What does a split Congress mean for the workforce?


The Trump administration’s proposed changes to the federal workforce and governmental organization will likely come into conflict with the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

In two years under unified Republican government, workforce reforms have been met with quarrels with federal unions, disputes over proposed pay freezes and retirement cuts and uncertainty over plans to reorganize the federal government, including subsuming the Office of Personnel Management's policy functions into the Executive Office of the President.

While some management efforts can be enacted administratively, most are still in the air. The split Congress will likely doom those in need of congressional approval, at least in their current form.

Without Republican control over both chambers, "the appetite for challenging the workforce directly might diminish," noted Don Kettl, professor and academic director of the University of Texas' LBJ Washington Center.

Federal unions, which have repeatedly clashed with the Trump administration and the Republican Congress in protests outside the Capitol, outside agency office buildings and in courtroom conflicts, celebrated the news of the Democrats taking the House.

"No longer will the president and his congressional allies have free reign to politicize the civil service and reduce civil service protections or union rights," said American Federal of Government Employee President J. David Cox.  "And with narrow-majority Senate returning, there will be opportunities for bipartisan efforts."

National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon added, "Federal employees gained some much-needed allies in last night’s election."

From the majority perch of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) did not shy away from taking on the Trump administration’s uneasy relationship with unions, which has included lawsuits against the administration.

Of the collective bargaining issues and court-pending executive orders, “I would hope we would challenge [them] both in the committee and in the courts,” he said.

The looming government reorg is also in doubt.

Since the proposal's rollout in June, even with Republicans controlling both chambers, Hill support for the reorganization was mixed. Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) introduced a bill that would expand the executive branch’s authority in carrying out structural changes government, but the bill has yet to gain much traction.

Democrats in both chambers questioned the plan’s lack of detail, as well as the intention behind it.

Connolly, who is poised to take the gavel of the House Oversight and Government Reform’s Government Operations subcommittee, said, "We want to take a good, hard look at that and the rationale for that, and we want to make sure there are no hidden agendas here. We also want to make sure anything proposed would make sense and would be an improvement."

Kettl said the reorg isn't exactly dead, "but it's hard to see it rising from the ashes of the midterms."

One proposal in the reorganization pertaining directly to the workforce is the moving of core functions from OPM to various other agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget.

"Our view about that is you cannot do this, you do not have the constitutional authority to do this without coming with a plan to Congress for its consideration and approval," said Connolly. "I think we’re going to clash right away if they continue to insist they can do this by executive fiat. We beg to differ, and we will differ."

The administration has taken steps to accelerate the OPM merger by placing Margaret Weichert, the deputy director for management at OMB, in charge of OPM, prompting some to question the human resources shop’s independence.

The proposal of uniting the human resources function of OPM with the policy authority of OMB is not new, Kettl pointed out. And with Weichert's current roles in both agencies, "we are going to have a chance to see what it might look like." Kettl added: "It’s going to be turf subject to intense warfare."

Connolly seems to agree. He pointed out Weichert was confirmed to serve in her OMB role, not for her dual position as OPM head.

"The fact that they're using that to conflate missions, which is never the intent, obviously are of concern to us," he said. "That could be worthy of examination and probably will be."

Adam Mazmanian contributed reporting to this story.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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