By Christopher Lee
The Bush administration doled out $ 1.44 million in bonuses to 470 political appointees last year, according to an Office of Personnel Management report.
The White House's decision last year to end an eight-year ban on such cash awards imposed by the Clinton administration touched off a fury of criticism in December from Democrats, unions and some policy experts who said the move slighted ordinary federal employees and encouraged political favoritism.
The administration defended the practice as a just means of rewarding exceptional performance, noting that career federal employees have long been eligible for similar bonuses. Officials earlier described the awards as a "drop in the bucket" within an overall federal civilian payroll of $ 100 billion.
"We haven't seen the report, but the administration believes that federal workers should have the opportunity to be rewarded for excellence, whether they are career employees or political appointees," said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman.
The cash awards went to about 19 percent of the 2,478 political appointees who ranked below those confirmed by the Senate and therefore were eligible for the bonuses. The average award of $ 3,064 represented a little more than 3 percent of the average salary of $ 99,583 earned by eligible appointees.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) obtained the bonus report from OPM Director Kay Coles James after an eight-month wait, and provided a copy yesterday to The Washington Post. The report did not name the appointees who received the bonuses.
Hoyer, whose district includes many government workers, said he found it "disturbing" that the administration had rewarded political appointees with bonuses while initially fighting a 4.1 percent pay increase that Congress approved for civilian federal employees.
Ordinary employees' "dedication and commitment are the reasons that the federal government serves the American people effectively," he said. "I hope that the administration will be more conscious of their obligations to fairly reward all members of the federal workforce."
The largest pools of bonuses were at the State Department, which doled out $ 257,500 in awards to 23 appointees, and the Department of Education, which gave $ 153,250 to 37 appointees. The highest average bonuses were handed out at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, where six political appointees received average awards of $ 11,783. State enjoyed the second-highest average, with an average bonus of $ 11,196.
At the Office of Management and Budget, three appointees drew average bonuses of $ 1,667, while at the Appalachian Regional Commission, the sole eligible political appointee, who earned $ 119,682 last year, received a $ 10,000 bonus.
The Clinton administration ended the practice of giving such bonuses to most political appointees in 1994 after questionable payments to some outgoing aides in the final days of the administration of President George H.W. Bush. In January 1993, Attorney General William Barr approved more than $ 100,000 in bonuses, with two $ 7,500 bonuses going to close political aides who would later join the law firm where he was a partner.
A 1994 law still prohibits appointees from collecting bonuses during presidential election periods. Top-level presidential appointees who are confirmed by the Senate can never receive such awards.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. overturned the ban on annual cash awards for political appointees in a memo sent to Cabinet members and agency heads on March 29, 2002. Appointees may be rewarded if they show "substantial work achievements that go well beyond the performance of routine duties," he wrote. The memo came to light in December amid reports of bonuses at the Justice Department, where the report shows that 11 appointees were awarded an average of $ 3,868 each.
Yesterday's report said most of the appointees eligible for the awards are non-career Senior Executive Service employees or Schedule C employees. Those categories typically include deputy assistant secretaries, associate secretaries, agency chiefs of staff, deputy press secretaries and similar aides.
The 2002 bonuses have come at a time when the government's 2 million civilian employees have been reeling from administration moves to limit pay increases, open up more government jobs to bidding from private contractors and rewrite personnel rules at the Defense and Homeland Security departments.
"It's typical of the Bush administration to reward the elite and ignore working Americans," said Diane Witiak, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. "This is reflected in his tax cuts and his privatization policies that favor his big corporate friends, and in his treatment of government workers. He says he cares about federal employees, he respects them and they're doing a good job. But then he slams them every time."