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It's one of the nasty little secrets of Washington, D.C., that everybody claims to dislike but nobody does anything about. It's called burrowing -- the insidious phenomenon of political appointees, who should leave with the outgoing president or be forced to compete for positions to stay, instead frantically converting to career posts at the end of a presidential administration.
In the very last week of the Bush administration, the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency posted several plum, six-figure career slots that were open for less than a week and expired before Inauguration Day. Was FEMA looking for the best public servants or Republican loyalists who needed new jobs?
Burrowing, however, is not only inappropriate. It is illegal.
In the 1880s, Presidents Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland first pressed for adoption of a civil service merit system, in which the most able candidates for government service would be chosen through fair, competitive examinations. In slow and incremental stages, reformers created a merit-based system that largely ended the spoils system at the federal level, eventually culminating in the law that now governs federal employment, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
The just-departed Bush administration engaged in prohibited personnel practices at the hiring and firing ends, and heads into history notorious for its hiring of unqualified neocons and firing of perceived dissenters. The most egregious examples are Attorney General John Ashcroft's stacking of the once prestigious and apolitical Honors Program with committed conservatives and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' firing of nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006 for deviating from the party line.