The Senate confirmed Cathy Harris as MSPB chair and Hampton Dellinger as head of the Office of Special Counsel in party-line votes this week.

The Senate confirmed Cathy Harris as MSPB chair and Hampton Dellinger as head of the Office of Special Counsel in party-line votes this week. ANDREY DENISYUK / GETTY IMAGES

Key federal workforce agencies get confirmed leaders

Biden finally has confirmed heads at the primary civil service enforcement agencies.

The Senate has confirmed leaders for two agencies tasked with enforcing civil service laws, with both nominees narrowly winning approval in party-line votes. 

Cathy Harris will serve as the permanent chair of the Merit Systems Protection Board after receiving confirmation Wednesday evening, while Hampton Dellinger will lead the Office of Special Counsel after being sworn into the position this week. The agencies adjudicate appeals of personnel actions and improper retaliation against federal employee whistleblowers or other prohibited personnel practices, respectively. 

Harris has served as an MSPB board member since June 2022, while also serving as its acting chair as her separate nomination for that position languished. She and Ray Limon, the other current board member, helped reconstitute the agency after it operated without a quorum for five years. That led to a backlog of 3,800 cases pending before MSPB’s central panel, which the members have since reduced by 50% to 1,900.

The new chair won her new title in a 51-48 vote. An attorney with extensive experience in federal employment law, Harris has faced pushback from Republicans for previous partisan tweets disparaging some conservatives.

As permanent chair, Harris will look to turn the tide on workforce morale. In the most recent Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey, just 49% of employees said they were satisfied with the organization, down 17 percentage points from 2022. Less than 40% said they had confidence in senior leadership. The agency also recently paused decision issuance for five weeks due to an IT modernization initiative.

The MSPB Professional Association, represented by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, is also pushing for a new contract with the agency, accusing management of dragging its feet for the last year of negotiations. The two sides have brought their issues to the Federal Service Impasses Panel for resolution. 

Of particular concern to IFPTE, MSPB management is challenging that its administrative judges who make initial rulings on federal employee appeals have “decisional independence.” The union has said the agency must concede that point to ensure the judges can “perform their duties in a manner that ensures due process.”

Dellinger barely squeaked by in a 49-47 party-line vote. Senate Republicans, led by Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., objected to Dellinger’s nomination over his prior employment at a law firm that has represented Hunter Biden. 

He previously won Senate confirmation—in a mostly party-line vote, though he earned support from a handful of Republicans—to serve as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy. During his confirmation hearing for his new post, he vowed to protect anyone who shines a light on government misconduct, noting they often “find themselves in professional peril.” 

“If confirmed, I will take every complaint made to OSC seriously, every single one, and my overriding goal will be to contribute to greater trust in government, including by protecting whistleblowers vigorously,” Dellinger said.

Dellinger replaced Henry Kerner, a Trump appointee, who left OSC when his term expired in October. Biden has nominated Kerner to serve in the third and final slot at MSPB, but his nomination is still awaiting a final vote on the Senate floor. 

During his swearing-in Wednesday, Dellinger thanked his predecessors who he said left the agency on strong footing. 

“As special counsel, I look forward to further advancing OSC’s important mission by working with Congress, stakeholders and the agency’s talented career staff to protect federal workers and address governmental misconduct,” he said.