Officials fear a provision that would send rulemaking authority to a non-Senate confirmed White House official an attempt to politicize the civil service.
Groups representing all levels of the federal career civil service have expressed serious reservations about the Trump administration’s plan to merge the Office of Personnel Management with the General Services Administration and transfer the independent agency's rulemaking authority to the White House.
Last Thursday, Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russel Vought sent Speaker Nancy Pelosi the White House’s proposed legislation to accommodate the move, which was announced as part of the administration’s reorganization plan last summer.
That bill would transfer most of OPM’s functions into a new personnel service within GSA, and create an Office of Federal Workforce Policy within OMB, modeled after the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
While a deputy GSA administrator, pitched by Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert as the equivalent of the existing position of OPM director, would lead the new service, all of the current OPM director’s rulemaking authorities would be transferred to the director of the new policy shop within OMB, a position that would not require Senate confirmation.
J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, swiftly released a statement accusing the White House of trying to “politicize the civil service.”
"An individual in the Office of Federal Workforce Policy in OMB will have primary responsibility for the development of personnel policy and regulations,” Cox said. “This position will not require Senate confirmation, and as such, will not be directly answerable to Congress ... This represents a serious risk to the political independence of the civil service.”
The Senior Executives Association, which has been critical of OPM in recent years, said the White House’s proposal is misguided. Executive Director Jason Briefel said last week that the administration’s “business case” for the merger—that following the transfer of the National Background Investigations Bureau to the Defense Department, OPM will face a $70 million budget deficit, and merging with GSA can create efficiencies and improve IT infrastructure upgrades—is sensible. But he said the absence of a justification for stripping the agency of its statutory independence or mention of merit systems principles is alarming.
“Our biggest concern about this proposal writ large is the threat that it represents for the statutory independence of OPM and maintaining an apolitical civil service,” Briefel said. “Even if you have a GSA official who takes on that duty of the current OPM director who is confirmed [by the Senate], they’re not independent. They’re subservient to the GSA administrator, who answers to the president.”
On Monday, SEA President Bill Valdez sent a letter to the leadership of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations urging lawmakers to preserve OPM as an independent agency. The subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the administration’s proposal, and Weichert is scheduled to testify along with oversight experts and union officials.
“Maintaining OPM’s role in [preserving merit systems principles] is of absolute and paramount importance, and changes to that can only occur through Congress, not the administration via fiat,” Valdez wrote. “The administration to date has not provided clarity about what, if any, independence OPM would maintain should it be folded under GSA. The OPM director is independent from the president; the GSA administrator is not.”
Although the administration has frequently described its proposal to move OPM’s policy functions into the White House as an “elevation” of those responsibilities, one former Bush administration official described it as “a diminishment of human capital management.”
“One thing I have not seen discussion of is the issue of merit, and I think the fundamental question is how does this impact merit systems?” the former official said. “Does it enhance the merit-based civil service, or does it diminish the civil service? And normally, non-confirmed White House officials don’t testify [before Congress], so if there is an issue about policy or rulemaking, where do lawmakers go?”
The official was also skeptical of the administration’s argument that the need to transfer the background investigations function to the Pentagon hastened the need for the merger.
“These issues did not arise overnight,” the official said. “When Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act in 2017 authorizing moving the background investigations to [the Defense Department], anyone who knew anything knew that they’d take a huge hit in terms of their funding, and moving HR Solutions to GSA would do the same thing . . . It shouldn’t have come as any surprise, and the other thing I’m wondering is that the new OPM director [nominee] Dale Cabaniss was a clerk on the [Senate] Appropriations Committee that oversaw all of this. But they’re acting like they discovered it under a rock and now they have to move with lightning speed to correct it.”