Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said government "expansion has occurred with little concern for streamlining government."

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said government "expansion has occurred with little concern for streamlining government." J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Congress urged to seize opportunity to reorganize government

Hearing on federal 'obesity' suggests Obama trade overhaul could be coupled with GOP efforts to shrink workforce.

Congress should seek to combine President Obama’s request for government reorganization authority with the current Republican goal of trimming the federal workforce, a panel of senators and outside experts told a House panel on Wednesday.

Using the provocative title, “Why Reshuffling Government Agencies Won't Solve the Federal Government's Obesity Problem," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, assembled experts on past reforms and the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act to examine next steps and the role of Congress in the burgeoning movement to streamline the government.

Witnesses and lawmakers, however, made it clear there is little consensus on whether the federal workforce is shrinking or growing, and that both parties approach reorganization by continuing to pursue their clashing political agendas on the larger issues of taxation, deficit reduction and regulatory reform.

“Since the 2008 election, spending on federal programs has increased by $211 billion and the federal government workforce has increased by 200,000 employees,” Issa said as he opened the hearing. “This expansion has occurred with little concern for streamlining government service to maximize the use of taxpayer dollars.”

Obama’s Office of Management and Budget “recently informed Congress it will not be told the details of their reorganization plans until after it is set,” he added. “This is neither transparent, nor in the best interest of the taxpayer.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., testifying at the House hearing as a specialist in government performance, said he plans to be a chief sponsor of Senate legislation to implement the request for agency consolidation authority that Obama unveiled in mid-January. “If the president is willing to do the hard work of developing a reorganization plan to make our government more efficient and effective, we should at least give him the courtesy of considering his plans in both houses of Congress,” Warner said.

He noted that the president’s fiscal 2013 budget request released this week said that agencies had identified more than 9,000 reports they submit to Congress, and that OMB will soon propose a list of some 500 that might be eliminated. “This will save 200,000 hours spent to prepare these reports and almost 30,000 pages of reports,” Warner said. “I hope this committee will help us eliminate those unneeded reports.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., testified that “the federal government is obese,” saying federal spending has grown from 20 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to 24 percent now, and will balloon to 35 percent by 2035. He cited a Small Business Administration study showing that the cost of industry compliance with federal regulations in 2008 was $1.75 trillion. “Reshuffling agencies, akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, will do little to slow the out of control growth of the federal government,” Johnson said. “Instead of saving costs, consolidation efforts could take on a life of their own.”

Most speakers, Issa included, backed away from calling the government “obese.” Several mentioned the historical analysis showing a shrinking federal workforce in relation to the overall population that appeared in the new budget documents. That analysis was highlighted Wednesday by Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson.

“The number of federal employees per 1,000 in the population,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., “was 13.3 in Kennedy administration, 14.4 under Nixon, and is now 8.3, the lowest in 50 years. We’re 350,000 below what we had under the George H.W. Bush administration. We’ve cut out a lot of fat and are leaner and meaner.”

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., said, “We don’t even know how many people work for us, which seems like a big problem.” He asked witness Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University, for his best estimate of the size of the federal workforce.

About 14 million, Light responded, counting full-time equivalents, the U.S. Postal Service, the military, contractors and grantees. The number of contractors, he added, is the least known, even among the contractor organizations.

But Light stressed that in a reorganization, “you could have the same head count with a different distribution of workers.” Rather than trimming the workforce through attrition, he favors lowering the number of political and high-level appointees and replacing them with front-line employees such as inspectors. “We have a real opportunity,” he said, “with the percentage of federal workforce moving to retirement, to look at structure instead of doing things by attrition, to go big.”

Also highlighting the opportunity was Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who suggested that the present might be a “rational time” to bring together proponents of Obama’s reorganization plan and the Republicans who seek a 10 percent cut in the federal workforce.

Past efforts at reorganization show that the key is agency collaboration, said Robert Shea, a principal with Grant Thornton who was associate director at OMB during the George W. Bush administration. “But collaboration is easier said than done. While there are many barriers to interagency collaboration, technology provides enormous opportunity to overcome those barriers,” he said. “Social media and collaborative technology can enable quick exchange of ideas, sharing best practices, developing common approaches, and reporting and assessing performance data.” Shea also said reorganization efforts work best when initiators at OMB, Cabinet secretaries and agency managers are “joined at the hip.”

Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said the 1990s reorganization showed it’s best to take an overall long-haul look at what the government does rather than pursuing across-the-board cuts, “to do fewer things but do them well,” he said.

He also recommended viewing employees as an asset rather than a cost. “Budget cuts can present a valuable opportunity for reform and, if planned and implemented properly, can lead to a stronger, better government,” Stier said. But “a rush for savings, without focus on planning and implementation, can lead to a government that is less capable and less responsive to the American people.” Dan G. Blair, president and chief executive officer of the National Academy of Public Administration as well as a former deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management, told the committee it was “poised and primed” for a rare opportunity to make government more effective. “What gets measured is what gets done,” he said, “so one step forward may be for Bureau of Labor Statistics to begin again to measure federal productivity. The federal government last measured its productivity almost 20 years ago.”

Obama’s proposal to merge the Commerce Department and trade-related agencies “might be a step in the right direction,” Blair said. “But moving the boxes around, without taking a hard look at how the actual work is being done, is unlikely to lead to significant improvements.” In addition, management approaches that look across the government and “take an enterprise architecture approach of examining the inter-relationships of information, people, technology and processes” are needed, he said.

Blair added, “If you don’t also look at reorganization of Congress, you risk running into the same problems of overlap and duplication you’re trying to address.”

Issa appeared to agree.