A proposed government transformation commission to overcome Congress’ budget stalemate so agencies could proceed to reduce inefficiencies and redundant programs is either “a chance for Congress to do something for the American people” or an “offensive” scheme to allow corporations to win more government contracts.
Both views were on display Tuesday at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on 21st century efforts at “Reinventing Government.”
Former Comptroller General David Walker outlined the vision from his nonprofit Government Transformation Initiative for Congress to statutorily create a commission modeled after the Pentagon’s Base Closure and Realignment process that “would capitalize on the best practices of past commissions and leverage existing recommendations from the [Government Accountability Office], the inspectors general and many other parties that have yet to be acted on.” Unlike the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, Walker said, this body would avoid discussion of taxation and social policy but focus on operations and management. Noting a doubling of programs on GAO’s high-risk list since it began in 1990, Walker lamented that GAO had made the decision “not to recommend policies, seeing that as beyond its purview,” the result being an absence of “specific actionable recommendations” from Congress’ watchdog and past reform commissions.
Walker stressed that the reforms from such a new commission “would not result in the loss of federal jobs since most employees could be redeployed, though it could result in replacement of contractors with federal employees,” he added, which might require civil service reform to “attract and retain the full range of professionals the government must access to discharge its many responsibilities.”
J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees said the proposal for a commission of “seven wise men” is “offensive” and “profoundly undemocratic” and urged that it be “stopped in its tracks.” Blasting the fiscal advocacy efforts of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which has supported Walker’s work, Cox said such a plan “would minimize the role of elected officials and maximize the power of corporate special interests operating behind the scenes to advance their agenda of contracting out; reallocation of salary dollars away from middle and lower graded employees; a reduction in civil service protections and collective bargaining rights; and the constriction of government programs, services, agencies and access.”
Cox warned that congressional committees would lose influence over the normal oversight and authorization process, and accused the authors, in seeking to curb duplication, of not respecting the expertise of federal employees such as registered nurses (Cox’s own career) at different agencies such as Veterans Affairs, the Bureau of Prisons and the Interior Department’s tribal programs.
Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Cox whether he had “evidence for such a conspiracy.”
Cox denied he saw a conspiracy, only “an effort to contract out. Federal workers become irritated when a contractor is paid more, delivers less and is less flexible,” he added. Asked if the reinventing government effort had any value, Cox said, “I don’t see value in having a commission to take another look. The executive branch agencies need to take a responsible look, and Congress would have to pass a budget.”
Issa said he called the hearing to seek an “honest broker who doesn’t favor the status quo” to reform the executive branch management process to hold Cabinet officers more accountable for spending. “This is not to disparage federal workers because we haven’t had a good business model,” he said. He commended the military’s clear chain of command on spending as a better role model for going beyond the annual release of reports on waste and abuse that produce little corrective action. Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., decried “wasteful spending” on reimbursing contractor executive salaries at a time when federal employees have been through a three-year pay freeze and furloughs. “Sometimes federal employees get a bad rap, which is why I remind us we are all federal employees,” Cummings said. “We need a win-win solution, and we need proposals that have federal worker buy-in.”
Elaine Kamarck, who led the Reinventing Government effort in the Clinton-Gore administration and who is now a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said the 1990s effort over seven years was “the longest government reform effort in modern American history.” It resulted in a 24 percent cut in number of federal employees (a total of 426,000); $136 billion in savings; and cuts in bloated headquarters, field offices, layers of management (78,000 managers were cut) and red tape, she said. The Tea Tasters Board was eliminated. During that time, trust in government rose, Kamarck said, citing the Gallup Poll numbers showing government’s approval rate rose from 17 percent in 1993 to 42 percent rate in 2000. (The trust number is now down to 19 percent, she added.)
“Career bureaucrats know the problems better, so successful reform depends on their buy-in,” Kamarck said. One reason programs don’t get more efficient, she said, is that federal employees often lack clear goals, many of which are created by statute but change over time. She encouraged Congress to “not shortchange” its own authorization committees, but to “reopen and reinvigorate the authorization process and build strong links to the executive branch.”
Walker called the union’s criticisms “largely fiction” and defended his proposed commission structure as encouraging “trust and accountability -- its members must be capable, independent and nonconflicted.” It wouldn’t happen unless Congress passed and the president signed the bill, he noted. “It’s just a mechanism to get to the table to make decisions that have not been made.”
National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley submitted testimony in writing, calling the proposed commission “an unwise and unnecessary duplication of the duties of Congress.” What’s not being said, she added, “is that many coalition members themselves do a lucrative federal contracting business….Is this just another way to increase market share for their members?”