OPM bill advances after testy debate, perhaps a foreboding sign for future reform efforts

The House Oversight and Reform Committee earlier this week advanced bipartisan legislation designed to empower the Office of Personnel Management and implement recommendations from a congressionally mandated study.

But the debate during Thursday’s committee markup shows just how divided Democrats and Republicans are when it comes to federal workforce topics, perhaps a foreboding sign for lawmakers and oversight groups looking to advance more complex legislative changes aimed at improving OPM’s capacity to act as the federal government’s human capital leader.

Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, introduced the bill in question, known as the Strengthening OPM Act. He did so with House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.).

The bill implements a few of the recommendations the National Academy of Public Administration made earlier this year. Those were a result of a year-longcongressionally-mandated study of OPM and its statutory missions following an attempt by the previous administration to reorganize and dismantle the agency.

Much of the Strengthen OPM Act would redefine and codify the agency’s role and mission. The legislation specifies the president should appoint an OPM director with “demonstrated human capital expertise and management and leadership experience” — without regard to political affiliation.

That doesn’t sit especially well with House Republicans.

“Instead of providing needed reform measured, the Strengthening the OPM Act fosters more unaccountable bureaucracy,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the oversight committee’s ranking member, said Thursday. “It requires a non-partisan appointment of the OPM director. That severs the OPM director from political accountability.”

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the government operations subcommittee ranking member, argued the bill would strip the president’s right to appoint officials of his or her choosing. Hice called it an “extremely dangerous precedent.”

“It’s not at all true that we don’t, from time to time, circumscribe the powers of an executive in appointing people and their credentials to various and sundry positions,” Connolly said. “We did it for FEMA. We did it for the U.S. Trade Representative. We did it for the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. We did it for the Federal Housing Finance Agency. We did it for the Institute of Education Sciences within the Department of Education. We’ve done it for the director of the Food and Drug Administration. We’ve done it for the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We’ve done it for the National Institutes of Health. One could go on. Other than that my friends are right; it’s unprecedented.”

The bill also codifies the role of the OPM chief management officer and specifies that a career member of the Senior Executive Service should serve in the position. Career federal employees have typically filled this role in the past, and OPM’s current chief management officer is a long-time career executive.

“Career officials are, by definition, shielded from political accountability,” Comer said. “In these and other ways the Strengthening the OPM Act follows a Democrat trend. That trend is to tear down, punish and prevent future renewals of the Trump administration’s valuable attempted reforms to OPM and the federal workforce. It’s well known that OPM is a underperforming federal agency.”

The legislation would create a new OPM Advisory Council on Human Capital, fulfilling another academy recommendation. That council would consult with the OPM director on various federal workforce issues.

Republicans argued they hadn’t heard from either OPM or NAPA about their thoughts on the legislation.

For Connolly, the recommendations, which came at the direction of a congressional mandate, are enough. Neither the House nor the Senate have held hearings on the NAPA study specifically, though Connolly’s subcommittee has discussed a variety of federal workforce issues during two separate hearings this year.

“We’ve been working with and talking with them as they introduced this legislation,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja, said of Connolly and his staff. “I think there’s real value in what he’s trying to do in identifying the role for OPM and the position that OPM should have.”

Ahuja spoke Friday at a virtual discussion hosted by NAPA She reiterated that rebuilding the agency is one of her top priorities. In the last year, OPM has hired about 340 new employees, Ahuja said.

NAPA made a variety of recommendations back in March but centered on a particular theme — that Congress and the Biden administration needed to pay urgent attention to an agency that has a big mission but has been under-funded and unstable for many years.

Connolly’s bill, however, doesn’t tackle all of NAPA’s recommendations. It doesn’t, for example,  make any statutory changes to OPM’s oversight role, which the academy suggested and would require more highly specific discussions about the agency’s role. It also doesn’t create new congressional oversight committees solely dedicated to human capital issues in the executive branch, and it doesn’t contemplate changes that would resolve OPM’s funding challenges, another difficult topic that’s bound to generate some debate.

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