President Bush's plan to create a fast-track process for changing federal management laws is an unprecedented grab for power by the executive branch, a key Democratic lawmaker said Tuesday. Under the President's plan, part of his "Freedom to Manage" legislative proposal, the White House could submit to Congress a list of laws that the administration wants eliminated or modified on grounds that they impede efficient and effective management of federal programs. The White House says it would consult with agency heads to identify such onerous or unnecessary laws. The list of legislative changes would bypass authorizing committees and go straight to the House and Senate floors. After the White House submitted the list, Congress would have 10 days to issue a joint resolution and 30 days to bring the list to a vote. After just one hour of debate, lawmakers would have to vote up or down on the whole list-without the opportunity to introduce amendments. At a House Rules Committee hearing Tuesday, ranking member Martin Frost, D-Texas, said the plan goes against 200 years of legislative history, calling it an "unprecedented grab of authority." "The President could send up just about anything he wanted to," Frost said. Frost complained that Bush's proposal is too broad, allowing the executive branch to challenge virtually any law on the grounds that it was in the way of White House priorities. He also argued for the need for enough time to debate issues and for the ability to amend presidential proposals. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., introduced the Bush proposal (S. 1613
) on Nov. 1. Thompson told Frost that the proposal was aimed at laws that may have had value at one time but now only get in the way of good management. Because federal management matters rarely attract congressional attention, agencies have had to labor under outdated laws for too long, Thompson said. "These are matters that have been on the books for many, many years," he said. House Rules Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., pointed out that Congress has created narrow fast-track authorities for other purposes in the past, such as trade policy. Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Sean O'Keefe said the administration is willing to work with Congress on the specifics of the proposal, which is meant to address relatively minor management laws rather than broad policy issues. For example, one law prohibits the use of clocks in federal offices in Washington except at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Another law prohibits NASA from relocating aircraft based east of the Mississippi River to the Dryden Flight Research Center in California. "It is my sincere belief that the Freedom to Manage Act will be used sparingly, as a powerful tool to respond to administrative challenges of statutory construction," O'Keefe said in prepared testimony. In fact, when the Bush administration asked agencies this summer to identify onerous statutes, few examples emerged. In mid-September, the White House told OMB itself to hunt down such statutes, according to officials at the September meeting of the Budget Officers Advisory Council, an interagency council of budget officials. O'Keefe also noted that the process of examining management statutes would help the administration discover the root cause of long-standing administrative problems in federal agencies. The process may reveal that some problems blamed on statutes are actually the result of agencies' own onerous rules and procedures, O'Keefe said. Comptroller General David Walker, head of the General Accounting Office, suggested that the Bush proposal be more narrowly written to ensure that administrations do not use the authority to push through non-management-related legislation. He also suggested that Congress be careful to protect its balance of power with the executive branch. "Congressional deliberative processes serve the vital function of both gaining input from a variety of clientele and stakeholders affected by any changes and providing a check and counterbalance to the executive branch," Walker said. "This normal legislative process is not a model of efficiency but it does help ensure that any related actions have broad support." Walker told Dreier that the General Accounting Office would work with the House Rules Committee on alternatives to the Bush proposal that would ensure an appropriate balance between expediency and the democratic process. The Federal Managers Association supports the elimination of certain management laws, such as a requirement that federal agencies procure certain goods through Federal Prison Industries. But Didier Trinh, legislative director for the association, noted that some management obstacles come from administrations, not from Congress. "Our members believe there are existing barriers that prevent them from managing more effectively," Trinh said. "But before managers and supervisors can begin to address these impediments, there must be a proper mix of managers and rank-and-file employees that will serve to best achieve the agency's mission. Current supervisory ratios, as a result of a decade of downsizing and the previous administration's push to reach a 15-to-1 ratio, are hurting the front-line supervisors' ability to manage at all, much less [to manage] effectively."