House Democrats are moving with urgency this week to block the Trump administration’s proposed merger of the Office of Personnel Management with the General Services Administration.
The House on Tuesday began to consider the 2020 financial services and general government appropriations bill, which includes a provision that would block the administration’s proposed OPM-GSA merger. Instead, the bill would fund OPM at $43 million more in 2020 over previous years.
The appropriations bill itself doesn’t include the $50 million the administration requested to carry out the OPM-GSA merger.
Congressional debate began soon after members of the American Federation of Government Employees on Tuesday rallied in protest of the proposed OPM-GSA merger. They, along with members of the National Federation of Federal Employees, gathered outside the OPM building in northwest D.C.
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The administration revealed last week it may need to furlough some 150 OPM employees if Congress refuses to move forward with the merger — and if members can’t pass full-year appropriations for 2020 by the end of this fiscal year.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee, has introduced an additional amendment to the 2020 appropriations bill that would prevent OPM from carrying out furloughs or reductions-in-force of its employees.
Connolly, in an interview with Federal News Network, described this latest amendment as one piece of a three-part effort to prevent the administration from advancing the OPM-GSA merger.
A briefing document given to congressional appropriators and authorizing staff about the OPM-GSA merger said the administration must consider all “impossible choices” if lawmakers don’t agree by June 30 to advance the proposal.
“This is all being rushed on the theory that if they proceed quickly, we will not be able to stop them,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said of the merger at Tuesday’s rally.
Margaret Weichert, acting OPM director and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, told Federal News Network she didn’t want to furlough anyone. But OPM’s financial situation is forcing the administration to consider a series of “impossible choices.”
OPM will face a $70 million shortfall when the agency’s National Background Investigations Bureau and its security clearance business moves to the Pentagon Oct. 1.
“They do not have the statutory authority to do this,” Connolly said of the OPM-GSA merger at Tuesday’s rally. “We’re going to challenge them, if necessary, in a court of law.”
Both Connolly and Holmes Norton said they were surprised the administration continued to push the OPM-GSA merger after a May hearing on the proposal. When asked whether the administration seriously thought members of Congress could authorize the merger in a short few months, Weichert acknowledged the agency could use more time.
“What we ought to be doing is not trying to merge OPM with an agency with which it has no relationship in terms of objective, in terms of discipline [and] in terms of expertise that is needed,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at Tuesday’s protest. “It makes no sense. It is irrational. The only conclusion that I can draw is that it is done again to denigrate and undermine federal employees and their rights and their benefits under the civil service system. That’s all that I can think of. One agency builds buildings. The other agency is supposed to build morale, not tear it down.”
Meanwhile, AFGE is soliciting signatures for a petition to block the OPM-GSA merger. Some union members expressed frustration with the administration’s rationale for the move.
“We write the policy,” said Marlo Bryant, chief steward for AFGE Local 32, which represents OPM employees. “We write the regulations. We pay your retirement benefits. We pay your health benefits. We do it all. We’re not just OPM HR. We process everything that you think we can’t.”
Other OPM employees said the uncertainty surrounding the agency and their jobs has been stressful. Donna Brockington, sergeant at arms for AFGE Local 32 and an OPM employee of more than 10 years, said she and her colleagues have been trying to figure out who could be furloughed.
“Now we have people actually filling out their retirement papers [and] their resignation papers and seeking other jobs at other agencies,” she said. “We’re losing systemic knowledge. We’ve been losing systemic knowledge that’s not documented for years now. This is not helping. If you want to know how my colleagues and I feel, we’re terrified.”
Though Brockington and other AFGE members said Weichert has encouraged the OPM workforce to bring their questions about the merger to her, they said they get the feeling the administration isn’t sharing all of the details with the employees.
“Margaret says a lot but she doesn’t know,” Bryant said. “Where is the data? Why haven’t employees been able to seen the data? Why hasn’t anyone in Congress been able to see the data? How can we just go on the word of one person when she’s not sharing any information?”
Beyond this week’s congressional debates over the OPM-GSA merger and 2020 funding for both agencies, the House Oversight and Reform Committee will host a hearing later this week on members’ requests for more documents and information from OPM, GSA and the FBI.
Democrats have asked for a list of documents, plans and details relating to the OPM-GSA merger. Members on both sides of the aisle expressed a desire to see more information about the plan and the administration’s rationale to split OPM functions to GSA and give OMB new authorities to expand a federal personnel policy office.
Connolly, along with committee Chairman Elijah Cummings and national security subcommittee Chairman Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), on Monday asked for additional details about coming security clearance transfer.
Letters addressed to Weichert and acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper requested more details about the costs and personnel associated with the security clearance transfer and DoD’s plans to replace periodic reinvestigations with a continuous vetting program.
Not all members of Congress, however, are on board with House Democrats’ efforts to block the OPM-GSA merger.