Hiring Process Can be ‘Brutal’ For Federal Appointees

By Joetta L. Sack — February 07, 2001 5 min read
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A help-wanted ad for the new Bush administration could read something like this: Now hiring 7,000 well-qualified people for relatively low-paying, high- stress political jobs with long hours and little job security.

But there’s another catch: Before signing on, applicants for positions in the Department of Education and other agencies must withstand an arduous hiring process. First, there are the requisite interviews with transition-team personnel. Then comes an intensive FBI background check that reviews each candidate’s employment, professional, personal, travel, medical, financial, legal, military, and educational histories. Applicants must be prepared to hand over financial and legal documents and anything they have written that might conflict with the administration’s positions. Those nominated for the highest- ranking political appointments must also be approved by the Senate.

In some cases, the process can result in a painfully public debate over a candidate’s qualifications.

“For people who have never been through that scrutiny before, it’s a little shocking,” said Terry K. Peterson, who was the senior counsel to former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and helped oversee the Education Department’s hires during the last turnover in administrations, in 1993.

Nevertheless, every time the White House changes hands, a flurry of folks willingly endure that process for the chance to help run the federal government. So far, some 50,000 people have applied for politically appointed jobs in the new administration. About 160 of the more than 7,000 such jobs are in the Education Department; 16 of the agency’s highest-ranking posts, in addition to the secretary, require Senate confirmation. (“With Election in Doubt, Transition Must Wait,” Nov. 22, 2000.)

Education Department officials had no comment last week on when the agency would begin filling the appointed positions that will help Secretary of Education Rod Paige carry out President Bush’s agenda.

The lengthy hiring process was designed to ensure that the political jobs go to loyal and law-abiding citizens who have the necessary experience and expertise, and that they will be committed to the new administration’s proposals.

But some observers fear that the scrutiny and bureaucracy may be keeping many excellent potential candidates from applying.

“There’s no shortage of people around town to take these jobs, but it’s a question of whether you get the person you want,” said Paul C. Light, a senior adviser to the Presidential Appointee Initiative, a Brookings Institution project that studies issues related to presidential transitions. “There’s a general sense that this process is unfair and unnecessarily brutal, and that keeps people from applying.”

He added: “The Education Department, because it’s been inherently controversial, has a particularly difficult time dealing with these burdens.”

Scared Away

A survey released last month by the Presidential Appointee Initiative found that while 580 corporate and civic leaders surveyed had favorable views toward serving as political appointees, they had many reservations about applying for such a job. A majority said they would be more likely to accept a political appointment if they could more easily return to their previous jobs, if the political posts offered better salaries and other compensation, and if the appointment process was simplified. More than half described the process as “confusing” or “embarrassing.”

“It’s a frightening process for someone who hasn’t been through it,” Mr. Light said. “By itself, the forms are intimidating, but we don’t see the forms as the problem. The real problem is, they see this process as politically poisoned.”

Mr. Light believes Education Department appointees are among those who are especially prone to scrutiny, not only because the agency’s very purpose has been questioned in the past by some Republicans, but also because both President Clinton and now President Bush have placed such a high priority on education. Although Secretaries Rod Paige and Richard W. Riley sailed through their confirmations this year and in 1993, respectively, other high-ranking slots that require Senate confirmation can run into problems, Mr. Light added.

One prominent example was Marshall S. Smith, a political appointee in the Education Department from 1993 to January 2000.

Mr. Smith, who is now a professor at Stanford University’s school of education and the director of education projects at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, was confirmed in 1993 as undersecretary, the agency’s No. 3 position. He was selected in July 1996 to become the deputy secretary, the No. 2 slot, but the Senate refused to hold hearings on the nomination, in part because Mr. Smith’s outspoken support of national standards and testing, among other Clinton priorities, riled some conservative Republicans.

“I took a lot of the heat for a lot of the controversial stuff—I think I became a lightning rod for Republicans,” said Mr. Smith, who held the title of “acting” deputy secretary for 3½ years.

Worth the Trouble

Julie Green Bataille, who served as a press officer in the White House from 1995 to 1997 and then the Education Department until 1999, said she found the application process “a little overwhelming” but was not deterred.

“I considered the job an honor, to be able to serve, and this was simply something that had to be done,” said Ms. Bataille, who is now the communications director at Georgetown University here.

In some cases, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service will knock on the doors of nominees’ neighbors and friends as part of their background checks.

“People called me from my old neighborhood in South Carolina and said, ‘There are people here running around checking up on you,’ ” Mr. Peterson recalled. During Ms. Bataille’s background check, a Secret Service agent visited the sorority house where she had lived for several years before as a student at Syracuse University.

Appointees also complain that digging up financial and personal records can be a huge chore for anyone who hasn’t kept meticulous files. Finding old speeches, Mr. Peterson recalled, was a particularly time-consuming task, but he knew that anything he overlooked might cast doubt on his nomination.

But the opportunity to serve at the highest levels of government is worth all the hurdles, several former appointees agreed.

Ms. Bataille, for instance, said she often traveled for her job, attended historic events, and had access to the president and other high-ranking officials. “I definitely would not have traded my experience for the world,” she said. “It was a wonderful opportunity, both personally and professionally, that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to duplicate.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Hiring Process Can be ‘Brutal’ For Federal Appointees


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