Workforce

OPM succession shuffle sparks Schedule F concerns

By Mark Van Scyoc Royalty-free stock photo ID: 285175268 

President Donald Trump established a new order of succession for the Office of Personnel Management in a memorandum released on Dec. 10. The move puts the chief of staff at the top of the order of succession if the OPM director and deputy director are unable to perform their duties.

OPM public affairs specialist, Rachel Tripp, confirmed that Paul Dans was recently named chief of staff at the agency. The news was first reported by PoliticoDec. 10. Dans had been serving as White House liaison and senior advisor to the director.

OPM is currently operating without a Senate-confirmed director; acting director Michael Rigas is doing double duty as acting director of OPM and deputy director for management at OMB.

The new succession memo landed amid the implementation of an executive order creating a new category of civil servants that are essentially at-will employees. The newly created Schedule F status has kindled concerns that the order could facilitate both the firing of civil servants and the "burrowing in" of political appointees into the civil service.

Although the deadline for initial lists of positions to be reclassified is not due to OPM until Jan. 19, 2021, the Office of Management and Budget sent them their list of positions about two weeks ago. It included almost 90% of the OMB workforce.

That move comes as OPM is charged with carrying out the movement of civil servants to the new Schedule F classification.

"This late-breaking change could shift power to someone who has been accused of hostility to laws protecting civil servants from political interference," said Nick Schwallenbach, a senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "More than some other Trump appointees, Paul Dans would be more likely to greenlight mass conversions of federal employees to Schedule F, stripping them of meaningful protections and making it easy to fire them and install unqualified cronies."

After the chief of staff, the succession memo lists the general counsel, the associate director of employee services, the chief management officer, the chief financial officer, the associate director of retirement services, and other associate directors in order of appointment as next in line. The memo rescinded one from August 2016, which had the General Counsel before the chief of staff in the order of succession.

President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, Max Stier, has said that this re-shuffling at the OPM "will have no impact" after president-elect Biden takes office, at which point he can appoint an acting OPM director.

However, Stier did offer concerns about the politicization of the office, which he said has not yet issued a personnel issues transition guide for agencies, as it has in the past. He has also noted concerns about the office's role in the execution of the Schedule F executive order.

The implementation of Schedule F before the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden do "damage" that is "really serious," even if the incoming administration rescinds the order after taking office, he said during a Dec. 10 hearing held by the Government Operations subcommittee.

Although he repeatedly stressed his organization's role as a nonpartisan group, Stier called on lawmakers to halt Schedule F's execution, saying that its implementation "will lead to incredible inefficiencies" and "incredible harms to the public and to public servants."

Signs that the order could be implemented before the inauguration – such as OMB's designation of 88% of its workforce - has sparked concern among other as well.

On Dec. 8, over 45 former OMB officials released a letter opposing the proposed reclassifications, writing that they could "fundamentally damage" the office.

OMB's critical cross-agency role makes it an inviting target, experts say.

"If you are trying to politicize the civil service and you wanted to practice a bit of bureaucratic jujitsu, do it at OMB because it's at the epicenter and the people there are the last take on policy, procedure and budget," Dr. Ronald Sanders, who recently resigned as head of the Federal Salary Council in protest of the Schedule F order, told FCW.

"It's a totally nonpartisan institution, but the president really needs it," said Gordon Adams, who worked in OMB in the 1990s, in an interview with FCW. The office plays a major role in the budget process that happens early in each administration, and Schedule F is potentially a "horrifying undermining" of the capacity of any future president, he said.

Since the release of the executive order, Democrats on the hill have pursued legislative action to block its execution, most recently via appropriations, although it is yet to be seen what the final outcome will be. Currently, there is a continuing resolution funding the government through Dec. 18.

Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.) is pushing to address the issue through the omnibus funding bill, according to an aide to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) has already introduced a separate bill to block the order, and she "will continue to work with her colleagues to ensure that the civil service remains free from undue political influence and intimidation," said a committee aid.

Lawmakers also expressed interest in stopping the new classification from going forward during the Dec. 10 government operations subcommittee hearing.

"This creates real risks that thousands of people will be removed from their jobs right in the midst of the pandemic, right in the middle of the holidays, and right when we need them most for this presidential transition. We must not allow this plan to go forward," said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) during the hearing.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) has also spoken publicly about the issue.

"I'm actually really hopeful about it because this should not be partisan issue," he said during a Dec. 6 appearance on Government Matters. He doesn't know of any Republican lawmakers who support the executive order, he said, given that they don't want Democrats to have that broad hiring and firing power over the civil service, either.

About the Author

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.

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