Trump administration’s proposed OPM-GSA merger to face tough questions, skepticism from IG

The Trump administration will face tough questions Tuesday as the House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee reviews the proposed merger of t...

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The Trump administration will face a series of tough questions from members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee Tuesday, days after top leaders released a few more long-awaited details about its proposed merger of the Office of Personnel Management with the General Services Administration.

But the administration’s documents, legislative proposal and reasoning for the proposed OPM-GSA merger haven’t satisfied Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the chairman of the subcommittee that will lead Tuesday’s questioning.

They haven’t satisfied OPM’s inspector general, federal employee unions and organizations, a former director of the agency that’s subject to reorganization, either.

“To date we have not received documentation demonstrating that OPM leadership meaningfully examined other alternatives besides the transfer of functions to GSA to address OPM’s challenges,” Norbert Vint, OPM’s acting IG, said in his written testimony before the government operations subcommittee. “We cannot know if the proposed transfer to GSA is the most cost-efficient and effective option if no other options are evaluated. In fact, we do not know if the transfer of functions to GSA would be cost-efficient and effective at all.”

Vint is one of six witnesses who will testify Tuesday afternoon before the House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee.

He, along with Margaret Weichert, OPM’s acting director and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, and Triana McNeil of the Government Accountability Office, will testify on the first panel.

The hearing comes days after the Trump administration submitted a legislative proposal to Congress outlining its plans to transfer most existing roles, responsibilities and authorities for the OPM director to the GSA administrator.

Subcommittee Democrats said Monday they received 387 total pages from OPM, and most are related to the Trump administration’s planned move of the National Background Investigations Bureau to the Pentagon.

In an interview with Federal News Network, Connolly said the documents his subcommittee had received April 29 don’t live up to the expectations he set in a lengthy letter to Weichert last month.

“In terms of making an argument that’s compelling for why we ought to do this and do this at this time and do it this way, they have completely and utterly failed to make that case,” Connolly said. “It’s not even close.”

Three of the panel’s witnesses will concur: the Office of Personnel Management is far from perfect. But the solution, they’ll argue according to their written testimonies, isn’t to break up the agency. The three witnesses will also challenge the rationale, reasoning, plans and analysis the administration gave last week for the OPM-GSA merger. And they’ll question the Trump administration’s intentions for the proposed merger.

“The future for OPM should not be the status quo,” Linda Springer, a former controller and OPM director during the George W. Bush administration, said in her written testimony. “The sky is not falling, but no one proposes that nothing should be done to address existing issues. However, OPM should be revitalized — not eliminated, carved up or subsumed.”

Springer is one of three witnesses who will testify on a second panel on the OPM-GSA merger. J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, and Ken Thomas, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association, will join Springer.

“The plan to abolish OPM is reckless, ill-conceived and potentially dangerous,” Cox will testify.

The administration last week released its “case for change,” which describes the financial, structural and strategic reasons for moving most of OPM’s current functions to GSA.

Written testimonies from the second panel’s witnesses challenge those reasons.

The witnesses, for example, will question why Congress and the executive branch have allowed NBIB and OPM’s security clearance business to move to the Defense Department — without serious evaluation of what financial implications the transfer would have on OPM.

The Trump administration last week said OPM will face a $70 million shortfall when the security clearance business transfers to DoD.

“We are not told how that figure was derived, what assumptions are involved or any other critical factors to assess the accuracy of that estimate,” Springer wrote in her testimony. “No alternative solutions are offered. Not a single one. In effect, the administration is saying that absent this merger, the government of the United States of America is incapable of providing its workforce with an independent central personnel management agency. Such a sentiment is an embarrassment.”

OPM itself quietly told lawmakers in November 2017 the initial plan to transfer only defense-related security clearances to the Pentagon would raise serious financial implications for the future of the agency.

The plan, however, moved forward without much question, and the administration is preparing to transfer the entire security clearance portfolio to DoD by Oct. 1.

“Congress appears to have failed to ask the important question of what would come of OPM once NBIB was transferred to DOD,” Ken Thomas, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association, said in his written testimony. “We are now at a point where if Congress allows such a bait and switch, it would reward lack of transparency, inadequate communication and partnership between the two branches and insufficient planning. If the transfer of NBIB leaves a funding gap at OPM, the administration and Congress should support increased budget authority for OPM.”

