Senator Begins Uphill Task of Resurrecting Obama Reorganization Plan

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Susan Walsh/AP

Bemoaning a political climate in which many believe “government pretty much sucks,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., on Wednesday plunged ahead in what is planned as a series of hearings aimed at jump-starting President Obama’s stalled two-year-old plan to reorganize business-related agencies to curb duplication.

McCaskill brought in the leaders of two trade and development agencies to look for overlap in the online organization chart she likened to a “labyrinth,” and probed for ways to simplify the structure while boosting their transparency for the business community and congressional overseers.

"We've got situations in the federal government where there are two or more programs with the same goal-often with very little coordination or cooperation," McCaskill said on the eve of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. "We need to find a way to streamline programs and regulations with the goal of saving money and continuing our economic recovery." She said because of duplication, “we’re losing a lot of punch in our development dollars.”

Her colleague Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said, "Any proposal to consolidate operations that would actually reduce spending is welcome and should be enacted. This is an area where we can work on a bipartisan basis to reform the government to make it more efficient, effective, and accountable to taxpayers."

Elizabeth Littlefield, president and CEO of the government’s independent Overseas Private Investment Corporation created in 1971, trumpeted the fact that her staff of 225 running 100 development-oriented lending projects is self-funded, having returned $426 million to the Treasury last year for deficit reduction. “Our organization looks complicated on a spreadsheet, but the eco-system of U.S. businesses is complicated as well,” she said. Some of the project feasibility studies may sound similar to those done by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, but OPIC’s focus is on development, not on exports, she added.

The Commerce Department’s businessUSA.gov and export.gov Web tools will “create one-stop shopping” for businesses, Littlefield said.

Leocadia Zak, director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency founded in 1992, cited her independent agency’s “unique mandate” that requires it to both provide foreign assistance for trade and economic development and help to put Americans to work in the jobs that result from exports.”

Since it was created in 1992, the USTDA -- which gets an annual appropriation of less than $50 million -- has generated $45 billion in U.S. exports, and in fiscal 2013 its exports created 14,000 U.S. jobs, Zak said. She called it “very important that agencies work closely together,” noting that her staff has traveled around the United States with staff from OPIC and the Export-Import Bank to educate businesses about agency programs.

Zak touted the agency’s “rigorous, evidence-based decision process” for finding opportunities for exports, and noted that it is regularly audited by third-parties, including major accounting firms such as KPMG.

Neither of the agencies has its own inspector general, McCaskill noted, telling the agency heads, “You’d do well if you had more-aggressive third-party oversight.” Citing individual projects such as building a Wendy’s hamburger outlet in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and a Papa John’s pizza in Russia, McCaskill said the website reports were not as easy for outsiders to follow as items on grants.gov or USAspending.gov.

Overall, McCaskill agreed with the agency chiefs’ assertions that they both “punch above their weight.” She told them, “You’re obviously competent and well qualified and work hard and could get other jobs, but you then say ‘Don’t cut us.’ It’s very difficult to figure out what the government is spending on trade and development. It’s confusing and fragmented and it takes a lot of work.”

When the executive branch members said they had faith in the Obama team’s plans to push reorganization, McCaskill said, “It’s not up to him, it’s Congress that has the leverage. It has less to do with agencies than with congressional committee chairmen, who don’t want to give up turf.” 

Johnson, whose questions demonstrated a concern that the private sector’s needs not be neglected, said “on the surface consolidation looks like a good idea, but we need to make sure we get efficiency.” More than 10 years after the reorganization that created the Homeland Security Department, he added. “I’m not convinced we didn’t just create more bureaucracy that’s not functioning well. Making something bigger doesn’t make it better.”

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