 United States Code. OPM will review these proposed appointments to ensure they comply with merit system principles and applicable civil service laws.

The confusion stems from the requirement that this rule cover:

The appointment of a current political Schedule A or Schedule C Executive Branch employee who held the position within the last five years to a competitive or non-political excepted service position...(Emphsasis added)

OPM stressed that this rule does not apply to current employees who have already been accepted into the civil service. It will only affect new hires going forward from January 1st. So OPM will not be going back and examining the credentials of current civil service employees who were at one time political appointees. This seems clear from the memo.

However, a question remains. What happens if a current civil service employee who was political within the past five years applies for a new job within the civilian service?

For example, if someone had been a political appointee under George W. Bush, and had switched to a career federal job, say three years ago, what would happen if he/she applied for a new position within the bureaucracy, e.g. moving from a field managerial position to a higher level position in headquarters, or to a completely different position in another agency? Would these new rules then apply, or would the person be treated as any other employee with in the civil service and simply evaluated by the hiring agency on his/her merits?

The memo is silent on this question, and as written could be interpreted to include such people. In any event it is certainly easy to envision the hyper-political Obama administration interpreting it this way. All the memo says is that anyone seeking civil service employment who held a political appointment within the past five years must receive OPM approval.

This was the concern Rush had - a legitimate question completely overlooked by the hyperventilators at Media Matters. In fact, according to OPM the same concern was raised by a federal agency.

The Center for Merit Systems Accountability, which developed the rule in the first place, responded directly to this question:

The policy announced last week simply does not apply to a former political appointee who was hired for a career federal job and applies for a different federal job at the same or another agency. For example, a Bush appointee from 2005 who was hired by HHS as a GS-14 career federal employee in 2007 can apply for another federal job at the VA and the VA’s selection of that person will NOT be reviewed by OPM under the new policy.
As is commonly done, OPM is going to be sending out a “Q and A” to Federal agencies that will address this and other related implementation issues that were not spelled out in detail in the Director’s memorandum. The Q & A will go out in December, before the January 1 start date for the new policy.

Kaplan stated flatly, "If a current career Federal employee applies for a new career Federal job in the same or another agency, we would not review the matter even if that person was a political appointee within the past five years..."

So while Rush raised a legitimate concern, OPM has provided reassurances that the memo simply lacked clarification on that point.

Meanwhile, in addition to their ad hominem attack and hyperbolic language, Media Matters cursory read of the memo misinterpreted its purpose too. The rule was not created to prevent politicals from “burrowing in” to the bureaucracy, as Media Matters asserts. It was created to make all applicants subject to the same standards. Nonetheless, they were correct in concluding that Republicans weren’t targeted. Who would have thought? Apparently even a blind pig ...

This administration has plenty wrong with it and is rapidly moving to expand its power and influence in an unprecedented fashion. It is critical however, to separate fact from fancy, and not immediately see evil with every initiative coming out of the federal government. The OPM memo addresses a longstanding problem within government and represents a reasonable approach to resolving it.

This article appeared originally in American Thinker.

Businessman and columnist Jim Simpson is a former White House staff economist and budget analyst. His writings have been published in American Thinker, Washington Times, Worldnet Daily, FrontPage Magazine, DefenseWatch, Truth and Consequences.Soldier of Fortune and others. You may read more of his articles on his blog,