Nervous about November? Boss-watching could be key

(Editor’s Note: While Mike Causey is on vacation, we revisit one of his recent columns, originally published on July 23, 2012.)

Has your politically-appointed federal boss been losing weight? Has she developed a nervous tic? Does he sometimes laugh hysterically for no apparent reason? These may be important indicators. Consider:

  • In China, some zoo keepers and seismologists watch certain animals for pre-earthquake hyper-activity.
  • In parts of southeast Asia, some claim that elephants sometimes go a little crazy before an approaching tsunami is even detected.
  • I had an aunt whose bunions ached just before a big rain storm.

So what’s this got to do with you? Maybe a lot. For instance:

In Washington, veteran civil servants have learned how to spot and, to some extent, mitigate bumps in their careers. They do this by keeping an extra close eye on their political masters in the months before a presidential election. Especially when the President (like now) is seeking a second term.


Some long-time, long-suffering feds, believe they can predict whether the incumbent will be reelected or replaced by observing the pre-election actions of their leaders. If a cabinet head bails out that is often a sure sign he or she realizes the end is near. Or not.

But a better indicator, some believe, is to watch their immediate political bosses, Schedule Cs and other appointees, for nervous tics, hushed telephone calls, unexplained absences or other signs that the end, for them, may be near. Also they may ask coworkers to link up with them on social or career-building networks. Some become more friendly to the help, some more removed. The troops know, however, because…

Most of the politicals come from the real world. Places like Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado or even New York. They got their jobs through their connections. Most are in tune with back-home politics. And are more politically-plugged in than Beltway-bound pundits. For the latter, testing the political waters means a trip to Iowa or Nevada, a chat with two cab drivers, an elderly widow and the local publisher, then back to D.C. Based on their newly acquired insider knowledge they retire to Georgetown, Bethesda or Potomac and, after looking at a poll of 1,000 randomly selected citizens, determine who the winner will be.

On average, political appointees serve (last) only about 18 months. But there are many who work longer and some who decide they would like to draw their last breath as a retired federal employee with health insurance, and an inflation-indexed annuity. Some also learn to love their work and the mission. For whatever reason, some attempt to burrow into the civil service, shedding their political identity and taking on the protective coloring of a tenured career employee.

Some, in the current administration, have previous service (four, five or even eight years) with the Clinton administration. They would like another couple of years to qualify for federal retirement. (The same thing happened with politicals in the Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations).

A long-time career executive said “burrowing” was easier in the old days. She said that OPM Director John Berry, himself a political appointee, has made it tougher for politicals to go to ground.

Another indicator is what might be called the “legacy executive.” This kind of political appointee, a veteran watcher said, “wants to leave something behind. They want to be able to point to something and say I did that … or I initiated that program.” This can be good, or not so good.

So who are the people to watch? Every four years the government publishes the so-called “Plum List.” It includes about 7,000 jobs, many of which are politicals who serve at the pleasure of the president. The book is published each January, after the election, so the 2012 version is not out yet. But you can take a look at the jobs, agency-by-agency, in 2008 by clicking here.

Bottom line, as to who’s going to win? Forget about the collective wisdom of talking heads, “Meet the Press,” or the Sunday fights on MSNBC, CNN or Fox.

If you want to know who the pros think is going to win in November, get somebody to watch the behavior of second-tier political appointees between now and the election.


By Jack Moore

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