Senate Democrats ask administration for alternative budget options to OPM-GSA merger

This story was updated on Thursday, July 11 at 10:20 a.m. to reflect an additional statement from the Trump administration. 

Two more members of Congress have expressed open skepticism and concern for the Trump administration’s proposal to merge the Office of Personnel Management with the General Services Administration.

In a letter to acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert, ranking members of two Senate committees questioned whether the administration was rushing to make decisions about the agency’s workforce and the proposed OPM-GSA merger.

OPM faces a $70 million shortfall when the National Background and Investigations Bureau and its security clearance business transfers to the Pentagon on Oct. 1. The Trump administration last month told Congress that given OPM’s financial situation, the agency risked furloughing employees if lawmakers didn’t agree to move forward with the merger — or secure full-year appropriations for 2020.

Sending furlough notices to OPM employees would be “premature and unnecessary,” Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Patty Murrary (D-Wash.) wrote in a July 10 letter to Weichert.

Peters is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over OPM. Murray is the minority leader for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“Congress has yet to finalize a fiscal 2020 appropriations bill, and the only such publicly available legislation more than makes up for this budget gap,” the senators wrote. “Further, in a briefing to congressional staff, OPM acknowledged that it has not conducted a full analysis of its own resources and how these could be used to address short-term budget shortfalls. These steps must be taken before OPM takes the drastic step of furloughing, and possibly laying off, hard-working federal employees who were already forced to go without pay while furloughed earlier this year.”

The bill the senators reference is the 2020 financial services and general government appropriations bill, which the House passed late last month. The bill would prevent the administration from merging or transferring any authorities, resources or technology from OPM to GSA or the Office of Management and Budget.

The House bill included $43 million more from OPM in 2020, a significant budget increase over previous years. And it includes specific language that prevents OPM from carrying out furloughs or reductions-in-force (RIFs).

The Senate, however, has yet to take up this bill — or any other appropriations bill for that matter.

A Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee aide declined to speculate what the Senate might propose in regards to OPM’s 2020 budget. But the aide suggested OPM may be able to shift existing funds to cover the $70 million shortfall

“They should explore all their options to address this shortfall and update the Senate on those options before they resort to furloughs,” the committee aide said. “Ranking Member Peters has repeatedly pressed OPM to provide more information justifying this proposed merger and its impact on the workforce, and they have not been forthcoming with those additional details.”

Yet the Trump administration said it has in fact shared the consequences of the coming security clearance transfer with lawmakers, a senior official told Federal News Network.

“We continue to work with Congress to find a solution and sustainable path forward that avoids unacceptable impacts to the staff at OPM,” the official said in a statement. “Unfortunately, issues of funding and appropriations law leave OPM with few options and has been forced to assess scenarios that include unfunded anomalies. It is our sincere hope that Congress helps us find a way to address the funding gap created by their decision to move a major funding source away from OPM.”

Congress has just a handful of legislative work weeks left to reach some sort of funding deal for the next fiscal year before the Sept. 30 deadline. Lawmakers haven’t to agree on plans to set top-line spending levels and raise the debt ceiling, much less draft and pass comprehensive appropriations bills for OPM, GSA and other federal agencies.

The House, particularly Democrats, have been the most vocal about their opposition to the administration’s proposed OPM-GSA merger. A handful of Senate Democrats, which include Maryland and Virginia Sens. Ben Cardin, Chris Van Hollen, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, asked Weichert in May for a long list of documents and details associated with the administration’s plans and rationale for the merger.

But given the tight timeline to secure either temporary or full-year funding for OPM in 2020, Peters and Murray appear focused on the immediate budgetary impacts the agency could face.

They gave Weichert until July 24 to brief Congress on alternative options for OPM to resolve its “budgetary needs” in fiscal 2020.

They also scolded the administration for not detailing the $70 million shortfall to Congress earlier, and with more urgency.

OPM, as Federal News Network reported, quietly warned of the consequences it could face when Congress passed legislation transferring the defense security clearance business to DoD back in 2017.

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“We are concerned by the administration’s delay in alerting Congress to the scope of this issue, particularly as OPM has known about the pending transfer of functions to DoD since at least 2017,” the senators wrote. “We are further concerned that this premature announcement could worsen OPM’s ongoing workforce attrition issues. And we are particularly troubled by the administration’s linking of this budget gap and a proposed reorganization of OPM.”

And like several members in the House, Peters and Murray also expressed frustration with a lack of detail and justification for the OPM-GSA merger.

“Despite months of congressional requests, the administration has failed to provide evidence that a proposed merger would save taxpayer dollars or even benefit the civil service,” the senators wrote. “OPM has also been unable to provide any evidence that a merger, even if completed in fiscal 2020, would have any impact on this budget gap.”

Both Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee expressed open frustration with a senior OPM official sent to respond to the panel’s questions late last month. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) accused the administration of stalling its responses to numerous congressional requests for information about the merger.

The administration said at the time it didn’t have a legal analysis ready to justify why it believes it can merge OPM with GSA.

Meanwhile, Reps. Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer (D-Va.), along with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, have introduced an amendment designed to block the OPM-GSA merger as part of the 2020 defense authorization bill.

The House is expected to begin debates on the defense policy bill this week.

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