The delay of many of the standard procedures of a presidential transition until last week—more than two months after the election and less than two weeks until Inauguration Day—has raised concerns about continuity of agency operations and about the potential for Trump administration officials to “burrow in” to the government.
President Trump’s admission last week that he will not serve a second term—although he has not formally conceded and apparently won’t—triggered the start of several processes that normally would have been well under way by this point.
For example, the White House last Thursday issued a message reminding political appointees that they must resign no later than January 20 and OPM last Friday imposed a general suspension in the processing of an agency’s SES qualifications review board cases when the head of an agency departs or announces his or her departure. A week earlier, the administration as released the “Plum Book,” a listing of some 4,000 positions that are within a president’s discretion to fill, including the nearly 1,300 that require Senate confirmation.
While the Biden transition team already has named numerous top officials who would not require confirmation and has made nominations for a number that do, the Senate likely will have confirmed few, if any of the latter group by the inaugural. Agency contingency of operations plans commonly call for elevating career SES members to act in top positions until a nominee is confirmed but the Biden team may appoint acting leaders separately in some cases because the Trump White House changed the order of succession at some agencies to leave officials it had installed in charge.
One such example is OPM, where the next in line—after the director and deputy director positions, both subject to Senate confirmation—is now the director of employee services, Dennis Kirk, whom Trump had nominated to become chairman of the MSPB.
Meanwhile, federal employee unions and some members of Congress have been increasingly vocal regarding conversions into career civil service jobs of middle and lower level appointees. The Democratic heads of House committees earlier asked agencies for an accounting of such actions, and others on Capitol Hill similarly have asked the GAO to look for such conversions.
Past GAO reviews have found only a small number of such conversions—on the order of 100 over several-year periods—relative to the size of the federal workforce and have said that in all but a few the appointee was deemed qualified for the job. Since a 2016 law, such conversions require OPM review and approval.
However, in addition to those types of conversions, there are concerns about the Trump administration making last-minute use of the authority under its executive order that would allow summary firings, and filling those vacancies without competition, of many thousands of competitive service jobs involved with policy or confidential advice-giving.