The Political Appointee Timebomb Curse

Monday - 3/14/2011, 4:00am EDT

For many of the government's 6,000-plus political appointees the clock is ticking!

The bell is about to toll!

Their time is almost up!

The Obama administration has been in power for 25-plus months. The average worklife span (time on the payroll) for political appointees is 24 to 30 months. Do the numbers. This is the time in most administrations when Cabinet officers leave or quietly get bounced, taking their staffs down with them.

Political appointees are found in virtually every federal agency and department. In some places their numbers are few. In others, like the Department of Education, they make up a sizable number of the political-career mix of executives who carry out policy and run day-to-day operations of each agency.

The politicals come in all shapes, sizes and pay levels. They range from noncareer members of the Senior Executive Service to those who must be confirmed by the Senate (PAS, or "Presidentially Appointed, Senate-confirmed") and others who don't need congressional approval. Some of the politicals, in every administration, are considered brilliant hard-workers who make a good difference. Some, not so much. Some are a lot smarter and more capable than the political Secretary, Administrator or Director they serve. Others, according to long-suffering career feds, need to be retrained if they've been away on a 3-day weekend. As such, the politicals have earned various generic labels over the years.

During the Bush administration, a career SESer with the Defense Department, said politicals at the Pentagon were over the years quietly referred to as "the Christmas help." Again he had seen the best and worst and, regardless of the administration, the best usually outnumbered the losers. During the Clinton administration some politicals were referred to as "the children."

A former OPM official said different administrations had different approaches to political appointees. He said:

"The Democrats seem to appoint people as a reward for their help in the campaign. The Republicans like to appoint out of work relatives" to the government jobs.

A former congressional aide said her second boss on Capitol Hill had a saying about staffers being "truck vulnerable." What he meant by that, she said was "if I get hit by a truck, YOU are vulnerable." Congressional staffers, like federal political appointees, don't have unions or job security. They serve at the pleasure of their political boss.

When the boss leaves, either for a better job or to "spend more time with my family" (Washington talk for I-got-canned!!,) his or her political support staff is suddenly on life support. As soon as the new Administrator, Director or Secretary is appointed his/her cadre of politicals is sent packing.

Politicals come in all shapes and sizes from six-figure top assistants to mid-level GS (general schedule) appointees who serve as personal assistants or drivers.

Virtually all political appointees have connections which vary from a past relationship (work or otherwise) with another political appointee to the Secretary, someone on the White House staff or an official in the political party in power. Past appointees have included people who chauffeured candidates during campaigns to the son and daughter of a sitting Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and the children or in-laws of members of Congress. Many also have roots or connections in the states or regions that the boss represented as Governor before coming to Washington.

Many politicals have gone on to bigger and much-better paying private sector jobs. The experience and connections they make while punching their tickets can pay off big time after a year or two in Washington.

Some, after vesting in the government's excellent retirement program, its generous 401(k) plan and its health-insurance-for-life, don't want to leave. It is a common practice, in every administration, for some politicals to attempt to "burrow" into career jobs in hopes they can stay in government. In recent years the OPM has taken steps to prevent this, but it still happens.

In 2009 Congress, in a bipartisan effort, gave former feds (including political appointees) added incentives to return to government service without losing the service time credits they earned in a previous administration. This will benefit appointees of both parties in the years ahead. Some came back into government because they frankly missed the perks and relative job security. Others say they miss the excitement of working on government programs and alongside career employees they initially ignored or mistrusted.