Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., contends rule goes against the will of Congress.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., contends rule goes against the will of Congress. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Senator Threatens to Hold Up OPM Nominee Over Obamacare Rule Spat

Chairman of oversight committee has long sought documents related to a rule allowing congressional staff to purchase insurance on a small business exchange and receive employer subsidies.

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee threatened Wednesday to halt the confirmation of nominees to key positions at the Office of Personnel Management until he is confident the agency will comply with long-running requests for documents related to the Affordable Care Act’s implementation.

The committee held hearings Wednesday for President Trump’s nominees to be director and deputy director of OPM. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked Jeff Pon, the White House’s pick for director of the agency, whether he would commit to providing all documentation relating to a 2013 OPM rule allowing employees of Congress to purchase insurance on the D.C. Small Business Health Options Plan exchange and receive an employer subsidy. 

“The request I believe has been recognized at OPM and they’re in the process of providing you documentation,” Pon said. “I don’t know the extent of the documentation, and if confirmed I will look into this issue personally. If there is documentation to be provided, I will inform you what the status is and make sure we will follow up on this.”

Johnson has for years sought information relating to the rule. The senator has contended that the decision went against the will of Congress, since the Senate voted against an amendment to the ACA allowing an employer contribution for legislative branch employees ahead of the bill’s passage. Republicans never confirmed Beth Cobert to be permanent OPM director in part because of the issue.

“I’ll just put the administration on notice,” Johnson said. “They’ve told us that they’ll begin document production on a rolling basis. But unless I’m satisfied that it’s being done in good faith and I’m confident that I’m going to get all of the documentation, no offense to you, but I’ll be holding up your nomination.”

Despite Johnson’s threat, the hearing went relatively smoothly for Pon and for OPM deputy director nominee Michael Rigas. Senators from both parties asked the nominees how they would approach long-running issues with the federal government’s human resources department, including difficulties in hiring people in a timely manner; fallout from the 2015 hack of OPM’s database of employees, retirees and job candidates; and backlogs in processing security clearance and retirement requests.

“In the past I’ve had to push the bureaucracy to get results,” Pon said. “We need to simplify things, make sure managers have drop down menus for job descriptions, and we need automated tracking systems, which can speed up the process quite a bit. We hope we can get hiring down to a reasonable amount of time. Three months is a long time, so we’ve got to get under that.”

Rigas said his No. 1 priority as deputy director of OPM would be to improve the agency’s IT and cybersecurity infrastructure.

“I will work with our internal and external stakeholders involved in the IT area for OPM, including the chief information officer and the chief information security officer, to assess what progress has been made to date,” Rigas said. “[I would see] what the plans are for ongoing progress, assess if we need to change course, and see if we’re on target to meet the security data protection needs that the federal government demands and that the public would demand for federal employee data.”

But Pon seemed initially reluctant to say how he would handle the agency’s ongoing efforts to train federal managers and employees on the issue of workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, when asked by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memo establishing a stricter reading of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“If confirmed, I would take a look at what current practices are and enforce the law as it stands right now,” Pon said. “My job is to make sure that we implement and surround that implementation with training and development so that agencies can uphold the law.”

“Do you understand you would not be in violation of the law to continue the practice of ensuring that federal employees are trained to avoid, to detect and to report discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation,” Harris responded.

“If confirmed I would make sure I understand the law and enforce the law,” Pon said.

“What do you believe the law to be right now, as it relates to discrimination against people based on gender identity or sexual orientation?” Harris asked.

“As you’ve indicated, training and development based on making sure we don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity is the current law,” Pon said.

Johnson encouraged Pon and Rigas, once confirmed, to be proactive and come to committee members whenever they find themselves hamstrung by an arcane rule or regulation.

“We operate in a very bipartisan fashion, trying to solve problems,” he said. “So help us help you. Don’t hesitate to contact this committee for those types of legislative solutions. We can react very quickly and effectively to get those things passed.”