Highway administrator learns to take one for the team on the Hill

Giving someone bad news is never fun, and it is even worse if that someone is a parent, boss or other "authority" figure, particularly if you do not agree with what you have to say. But it pales in comparison to sitting in a crowded committee room, given the task of telling Congress that, in fact, you really do not want that extra funding they want to give you.

Federal Highway Administration Administrator Mary Peters Thursday was in just such a position, defending the Bush administration's decision to reduce highway funding before a very hostile Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the plan "defies logic" and, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., decried the potential economic consequences of the plan. But Peters maintained the administration's official line that the cuts are appropriate, even though the increases would aid FHWA.

Executive branch officials, particularly the heads of the various independent and quasi-independent agencies, have always been expected to act as the front-line defense for unpopular White House decisions. The responsibility of being the messenger of bad tidings comes with the job, as does the expectation that the messenger will smile and nod approvingly even if the decision is not in their natural interests. Most officials, however, do as they are asked, and weather the often-harsh beatings members of Congress mete out.

Despite the fact that Voinovich and every other members of the panel repeatedly assailed the administration's budget proposal and pledged to provide her agency with more money, Peters nevertheless toed the White House line and gracefully backed the cuts while opposing any increase.

Indeed, breaking ranks with the White House--particularly under the present administration that puts loyalty above most other considerations--can be hazardous for your career. Take former Rep. Mike Parker, R-Miss., who briefly oversaw the Army Corps of Engineers as an assistant secretary of the Army.

Last year in congressional testimony, Parker criticized cuts the administration proposed in the Corps' public works program. In his testimony, the former House appropriator noted, "I always looked at [the Office of Management and Budget] and never had those warm and fuzzy feelings ... Now that I've been in the administration, I still don't have those warm and fuzzy feelings." Parkers' defiance of the White House, and OMB Director Mitch Daniels, ultimately cost him his job, as he was forced to resign last March, less than a week after testifying before Congress.

Of course, sometimes delivering unwanted proposals to Congress can bring out the best in executive branch officials. Former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, a favorite target of conservative Republicans, came into her own politically in the aftermath of the GOP's 1994 House takeover. For several years after, Browner would defiantly trudge to Capitol Hill to defend EPA, often trading pointed barbs with conservative opponents. Browner confidants said at the time the polarized atmosphere actually brought out the best in the administrator and played a large role in her ability to protect EPA from substantial funding cuts.