Giving the budget office responsibility over hiring and compensation of federal employees has been denounced by union officials as a “backdoor ploy to politicize the civil service by installing political appointees close to the White House,” as my colleagues Lisa Rein and Damian Paletta reported last month.
While there were no high-octane charges like that at Cabaniss’s confirmation hearing Tuesday, Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was clearly frustrated with the administration’s inability or refusal to provide Congress information on the reorganization.
“Throughout this process, we have repeatedly requested basic information about the reorganization, including data that justifies the proposal, an implementation plan and an analysis of the impact on the federal workforce,” Peters said.
“I am disappointed by the administration’s lack of transparency around this proposal, Peters said, adding, “Ms. Cabaniss, if you are confirmed you will be leading an agency facing sweeping changes, significant uncertainty and a need to rebuild trust with Congress.”
She promised transparency and to work with Congress, as all nominees do. She had no specifics to offer on the future of OPM, which has about 5,500 employees. If the Trump administration succeeds at dismantling OPM, it would be the first major federal agency eliminated since the World War II era.
After the hearing, I asked Cabaniss about the politicization charge. She listened politely but said nothing. Instead, an aide handed me his business card while another handler escorted her away.
The committee chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), welcomed Cabaniss, noting she “has dedicated most of her 30-year career to federal workforce issues in both the executive and legislative branches.”
In her opening statement, Cabaniss linked her federal service to efforts that “have continuously strived to improve the management of the federal government, its workforce and its service to Americans.”
That’s not the way employees, appointed members of the Federal Labor Relations Authority and independent auditors saw her 2001-to-2008 tenure as chairwoman of the FLRA, a tiny agency whose mission statement includes “protecting rights and facilitating stable relationships among federal agencies, labor organizations, and employees.”
In 2009, I wrote that the FLRA had become “almost useless” under her leadership. She allowed the backlog of cases to grow and staffing to fall while not spending all the money allocated to the agency. The budget fell by 19 percent and the number of staffers dropped by 35 percent from fiscal 2003 to 2009.
During that period, the FLRA annually left between $1 million and $1.5 million unspent, Thomas Beck, who was a Republican member of the authority, told me then.
Lisa Vandenberg, then-president of the Union of Authority Employees, the FLRA labor organization, complained at the time, “We were led by people not interested in our mission or sustaining our program.”
She wasn’t the only one with complaints about Cabaniss.
A 2008 report by an independent auditor of the FLRA’s internal controls accused her of being unresponsive and submitting a misleading, backdated document in response to financial-statement recommendations. The auditors also said they were “thoroughly perplexed” by Cabaniss’s explanation regarding the FLRA’s tardiness in submitting an annual performance accountability report.
The years since she left the FLRA haven’t softened the views of those who worked with her. Carol Waller Pope, who was a civil servant at the FLRA and later served as chairwoman of the agency during the Obama administration, said in an email Tuesday: “Cabaniss’ leadership record at the FLRA makes her a controversial choice to serve as OPM Director. Her leadership at the FLRA was marked by mission performance deficiencies resulting in an OMB-mandated ‘Corrective Action Plan’ to eliminate high case backlogs and improve agency performance.”
In contrast to Cabaniss’s expressed support for the federal workforce, Pope said that “employee morale directly attributable to Cabaniss’ lack of transparency and engagement reached unprecedented lows.” Surveys showed that employee morale at the FLRA improved significantly under Pope.
Asked about the low morale under her leadership, Cabaniss said Tuesday she needed to make changes at the FLRA and that “some of these changes were not necessarily popular.”
Cabaniss worked as a lawyer with the committee now considering her nomination for three years after she graduated from law school in 1993. In 2010, she returned to Capitol Hill as the Republican staff director for the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government.
The Senate committee did not vote Tuesday on Cabaniss’s nomination. If approved, Cabaniss could become an important player in Trump’s unrelenting effort to destabilize federal unions through executive orders that weaken the ability of labor leaders to represent workers.
The FLRA was such an unpopular place to work under Cabaniss that the agency’s employee engagement score in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ratings was literally off-the-chart low during her time there. The chart line actually disappears between 2005 and 2009. The lowest line on the chart indicates an employee engagement score of 25; the FLRA’s score in 2007 was 18.1.
Perhaps he had second thoughts. Asked Monday about her “excellent experience” in light of the FLRA’s disastrous morale rating under her leadership, Stier declined to repeat his comment.