The warning of staff cuts is the administration’s most dramatic move yet in an escalating jujitsu between Trump officials and Congress over the fate of the agency that manages the civilian federal workforce of 2.1 million.
Even as House Democrats and some Republicans signal that Congress is not going to break up the 5,565-employee department, the administration is moving forward in defiance. Trump appointees paint a dire picture of a corner of the government in financial free fall and failing to carry out its mission. They want a commitment from Congress by June 30 to agree to disband the agency — or they say they will be forced to trim the staff.
“This is a crisis building for years,” Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and acting OPM director, said in an interview.
“We believe a legislative solution would be the most straightforward answer,” she said. “But we’ve made it very clear we can’t wait without action.”
Weichert said the administration is “committed to structural change. We can’t just say that because something has been done a certain way for the last 40 years that that’s acceptable.” She confirmed the possible furloughs and layoffs and said they were “a last resort we are trying to avoid.”
Trump officials say that OPM is a broken agency that should be wiped clean and restarted. They cite security weaknesses that led to a massive data breach, inefficient hiring policies and a backlogged system of processing paperwork for retiring employees.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who leads a panel overseeing government operations on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Weichert has not made a business case to kill the agency.
“At the end of the day, we have to make sure the agency works better or functions better in another place,” he said, acknowledging that OPM has “done a terrible job with retiring employees.”
“I want to see how this plan is cheaper for the taxpayer and better for the federal workforce,” Lankford said. “It’s hard to get to a determination of how this makes things better.”
The proposed breakup would pull apart OPM and divide it among three other departments.
Most of its functions would move to the General Services Administration, the government’s real estate and procurement arm. OPM’s backlogged security clearance system already is shifting to the Defense Department, through legislation previously passed by Congress.
OPM’s leadership would shift from an agency director to a Senate-confirmed deputy in the GSA and a position within the White House budget office responsible for federal workforce policy that the president would appoint.
The plan to dismantle the agency was the brainchild of a senior career official at the budget office. Weichert, a private-sector executive focused on improving business operations before she joined the Trump administration, has committed to it with a vengeance.
She has told her staff that she is “planning to play chicken with Congress,” according to three officials familiar with the comments.
Critics say she is deliberately starving the agency in an effort to kill it.
“This is not a proposal that says, ‘How do we prop up OPM so it carries out its mission?’ ” said Jeffrey Neal, former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president at ICF, a consulting firm. “It’s more like pushing it over the edge so it fails.”
Dozens of employees have quit or retired in recent months amid the uncertainty.
The administration has been laying the groundwork for more than a year to kill the department and merge its functions, and it has asked Congress to approve the transfer.
But the plan, which would mark the first time in modern history that a large federal department has disappeared, has no buy-in from Democrats on Capitol Hill and their allies in the labor movement, who are smarting from more than two years of confrontation with President Trump’s anti-union policies.
“After realizing they were not going to prevail on the merits of the proposal,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s panel on government operations, said in an email, “the Trump Administration is taking 150 federal employees hostage unless we consent to a plan that has no rationale and is nothing more than a political gambit to give the White House control of our long-standing merit-based civil service system.”
Weichert’s rationale for the furloughs is tied to the revenue OPM gets for the government’s background-check system for employee security clearances. The system is shifting to the Defense Department on Oct. 1, with 2,500 to 3,000 staff departures to the Pentagon.
The transfer will leave a $70 million hole in OPM’s budget from lost revenue for the clearance checks. Weichert said all but $23 million can be made up through other sources. The shortfall would be covered by eliminating the 150 OPM jobs.
But House Democrats are moving quickly to block Weichert. The House Appropriations Committee passed legislation last week that would forbid the administration from spending any money to “reorganize or transfer any function” from OPM or enter into any agreements to shift work done by the agency. The legislation also provides $43 million for the next fiscal year to make up for lost revenue from the security clearances.
That legislation has yet to clear Congress. Weichert said the extra money amounts to a Band-Aid. She said she is working to move hundreds of OPM technology and personnel-services employees to the GSA. Democrats say the moves require congressional approval and would not be legal.
Trump officials are in the process of withdrawing a longtime agreement that lets OPM independently operate its Washington headquarters at 1900 E St. NW. The withdrawal will make the GSA the agency’s landlord, charging higher overhead costs than OPM now pays on its own.
A report by a federal watchdog this week concluded that killing the agency would hinder, not ease, the long-standing retirement-claims backlog.
“Potential changes in organizational affiliation, policy, budget and staff may make it difficult for OPM to plan for large-scale changes in its operations,” the Government Accountability Office said.
The American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represent OPM and GSA staffers, have scheduled a rally Tuesday at Triangle Park in downtown Washington to protest the breakup.