The presumptive incoming chairman of the Senate’s main government oversight panel plans a “businessman’s approach” to policy and management that includes streamlining the Homeland Security Department, aligning federal pay with the private sector and new coordination with House Republicans in rolling back burdensome regulations.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., in an interview with Government Executive, was careful to praise the dedication of the federal workforce. But he also warned that too many agency managers are “constrained and hamstrung’ in their ability to hire and fire, adding that a move toward more merit pay could be high on the agenda of a reorganized Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“My top priority is securing the Southwestern border,” said the founder of a plastics manufacturing company who’s up for re-election to the Senate in 2016. “That’s needed not only for solving immigration problems, but as a public health and national security imperative as well. We’re well past the time for passing successful and effective border security legislation.”
Johnson would also like to pursue a cybersecurity bill in light of the recent array of hackings and breaches of both government and private-sector systems. Just Monday, the U.S. Postal Service announced a breach of its computer systems that put at risk the personal information of its employees.
A related goal is working with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson “to streamline his department, which suffers from low morale by many reports and has a hard time filling necessary positions,” the senator said. His conversations with Jeh Johnson have broached the familiar problems that plagued DHS as it cobbled together 22 agencies, each with its own reporting requirements to multiple congressional committees. “Oversight is important, but there may be over-oversight here,” Ron Johnson said. “I told him I’d do everything I can to help because the oversight is way out of hand now. It’s time to reauthorize and streamline DHS.”
As for the governmental half of his “two committees in one,” Johnson wants to tackle “the overreach of regulatory agencies, because we need to get more robust economic growth. One of my problems is the regulation upon regulation imposed on business, so we need to take a serious look at modernizing and streamlining.”
One of the big changes coming to Washington when Republicans take control of the Senate in January will be greater use of joint strategies between Senate and House Republicans. Johnson has reviewed the dozens of House-passed and proposed bills to curb regulation and has “reached out” to counterparts on the House Homeland Security and Oversight and Government Reform panels.
But he also plans to solicit Democratic colleagues “on which agencies do harm in their states,” he said. “The key is finding common ground. Because the Senate is unique, bills have to have bipartisan support to pass. The Senate could lead the way.”
Johnson said he has great respect for current panel Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., calling him “a man of integrity.” Next Congress the panel members “will get along and work in a bipartisan fashion the way [former Sen.] Joe Lieberman [I-Conn.] and Susan Collins [R-Maine] did” in previous Congresses, and the way retiring ranking member Tom Coburn, R-Okla., got along with Carper, Johnson added.
He also praised Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri as someone “with a lot of spunk, who is pretty demanding, with a good attitude, and who is here to protect taxpayer money.” He said he “learned a lot” from hearings at McCaskill’s Financial and Contracting Oversight Subcommittee, and hopes to continue looking at “reforms to make contracting more effective and efficient.”
But at the same time,” Johnson said, “the Republican majority has different priorities, so there will be more robust oversight investigation efforts under the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations “looking at the harm that government does to people through regulation and the tax system,” he said. The current chairman of that panel, the retiring Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., focused too much on “business bashing,” according to Johnson.
The committee’s entire subcommittee structure is being reviewed with an eye toward reorganizing it more “like a business,” so that subcommittee work filters up to the full committee, Johnson reported.
Might the Republican-run 114th Congress attempt some form of civil service reform? “Yes, but the business approach is different,” Johnson said. “I have been to a number of hearings to get up-to-speed on the issues and to lay out principles. I’m always impressed with the quality of federal workforce.” But there are competing studies on whether federal pay is rightly aligned and benchmarked with the private sector, he added. “We have to hold hearings on the facts. The pay has to be aligned and can’t be out of whack—that’s the businessman’s approach to keeping things competitive with the private sector.”
Reform might also mean faster hiring and firing as well as more merit-based pay, Johnson confirmed. “We’ve got to give agency heads the tools and flexibility to discipline the workforce to effectively manage.”
But Johnson said he agrees that federal recruiting could suffer if government salaries are not competitive. “We can’t underpay and expect to get the quality of individual we need, but we can’t afford to overpay, so we need good solid pay and benefits comparisons,” Johnson said. One issue that might discourage future federal recruits and appointees needing confirmation are the financial disclosure requirements under the STOCK Act, he added. “It’s become way too intrusive in potential employees’ lives and my staff.”
Johnson gave an animated response to a question on why many agency officials who testify at hearings are often cut off or silenced. “I’m new here, but I see why it happens,” he said. “You’ve got a clock on you for five –to seven minutes, depending on how many senators show up. So when a witness is unresponsive, you feel compelled to interrupt. But you try to do it within the bounds of collegiality and respect.”
One solution could be for witnesses to come prepared for the expected questions, and to provide their testimony sooner than the typical delivery the night before, Johnson said. “I totally understand this isn’t satisfying,” he said. “I don’t want to run show trials, and I want to be respectful.” His staff, he added, is looking for better ways to hold hearings focused on gathering facts, “probably with more information from pre-hearings and secure briefings, when people are more relaxed,” he said. “It’s a serious issue, and I would like to change it.”
Johnson stressed that he has “a great deal of respect for those who offer themselves for public service, and I want to treat them with the respect they deserve.” But some individual agency heads who appear on television, he said, “won’t instill a lot of confidence, and they get tough criticism.”
How can Republicans and Democrats work together and perhaps even compromise? “I‘m going to reach out to other side and find areas of agreement, which is exactly how I approached things in business,” Johnson said. “You don’t sit down and start arguing right away, you find everything we agree on and put the disagreements off to one side. Then you can build relationships and a level of trust, so that when you find disagreements, it’s easier to find common ground.”
But the approach of putting aside disagreements may not produce common ground, in Johnson’s view, if, for example, President Obama signs an executive order, as he has vowed to do, implementing a form of immigration reform in place of the Senate-passed comprehensive legislative package that the House has declined to take up. “That would poison the well,” Johnson said. Pressuring the House to take up the bill would be, “outside the bounds of reality—a noncredible demand.”
(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)