Flipping the Script

The White House and federal employees could face some unwelcome scrutiny.

During the months leading up to the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans campaigned strongly against a bloated government, a pampered federal workforce and a White House whose priorities were out of touch with those of most Americans. But, after winning back control of the House and increasing their margins in the Senate, the question now is how GOP lawmakers plan to translate that rhetoric into a cogent federal management agenda.

That mission will fall largely into the lap of Rep. Darrell Issa, a sharp-tongued and media-savvy California Republican who will lead the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the 112th Congress. Lacking the votes in the Senate to pass cross-cutting legislation such as repealing health care reform, or rolling back unspent economic stimulus funds, the GOP is likely to rely on the House oversight panel as its primary vehicle to question the Obama administration's policies and performance.

That process will begin with a full schedule of hearings. Issa has announced plans for the committee and its subcommittees to host at least seven hearings a week in an effort to "measure [the administration's] failures." His agenda is likely to run the gamut, including the federal response to the BP oil spill in April 2010; the cause of the housing meltdown; and shortfalls in regulating food, water and medicine.

"Darrell understands institutionally you have a role and it's not to turn your head when things are going wrong," says former Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who led the panel from 2003 to 2007 and now serves as director of federal government affairs for Deloitte & Touche LLP. "But he's not out there to score points on what he can take out of the Obama administration's hide. I don't think he starts out with that intent. They need to understand they are going to have a lot of eyes on them at this point. They wanted a transparent administration. It's going to be transparent."

For civil servants, the additional oversight might not be pleasant. Issa has made it clear he supports limiting government growth and spending, including spending on federal salaries. "At a time when our nation's seniors have been denied a cost-of-living increase and private sector hiring is stagnant, it is both necessary and, quite frankly, long overdue to institute a pay freeze for the federal workforce," he said in a statement following President Obama's late November announcement that civilian employees will go two years without raises.

Freezing pay, however, will not go far enough toward reducing the $1.4 trillion budget deficit, he said.

Earlier in November, Issa said he will look into shuttering entire agencies. "Government will need to go on a diet," he told an audience of federal and state auditors and investigators at the 2010 National Procurement and Grant Fraud Conference in Philadelphia. "The vast majority of $1.4 trillion will have to come out of government spending, of that I am sure. Our committee is going to focus on places where money can be saved, where we can literally close agencies or subagencies or programs."

This strategy isn't likely to win him friends in federal labor unions and management groups. "If the priority of the new majority is the priority of the old minority, I think we're going to have some fights on our hands," says Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association. The jury is still out on how industry groups will react to GOP leadership. Analysts have speculated that House Republicans could attempt to reverse the moratorium on public-private job competitions; scuttle the possibility of a High Road contracting policy, which would provide a leg up to companies that pay their employees higher wages and benefits; and repeal a rule requiring the government to withhold 3 percent of total contract payments to guard against possible business tax evasion.

"The picture for federal contractors is slowly coming into focus," says Deniece Peterson, manager of federal industry analysis at INPUT, a Reston, Va., market research firm. "It all comes down to three things: insourcing, oversight and spending." Issa's office, however, declined to comment on his priorities concerning government contracting.

One sector of the federal workforce that might welcome Issa's agenda is the inspector general community. He plans to introduce legislation providing IGs with testimonial subpoena power to compel individuals and businesses to cooperate with investigations. Only the Defense Department IG has such authority, though all inspectors general have the power to subpoena federal documents and records.

"I've got to ensure that if you do your job, you will never be punished for it. . . . If you push the limit of what you think you can investigate, you will be cooperated with, you will get the information you want," Issa says. "And if you release it in the appropriate way, you will keep your job."

Marta "Marty" Metelko, the congressional and public affairs liaison for the Homeland Security Department inspector general, says the authority will be helpful, especially to gain access to people who have left government.

But others suggest Issa might be jumping the gun. The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, a group that oversees and manages the IG community, recently asked Defense to assess its experience with testimonial subpoena authority. The council does not plan to endorse Issa's proposal until the review has been completed. Despite the ongoing analysis, Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella says his boss is "looking to get this done as soon as possible."

Issa told investigators and auditors during the November conference that they will have to look beyond corruption to recoup maximum savings for taxpayers.

He encouraged IGs to identify "sources of waste that go into the question of why do we have, even within one Cabinet position, seven or eight different groups doing the same thing. . . . To find opportunities where between the cracks, between different agencies, the same money is being spent when it only needs to be spent once."

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