Career Appointments of Political Appointees

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-09-29.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

United States General Accounting   Office                                             General       Government        Division
Washington, D.C. 20548


                  September 29,1999

                  The Honorable Constance A. Morella
                  House of Representatives

                  Subject: Career Apnointments of Political Apnointees

                  Dear Ms. Morella:

                  This responds to your letter of August 18,1999, requesting that we clarify when it is
                  appropriate for a political appointee to receive a career position in the federal government.
                  As you know, Congress has long been concerned about political appointees improperly
                  obtaining permanent career positions in the government, and we have frequently reported on
                  the issue. You noted in your letter that it is not appropriate for anyone to circumvent the
                  government’s merit system in order to obtain a career position; and you requested that we
                  clarify when it is appropriate for a political appointee to receive a career position.

                  In brief, according to the applicable law and regulations, provided that proper merit system
                  procedures are followed, it is permissible for a political appointee to receive a career
                  appointment. In fact, regardless of whether or not a person is a current political appointee,
                  political affiliations cannot be taken into account-either favorably or unfavorably-when a
                  career appointment is made. In cases we have reviewed over several years, we have found
                  relatively few problems with the selection of political appointees to career positions.
                  However, diligent adherence to merit selection procedures remains vital to ensuring the
                  integrity of any competitive selection process.

                  The merit system is structured so that there is a clear distinction between political and career
                  employees. Political employees are appointed without competition under Presidential,
                  noncareer Senior Executive Service (SES), or Schedule C appointments. These appointments
                  do not confer career status. Political appointees, therefore, serve at the pleasure of
                  appointing officials and generally lack the protections and rights available to career
                  employees. Career employees, on the other hand, compete under merit selection procedures.
                  Their selection is determined on the basis of their relative knowledge, skills, and abilities
                  after fair and open competition that is intended to ensure an equal opportunity for all

                  Page 1                                    GAO/GGD-99-182R   Career Appointments     of Political   Appointees

candidates.’ Successful candidates receive various types of career or career-conditional
appointments that confer competitive status upon appointment to a position.

Political appointees are not prohibited from obtaining career or career-conditional
appointments. In nearly all cases, a political appointee must compete with all other
candidates for a position. However, there are a few instances where competition is not
required. For example, a political appointee who has served at least 2 years in the immediate
Office of the President or Vice President or on the White House staff may be
noncompetitively appointed to a career position in an agency or department and acquire
competitive status automatically upon appointment.2 These types of appointments are rare.

Concerns can arise whenever a political appointee seeks a career appointment. Generally,
these concerns are about whether the merit system principles will be followed when the
appointment is made. These concerns may arise, for instance, because the political
appointee competing for the career appointment is well-known or “connected” in the agency
making the appointment. And in some cases, the political appointee may have worked for
another political appointee in the chain of command who will be nominating the best-
qualified candidate to the actual selecting official.

To determine when it is permissible to make career appointments of political appointees, we
reviewed the applicable parts of the U. S. Code and the Code of Federal Regulations, as well
as our past reports. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reviewed a draft of this
letter. According to the Deputy Chief of Staff, OPM had no comments. We did our work in
Washington, D.C., during August and September 1999 in accordance with generally accepted
government auditing standards.

According to the applicable law and regulations, provided that proper merit system
procedures are followed, it is permissible for a political appointee to obtain a career position.
Proper procedures include, but are not limited to, establishing an appropriate grade level and
qualifications requirements for a position; properly advertising the vacancy; holding an
appropriate examination of the applicants; correctly rating and ranking those applicants,
including taking into account veterans’ preference; and, finally, making a selection. These
procedures are designed to provide fair and open competition that ensures equal employment
opportunity for all applicants. In the large majority of cases we have reviewed over the years,
we have found that agencies have followed appropriate procedures in making these types of
career appointments.

However, in some instances, we have found problems. For example, in one case we found
that an agency had failed to establish an adequate recruiting area for a vacant position. By
limiting the area from which candidates would be recruited, the agency inappropriately

‘See 5U.S.C.23Ol(b)(l).


Page 2                                     GAOIGGD-9%182R   Career Appointments   of Political   Appointees

limited the number and kinds of qualified applicants competing for the position, thus giving a
current political appointee candidate an unfair advantage.3

Even when proper procedures are followed, the appearance of favoritism can exist. We have
found appearances of favoritism several times in the selection of political appointees for
career positions. For example, in a previous report, we reviewed the appointments of 36
former political appointees and legislative branch employees that occurred between January
1996 and March 1997. We found that although proper procedures had been followed, there
were six cases that gave the appearance of favoritism. In two of those cases the vacancy
announcements for the positions appeared to have been tailored to include specific work
experiences possessed by the two political appointees who were eventually appointed to the
career positions. The remaining four cases raised other questions, such as whether there was
a bona fide need to fill the career position to which a former political appointee was
appointed or whether a vacancy announcement was reissued after the closing of the original
announcement to enable a former political appointee to apply.4 Deviations from merit
selection procedures and appearances of favoritism can undermine the integrity of the merit
system and should, of course, be avoided.

Under the applicable law not only are political appointees allowed to obtain career
appointments if all merit system procedures and processes are followed, but the law also
explicitly prohibits taking political affiliations into account. The law states that “Any
employee who has authority to take, direct others to take, recommend, or approve any
personnel action, shall not, with respect to such authority discriminate for or against any
employee or applicant for employment on the basis of. . . political affiliation.” 5 Thus,
whether or not an individual is a current political appointee, political affiliations cannot be
considered when a career appointment is made.

We will send copies of this report to Senator Fred Thompson, Chairman, and Senator Joseph
Lieberman, Ranking Minority Member, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee; as well as
Representative Dan Burton, Chairman, and Representative Henry Waxman, Ranking Minority
Member, House Government Reform Committee. We will also send copies to the Chairmen
and Ranking Minority Members of their Subcommittees, Senator Thad Co&ran, Chairman,
and Senator Daniel Akaka, Ranking Minority Member, Senate Subcommittee on International
Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services; and Representative Joe Scarborough, Chairman,
and Representative Elijah Cummin gs, Ranking Minority Member, House Subcommittee on
Civil Service. We will make copies available to others on request.

3 PERSONNEL PRACTICES: Prowietv of Career ADDointments Granted Former Political ADDointees (GAO/GGD-92-51, Feb. 12,

’PERSONNEL PRACTICES: Career ADDOintJtX3It.S   of Former Political and Conzressional Emplovees (GAO/GGD-97-165, Sept. 2,

5 5 U.S.C. 2302@)(l)(E).

Page 3                                              GAO/GGD-SS-182R     Career Appointments     of Political   Appointees

I hope this responds to your question. If you have further questions or would like more
information, please call me at (202) 512-8676.Major contributors to this letter were Richard
Caradine and Michael J. O’Donnell.

Sincerely yours,

Michael Brostek
Associate Director, Federal Management
 and Workforce Issues

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Page 5   GAOIGGD-99-182R   Career   Appointments   of Political   Appointees
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