At Hearing, Portman Secures Commitment from OPM Director Nominee to Ensure Qualified Federal Workforce Assisting at Southern Border & Increase Federal Cybersecurity

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, secured commitments from Kiran Ahuja, the nominee to be Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), that if confirmed, she would work to ensure that federal workers detailed to assist with the ongoing crisis of migrants and unaccompanied children at the southern border are qualified for the roles they will fill. Portman voiced his concern that the proper qualifications are not currently being met, putting these vulnerable children at risk for abuse. Last month, Portman traveled to the southern border in El Paso, Texas, where he witnessed firsthand the ongoing migrant and unaccompanied children crisis and visited overwhelmed Border Patrol facilities for housing unaccompanied children with bipartisan colleagues and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas. 

In addition, Portman also secured a commitment from Ms. Ahuja to work with Congress to improve OPM’s cybersecurity response efforts. Last year, Senators Portman and Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced a bipartisan bill that would increase transparency and modernize how the government responds to cybersecurity incidents on federal information systems. In June 2019, Senator Portman, as Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, released a bipartisan report that found that the vast majority of agencies reviewed by the Subcommittee failed to implement effective and comprehensive cybersecurity frameworks as required by the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA)

Finally, Senator Portman secured a commitment from Ronald Stroman, nominee to be a Governor of the United States Postal Service, that he would work to ensure full compliance with Portman’s bipartisan Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, which became law in 2018 and is working to help reduce the supply of fentanyl shipped into the United States through the U.S. Postal Service. In March, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas followed through on his commitment to finalize regulations to enable Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to fully implement the bipartisan STOP Act. The regulations are designed to help prevent a number of premature deaths through the screening and seizure of illicit opioids as they enter the country through the U.S. Postal Service. However, the Postal Service is not yet fully in compliance with the law. 

Excerpts from the questioning can be found below and a video can be found here.

Portman: “Thanks, Mr. Chairman. Ms. Ahuja, as I said, big job at OPM. Here’s a recent survey that was done, a federal employee viewpoint survey. 39 percent of federal employees believe their promotions are based on merit, meaning the rest do not, which would be very concerning. Only 34 percent believe poor performance is addressed by management. How will you improve the hiring process at the federal level so that it maximizes merit and addresses poor performance?” 

Ms. Kiran Ahuja, Nominee to be Director of the Office of Personnel Management: “Thank you, Ranking Member Portman, for that question and I very much appreciate those concerns. I understand that it can be challenging at times to manage poor performance. I will say that what I have seen in most cases in executive roles is that oftentimes, poor performance shows up because of a lack of employee engagement or a mismatch of skills and talents for that position. Or there just isn’t clear metrics around that performance evaluation. So related to focusing on poor performers, I think it’s key to think about, and focus on, what OPM could do, if I was confirmed, around supporting agencies, around performance management guidance, supporting managers, and understanding those processes, because those processes are important and it’s important to carry those out. You know, oftentimes managers, they’re focused on their work, not as much around the day-to-day of supervision and that’s equally important.” 

Portman: “Well, we’d like to, should you be confirmed, we’d like to work with you on this issue because we think it’s one of the reasons why you have some of the turnover and poor morale that we’ve been talking about in other contexts, including our conversation. Let me ask you something specific. I’m concerned about some of the aspects of the administration’s new detailee program sending federal workers to assist with the border surge. And particularly, these individuals apparently are allowed to begin working with kids prior to completing a childcare investigation background check under OPM’s program. They really aren’t qualified, many of them, to do this. With the reports of abuse in border shelters in particular, how would you ensure children’s safety in these facilities as you continue with this detailee program, should you be confirmed?” 

Ms. Ahuja: “Thank you, Ranking Member Portman, for that question. I am aware of the volunteer detail program that is being provided. Oftentimes OPM does provide these types of support services for agencies, especially when they need to surge capacity oftentimes related to disasters. In particular to your question regarding the safety of those children, there are also suitability standards. My understanding is that that would be incorporated in the review of those individuals as they go down to the border to ensure that they have the appropriate…” 

Portman: “If confirmed, would you agree to work with us on that to make sure that people have the qualifications they need at a time when this surge is just overwhelming everybody? I understand that the federal government is paying sponsors now, as an example, which we’ve never done before. And we want to be sure that these kids aren’t suffering any more than they already have been because of personnel that aren’t qualified.” 

