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One agency helps prevent politicizing the federal workforce – and the White House wants it abolished

There’s a small, independent agency within the federal bureaucracy that most people outside of government have never heard of – yet it’s charged with overseeing nearly 2.8 million civilian employees who work for the U.S. government.

And if the current administration has its way, this critical federal agency soon will cease to exist.

The agency is the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). For more than 125 years, OPM and its predecessor agency, the U.S. Civil Service Commission, have served as the federal government’s chief human resources agency and personnel policy arm. Among its many responsibilities, OPM manages the government’s merit-based personnel system, provides corrective oversight to federal agencies that break the law, manages federal pay policy, and administers health care and retirement benefits for current and retired federal workers and their dependents.

When Congress created OPM in 1978, as the successor to the Civil Service Commission, it intentionally positioned the agency outside the White House with its own congressionally confirmed director – protecting civil servants from undue political influence on their work. Yet now, the Trump administration is pushing to dismantle OPM and assume direct control of its personnel policy functions.

Americans have seen what happens when the White House assumes direct control of personnel policies. When civil servants have stepped forward in this administration to expose waste, fraud and abuse to the American people, they have been met with public scorn, retribution, and outright firings by this White House. Rick Bright, the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, raised early concerns about the spread of COVID-19. His reward: an involuntary transfer to a minor post at NIH where he no longer is involved with COVID-19. Countless career civil servants, few as famous as Bright, face similar hostility and career damaging actions by this administration every day, just for doing their jobs.

Dismantling OPM is a clear attempt to further these efforts, politicize the non-partisan civil service, and eviscerate decades of federal laws and HR policies that ensure federal workers are hired, fired, promoted or demoted based on the quality of their work – not their political allegiances. These merit system principles were developed over the decades to counter the original “spoils system,” in which the hiring and firing of government workers was based on political loyalties and not employees’ competence for the job.

The dangers of politicizing the civil service could not be more evident in this current administration, which has pressured federal meteorologists to defend erroneous hurricane predictions made by the president, overruled climate scientists at the EPA to propose weakening air quality standards, slashed the number of USDA inspectors assigned to pork slaughterhouses while allowing pork producers to set their own line speeds, questioned its own experts over the dangers of the coronavirus and benefits of wearing masks, and forced the CDC to ease its guidelines for safely reopening schools.

The administration’s disdain for the independence of the civil service already has reverberated within the halls of OPM. OPM Director Dale Cabaniss abruptly resigned in March after just six months on the job due to what Politico reported was poor treatment from White House political leaders. The person who previously held the job, Jeff Pon, lasted seven months until he was forced out in October 2018 for opposing the administration’s plans to dismantle OPM.

Late last year, Congress approved language blocking the administration from moving forward with its plans and ordering an independent study of OPM and how to address any challenges facing the agency.

Yet the administration has continued to press forward with its plans to abolish OPM – even after the Justice Department apparently informed officials last year that a plan to merge OPM’s functions into other agencies through administrative action, including the White House Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, was unlawful. On July 1, the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced it was launching an investigation into whether administration officials lied in congressional testimony about the legality of its proposal.

If we have learned anything from this administration, it’s how little regard it has for our government institutions and the rule of law. Barring explicit language from Congress that protects OPM and our non-partisan civil service, we can expect the White House to continue its push to dismantle OPM and politicize the federal workforce.

Every American who believes government decision-making ought to be based on facts rather than politics should contact their members of Congress now and urge them to halt the elimination of OPM and preserve its critical role as a safeguard against politicizing the civil service. The independence of our federal workforce – and the health and safety of our citizens – depends on it.

Everett Kelley is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers.

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