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Highest Percentage of Political Appointees Found in Education Department

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Copyright 1987
Washington--The Education Department's leadership includes a higher percentage of political appointees than that of any other federal agency, and their ranks have swelled at the expense of career executives since President Reagan took office.

So concludes a recent report by the General Accounting Office, which examined hiring trends at 24 agencies between 1980 and 1986 at the request of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

The gao's findings prompted Senator John Glenn, the Ohio Democrat who chairs the committee, to charge that the Administration "is breaking the spirit of the career service on the rack of cronyism."

'Undue Influence'

The Education Department "is certainly one of the agencies where the findings are cause for concern," said Leonard Weiss, staff director for the committee. "You're not talking about that many people, but these are the decisionmakers," he said. "When the percentages [of political appointees] are that high, you have to worry4about undue influence."

Political appointees make up 45 percent of the department's "leadership corps," a higher percentage than in any other agency, the committee's staff found in analyzing the gao's data on appointments to management positions and higher-level staff jobs. The committee staff conducted an analysis of the gao data that was released with the watchdog agency's report.

"The report does not argue that there's a problem," said William Kristol, chief of staff to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. "It's only numbers, and people will give them implications, but I'd like to see evidence" of politically-influenced decisions or bad management, he said.

Mr. Kristol argued that political appointees are not necessarily ineffective, and are often very capable people who could not be recruited for long-term federal service.

"The point is to allow for a healthy mix of career and noncareer employees," he said. "Good career people are as respected now and have as much influence as they ever have. They are very much at the table when decisions are made."

While defending the department's high percentage of politically appointed executives, Mr. Kristol also noted that the actual number of people involved are small.

"The notion that four additional political people in the [Senior Executive Service] constitutes wholesale politicization of the department is ridiculous," he said.

The Senior Executive Service comprises about 7,000 managers below the Presidential-appointment level who are not ranked and paid on the traditional civil-service scale, but are given performance incentives and special promotional opportunities.

Little 'Career Input'

In the Education Department, political appointees to the s.e.s. increased from 16 to 20 between 1980 and 1986, while the number of career managers declined from 51 to 41. A full 23.8 percent of the department's ses employees are political appointees, the third highest percentage among federal agencies and close to the statutory limit of 25 percent.

Furthermore, if the percentage is calculated based on the number of positions actually filled, rather than the number allocated to the department, it rises to 32.8 percent.

Only the Small Business Administration, which is exempt from the 25 percent cap, fills a higher percentage of ses positions with political appointees. Although the Education Department is allocated 87 ses positions, 25 are unfilled, the highest vacancy rate of any federal agency.

The gao also found that while the department's total workforce shrank from 7,364 to 4,554 between 1980 and 1986, the number of "Schedule C" political appointments nearly doubled, from 65 to 118. That term applies to non-management aides who are exempted from competitive hiring rules because they perform policymaking roles or are assistants to top department executives.

The report by the Senate committee's staff concludes that enough of a shift has taken place throughout the executive branch to lead to a situation in which "there is no opportunity for career input" into decisions in some agencies.

Also, the committee's review of the findings notes, some high-level career civil servants "believe that political criteria have been used in performance appraisal [and] reward programs and sanctions, including punitive reassignments."

Besides politicizing immediate decision-making within agencies, an increase in the number of political appointees means that the agencies will either be faced with a shortage of experienced managers or saddled with politically motivated employees who may convert their status to career appointments after Mr. Reagan leaves office, the committee's analysis warns.

"The greater the number of total political appointees, the greater the loss in institutional memory at the end of an administration," it states. "Perhaps that is why agencies like nasa, Navy, Army, Treasury, and the Air Force maintain low numbers of political appointees as a total percent of the agency leadership."

The Governmental Affairs Committee will soon release another gao report examining which sections of certain agencies, including the Education Department, have the most high-level political appointees. The panel also plans to hold an oversight hearing this fall on the issues raised by the gao's research.

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