Congress to formally block OPM-GSA merger with defense authorization bill

After more than a year of debate, Congress has taken its most definitive step yet to block the Trump administration’s proposed merger of the Office of Personnel Management with the General Services Administration.

Congressional leaders included specific formal language in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to put a pause on the OPM-GSA merger, at least until an independent organization can study and recommend a path forward for the federal government’s human resources agency.

The language, which congressional armed services leaders released late Monday night, is abundantly clear.

“No person may assign, transfer, transition, merge or consolidate any function, responsibility, authority, service, system or program that is assigned in law to the Office of Personnel Management to or with the General Services Administration, the Office of Management and Budget or the Executive Office of the President,” the conference report reads.

The measure would instruct the National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally-chartered organization, to study the structure and mission of OPM.

OPM would have 30 days to contract with NAPA. The academy would have a year to submit a report to Congress, which would analyze:

  • OPM’s statutory mandates and the challenges associated with the agency’s execution of those mandates;
  • OPM’s non-statutory responsibilities, functions and activities and the challenges associated with executing them;
  • Recommended courses of action for addressing those challenges, “including an analysis of the benefits, costs and feasibility of each option and the effect of each on labor-management agreements;”
  • A timeline for implementation of these recommended courses of action;
  • Statutory or regulatory changes needed to execute those recommendations;
  • Methods of involving, engaging and collecting feedback from other agencies, departments and stakeholders: and
  • The views of non-federal stakeholders and organizations representing OPM customers and intended beneficiaries.

In addition, the conference language sets OPM on a specific course to respond to NAPA’s recommendations and offer its own assessment. The OPM director and GSA administrator, as well as OMB and other appropriate agencies, can suggest changes to the NAPA report, which would also go to Congress for its review.

“Any recommendation submitted in the report … for change shall be accompanied by a business case analysis setting forth the operational efficiencies and cost savings (in both the short- and long-terms) associated with such change, and a proposal for legislative or administrative action required to effect the change proposed,” the conference report reads.

To be clear, Congress’ new OPM-GSA merger language doesn’t explicitly ban the administration — this one or a future one — from ever transferring the agency’s responsibilities to another federal department. It simply implements a strategic pause on the administration’s current proposal — and prohibits OPM from moving statutory activities and functions in the process.

But the addition of specific language blocking the OPM-GSA merger is significant, because though few lawmakers have announced themselves as strong advocates for the administration’s proposal, only a handful have been vocal with their opposition.

The merger’s most vocal critic, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), told Federal News Network in October the administration had still failed to provide adequate justification for the merger.

Federal employee groups and associations, meanwhile, have been lobbying Congress for months on this particular topic. The goal, the groups have said, is to give OPM and the federal community the time and space to charter a better organizational and financial path for the agency.

“There’s widespread agreement that OPM has its challenges,” Jessica Klement, staff vice president for policy and programs at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association, said in an interview. “The study and report that NAPA is asked to produce as part of the NDAA will give members of Congress a wide range of options to consider when working toward improving the agency.”

NAPA has been careful over the past year to offer up a specific opinion on the OPM-GSA merger, but many of its fellows — some of whom are former leaders and executives of the agency — have been critical of the proposal.

Still, NAPA has suggested the existing structure and scope of OPM can and should change. In its multi-part series, “No Time to Wait: Building a Public Service for the 21st Century,” the academy said a central personnel entity should help agencies better project the rapidly changing nature of work.

“The central entity should facilitate and enable a learning system to understand what human
capital strategies work best in accomplishing the government’s mission,” the NAPA report read. “We have many flexibilities but little knowledge about what works and what does not. In a federated system, the central entity can identify, assess and share leading practices.”

NAPA’s president, Terry Gerton, said Congress has often turned to the academy to assess the statutory roles and best practices for managing other federal agencies as an expert source of non-partisan advice.

“There is nothing simple about thinking about reorganizing OPM,” she said in an interview with Federal News Network. “We’re exactly the right organization to reach out and make sure that we convene a really broad set of stakeholders, a broad set of experts and that we do the complete review that Congress has asked us to do.”

Lawmakers — mostly Connolly — have criticized the Trump administration for failing to suggest alternatives to the original OPM-GSA merger. That’s where NAPA, Gerton said, could serve a unique role.

“We have the ability to convene in that non-partisan, objective way, the folks who have been hard to get to table at the same time,” she said. “The unions, the benefits folks, the OPM staff themselves, the chief human capital officers, all of those kinds of folks will be able to engage in conversation and make sure we understand what their concerns are, what their lines in the sand and what options they see. [We] really [want] to give to both the OPM leadership and the congressional committees a set of options that will lay out the pros and cons from all the various stakeholder opinions.”