The departure of OPM director Jeff Pon has raised questions about the future of that agency, which for the foreseeable future will again be run by an acting director—this time, by the OMB official who has been the primary driver of a plan to break off the agency’s operating parts and put under direct White House control the policy functions that would remain.
Little explanation has been given for the replacement of Pon—who had been OPM director only since March—with OMB deputy director for management Margaret Weichert. The most commonly cited scenario is that he resigned under pressure for not being sufficiently supportive of the administration’s plan for OPM, which was part of a wide-ranging government reorganization proposal in June.
Weichert has been the administration’s main designer and advocate of that plan, which would involve sending to GSA OPM’s retirement and benefit processing branches, along with the HR services it provides agencies on a reimbursable basis, and sending to DoD authority to conduct background checks for all agencies. Under a law enacted late in 2016, DoD already is to take over from OPM that role regarding checks for its own employees. The remainder of OPM would go to the Executive Office of the President.
However, like many elements of the overall plan, the OPM portion has been controversial. Most federal employee organizations oppose it out of concern about politicizing policy decisions for career employees, and at a Senate hearing in July several senators expressed such concerns, as well.
Also, the House included language in the annual spending bill covering OPM—which is currently on hold until after the elections—to “remind OPM of their obligation to notify the Committee on Appropriations of the House and the Senate of any reorganizations, restructures, new programs or elimination of programs,” in the words of the House report on the bill, which specifically mentioned background investigations and HR services.
Pon’s major interest at OPM had been to update hiring, job classification and other personnel policies set by the Civil Service Reform Act on the 40th anniversary of its enactment. Shortly after taking office in March he laid out plans for a combination of administrative actions plus legislation that was to be proposed before the elections. The administrative actions that followed—three executive orders now blocked indefinitely by a court order—focused instead on disciplinary and union matters. No legislation to reform the Reform Act has been proposed.
He did sign off on proposed legislation sent to Capitol Hill to carry out budgetary proposals—made before he took office—to require most employees to pay more toward retirement and to degrade those benefits in several ways, but that has advanced no farther than support from the House Budget Committee. He also signed off on several relatively minor hiring-related provisions, several of which were included in this year’s defense budget.
Before Pon’s confirmation, OPM for nearly three years had only acting directors, a role Weichert now is filling while maintaining her duties at OMB. There was no indication that another candidate for the OPM directorship will be nominated any time soon.