Despite congressional requests to tone down its press releases, the Office of Personnel Management is continuing a war of words against members of Congress who disagree with administration plans to "reform" government pay, promotion and retirement procedures.
Since the Carters left town, the OPM (once the blandest of federal agencies) has been using more vinegar than honey in dealing with Congress, particularly with Democrats who control the House.
OPM is battling, with some success, for the hearts and minds of media opinion-makers, particularly out-of-town newspaper editors. It hopes to persuade them that the federal personnel system has become a shambles as a result of decades of benign fiscal neglect or overgenerous treatment from Congress, which acts as the federal establishment's board of directors.
Top OPM officials from Washington have taken their message to the field. And political appointees have been placed alongside career OPM officials stationed outside Washington to make sure that the local media gets the administration's reform message.
(The Carter administration mounted a successful public relations effort to convince the nation that the Civil Service Reform Act was needed. But Carter appointees at the personnel agency, enjoying the luxury of a Senate and House controlled by Democrats. did not shoot zingers at Capitol Hill.)
Members of Congress, mostly Democrats but including Virginia Republicans Frank Wolf and Stan Parris, have taken issue with OPM's often hard-hitting press releases commenting on congressional failure to do right. Parris, frustrated over an OPM action concerning his constituents, once called OPM Director Donald Devine "an idiot" in a press conference.
After the House Post Office-Civil Service Committee rejected an administration plan to raise the federal retirement age, OPM issued a press release accusing members of "fiddling" while the the debt of the retirement program mounted.
But OPM press chief Mark Tapscott disagrees that his agency is engaged in a "war of words," as he puts it. "Our press releases have been factual . . . not warlike," said Tapscott, formerly editor of Conservative Digest magazine.
Tapscott said that the House committee "rejected" the retirement reform proposal "without even looking at it" despite a "huge and growing deficit . . . and that's fiddling!"
OPM fired off another press release last week after a House subcommittee voted 4-3 to bar the Reagan administration from putting into effect a set of rules changes that would base employe pay raises and job security on performance rather than seniority.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and three Democratic colleagues voted to block the Reagan plan. All three votes favoring the new rules came from Republicans.
OPM's press release, quoting director Devine, said: "Four Democratic members of the House Subcommittee on Treasury-Postal Service-General Government Appropriations have separated themselves from the President and the American people who want more efficient government as well as from the civil servants who support pay-for-performance.
"The vote by a few Democrats certainly does not represent the views of the many of their congressional colleagues on both sides of the aisle who support the President's efforts to make the federal government more efficient by rewarding its best workers . . . and they clearly do not represent the majority of the American people who are tired of obstacles being placed before the kinds of sensible management reforms that would make government work better."
A House committee aide said "if they the OPM were dealing with facts it would be one thing. But they aren't."
For example, he said that in March "OPM put out a press release saying the civil service retirement system's outlay last year was $31.4 billion and that that was more than was spent on welfare programs. That figure was off by $12 billion. That is a pretty big error. When we questioned Devine about it, he shrugged it off as an insignificant statistical error . . . OPM's press releases are full of exaggeration and hyperbole . . . they are commenting on the world as Devine sees it, not the facts."