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Controversies Swirl : Patronage: Tradition Has Limits

December 15, 1988|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

Untermeyer estimates that the Bush Administration will make more than 4,000 political appointments to full-time government jobs in 1989. Of these, a little more than 800--mostly Cabinet members, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, ambassadors and federal judges--will be subject to Senate confirmation. The others can be appointed by Bush or his Cabinet members or his agency heads without Senate approval.

This total of 4,000, according to Untermeyer, makes up only one-seventh of 1% of the 3 million civilian employees in the federal civil service.

"This, I think, would surprise a lot of people who imagine that when any new Administration comes in line that there are armies and legions of political hacks who are ready to take over all of the federal agencies around the nation and the world," Untermeyer said.

Yet while the percentage of political appointments has decreased in the last 30 years, the total numbers have increased. Decrying this trend, Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve who now heads the National Commission on the Public Service, points out that a new government in Britain makes only 100 political appointments, a new government in France only half that.

Both Britain and France have powerful, anonymous civil servants who run the ministries for politicians of any party with equal loyalty, insight, competence and elan. In fact, the British civil servant, his nose in the air, his face impassive, who listens to the minister and then acts as he sees fit and best is a proverbial figure of popular British literature.

Lean Toward Career People

Volcker and his commission do not advocate adoption of the British or French systems, but they do call for reducing the number of political appointees somewhat in favor of career civil servants. They insist that the many layers of political appointees prevent the President from communicating his ideas directly to the federal bureaucracy and limit the promotions that could serve as a reward for civil servants who perform well.

To complicate matters, political appointees do not stay on the job very long. During the last two decades, the average presidential appointee served only 26 months. One-third worked 18 months or less. Some were lured from government by higher salaries, some driven from government by the pressures of Washington.

The number of political appointments has increased in recent years mainly because of the distrust of the civil service by both the Jimmy Carter and the Reagan administrations. This notion has troubled many civil servants. "The outsider's glib assumption that career civil servants will be disloyal to a new Administration is an unwarranted calumny based on ignorance," wrote former State Department official Lincoln P. Bloomfield midway into the Reagan Administration.

So far, Bush and his staff have not made it clear where they stand on this issue. But Bush's appointment of career diplomat Thomas R. Pickering as the new ambassador to the United Nations--a post usually reserved in the past for political figures like Adlai E. Stevenson, Andrew Young and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick--has astounded and heartened the Foreign Service.

State Department officials, who fought many losing battles with the Reagan White House over the appointment of political ambassadors, had prepared a list for the Bush transition staff recommending a career diplomat for almost every top State Department and ambassadorial post. Pickering was recommended for undersecretary of state but not ambassador to the United Nations. No career diplomat had been proposed for that; it seemed too wild an idea.

"It comes as a very special, surprising, bonus recognition for the Foreign Service," George Vest, the State Department's director general of the Foreign Service, said of the Pickering nomination.

Yet there is no indication that the Bush Administration, as a general rule, intends to promote career civil servants to lesser posts than U.N. ambassador. Untermeyer, in fact, has been somewhat deprecating of them or, at least, of the idea of policy by bureaucrats. He described civil servants in his recent news conference as "good folks who . . . are not reflective of the mandate that was given to President Bush on the 8th of November."

The Reagan White House has been criticized sharply by scholars and analysts for two personnel practices during the last eight years. The White House would force its appointees on reluctant department and agency heads and would also impose an ideological, extreme rightist "litmus test" on candidates for these jobs. It is not clear whether and how this will change in the Bush White House, but the mood does seem different.

Sees 'Healthy Process'

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