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 refer only to Bush appointees, and that OPM's memo authorizes the agency to ferret out Republican civil service hirees and find some bureaucratic pretext to kick them out.

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

The OPM has long had the authority to evaluate political appointees' fitness for career civil service jobs. And as the memo points out, the OPM 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 who have held political appointments within five years up to 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 criticism 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 the OPM that has studied and advised on such issues since the OPM was created.

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

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
[t]he 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 ...(Emphasis added)

The OPM stressed that this rule does not apply to current employees who have already been accepted into the civil service. It will affect only new hirees going forward from January 1st. So the 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 had a political job within the past five years applies for a new job within the civil 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 or 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 within the civil service and simply evaluated by the hiring agency on his or her merits?

The memo is silent on this question, and as written, it could be interpreted to include such people. In any event, it is 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 Rush's concern -- a legitimate question completely overlooked by Media Matters. In fact, according to the 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 needed clarification on that point. In addition to their routine ad hominem attacks and hyperbolic language, Media Matters' cursory read of the memo misinterpreted its purpose, too. The rule was not created to prevent politicos from "burrowing in" to the bureaucracy, as Media Matters asserts. It was created to make all applicants subject to the same standards. But they were correct in concluding that Republicans weren't targeted. Who would have thought? Apparently, even a blind pig finds a mushroom every now and then.

This administration has plenty wrong with it, and it is rapidly moving to expand its power and influence in an unprecedented fashion. It is critical however, to separate fact from fancy and avoid seeing evil in 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.

Businessman and columnist Jim Simpson is a former White House staff economist and budget analyst. You may read more of his articles on his blog, Truth and Consequences
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