At his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, John Gibbs, the nominee to head the federal Office of Personnel Management, received few questions about his views on managing federal personnel.
Instead, a major focus of senators from both parties was on past political comments by Gibbs, a former conservative commentator and software developer who for the past three years has held senior appointed positions at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, currently heading a community planning and development office.
In February 2016, for example, he tweeted, “JFK’s Dem party: Tax cuts, Anti-commie, strong defense, lunar landing. Today’s Dem party: Islam, gender-bending, anti-police, ‘u racist!’ ”
An investigation by CNN using an Internet archive — done in March before Gibbs was nominated for the OPM position — found those and numerous other tweets supportive of fringe concepts or people.
“Clearly some of the words you have used in the past have caused harm and fear for some Americans even if that was not your intent,” said Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Said Gibbs: “I can assure that throughout my career and throughout my life, I’ve never tolerated, never accepted any type of discrimination. If confirmed as OPM director, I also would not tolerate any type of discrimination. For the groups that you mentioned, I would love to sit down and meet with them and I believe that if they got to know me, they would realize quickly that I’m not the kind of person who would ever tolerate discrimination on religion or other factors.”
“I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of discrimination,” added Gibbs, who is Black. “That’s something that’s abhorrent for me. As someone whose family, and personally, has experienced discrimination, as someone who is a minority, any type of discrimination is absolutely unacceptable to me.”
When Peters directly asked whether he regretted making those comments, Gibbs said: “I regret that it’s unfortunately become an issue. And let me just say that, like all of Americans, I have political opinions that I’ve expressed in the past. But I’m very proud to say that in my service in the government I’ve always led in a bipartisan manner, I’ve always treated people fairly. I have never allowed any type of discrimination.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) called the comments “incendiary” and questioned whether they “demonstrated good judgment,” while Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) said they implied “support for fringe conspiracy theories and could easily be perceived as attacks on religious freedom or individual liberties.”
And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said the comments were “disparaging of Islam and at the same [time] have fostered or promoted some relatively extreme, if not bizarre or nonsensical, conspiracy theories, including the idea that leaders of the Democratic Party have participated in Satanic rituals of some kind. I wonder if you believe those things, and if you do, how can those possibly be separated from a human resources responsibility to people who represent a wide array of backgrounds?”
Gibbs replied: “That is something that is behind me. That is not my current role. I can assure you that I have led in a nonpartisan fashion over the past three years in the government and, if confirmed as OPM director, I will continue to lead in a nonpartisan fashion.”
Later, there was a similar exchange with Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who called the comments “clearly something none of us can condone.”
Said Gibbs: “At the time, I was a political commentator and I commented on the issues of the day. Every American has political opinions, and I certainly have my political opinions. I do have them, that is a fact, but I can assure you, above and beyond that, that I have always led in a nonpartisan fashion and always will lead in a nonpartisan fashion.”
None of the senators participating in the hearing indicated how they would vote on Gibbs at a scheduled committee vote next Wednesday.
The OPM oversees personnel policies and benefits programs for the executive branch’s 2.1 million employees. It has been run mainly on an acting basis for the past five years, since the last confirmed director in the Obama administration resigned following the disclosure that two of its databases, containing personal information about more than 20 million people, had been hacked.
The agency has had two confirmed directors during the Trump administration. Unlike Gibbs, both had extensive experience in federal personnel matters but served only about six months before resigning abruptly following disputes with White House officials.
The most recent director resigned in March, just as the coronavirus outbreak put new demands on the federal workforce and upset normal operations by sending hundreds of thousands of employees into unaccustomed telework status, where many of them remain.
One major issue in those internal disputes was the Trump administration’s proposal to have the General Services Administration take over from OPM the operation of the retirement and insurance programs, as well as the training and other personnel services it provides to other agencies. Under the plan, OPM’s policy functions would fall directly under the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
However, there was no focus at the hearing on that plan, which is on hold pending a review Congress ordered last year. There was relatively brief discussion about other current federal personnel issues, including safety and health concerns as teleworkers are called back to their offices, outdated technology at OPM, and the long-standing problem of slow processing of retirement applications, which can leave new retirees receiving only a partial benefit for many months.
Also appearing before the committee and up for a vote next week were three nominees for the five-seat board that oversees the Thrift Savings Plan, the 401(k)-style retirement savings plan for federal and military personnel.
That agency also has faced recent controversy about a planned widening of one of its investment options to track an index of international stocks to cover emerging market countries, including China. That change had been set to occur this fall, but in May was indefinitely suspended after President Trump made the nominations for three seats that had been filled on a holdover status by board members whose terms have expired.
All three nominees, veterans of the financial services industry, expressed serious reservations about including the stocks of Chinese companies in the TSP investment options, although they did not explicitly rule it out. One of the two continuing board members also opposes broadening the international stock index; both also are serving as holdovers but nominations for those seats must be made by the House speaker and the Senate majority leader.
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