Legislator defends OMB program evaluation tool

An Office of Management and Budget official defended the administration's program rating tool against criticism that it lacks transparency at a Senate hearing Tuesday, while a legislator lauded the system for picking up some of the slack left by reluctant congressional overseers.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, held a hearing to address the transparency of, and potential for bias in, the administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool.

In opening remarks, Coburn praised the PART process, which entails quantifying the success of federal programs through a standardized set of questions, for bringing a new tool to bear on program assessment. He acknowledged that any such tool would be a "blunt instrument" given the size and scope of government activities, but chided other lawmakers for not taking PART scores into account in making budget decisions, in part out of loyalty to pet programs that might be underperforming.

Coburn highlighted a vote by the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments to insert language prohibiting the use of PART assessments at those agencies in the appropriations bill.

"They may not like PART's message, but they shouldn't shoot the messenger," Coburn said.

Clay Johnson, the OMB's deputy director for management, testified that the appropriations provision was the result of efforts by an "unelected committee staffer" who opposes use of the PART, and said that the committee chairman had been unaware of its introduction. But Johnson did not know the likelihood that the language would be struck when the bill reached debate before the full House.

Testifying that the PART improves management by shining a bright light on programs, Johnson pointed to the government's ExpectMore.gov Web site, which makes PART data available for public scrutiny.

Johnson's statements walked a fine line between pushing what he described as a secondary use of the tool in informing budget decisions, and deference to Congress's constitutional power to regulate spending. The administration rates agencies on budget-performance integration in its quarterly traffic-light-style management score card, and encourages Congress to consider programs' PART scores in making budget decisions.

But despite needling from another witness at the hearing, Adam Hughes from Washington D.C.-based OMB Watch, Coburn seemed unconcerned with protecting legislators' turf.

Asked to justify comments that the program expands the administration's power at the expense of the legislative branch, Hughes said, "Suppose that Congress will appropriate funds according to whatever the rating on the PART is. Why do you even need Congress? Let's just let OMB do it."

Coburn responded that legislators' insistence on ignoring the assessments made that a moot point.

Coburn and Johnson were also in agreement that the administration is in a unique position to pursue executive branch oversight, another congressional purview. Coburn said agencies are sometimes resistant in responding to legislators' questions, and that it could be difficult to squeeze them. Johnson said OMB has found obtaining good results in the management score card and PART assessments could serve as a strong motivation.

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