Memorial Day is one of those holidays that does not seem to be fully understood by some folks. For some it is the unofficial start of the the summer vacation season; for others it is the day when traffic in Washington, DC begins to lighten up for a few days. Some think of it as the day the Indianapolis 500 is run. Others think of it as a time to thank veterans for their service.
It may be all of those things, but Memorial Day has a greater and far more important purpose. At the end of the Civil War, families, friends and grateful citizens began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. The commemoration of their sacrifice evolved into what we know today as Memorial Day. The act of decorating the graves with flowers and flags is so central to the day that in many parts of the country Memorial Day is still called “Decoration Day.” Whatever you call it, Memorial Day is intended as a time to recognize the sacrifice of military personnel who died in service to our country.
The original Memorial Day Order, signed by the Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868 says it best:
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains in us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation’s gratitude—the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
While we spend time this holiday weekend with our friends and family, let us not forget what Memorial Day is all about and the supreme sacrifice made by those men and women who are no longer among us.
In February President Biden nominated Kiran Ahuja to be the Director of the Office of Personnel Management. She has experience in the agency, having served as OPM Chief of Staff during the Obama Administration. She also spent six years as the Obama-Biden Administration executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, where she was the lead for efforts to increase access to federal services, resources and programs for underserved Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).
The agency has been without a permanent leader since President Trump’s last OPM Director resigned in March of 2019 after only six months on the job. In fact, Obama appointee John Berry was the last OPM Director to serve a full 4-year term. He left office in April 2013. In the eight years since, OPM has had three Senate-confirmed Directors who served for 20 months (Katherine Archuleta), 8 months (Jeff Pon) and 6 months (Dale Cabaniss). There have been six Acting Director appointments, with Kathleen McGettigan serving twice.
Virtually everyone who knows anything about the federal civil service agrees that OPM plays a vital role. They also agree that the agency needs a permanent leader who can accelerate the process of turning the agency around (hopefully by implementing the recommendations of the congressionally-mandated National Academy of Public Administration report on OPM). The NAPA report says “Undoubtedly, the most significant leadership issue was the lack of sustained leadership at the director and deputy director levels, a situation crossing recent administrations. Vacancies create uncertainty and acting leaders generally lack the organizational and political clout to forge strong relationships with myriad stakeholders.”
It is clear that Ms. Ahuja is qualified to lead OPM, yet her nomination was voted out of committee with no Republican support. The reasons given for not voting for her sound like what someone would say if they were looking for a reason to say no, rather than truly disqualifying issues.
The need for an OPM Director is real. The problems at OPM that require attention are real. The workforce gaps in the federal government in many agencies are real. The mission risk to agencies that are struggling to hire and retain talent are real. The constant turnover in the OPM Director role is real.
OPM needs a permanent Director now, not weeks or months or even years from now when it is convenient for Washington politics. My hope is that the Senate will vote on this nomination prior to the Memorial Day recess and that Ms. Ahuja will get a strong endorsement from Senators who have shown their willingness to make bipartisan votes on serious issues, such as Senators Murkowski and Collins and others. This one should not be that hard.