President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the government’s personnel office passed Senate confirmation on a 51-50 vote June 22, making Kiran Ahuja the 13th permanent director of the Office of Personnel Management since its creation in 1979.
Ahuja, who worked at OPM as chief of staff after a 2015 data breach and has since held leadership positions at various nonprofits, is the first South Asian American to lead the agency, under Biden’s promise to increase the diversity of his cabinet and leadership positions across the government.
“Throughout this confirmation process, Ms. Ahuja has demonstrated she understands the mission of OPM and safeguarding the nonpartisan civil service,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., on the Senate floor.
“She is committed to working openly and transparently with Congress to strengthen and modernize the federal workforce. I’m confident that Ms. Ahuja is the right person to lead OPM at this pivotal time. She will provide strategic vision and the management needed to reinvigorate the federal workforce.”
During her confirmation hearings, Ahuja promised to focus on supporting managers and improving employee engagement as a means of improving federal performance, rather than the previous administration’s approach of making it easier to remove poor-performing employees from government service.
Ahuja told members of Congress that she plans to focus on improving OPM’s IT systems — especially those that manage federal retirement claims — and develop policy that facilitates greater teleworking at government agencies after the pandemic.
Some Republican members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee took issue with Ahuja’s previous support of repealing the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funds from going to any health care that provides abortions. And they criticized Ahuja’s support of critical race theory, which examines the ways in which racial prejudice and injustice are part of U.S. history and institutions. The concept was prohibited from federal workplaces under the Trump administration and embraced again under Biden when he reinstated diversity training, which Ahuja said she found helpful for fostering inclusive work environments.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., challenged Ahuja’s supportive comments for Ibram Kendi, a prominent commentator on racism who leads the new Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and has said former President Donald Trump fits his definition of a racist.
“I’m concerned that Ms. Ahuja is a disciple of radical critical theorists. She has frequently promoted Dr. Kendi. She called him a thought leader in her confirmation hearing back in April, and just last year Ms. Ahuja wrote that we must free the nation from the daily trials of white supremacy. Those are her words. She appeared to endorse Dr. Kendi’s claim that the election of President [Donald] Trump was part of racist progress in this country,” Hawley said on the Senate floor.
“As the federal government’s H.R. director, Ms. Ahuja could user he platform to promote radical ideologies that seek to divide America, rather than unite the American people. She could bring critical theory back into federal government training and to every level of personnel stronger than ever.”
Two weeks ago, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, representing 100,000 federal police officers, announced it had “growing concern” about Ahuja’s nomination because of her advocacy for critical race theory.
Ahuja has however received support from several federal employee organizations, such as the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, and the National Treasury Employees Union.
And Ahuja has proven one of the more divisive Biden leadership picks overall, with both the vote to end debate and confirmation vote requiring the tie-breaker of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Ahuja was initially slated for a confirmation vote June 15, but the process was delayed after two Democratic members were unable to make the session that day, revealing how close her vote was expected to be.
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.