Mark Tenally / AP

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House Approves 3.1% Pay Raise and Blocks OPM Furloughs, Merger

Lawmakers dealt the Trump administration’s proposal to merge OPM and GSA another setback.

The House on Wednesday voted to block the Trump administration from acting on a threat to furlough 150 Office of Personnel Management employees if Congress does not agree by the end of June to support a plan to merge OPM with the General Services Administration. 

Lawmakers adopted by voice vote an amendment to the fiscal 2020 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill (H.R. 3351) preventing OPM from following through on the threatened furloughs. The broader spending bill, approved 224-196, also funds an average 3.1% pay increase for federal civilian employees next year.    

The bill would provide civilians with a 2.6% across the board raise in 2020, as well as an average 0.5% increase in locality pay. President Trump has proposed a civilian pay freeze for next year.

The spending measure includes increases in funding for the Internal Revenue Service, Small Business Administration and OPM, although it rejects the broader OPM-GSA merger plan as well as the furloughs. Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert has argued that the plan is needed to address the agency’s slow adoption of IT infrastructure upgrades and a $70 million budget shortfall created by the move of security clearance investigations from OPM to the Defense Department, but lawmakers in both parties have sharply criticized the proposal, saying it lacks a proper rationale or documentation.

Weichert threatened the furloughs last week, claiming that unless Congress agreed to advance the OPM-GSA merger by the end of June, a reduction in staffing would be required to address a budget deficit in fiscal 2020, although the House appropriations bill includes an increase in funding in excess of that shortfall.

“The Trump administration is currently threatening Congress with the furlough of 150 employees at OPM, unless we, the Congress, acquiesce to the administration’s so-called plan to abolish OPM altogether and give the Trump White House control of government-wide federal employee policies,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who introduced the anti-furlough amendment. “They are now holding 150 civil servants hostage in an attempt to force Congress’ hand into this terrible idea. We cannot allow them to be bargaining chips . . . The inadequate plan to dismantle OPM has been a disaster, and now that they cannot win on the merits, they’re resorting to blackmail.”

Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., opposed Connolly's amendment, arguing that Weichert be given the latitude to reorganize OPM.

“[OPM is] looking for an alternative, and that is to reorganize, to change, to modernize, to update,” Graves said. “But you know what, in this bill, the underlying bill, they’re prohibited from protecting these jobs . . . Now an amendment comes all the way back around to say, ‘Wait, you can’t do what you want to do to protect these jobs and you can’t fire anybody, you can’t furlough anybody, you can’t reorganize.’ What are they to do?”

Graves also suggested that laying off some OPM employees could be a positive development.

“In a time of technology and advancements and modernization, I think government could merge some things together, could find some synergies, could save some dollars, and in this economy that we’re experiencing today, what better time to do that?” Graves said. “The unemployment rate at the lowest it’s been in 51 years. Allowing others to experience that opportunity of growth and wealth throughout the economy and additional job opportunities and take those skills somewhere else, that’s great. But that’s not what OPM wants to do, they’re being forced to do that.”

House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that there is bipartisan consensus that OPM must improve its operations, but the administration’s proposal follows “very bad logic.” He called the furlough threat “retaliatory,” rather than based on a good-faith effort to reform the agency.

“The General Services Administration deals with real property, with inanimate objects,” Hoyer said. “OPM deals with human resources. There’s no match between those two. Making OPM an effective, efficient organization is an objective that we ought to all share . . . But I do not support what I perceive to be a retaliatory suggestion about laying off people at OPM. In other worse, ‘If we can’t merge it, we’re going to lay them off.’ ”

Despite Graves’ opposition, the amendment was adopted by voice vote. 

Senate appropriators have not yet introduced their version of the spending bill.