Why Bother Making Political Appointees Bureaucrats?

Created: November 18, 2008 13:05 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

This morning’s Washington Post explains that the Bush administration is using the last-minute practice of “burrowing,” or slipping political appointees into career positions in federal agencies, throughout the executive branch.

The Post reports that, so far, 20 political appointees have been changed over to career posts — which carry rules that make it more difficult for higher ups to fire the person. It’s an old tactic, the story notes. The Clinton administration did the same thing, for example.

The story has many details on what’s happening across the federal government, particularly in agencies dealing with environmental issues.

One area the Post doesn’t delve too far into: is it worth it? Why bother maneuvering at the last minute to slip in a few dozen people into a vast bureaucracy? After talking with one expert on the subject, it sounds like it could well be worth the effort.

I exchanged emails this morning with Nina Mendelson, a professor at University of Michigan Law School, who published the formative law review article on agency burrowing in 2002.

Mendelson says that the practice does have the potential of making it difficult for a new administration to get done what it wants — which is why almost every administration has tried it.

It’s such a common practice that she kicked off her 2002 article with a quote from Harry S. Truman on the incoming President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

“He’ll sit right here…and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army.”

Mendelson explains that political appointees rely on civil servants, who make up the bulk of the executive work force, to get work done:

Civil servants might be enthusiastic implementers of a new initiative. On the other hand, a knowledgeable civil servant might publicly advocate against it within the agency (which can have some benefits in terms of forcing a political appointee to more thoroughly justify a new proposal) or can more quietly undermine it. **My research suggests that quiet subversion can include heel-dragging, losing projects in the cracks, leaks or worse. **(emphasis added)

The result of these burrowee tactics is to make it tougher for a new president to push the executive branch in the direction he wants. Mendelson laid out the details in her 2002 piece:

They appear to undermine the responsiveness of agency personnel to a new president; interfere with the new president’s efforts to set policy; and impeded the new president’s ability to set her own policy agenda.

In all, it sounds like it’s worth a shot, as far as George W. Bush is concerned.