IF THE Trump administration gets its way, the United States will soon see the first elimination of a major federal agency since the World War II era — and not one that has shown up on many protest signs. The idea is to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management, aiming to fold functions into three other departments. It’s a dangerous one.
OPM obviously has problems. The agency in charge of overseeing the recruitment, retention and administration of the civil service is bogged down by outmoded technology and a sclerotic bureaucracy. These flaws have been most publicly obvious in the 725,000-strong backlog of background investigations that keeps potential employees waiting more than a year for approval, and in hacks into OPM’s systems five years ago that exposed 22 million Americans’ sensitive information.
That debacle led, with congressional authorization, to the sensible plan of transferring clearance investigations to the Defense Department. But now officials are using the change as a pretext for OPM’s complete demolition. Incredibly, they argue that the revenue they will lose from ceasing background checks will make it impossible to fund other operations — all without evidence the administration explored the possibility of securing those funds elsewhere or pursued a data-driven analysis of the benefits and costs, both financial and otherwise, that would come from the change.
The proposal would push OPM’s policy duties to the Office of Management and Budget within the White House. Operational duties would go to the General Services Administration. It’s not clear why moving operations impeded by bureaucracy into a bigger bureaucracy would solve the problem. And if poor technology is the primary issue, it is not clear why an arrangement to share GSA’s services, or any other agency’s, would not be a more targeted and effective solution.
The move to OMB is more concerning. OPM exists to protect a nonpartisan civil service from politicization. Under the Trump plan, submitted to Congress this month, responsibility for formulating and approving rules about hiring, firing and more would go to a political appointee whose position would not require Senate confirmation. The government needs dedicated individuals to carry out its core responsibilities based on merit and expertise, not based on whether a president or anyone else approves of their voting preferences, yet this restructuring risks exactly that.
President Trump has sought to slash benefits for federal workers, treated their jobs as bargaining chips for a border wall and lodged countless “deep state” accusations. He has failed to nominate candidates for hundreds of important positions and nominated manifestly unqualified people for other important positions. It has been implicit in all these actions that those in the West Wing today do not value the people who serve this country by working for its government. Tearing up OPM would make their contempt explicit and risk far more than it would fix.