Secretary Napolitano has decided to keep a number of DHS non-career employees on board at the Department through an extended transition phase. It’s a wise move, and one that highlights the confidence the former Arizona Governor brings to her role. As Washington Post writer Spencer Hsu points out, Napolitano’s decision runs contrary to typical approaches.
The attempt at continuity is unusual in presidential transitions between parties, which typically lead to wholesale purging of politically appointed personnel. At the Justice Department, for example, almost no Bush holdovers remain beyond Deputy Attorney General Mark R. Filip, who is acting as attorney general pending confirmation of Obama nominee Eric H. Holder Jr., and Filip’s two top aides.
By contrast, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has retained the department’s second-ranking official, Deputy Secretary Paul A. Schneider, and its top border security official, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, as well as its operations director and the assistant secretaries responsible for policy and private sector coordination. The heads of the Coast Guard and Secret Service, who are not political appointees, and DHS Undersecretary for Management Elaine C. Duke, whose tenure is set by law, also remain.
Many incoming heads of departments might let heightened partisan feelings or insecurity — a need to prove that theyknow what they’re doing and don’t need any help — stand in the way of maintain political appointees from a previous administration. This is true of transitions between the same party, let alone a switch from one party to the other.
Clearly, Napolitano doesn’t feel that she has to prove anything to anybody, which is a clear sign that she is comfortable in her new leadership role. It’s unclear whether she will keep these individuals in their positions permanently. Some, like Commissioner Basham, have a previous relatinship with the new Secretary and may stay through her tenure. For others this is unlikely, but they will stick around long enough to help their successors adapt to their new environments.
Anybody who has worked at The NAC — the Nebraska Avenue Complex, an old Navy facility where DHS Headquarters is house — this is an act of public service. The NAC is a cramped and bleak campus, nowhere near decent public transportation and lacking enough parking for employees. Supplies are low due to limited storage, and office space is … well, it’s a little like trying to rent an apartment in downtown New York: you’re lucky if you get an office in the first place, so don’t whine about it being the size of a broom closet. Moreover, most of the political appointees still at DHS are quite frankly tired. They’ve spent years working outrageous hours with little thanks — indeed much criticism from the media and political opportunists.
Political appointees also work under the burden of the current media caricature, that of being unqualified campaign types who have no business government. The caricatures, of course, aren’t limited to political appointees, of course. The stereotype of career staff being bureaucrats and clockwatchers is as unfair and misguided as those about the political appointees. You’ll find plenty of exceptions who do fit the caricatures, but most of the men and women working in the federal government, including DHS (and, yes, DOJ) are committed and dedicated to their mission, and deserve our thanks.
I have spoken with some of the political appointees who have been asked to stay at DHS for a while. They are tired, they are ready for change, they are ready for sleep. But they are happy to stay on for a while and make sure that Secretary Napolitano’s team is as prepared as possible when that first crisis hits, which it will — and soon. That is the nature of DHS.
And I believe that they are all the more happy to stay on knowing that the woman in charge is confident in her role, and understands that all the experience in the world doesn’t change the fact that the Department of Homeland Security is still a new, chaotic and evolving environment. As a matter of national security, bipartisanship has never been more important.