Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Susan Walsh/AP

Senators Blame Congress More Than Agencies for Duplication, Waste

Coburn and Pryor call for new authority, flexibility for federal managers.

Key reasons for wasteful duplication of federal programs include a lack of knowledge among lawmakers and their tendency to think parochially and short-term, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said Wednesday.

“We have a great federal workforce, but the problem is that members of Congress, while well intentioned, lack oversight and knowledge of what programs are out there,” Coburn told business executives at a forum on transforming government for the 21st century sponsored by the Business Roundtable and Governing magazine.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., joined Coburn in calling for greater use of private sector accountability principles in government as well as greater flexibility for the executive branch in consolidating duplicative programs.

Pryor said he favors a pending proposal to give the president “fast-track authority” to reorganize agencies. “The lesson from the Clinton administration’s reinventing government and the [George W. ] Bush management reforms is that they did some good things, but they don’t translate into political success,” Pryor said. “That work doesn’t show up at the ballot box, so there’s not a lot of incentive” in Congress, because such issues do not produce headlines.

“Congress is failing in its constitutional oversight,” Coburn said, “because the vast majority of senators have no idea of the effectiveness of 99 percent of programs.” Senators have other things to focus on, said Coburn, who as newly ascended ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has been spotlighting duplicative federal programs based on reports by the Government Accountability Office and through tips from federal workers. “Congress thinks short-term and parochially--they have to if they want to stay in Congress,” Coburn said. He has introduced “hundreds of amendments based on work GAO has done, but none pass. “I’ll never win this debate in Congress because they don’t understand business,” he said.

Coburn’s examples of duplication included 209 programs promoting science and math education across 11 departments, 109 green buildings programs, 47 job training programs, and 2,700 housing authorities nationwide, all adding up to $2.4 trillion worth duplication over 10 years.

None of this would be tolerated in private business, he said, calling for the Office of Personnel Management to change the rules to give managers more authority to hire, fire and promote. “In business it’s understood that if someone has an area of responsibility, they have the authority to carry it out,” Coburn said. “If you can’t reward great behavior and punish less-than-adequate behavior, you can’t manage.”

Coburn cited a study saying federal employees earn on average $59.85 per hour, while the average in the private sector is $28. “In government, you can’t terminate someone for performance because they’re protected by OPM,” he said. “The culture is not designed to promote excellence and get results. These are not the same guidelines we know work in private sector. It’s one of our biggest legislative challenges. “

When the Air Force last fall terminated its $1 billion Expeditionary Combat Support System contract, they paid $80 million in cancellation fees and no one was fired, Coburn said. “The problem with contracting is that you have cost-plus contracts with no exposure by the business owners. There’s no grownup in the room [saying don’t add] bells and whistles to the helicopter. No lieutenant general or brigadier general.” Pryor agreed on the need to take best practices from the private sector to help government consolidate information technology programs, streamline the supply chain and “rationalize contracting” through shared services. In addition to the “low-hanging fruit” of reducing duplicative programs, reforming federal real estate management and reducing improper payments, he stressed a regulatory reform bill he has sponsored with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “When agencies come out with regulations, they should try to find the least costly one so as to be little less of a drag on industry or the economy,” he said. “We’re not going after a specific agency like the Environmental Protection Agency, but changing the Administrative Procedures Act. It’s time to revisit it for a new century, a new economy.”

Both senators agreed that newly installed Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., may depart from her predecessors old school practices and consider the advantages of consolidating programs. They also agreed that the current threat of sequestration is cowardly and that Congress is failing to follow its own budget rules. “Some programs work well, while others suck,” said Coburn, yet sequestration allows lawmakers to say “I was responsible, I cut everything. It’s asinine.”

It used to be that policy dictated budgets, Pryor said, “but in this debt and deficit period, budget dictates policy. The $1 trillion deficit is unsustainable.”

The absurdity of the automatic budget cuts threatened under sequestration, Pryor added, was brought home recently when he met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The secretary pointed out his budget for meat inspectors is 90 percent personnel because inspectors must be present during all meat plant operations. “That 5 percent cut would hit a lot of people,” Pryor said. “Does that mean a plant would be inspected only four days a week? Tom will have to figure out a way.”

Both senators agreed on the need for bipartisan action. The math today “is not red versus blue but debit versus credit,” Coburn said. “We have to work across the aisle to build compromise. If our federal workers want to say at their level, they need to help us find this waste and duplication so we can streamline and make common-sense changes.”

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