Jeffords switch puts Democrats in charge of government reform

The shift in control of the Senate will challenge key Democrats to develop a coherent agenda on government reform, experts said Thursday. The Senate will soon change hands when Sen. James Jeffords officially quits the Republican Party and becomes an independent following his announcement Thursday in Vermont, his home state. Jeffords said he will vote with Democrats on organizational matters, giving Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 1994. The changeover means that Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., will replace Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., as Chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., will likely take over for Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, as Chair of the Subcommittee on Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia. Senate Democrats have not been leaders on federal management issues in recent years, according to Donald Kettl, director of the Robert M. La Follette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "There is not a strong base of leadership in the [Democratic] Party that has been developed on these issues," said Kettl, citing former Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, as the last Democrat who fully engaged issues such as civil service reform. "Democrats will have an opportunity to define a separate agenda, but it's not very clear what that agenda will be." Lieberman, who has worked closely with Thompson on the Governmental Affairs Committee, has been out front on e-government issues, advocating more funding for interagency e-government initiatives and the creation of a Federal Chief Information Officer. Lieberman is pushing these and other proposals in his E-Government Act of 2001, which Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., is co-sponsoring. He has also been a leader on the Hatch Act, which governs federal employees' involvement in politics. Lieberman championed government service in his recent book, In Praise of Public Life (Simon & Schuster, 2000). But Lieberman has not made government reform a signature issue, Kettl said. "Lieberman has been involved on [e-government issues], but has not worked hard to establish a reputation on government reform as has been the case for many Republicans who have been involved for a long time," he said. Lieberman will use his platform as committee chair to focus on consumer protection and regulatory oversight issues, according to spokeswoman Leslie Phillips. "The committee has a proud history of activism in the area of consumer protection, and that's something the senator is interested in carrying on," she said. Phillips said it is too early to tell what emphasis Lieberman will place on the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act as a tool for improving federal management. Thompson used the Results Act to shed light on Uncle Sam's persistent management weaknesses. While it is unclear how a Democratic-controlled Governmental Affairs Committee might try to modify President Bush's management agenda, Democrats could oppose the administration's outsourcing goals, according to Kettl and Allan Burman, president of the consulting firm Jefferson Solutions. John Threlkeld, a lobbyist with the American Federation of Government Employees, said Democrats and Republicans should both be skeptical of the administration's outsourcing agenda. "We think the concerns we have been raising with respect to tracking contractors are all themes that should have bipartisan resonance," he said. But Threlkeld did admit the union should have an easier time getting Senate hearings on its core issues with the Democrats in charge. "It might provide us with procedural advantages with respect to markups, hearings, and floor votes," he said. Republican leaders such as Thompson and Voinovich will continue to wield influence with the Bush administration on management issues, according to Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn. Voinovich plans to introduce civil service reform legislation this summer, and will remain at the forefront of efforts to spotlight the government's alleged human capital crisis, Milburn said. "There isn't a member on the subcommittee who isn't aware of my boss' interest in these issues," said Milburn. "We expect to be able to work with them to continue the focus on this front." Spokespersons for Durbin did not return phone calls seeking confirmation that he will be the new chair of the Subcommittee on Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia. Durbin was the ranking minority member on the subcommittee when Democrats were in the minority.
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