OPM employees may face furloughs if Congress doesn’t endorse GSA merger

This story has been updated on June 20, 2019 to include more details from the briefing document the administration provided to Congress. 

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Employees at the Office of Personnel Management may face furloughs if Congress doesn’t take action by Oct. 1 to secure full year appropriations — or move forward with the Trump administration’s proposed merger with the General Services Administration.

The administration took a list of “near term, impossible choices” to OPM’s appropriations and authorizing committees on Capitol Hill last week, a senior administration official told Federal News Network.

Those choices, which the official said included administrative furloughs for OPM employees, demonstrated a variety of scenarios that the agency will face come Oct. 1 — when OPM will lose the National Background Investigations Bureau and its security clearance business to the Defense Department. The security clearance transfer will create a $70 million shortfall, a point the Trump administration has recently used as a talking point in justifying the OPM-GSA merger.

The Washington Post first reported the possibility of furloughs and layoffs for employees at the agency.

A briefing document given to members of Congress, which Federal News Network obtained, described possible ways OPM could close the $70 million funding gap. A hiring freeze on non-mission critical positions, as well as a proposal to leave current vacant positions open, would reduce the shortfall by roughly $2 million.

DoD will reimburse OPM for use of NBIB’s legacy case management system, a point that NBIB has discussed previously. The briefing document estimates that buy-back agreement at $42 million.

Transferring additional administrative personnel from OPM to DoD would release another $1.6 million.

Still, OPM would still face a $23 million gap, which equates to funding needed for 150 OPM employees, the briefing document reads.

Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and acting OPM director, said the agency will be forced to consider those “impossible choices” if Congress prohibits the OPM-GSA merger — and if lawmakers can’t pass permanent appropriations for OPM by the end of the fiscal year.

OPM will confront those “impossible choices” even if Congress passes a continuing resolution at the fiscal year’s end.

“It absolutely not the intention to furlough anyone,” Weichert said in an interview with Federal News Network. “It is our intention to get Congress to a place where they take responsibility for the problem they created and help us not only fund our near term gap but actually put the agency structurally on a sustainable path going forward.”

Furloughs would give the agency more flexibility to temporarily stop paying some employees while leaving others to continue their work.

Yet absent a firm commitment from Congress by June 30 to advance the administration’s proposed OPM-GSA merger, OPM will be forced to begin a 90-day process to prepare furlough notices to its employees, the briefing document said.

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Inaction means OPM will risk violating the Antideficiency Act, a possibility that observers and others in the federal community have long speculated if Congress and the executive branch moved forward with the security clearance transfer.

The administration has searched OPM’s budget and found some breathing room within the agency’s facilities and contracting funds as a way to further overcome the shortfall. Still, the agency’s financial situation leaves OPM’s people and technology as part of the administration’s “impossible choices.”

“If OPM is forced into a furlough situation, which has never been the goal and I don’t even now believe that will be the outcome, under the law there is a set of activities to look at all options,” Weichert said. “OPM doesn’t have any good options at this point in time. An absolute last resort in my mind is not doing the mission or hurting the people. That’s the last line in the sand. Unfortunately that’s the situation that we’re in, and I think Congress is starting to understand the crisis that we’re in.”

In an email to OPM employees, which Federal News Network obtained, Weichert said she would keep the agency’s workforce informed about the next steps.

“While headlines come and go, our commitment to OPM’s mission and its people is not changing, and we are working with Congress to find solutions that address our problems holistically and sustainability,” she wrote in the Wednesday morning message. “So if you encounter headlines or stories that concern you, I’d ask that you speak up, and share your concerns with your leaders, including me, to get full context and timely detail. Oftentimes what passes as an eye catching headline does not reflect the full and true nature of the progress that we are making. Ultimately we are working hard with Congressional appropriators to educate them on all relevant scenarios and potential problems, so that they can help provide funding and flexibilities to address those issues.”

The news comes nearly a month after Weichert testified before the House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee on the administration’s plan and legislative proposal.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans on the subcommittee gave the OPM-GSA merger a ringing endorsement. 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.

The Government Accountability Office and the OPM inspector general said they hadn’t seen enough information to justify the reorganization. Former OPM Director Linda Springer questioned why GSA wasn’t at the witness table to explain why it’s well equipped to handle OPM’s functions and responsibilities.

“This announcement from OPM flies in the face of testimony the administration gave to our subcommittee,” the panel’s chairman, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Wednesday in a statement. “Director Weichert made it clear that this merger proposal was not ready for prime time.”

Other House Democrats and at least one federal employee organization on Wednesday were quick to criticize the possibility of furloughs and layoffs.

“The Trump administration has failed to make the case or provide the authority under which this reorganization can be accomplished,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday in a statement. “Threatening to lay off hundreds of hardworking professionals because the administration’s plan has been rejected in a bipartisan fashion is foolish, petty and irresponsible.”

“Considering that the President has threatened shutdowns and loss of work for federal employees in the past, this new proposal — while alarming, irrational and completely unnecessary — comes as no surprise. We call on Congress to meet this threat with a strong and resilient response,” Ken Thomas, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association, said in a statement.

The House Appropriations Committee advanced 2020 legislation that would block the administration from moving forward with the OPM-GSA merger. Instead, the 2020 appropriations bill includes an additional $43 million in funding for OPM over the previous year — a clear attempt to bridge the administration’s reporting funding gap at the agency.

But the senior administration official said the House proposal would still leave OPM in a financial bind. The administration’s briefing document described the House proposal as a “temporary solution to a long-term fiscal, systemic and structural problem.”

The legislation, the official said, would bar OPM from continuing its inter-agency agreements with GSA.

GSA today is helping OPM hire additional IT professionals and is evaluating the agency’s assisted acquisitions, the administration official said. Those activities would end, the official said, if Congress prevents merger activities in 2020 legislation.

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