The president — whether Donald Trump or anybody else — appoints several thousand people to positions specifically tied to an administration. A bill which recently passed the House would institute limits on them serving in government for decades past Trump.
Context and what the bill does The vast majority of federal government employees are “career” employees, or nonpartisan people who often work for decades. A little more than 4,000 people are political appointees, which are explicitly tied to the administration currently serving.
As an example, take the Department of Justice. It’s not just Attorney General Jeff Sessions there, even if he grabs most of the department’s headlines. There are actually more than 118 thousand total employees at the department, the vast majority of whom work for whichever president is in power, not tied specifically to the Trump Administration.
The explicitly-political appointments are supposed to last only during a presidential administration. Yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found several hundred examples of “burrowing in,” in which a supposedly-political appointment nonetheless is transferred to a permanent career employee position.
What the bill does The Political Appointee Burrowing Prevention Act institutes a two-year prohibition on any political appointee getting hired for a career government position. After those years are up, any such potential hire would have to get written approval by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Introduced by Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO4), the bill is numbered H.R. 1132 in the House.
What supporters say Supporters argue the bill will help ensure that those who are selected for jobs which are supposed to be tied to a specific president do not spend potentially decades in the government, undermining the ostensibly merit-based hiring system for career government employees.
“If we really want to drain the swamp in Washington, then we must end this practice of political burrowing,” House lead sponsor Buck said in a press release. “Political appointees have the privilege of advancing their appointing president’s agenda for a period of time, but when that president leaves, they have a duty to Americans to step aside as well.”
What opponents say Opponents counter from both ends: that the two-year ban is either too long… or not long enough.
On the former end is the president Randy Erwin of the union National Federation of Federal Employees. “One year of probation is enough for nearly all positions in government,” Erwin told Bloomberg Law. “If a manager cannot figure out in a year’s time whether an employee is a good fit, then it is the manager that may need replacing.”
On the latter end is Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security. He told Bloomberg Law that the ban shouldn’t just be two years for political appointees, but explicitly extending for the entirety of the administration of the president who appointed them — even if that’s eight years.
Votes The bill originally had three bipartisan House cosponsors: two Democrats and one Republican. After being approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in November 2017, it was approved by the full House on March 6.
The House passed it by voice vote, meaning no member objected strongly enough to demand that a record of individual votes be recorded. That doesn’t necessarily mean the vote was unanimous, though — the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where the bill originated, expressed concerns that the legislation could be against a meritocracy. (What if the best person for a given position open at the moment truly is a former political appointee?)
Odds of passage The bill now goes to the Senate. Considering the bipartisan appeal of this legislation, it seems likely that the Senate may pass it.
It’s also possible that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the government agency with authority over federal hires, could institute smaller but similar changes on their own. In February, OPM announced that any agency seeking to hire a former political appointee would have to receive permission first.