Ms. Ahuja: “Yes, Ranking Member Portman. I would look forward to working with you.” 

Portman: “Okay. You were Chief of Staff at OPM during the fallout from the 2015 data breach that affected over 21 million federal workers. We talked about that already in our private conversation, but what would you do to improve OPM’s cybersecurity efforts specifically? I know you’ve talked generally about that but how do we avoid these kinds of breaches in the future?” 

Ms. Ahuja: “Thank you, Ranking Member Portman, for that question. Spending my time at OPM shortly after the data breaches, I definitely understand how incredibly important this issue is. I think one thing that we incorporated that I would continue to do if confirmed is to be hyper-vigilant around cyberattacks. They are ever-evolving, as we see. So at the time, we set up a fairly responsive cyber incident response system. My understanding is that it still rates as the best in government. I also think we should be focused on IT leadership, having the skills within that office. And I also think a pathway to IT modernization is going to help us really manage some of the challenges with keeping the system secure.” 

Portman: “Well would you commit today to working with us? We talked earlier, the Chairman talked about workforce. We passed legislation on trying to advance cyber workforce, which is one of the answers here, to have the smartest, the best people on the inside pushing back. Would you commit to working with us on that and focusing on that should you be confirmed?” 

Ms. Ahuja: “Yes I would, Senator.” 

Portman: “A lot of the federal workforce has been working remotely and the American people, I think, need access to some of these services in person. And we certainly find this back home in Ohio as we’re trying to help our veterans or trying to help folks with social security issues and other things. Telework works in some cases and doesn’t in others. We need to get people back to work, in my view, to help serve those constituents as the COVID-19 crisis continues to improve. If confirmed, would you commit to getting the federal workforce back to the office safely, efficiently, and as soon as possible?” 

Ms. Ahuja: “Thank you, Ranking Member Portman, for that question. I very much commit to doing such efforts and definitely balancing the safety of the federal workforce, that’s going to be incredibly important. As well as the obligations the agencies have to the American public.” 

Portman: “In a panel discussion in 2016, you made a number of comments about abortion, including your support for repealing the Hyde Amendment. We discussed this on our call earlier this week but would you commit now to administering the federal health employee benefits program in accordance to existing law?”

Ms. Ahuja: “Ranking Member Portman, I understand the role of Director of OPM and that the Hyde Amendment is the law of the land and I will follow the law. Yes.” 

Portman: “To our Postal Governor nominees, again, thank you for your willingness to step up. Mr. Stroman, one thing you did while you were there is you helped me in Ohio with regard to making sure that our Postal Service was working in connection with the election, but also implementation of the STOP Act. I’m still frustrated, as you know, that we haven’t fully implemented it although we’ve made progress. And unfortunately, the fentanyl is now moving through Mexico as a result. But it has been very helpful, but it has not been fully implemented. Would you commit to personally being involved in this issue and ensuring that we can get this full implementation, including 100 percent advanced electronic data from China?” 

Mr. Ronald Stroman, Nominee to be a Governor of the United States Postal Service: “Absolutely, Mr. Ranking Member. I think getting that data is law of the land and it is key to helping to prevent fentanyl and other illicit drugs from coming into the country so I think it’s a responsibility of the Postal Service to implement that and you have my full assurance that I will be personally involved in implementing that provision.” 

Portman: “Thanks, Mr. Stroman. I don’t have time to ask another question, Mr. Chairman, I just wanted to put in the record that I asked all three of the witnesses whether they had received any outside pressure with regard to the firing of the current Postmaster General because there have been outside groups that have been asking the administration to only put people forward who have made that commitment. They all told me they had not made any commitments, and they had not been pressured. Is that accurate?” 

All Nominees to be a Governor of the United States Postal Service: “Yes.”