President Donald Trump wants to transform the federal bureaucracy’s personnel office by folding it into the government’s housekeeping agency, but Democrats in Congress are up in arms over a proposal they reject as a return to the old “winner takes all” spoils system.
“The administration wants to take over the merit policy-making functions and put them into the highly politicized environment of the White House, away from direct congressional oversight and inspector general review,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said May 21, at the opening of a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations.
Connolly, who represents a northern Virginia congressional district heavily populated by career civil servants, was referring to a Trump proposal unveiled in 2018 but only recently launched.
Trump wants to strip the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) of its status as an independent human resources agency managing the government’s 2.6 million career employees.
Also managed by OPM are the health insurance and retirement programs for civil servants, survivors, and retirees, as well as job classification and hiring processes throughout the civilian side of the federal government.
Trump’s plan would move OPM’s personnel policymaking duties into the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), under a political appointee answering to the president.
The day-to-day human relations management functions now performed by OPM would be transferred to the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees federal offices and buildings.
For years, OPM also performed employee background checks for civilians working for the Department of Defense (DOD), but Trump moved that function to the Pentagon earlier this year.
Connolly was not alone in denouncing the Trump proposal. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Maryland Democratic Reps. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen expressed similar worries in a May 20, 2019, letter to the Trump administration.
Also testifying at the hearing was J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest of the unions representing the civil service.
Cox blasted the proposal as “reckless, ill-conceived, and potentially dangerous,” and accused the Trump White House of failing to present a “business case or other type of analysis of its costs, rationale, or risks.”
He also accused the administration of having no plan for continuing the work now done by OPM, and condemned the proposal as “potentially dangerous” by leaving government workers vulnerable to “an administration intent on politicalization.”
In fact, as acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert made clear in a lengthy prepared testimony, “the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has repeatedly raised warnings about the need for fundamental transformation” in how the federal workforce is staffed and managed.
The Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978—widely viewed as President Jimmy Carter’s most significant domestic policy achievement—created OPM out the old Civil Service Commission that replaced the spoils system of highly partisan political hiring in 1883.
But it fell to President Ronald Reagan to implement Carter’s reform, beginning in 1981. Reagan appointed then-University of Maryland political scientist Donald Devine as OPM director.
Devine and his fellow Reagan appointees emphasized CSRA’s merit pay and pay-for-performance provisions to make working for the government more accountable and efficient, like the private sector, while preserving the professional basis of the government’s career workforce.
In the years since Reagan, however, Weichert said, “well-intentioned, but over-zealous laws and regulations have multiplied, tying the federal personnel system into bureaucratic knots.
“At the same time, continuous failure to invest and realign operational, organizational and technology capabilities to meet modern work requirements have resulted in well-known backlogs, service quality issues and government-wide concerns about our ability to hire and retain top talent.”
Reagan was also criticized by Democrats who accused his OPM appointees of politicizing the career workforce, which then included 2.1 million employees, only about 6,000 of whom were non-career political appointees.
Congress limits how many political appointees can be employed by a presidential administration but the total has been consistently around 6,000 in every administration since Reagan’s, except for one.
That exception is the Trump administration, which has selected barely half as many political appointees as previous presidents.
Former Reagan Appointees
Former Reagan OPM political appointees interviewed by The Epoch Times on May 22 were somewhat surprised by the politicalization accusation against Trump.
“The Office of Management and Budget is ‘career central,’” said Robert Moffit. “It’s also the place where presidential appointees, impressed by the institutional knowledge of senior career staff, too often ‘go native.’”
Moffit directed OPM’s congressional relations under Devine in the Reagan era and is now a Heritage Foundation health care scholar.
“By emasculating OPM, which demonstrated the capacity to be a powerful force for real civil service reform during the Reagan years, the Trump administration is undercutting its own efforts at swamp control,” said Moffit, who also recalled frequently having “contentious interactions with OMB career staff” while “trying to advance President Reagan’s civil service reform agenda.”
Moffit was alluding to one of Trump’s signature campaign promises, to “drain the swamp” of the federal government by more effectively controlling its bureaucracy.
Joseph Morris, a Chicago attorney who was OPM’s general counsel and then an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice under Reagan, seconded Moffit.
“A merger of OPM into OMB is the career bureaucracy’s dream,” Morris told The Epoch Times. “The consolidation of central administrative agencies is a false economy often peddled by the career bureaucracy and academic public administration theorists.”
Proposals like Trump’s “actually diminish the power and control of the president and politically appointed executives,” Morris said.
“Many of the problems of the current administration derive from the fact that, from the beginning, they have treated personnel management as an afterthought and OPM as a backwater rather than as a key tool of proactive government management in the service of the president’s policy goals,” Morris continued.
“Putting the civil service in charge of the civil service is no way to make the civil service responsive to executive branch leadership,” he said.