Federal Employees as Pawns in the Political System

The author says that federal employees are often pawns in our political system which gives them a unique job challenge.

Federal employees again have faced the threat of a government shutdown this year. It seems during every Presidential Administration there is at least one shutdown of the government or sometimes more than one. They are usually averted by a temporary bill that extends the government to the next possible date for a shutdown. Some actual shutdowns last days, some weeks.

Federal employees are used to this brinksmanship. Often the shutdowns cost millions or billions of dollars, a great loss in productivity by federal employees and a loss of services to the public.

In some cases, federal employees are required to work without a guarantee they will be paid for the work they do. Of course, some politicians believe the loss of federal employees is not a bad thing because there are too many of them and many of the things, they do are not necessary. The employees eventually come back to work and usually are made whole for any pay they lost during the shutdown.

These shutdowns do not just impact federal employees but also the thousands upon thousands of contractors who provide goods and services to the federal government. When they are laid off because of a shutdown they don’t always get paid for lost time since they did not provide services to the government. It seems the American taxpayer soon forgets the lost government services and loss of money it costs for a shutdown.

The Debt Ceiling

Every year it also seems we face a threat not to expand the government debt. The irony of this disagreement is that the political party threatening not to increase the debt shifts from one Administration to the next, depending on which political party is in power in the White House.

It seems when taking the oath of office, a politician, regardless of party, also pledges to be as hypocritical as they can possibly be and get away with. When my party wants to increase the debt because “my” President is in office, it’s ok, but when the other team’s President is in office, it is suddenly not right. Should this continual brinkmanship lead to an actual default, the American people will suffer and most likely the federal employees will suffer most of all.

Political Appointees

The leadership of a great many federal agencies is made up of political appointees. In some agencies, it seems these appointees go deep into the bowels of the agencies; in others it is simply the people at the top.

These appointments are made by the President in office. When a new President comes into office, the first thing the new Administration does, especially if the President is from the other team, is to clean house of those appointees of the past Administration who may be removed by the President at any time with no cause needed. Some of these appointees go without a fight; others question the authority of the President to remove them.

It is not rare that a political appointee position will remain unfilled for the duration of a Presidential Administration or for a significant period. Often these vacancies leave the agency unable to carry out its statutory function.

As an example, the Merit Systems Protection Board recently did not have a quorum for a significant period of time. This led to the inability of the MSPB to carry our it statutory function of deciding employees appeals.

Likewise, the Federal Labor Relations Authority lacked a General Counsel for most of an entire Presidential Administration. It could not prosecute unfair labor practice charges as well as carry out other statutory processes for a significant period of time.

Currently, one politician has vowed to not approve any appointments to the State Department because of political issues not relating to the fitness for office of the proposed appointees. This leaves significant parts of the Department without leadership. 

Political appointees come in with certain perspectives on what the agency does. Others have no perspectives, nor do they really understand what the agency has been set up to accomplish.

A majority of political appointees do a good job; others would not even be hired for a job with the agency they are to manage because of lack of experience or skill.

The President has the right to put in place appointees who will carry out his agenda. That’s the political system we live under. Sometimes there are clashes between appointees and career staff when the appointee wants to do something the career staff believes is illegal or contrary to the mission of the agency. This can result in a shuffling of career staff because most of the careerists cannot be fired.

Most career staff have learned over time to be able to accommodate new appointees with new ideas. It’s called survival. Those careerists who work directly for appointees must learn how to handle a new environment with new approaches whether they agree with approaches or not. Their job depends on them being able to be apolitical in a very political environment.

In one Administration, with a particular political point of view, the careerist is very much against something and then after a change of Administrations may then be very much in favor of it because that is the view of the careerist’s new superiors. It’s like watching a pendulum swing from one side to the other. They are the pawn that must move the pendulum in which ever direction the new appointees wish to move the pendulum. They are not supposed to be political but they are the instruments of political change whether they like the change or not.


Federal employees must do the job they have signed on to do. They must withstand shutdowns and threat of debt default. They must learn to accommodate new political leadership, which in some cases has very different ideas about the work of the agency they have long worked for. They must learn how to survive in an environment which takes political skills to hide their true thoughts and accomplish the mission as best they can. They may be without leadership for long periods of time, but they must learn how to keep on doing their job when sometimes it seems difficult if not impossible. They are but a pawn but essential to providing the services which the American people have come to take for granted.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email info@jsafed.com or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.