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Here’s why Trump is threatening federal layoffs if Congress won’t shut this agency down

OPM is the agency everyone loves to hate. So what’s the problem?

- June 24, 2019

Congress and the Trump administration are playing a game of chicken over the fate of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which manages the civilian federal workforce. This past week, Margaret Weichert, the acting head of OPM, threatened to furlough 150 workers if Congress refuses to endorse the Trump administration’s plan to reorganize the agency. Meanwhile, Congress has already written into law limitations on the president’s reorganization efforts and is likely to call the OPM’s bluff on furloughs.

Weichert argues that recent changes to OPM — specifically, removing its responsibility for doing background investigations on potential federal employees, which reduces the agency’s revenue — would leave the agency with a budget shortfall necessitating cuts this year. Some lawmakers responded that the budget shortfall could be addressed through the regular congressional appropriations process and questioned why reorganization was necessary.

So why does the Trump administration want to eliminate OPM? Here are four things you need to know about the current standoff.

1. OPM has many critics, few fans.

Both parties have long been dissatisfied with OPM’s performance. The OPM is responsible for processing retirement claims, collecting workforce data, and directing human resources policy in government. The agency has had some serious problems in all three areas.

First, the agency has been notoriously slow handling retirement claims. A 2014 Washington Post investigation exposed how agency employees hundreds of feet below ground in an abandoned mine in Boyers, Pa., handle all retirement claims by hand despite decades of efforts to automate the process.

Second, in June 2015, the agency announced that hackers had stolen the personnel records of more than 4 million current and former federal employees.

And third, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently declined to participate in OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the primary data source for OPM’s management efforts. VA comprises about 18 percent of the federal workforce. The agency was effectively saying to OPM, “We don’t want or need your help.”

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In a survey of federal executives at the end of the Obama administration that I conducted with fellow political scientist Mark Richardson, we found that federal executives rated the OPM workforce one of the least skilled in government. We surveyed more than 3,500 top appointed and career federal executives and asked them to rate the skill of various government agency workforces. Out of more than 160 agencies, OPM was in the bottom 10.

2. The administration’s plan for OPM is colored by Trump’s hostility toward federal workers

The Trump administration is particularly combative. The president calls federal workers part of the swamp and the deep state. He has targeted workers in executive orders aimed at shrinking the size and cost of the federal workforce. The president has also proposed reducing benefits and issued directives to limit the power of government unions and make it easier for managers to fire federal workers.

Trump’s plan would largely dismantle OPM. It would transfer responsibility for workforce policy to a new office in the Executive Office of the President. The bulk of OPM’s operations would move to the General Services Administration. The plan would downgrade OPM’s director in pay and authority, and what remains of OPM would become a bureau within the General Services Administration rather than its current position as an autonomous agency.

3. Lawmakers disagree with Trump, and with one another

So, if OPM has such a poor reputation, why not a more sympathetic hearing in Congress? The short answer is that lawmakers do not trust the White House on these matters.

Surprisingly, there is significant bipartisan agreement about many of the problems facing the civil service — such as recruitment challenges, an aging workforce, difficulties dealing with poor performers, insufficient attention to workforce development, and a lack of market sensitivity in compensation.

Although Republicans and Democrats agree on many of the problems, their proposed solutions differ. The political stakes are high, because the federal government employs about 2.7 million people — and federal workers and their unions are more likely to support Democrats than Republicans in elections.

Democrats fear that moving workforce policy decisions into the White House orbit and downgrading OPM would ease the path for the president to, in former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s words, “deconstruct the administrative state” and make it bend to his will.

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4. It’s usually a collaborative process

Large-scale reorganizations of government agencies are usually bipartisan affairs. And since the mid-1980s, such efforts require legislative action by Congress and the president.

But it can be difficult to get even the congressional committees with jurisdiction over OPM to agree to any agencies. The panels naturally feel protective of the agency whose nominees they confirm and programs they authorize. And although everyone can get on board with efforts that promise to improve performance and save money, reorganizations invariably advantage some stakeholders and hurt others.

The Trump administration’s hurried plans for reorganization threaten government workers, employee unions, and ongoing federal management and data-collection efforts. Eliminating OPM would remove the primary point of contact for unions and a consistent voice for the importance of public sector work. By diminishing the OPM director’s power and status, the reorganization also would jeopardize the voluntary cooperation of other agencies in OPM’s management and data-collection efforts. It would upset the balance of power among agencies and between the branches. Serious reorganizations take substantial political effort to build coalitions and mollify opponents to ensure that action is a win for most members.

So, although there is plenty of common ground on civil service reform and the problems with OPM, there is a lack of trust of the administration in Congress. To overcome the lack of trust, the administration would have to prioritize civil service reform efforts and do extensive background work with key stakeholders inside and outside of Congress.

The president’s unconventional approach to staffing his White House and his administration have made it more difficult for him to build Congress’s support for his initiatives. This suits the combative style the president developed through years fighting in the competitive New York real estate market but thus far has not worked well with Congress.

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David E. Lewis is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of “The Politics of Presidential Appointments” (Princeton, 2008).