Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.,  expressed concern that the White House is trying to undermine the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., expressed concern that the White House is trying to undermine the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. Alex Brandon / AP file photo

OPM-GSA Merger Proposal Falls Flat With House Oversight Panel

Lawmakers and witnesses say the plan isn't well thought-out and risks eroding merit system protections.

Members of a key House panel on Tuesday showed little willingness to provide the Trump administration with the legal authority to move forward with a proposal to send most of the Office of Personnel Management’s functions to the General Services Administration.

Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert, who has spearheaded the initiative to fold the federal government’s HR agency into the Defense Department, GSA, and the Office of Management and Budget, testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, arguing that OPM is neither financially nor organizationally equipped to handle challenges facing the federal workforce.

“OPM is structured to support bureaucratically intensive manual solutions that the private sector now solves with technology,” Weichert said. “Silos complicate the agency’s ability to realign resources or invest in data analytics and technology. In this environment, it’s impossible for OPM to address strategic human capital issues essential to the president’s management agenda.”

Last week, the Trump administration submitted proposed legislation that would send the vast majority of OPM’s responsibilities into a new personnel service within GSA, and create an Office of Federal Workforce Policy within the Executive Office of the President. That office would handle OPM’s current policy duties, and its director, a non-Senate confirmed presidential appointee, would take on the existing OPM director position’s rulemaking and regulatory authority.

Officials with both the Government Accountability Office and the OPM Office of the Inspector General testified that the administration has failed to provided even basic information about how it reached the decision that OPM must be dismantled.

 “To date, we have not received documentation demonstrating that OPM leadership meaningfully examined other alternatives to address OPM’s challenges beside the transfer to GSA,” said Norbert Vint, acting OPM inspector general. “We cannot know if it is the most cost efficient or effective option if no other options are evaluated, and in fact we do not know if the transfer to GSA would be cost efficient or effective at all. Based on the current information, we’re concerned that the agency is making decisions to align with a predetermined desired outcome, without conducting adequate evidence-based analysis.”

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said that although he believes Weichert’s intentions are genuine, he is concerned the initiative represents an effort by the White House to undermine the intent of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which established OPM as an independent agency responsible for protecting merit systems principles.

“The administration wants to take over the merit systems policymaking function into the highly politicized environment of the White House itself, away from direct congressional oversight and inspector general review,” Connolly said. “It’s clear that this was decided a priori to undermine civil service protections and was developed, this reorganization proposal, to obscure its actual objective.”

Linda Springer, who served as OPM director during the George W. Bush administration and was a senior adviser at OMB early in the Trump administration, said the $70 million budget shortfall created by moving background investigations from OPM to the Defense Department could be overcome without merging the agency with GSA, specifically by increasing the amount agencies reimburse OPM for expenses associated with managing the retirement trust fund. Weichert has cited the $70 million deficit as a partial justification for the proposed merger.

“The reality is [this proposal] places personnel policy right back into place where the spoils and patronage system had taken hold,” Springer said. “At best, the optics are terrible, but even worse is the opportunity it creates for enabling the return to unfair personnel practices . . . We need to make OPM smart, not obsolete.”

Even Republican members were reluctant to support the administration’s plan. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., ranking member of the subcommittee, spent much of his allotted time seeking a middle ground between the administration and witnesses worried about what the proposal would mean for civil service protections.

“Here’s my concern: when we look at reorganizations, I don’t think we’ve ever really done one in the federal government, and I don’t know that when you look at civil service reform that it’s ripe for reorganizations [in the same way] as the private sector would look at that,” Meadows said. “So here’s what I would ask. Assuming we wanted to be more effective and efficient, could you look at ways to keep politics out of it and make sure the federal workforce is there and properly align it?”

Weichert acknowledged that in her previous outreach to stakeholders and lawmakers she did not adequately lay out why and how OPM struggles to meet its mission.

“I have to admit that I started with all of the documentation already in the public domain, including extensive documentation from this committee, GAO and the IG over the last 18 years, so to me the case for change is self-evident,” she said. “I’ll totally make a mea culpa. I haven’t done a good enough job articulating what for me is the handwriting on the wall.”

She also seemed to backtrack from statements she and OPM Deputy Director Michael Rigas made last week that suggested that the administration could implement at least part of its reorganization plans without congressional approval.

“That is not the administration’s position [that this could be achieved through executive action],” Weichert said. “That is why we submitted the legislative proposal.”