Data Security and ACA Exemption Threaten OPM Nominee

Johnson chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee. (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

The massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management that cost the agency’s last director her job could now jeopardize the chances of her successor.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved acting director Beth Cobert’s nomination, moving it to the Senate floor. But Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) warned that she has some work to do before she can clear full Senate confirmation.

First, Johnson says she must comply with a subpeona, due Feb. 15, issued by House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asking about last summer’s data breach. “There has been a lack of cooperation with the subpoena,” Johnson said. “I’m expecting Ms. Cobert to work with Chairman Chaffetz to come to an agreement on that.”

The subpoena seeks to shed light on more information about the hack that compromised the personal data of roughly 22 million current and former federal employees. Chaffetz also hopes to ensure measures are taken to avoid another breach happening again.

Chaffetz complained last week that OPM, under Cobert’s leadership, was not cooperating with his requests for information. The committee has since had discussions with OPM, according to an aide, and they fully expect the agency to comply.

In the Senate, Johnson made it clear Wednesday that his support for Cobert is contingent on it. “I hope she does. Because of that commitment [from OPM], I’m willing to move this nomination forward in this committee,” he said.

Johnson also said he wants OPM to comply with a request from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) about a special health care exemption for congressional members and staff that circumvents their participation in the Affordable Care Act. The OPM has ruled that staffers can sign up for health insurance under an exchange designated for small businesses.

Vitter says he will block Cobert’s nomination on the floor until he is satisfied with OPM’s response. “OPM is largely responsible for Washington’s Obamacare Exemption, and for years now, top level officials have shunted all oversight and accountability for their bad decisions,” Vitter said in a letter sent on Feb. 3 to Cobert.

Vitter argues that if Congress passed the Affordable Care Act for the rest of the country, they should also have to “live under” those same laws.

On behalf of Vitter, Johnson sent Cobert questions about the OPM exemption before Wednesday’s hearing. Vitter received her responses on Tuesday, according to Luke Bolar spokesman. But Bolar said the answers she sent back were “very vague” and even described them as “non-answers.”

It remains to be seen whether the answers are so insufficient that the Louisiana Republican will insist on blocking her nomination. He has done so before. Last year, Vitter said he would block the nomination of Earl Gay to be deputy director until he received answers regarding the ACA exemption. He never received them, and President Obama ended up withdrawing Gay’s nomination in late July.

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