Why GSA?

The witnesses will also question whether GSA is not only equipped to manage OPM’s health, retirement and insurance programs and IT systems — but also improve them.

Weichert last week said OPM’s current IT challenges distracted the agency from its mission of human capital management. GSA, she said, is best positioned to manage and make the necessary improvements.

But Thomas pointed to an October 2018 report from GSA’s inspector general, which highlight the agency’s own challenges in implementing cybersecurity recommendations and internal controls.

Cox will also question the administration’s rationale that GSA can better manage and improve OPM’s flawed IT systems.

“If OPM needs GSA’s IT system, why not just host OPM’s IT function through GSA? If the administration has considered that option and rejected it, we believe that Congress and the public deserve to see the analysis used to justify the rejection of that option,” he wrote. “If the administration has not considered that option, it suggests, at best, that too little analysis has been done to justify something so radical as abolishing OPM. At worst, it suggests that the rationale being offered may not be the entire story.”

The Trump administration has also cited GSA’s FITARA score of a B+ as evidence the agency would better manage OPM’s legacy IT systems.

But Connolly, one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, will need convincing.

“If you apply that logic, then you’re going to have to redistribute the Pentagon,” he said. “The Department of Defense routinely gets an ‘F.’ They get the lowest score of any federal agency on FITARA. That’s an absurd argument. The answer is improve your own IT capacity, and agencies have shown how to do that. Agencies have gone from the kind of level of OPM to an ‘A’ score by reinvesting [and] by having cleaner lines of authority in terms of the hierarchy of management and making decisions and being accountable.”

Federal workforce policy in question

In addition, the administration’s proposed Office of Federal Workforce Policy will earn criticism from the witnesses.

Democratic Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen also on Monday expressed concerns for the proposed OPM-GSA merger — and their frustration “about the lack of transparency that defined the administration’s drafting of this proposal.”

“We have serious concerns with housing this new Office of Federal Workforce Policy within the Executive Office of the President, and having it run by an administrator appointed directly by the President and without Senate confirmation,” the senators wrote in a May 20 letter to acting OMB Director Russell Vought. “It is imperative that [federal employees] continue to be insulated from the political impulses of this President and any future President.”

The senators also requested more details and analysis from OMB about the proposed OPM-GSA merger.

Springer will question whether it would be reasonable for a White House office to issue policy guidance or review requests to appoint political appointees to competitive positions or approve special pay rates, as examples.

The proposed OPM-GSA merger more broadly is a power-grab by OMB, she said.

“I… believe this proposal is not a presidential initiative, but rather the culmination of years of intent by OMB, spanning administrations of both political parties, to acquire ownership of personnel management policy from OPM,” Springer said.

Springer also served as a senior adviser to OMB in the early days of the Trump administration. She said OMB at the time considered ways OPM could eliminate duplicative, low value or obsolete functions to better focus on its core, statutory mission — one that was established more than 40 years ago with the Civil Service Reform Act.

The Senior Executives Association in a letter also urged the subcommittee to consider why Congress created this statutorily independent agency back in 1978 in the first place.

“The administration’s proposal is highly concerning because it ignores the core reason why OPM exists and unintentionally weakens OPM’s ability to protect the non-partisan, merit-based civil service system our nation requires,” SEA President Bill Valdez said Monday in a statement. “We urge Congress to pursue proper and complete oversight, which we believe will result in a stronger and more effective OPM, not its dissolution.”

For Springer, the current OPM proposal doesn’t resemble the work she said she led in the administration’s early days.

“I can confidently say that what has emerged as the OPM reorganization plan was never in view during my tenure, nor would it have seen the light of day,” she wrote in her testimony.

Connolly, meanwhile, said the Trump administration will face some “tough questions” if leadership wants to convince him. OMB has requested $50 million in appropriations to cover the initial costs of the proposed OPM-GSA merger.

“I’m open to substantive arguments if you have done the research,” Connolly said. “If you’ve done the analysis. If you can make the case both for making the change and where it ends up, where the pieces end up. But I’m highly skeptical.”

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