Senate confirms Cabaniss as new permanent OPM director

After nearly another year of acting leadership, the Office of Personnel Management officially has a new director.

The Senate on Wednesday morning confirmed Dale Cabaniss to be OPM’s new leader — the second permanent director and the fourth person to head up the agency on a permanent or acting basis during the first three years of the Trump administration.

Cabaniss was confirmed with a 54-38 vote.

Dale Cabaniss, OPM director
Dale Cabaniss, newly confirmed OPM director

She’ll replace Margaret Weichert, who has been serving concurrently as the agency’s acting director and permanent deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget for nearly a year.

Cabaniss, a former chairwoman for the Federal Labor Relations Authority and a former staff director for the Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, will take the reigns of an agency that’s been mired in uncertainty for more than a year.

The Trump administration last June proposed merging much of OPM’s existing functions with the General Services Administration, while building out a federal workforce policy shop within an existing OMB office.

Weichert has been the face of the OPM-GSA merger during her tenure as acting director. She replaced Jeff Pon, who left suddenly last October after a brief, six-month stint as OPM’s permanent director.

House Democrats, particularly Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), have criticized Weichert and the administration for providing little detail or justification for the proposed merger.

House Republicans have also been skeptical of the move and accused OPM officials of purposely stalling a legal analysis for the proposed merger. As of late June, OPM has said the agency’s attorneys were developing a legal analysis.

It’s unclear just how much Cabaniss will advocate for the OPM-GSA merger during her tenure as the agency’s director. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who spoke in opposition of Cabaniss’ nomination, appeared skeptical.

“This agency and the millions of Americans it serves each and every day deserve a proven, independent leader,” he said Tuesday from the Senate floor. “Simply put, Dale Cabaniss is not that leader. While Ms. Cabaniss has some experience leading a small agency, I am not confident that her background has prepared her to provide the stability and the autonomy that OPM deserves.”

During her May nomination hearing, Cabaniss simply stated the administration needed legislation to advance the proposed OPM-GSA merger and said Congress would learn more about those plans during hypothetical conversations about legislation. OMB later that month did submit a legislative proposal for the merger to Capitol Hill, and no lawmaker to date has sponsored or introduced the plan as a formal piece of legislation.

Beyond the OPM-GSA merger, Cabaniss will also take over an agency that’s been embroiled in a  long-running lawsuit with federal employee unions over the president’s workforce executive orders.

Federal employee unions themselves have been less than enthusiastic about the prospect of Cabaniss as OPM director. Both the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union questioned Cabaniss’ record as FLRA chairwoman, citing the agency’s low employee engagement scores during her tenure and concerns that she wouldn’t support the OPM workforce.

AFGE on Tuesday wrote again to senators asking that they oppose Cabaniss’ nomination.

“It is clear that Dale Cabaniss’ professional career demonstrates that she neither supports the mission of OPM nor possesses the appropriate experience to lead this important agency at such a critical point in its history,” Alethea Predeoux, the union’s legislative director, wrote in a Sept. 10 letter.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association said it looked forward to working with and establishing a relationship with Cabaniss in the coming months.

“Yet, considering the administration’s reorganization proposal calls for the elimination of the very agency Ms. Cabaniss has been confirmed to lead, we hope that OPM is around long enough for that relationship to grow,” NARFE National President Ken Thomas said Wednesday in a statement. “We hope Director Cabaniss is sincere in her commitment to ‘protect the civil service, merit principles and retirees’ as she noted in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last spring.”

OPM has been without permanent leadership off and on during both the Trump and Obama administrations. Pon waited for nearly six months before Congress agreed to set aside their differences over a politically-driven disagreement with an Affordable Care Act decision the agency made five years ago.

Trump’s first pick to lead OPM, George Nesterczuk, never got a nomination hearing and withdrew his name from consideration because the vetting process took too long.

Beth Cobert, who stepped in to lead the agency through the crisis of multiple cyber breaches, was never permanently confirmed — again, because of OPM’s prior Affordable Care Act determination. Cobert replaced Katherine Archuleta, who resigned in the aftermath of the breaches.

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