President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next head of the Office of Personnel Management faced his first official test yesterday: his confirmation hearing before the United States Senate.
By tradition, a presidential nominee normally has senators or congressmen from his or her home state introduce them before the Senate panel considering their nomination.
And so it was on this day that John Berry, the affable Director-designate of the Office of Personnel Management, found himself at the witness table of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. To his right, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin and to his left, Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader.
But Hoyer isn’t just Berry’s congressman – he is also his former boss. For ten years, Berry served as one of Hoyer’s top aides, a Legislative Director, the man who helps monitor the legislative schedule, and helps shape the member’s position towards particular bills.
As Hawaii Senator Daniel Akaka, chair of the subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, looked on, Hoyer lavished praise on his former staffer, saying that John Berry’s creative intellect was perhaps his strongest attribute. He also talked about Berry’s administrative skills, praising his work at the Smithsonian, and at the Treasury and Interior Departments.
Senator Cardin, who was familiar with Berry’s work in the House during his tenure as a congressman from Baltimore, praised Berry’s vast administrative experience and his good judgement and integrity.
In his opening statement, John Berry took note of his family’s long history of government service, his father as a Marine during World War Two, and his mother’s career with the Census Bureau. He acknowledged that in today’s work environment, the newest generation of workers might not become “lifers”, and stay with one job, or even one career, for their entire career.
For that reason, he says, it is important to create an environment in federal workplaces where staffers can balance work and life, with flexible benefits that attract “the best and brightest” from all walks of life. He also expressed a desire that the federal government become a “model employer” adopting the best practices of retention, hiring, labor-management relations, and retirement.
During his approximately one hour in the witness chair, Berry faced little hard questioning from Chairman Akaka, and Ohio Republican George Voinovich, the ranking minority member of the subcommittee and a lawmaker with a long history of advocacy for federal workers. Akaka gently, but pointedly reminded Berry that, for most people, the federal hiring process is still broken, calling it arduous. Berry said that continuing the work of predecessors in changing the hiring process was at the top of his agenda.
Voinovich suggested that Berry take a close look at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, long regarded as one of the best agencies in the federal government for workforce satisfaction, for ideas on how to improve federal human capital management. He also told Berry that the best way to help other agencies get their act together is for him to focus first on improving things at OPM.
Both Akaka and Voinovich urged Berry to work with agency human capital officers and remind them of special hiring authorities approved by Congress to help agencies meet special staffing needs.
Akaka also took note of the fact that federal employee labor unions needed to be brought back to the table after being pushed aside over the last eight years by the previous administration.
Berry acknowledged that, sometime in the near future, that change in labor union status will be reflected in the likelihood that staffers with the Transportation Security Administration will be granted the right to unionize. Two of the country’s largest employee labor unions are jockeying for position to represent those TSA workers.
Wrapping up his confirmation hearing, Berry told the subcommittee that his committment is to always find the “right way, and the best way” to solve problems, acknowledging that he might not always have the answers at the outset.
Chairman Akaka said he expects his subcommittee to meet in the near future to consider Berry’s nomination, prior to sending it on to the full Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and a floor vote in the Senate.
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