OPM tells workforce the merger with GSA is off, but new concerns arise

The Office of Personnel Management has told its workforce it’s no longer actively pursuing the administration’s proposed merger with the General Services Administration.

In an email to staff, which covered everything from flu shots for employees to the status of reopening agency facilities, acting OPM Director Michael Rigas said Thursday he wanted to provide an update about the administration’s proposed GSA merger.

“As Congress has not acted on the administration’s legislative proposal, we are no longer devoting time and energy to the merger and are focused on ensuring OPM can function as a standalone personnel agency for the federal government,” Rigas said in the email, which Federal News Network obtained. “We are also conducting an independent analysis of the agency to help inform how OPM can best carry out its mission and meet the needs of the American people.”

A senior OPM official told Federal News Network the agency was looking at other options, especially now that the governmentwide security clearance business had moved to the Defense Department.

Congress already prohibited the transfer of OPM’s statutory functions to GSA or the Office of Management and Budget in last year’s annual defense authorization bill. The law also mandated a year-long study of OPM and its functions by the National Academy of Public Administration. NAPA is expected to submit recommendations to Congress in March.

But the administration continued to pursue pieces of the OPM-GSA merger anyway. The president’s 2021 budget proposal included a request for $70 million for the reorganization, and OPM’s inspector general has pointed to his own concerns about plans to transfer the management of the agency’s buildings to GSA.

Both agencies continued to discuss those plans through 2019 and into this year but eventually agreed to have OPM continue managing two of its major properties through at least the end of fiscal 2021.

Some members of Congress are treating the latest statement from Rigas with kid gloves, and skeptics wonder whether it’s a distraction from bigger worries.

“The administration is continuing to pursue activities that seem to be aimed at dismantling OPM,” a Senate aide told Federal News Network.

The White House Office of Presidential Personnel has taken on active role in the last year to fill political appointee roles across the administration.

And though it’s not necessarily uncommon to bring in new political appointees near the end of a term, multiple sources familiar with OPM say the agency has onboarded a few dozen new Schedule C appointees since March.

These include George Nesterczuk, the president’s original pick to lead OPM, and Dennis Kirk, who’s nomination before the Merit Systems Protection Board has been pending before the Senate for at least two years. Kirk leads a key personnel policy shop with OPM.

Don Devine, a former OPM director from President Ronald Reagan’s administration, also has a part-time role within the agency.

“Don Devine is a special government employee and a part-time adviser to the acting director on various policy and programmatic topics because of his deep experience in the government and understanding the community,” the senior OPM official said. “In this role, he is part time and the work that he is part of is limited.”

Hill and other observers say even though the administration is no longer actively pursuing the OPM-GSA merger, they worry about these and other actions that may do more damage to the agency.

“OPM has wasted time and resources on this quixotic mission that clearly had no support from Congress, no legal grounding and made no sense,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, said Friday in a statement to Federal News Network. “Despite this victory, Congress cannot lose focus on OPM’s proposed Schedule F change, which is an assault on the civil service and should join the OPM merger in the trash bin.”

Connolly was one of three House Democrats who introduced legislation earlier this week intended to nullify the president’s recent executive order.

The EO, which the White House released last week, designed to reclassify a portion of the career federal workforce as at-will appointees in the excepted service has overtaken much of Congress’ attention.

Other members of Congress have echoed Connolly’s concerns about OPM and its future.

In a briefing to lawmakers about the executive order, agency officials described a process where agencies will prepare a list of positions to reclassify for submission to OPM for approval, a congressional aide said. Employees currently in positions that are up for reclassification won’t have an opportunity to appeal those decisions. They can choose to move with their reclassified position or leave.

House Democrats, employee groups and others say they fear the president’s Schedule F executive order could be used to burrow in political appointees from the current administration to the next, especially to vacant positions.

“This is a transparent attempt to burrow political operatives into the ranks of career civil service well after President Trump leaves office,” the Federal Workers Alliance, a coalition of employee unions, said Thursday in a letter to Democratic appropriators.

Unions are asking Congress to include language in the next temporary stopgap or permanent budget bill formally blocking the Schedule F EO.

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