Each time the White House flips from one political party to another, a substantial number of one-time bureaucrat whackers try desperately to adopt the protective coloring of career civil servants. It’s called “burrowing” in Washington lingo!
Some seek the security of the civil service right after the elections. Others — those who think ahead — usually begin much, much earlier. Weeks or months after getting their political job. Some begin their quest for civil service status (and pay and job security) just weeks after being appointed to a political (Schedule C) slot. One way is to switch from a political to a career job in another agency, then transfer again to another agency (this time as a “career” employee). The typical political appointee serves about 18 months, but some try harder and manage to last long beyond the expiration date of the administration that appointed them.
Washington insiders, who eat, sleep and breath politics, typically see it in political terms. That is they burrow into government so they can act as “sleepers” or 5th columnists. The idea is to carry on the fight of the previous administration. That sounds good and it is sometimes true. Like a spy novel. But many of the cases are much more simple. Not as sexy or intriguing, but much more practical. Starting with money as in a steady paycheck. But more cynical observers, who often know more about the nuts, bolts, pay and perks of the civil service think they know the real reason politicals try to morph into bureaucrats: Money. Security. A good job. A good vacation package. And a 401k plan to die for. Every four years, when the White House changes hands, the other political party tries to find and weed out late-convert civil servants. And more often than not, money — as in security — is as big a reason as politics.
It is typical for people taking top jobs in Washington to let it be known how much of a a financial sacrifice they are making to serve the nation in a paltry 6-figure federal job. But in fact, many get pay raises here, plus contacts — can-you-say-insider information — that puts them way ahead of the private sector job they left to serve their country. Just try to pry them loose when the end is near. And this year is another end times.
The Washington Post recently had an excellent piece about politicals with time-limited or at-will appointments from the Trump administration sticking (or trying to stick) around under Team Biden-Harris. The headline said Biden May Be Stuck With Some Trump Loyalists. True for sure. But another description would list them as “former loyalists” who have been woken up to the joys and satisfaction of government service. Turns out that as their last Schedule C political paycheck is being processed, they see the good side of the federal civil service. And want to become part of it by shedding their political fingerprints. This survival technique is known locally as “burrowing.” Every administration has done it, or had people who did (or attempted it) on their own. But not always to lie in wait as ideological time bombs waiting for either a return to power, or to be in a position to slow or gut political programs of the party newly returned to power. In some cases, they may be the situation. Politicals are buried like time bombs to be used another day, or as inside information sources. Or not..
In most cases, the more likely answer is this: Show me the money! Give me a safe and secure job. It involves the ability (especially for middle-age or older people) to stick around government for another few years to qualify for an annuity (pension) for life that is partially linked to inflation. And a 401k plan (which covers Congress too) with super-low administrative fees. And a matching contribution of up to 5% from the government. Each time an administration changes, the Office of Personnel Management and different congressional subcommittees attempt (with varying degrees of success and vigor) to weed out those who are burrowing illegally. They usually catch a few. But many folks who have been in government a long time know and/or have worked with politicals who successfully made the switch.
Meantime, the hunt is on. Again! If the past is any guide, somewhere between 200 and 300 people will be identified as potential burrowers. Some of the trails will involve politicals who got a career appointment to a different agency months ago, then once established as a true born fed, another transfer to another agency to wipe the political taint from the background check.
Some of them — having been on the other side — actually make top-notch civil servants.
But some don’t. People should remember that four or eight years from now, the process will likely begin again. Like it did four years ago.
Nearly Useless Factoid
By Alazar Moges
Source: Cal Tech