Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he was concerned the reorganization proposal was "just an effort to do more harm to federal employees."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he was concerned the reorganization proposal was "just an effort to do more harm to federal employees." Jacquelyn Martin/AP

White House Defends Government Reorganization Proposals Amid Congressional Criticism

OMB official faces "tough crowd" at hearing as lawmakers push back on an array of recommendations.

The White House fended off a barrage of criticisms and concerns over its plan to reorganize the federal government during a hearing to review the proposal on Wednesday, with members of both parties pushing back on key parts of the plan.

Facing the objections, Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert said all of the recommendations stemmed from a desire to make improvements in three areas: agency missions, services for citizens and stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee generally praised the overall intent of the plan, but repeatedly flagged specific suggestions they found problematic. Democrats, meanwhile, questioned the Trump administration’s motives in putting forward its blueprint and focused specifically on negative effects they said it would have on federal workers.

Weichert defended the proposals, including privatizing air traffic control, reforming the jurisdictions of the Transportation Department, changes to the Agriculture Department and its food assistance programs, and merging the departments of Labor and Education. Lawmakers paid particular attention to two controversial proposals: privatizing the U.S. Postal Service and shrinking the Office of Personnel Management while moving some of its functions to a policy shop within the White House.

The changes to OPM actually represented an elevation of the agency, Weichert repeatedly told lawmakers, citing the proximity the director would have to the White House. She noted that only one country similar to the United States has an entity in its government like OPM, and that example—France—is “not known to be a bastion of bureaucratic efficiency.” She said ridding OPM of its human resources processing responsibilities would enable it to focus on strategic workforce reforms, preserve merit system principles and better position it to undertake the reskilling and redeployment efforts the administration hopes to accomplish.

Several lawmakers sharply objected to the proposal, saying it would lead to the politicization of human resources decisions and eliminate safeguards between the White House and civil servants.

Weichert also cited foreign examples on the postal proposal, noting other countries that privatized mail delivery. Asked if OMB consulted with USPS before issuing the plan, Weichert said she was not sure but that she did not have any specific input from the agency.

“I need you to say something other than ‘I don’t know,’ ” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich, who spent 30 years working for the Postal Service. “You looked at other countries but you did not talk to the organization you’re talking about privatizing.”  

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he was concerned the reorganization proposal was “just an effort to do more harm to federal employees.” He also criticized the White House for a lack of detail in its plan, saying it lacked a cost-benefit analysis, assessments of the impact on the federal budget and federal workers, and a list of proposals that will require congressional action.

“These are all basic prerequisites for a serious plan and they are all completely missing from this plan,” Cummings said.

Weichert said OMB’s intent was to put all of its “meaty” proposals forward before they could be diluted by public discourse. The administration now plans to engage stakeholders and lawmakers to solicit feedback, she said.

“The goal of this proposal was not to size the cost and benefits,” said Weichert, adding that step would occur during the “implementation phase.” She also said more details would be forthcoming on what proposals the White House can implement unilaterally and the timeline for those actions.

When pressed, Weichert said OMB did not solicit comments from federal employee unions but would engage with them on the proposals going forward. She explained that “in almost every case,” the proposals the administration put forward “required a depth of knowledge that [a] civil servant had to participate.”

If Congress approved everything the administration put forward, Weichert said the proposals would take three to five years to implement.

Weichert attempted to assuage concerns about the fate of the federal workforce under the plan, saying she was not focused on eliminating jobs. Some positions may be eliminated as a “byproduct” of changes in certain areas, she explained, but her larger focus was on hiring to fill the jobs of employees eligible to retire and redeploying employees to parts of government with a skills gap.

“We do not disdain that workforce,” Weichert said. “We applaud the work that workforce does.” She added: “What we do not have is too many federal employees.” She did say that it was “absolutely” a goal of the reorganization plan to save money.

Weichert, who arrived at OMB last year after a career in the private sector, answered an array of questions from lawmakers but in several instances said she was not familiar with specifics of certain proposals. The exchanges occasionally became testy, which lawmakers noted.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., apologized to Weichert on behalf of her colleagues for “animosity directed at you that was inappropriate.”

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., thanked Weichert for facing the music, while summarizing the general mood of the hearing. “We’re a tough crowd,” he said.