Drew Angerer/AP

Senators mull whether consolidation authority would cure duplication

Oversight committee leader Joe Lieberman hopes to grant Obama administration’s request this year.

President Obama’s request for legislative authority to consolidate federal agencies got a mixed reception during a Wednesday Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. Most panel members expressed disappointment at agency progress in addressing duplicative and overlapping programs laid out in recent reports by the Government Accountability Office.

Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said he convened the session, titled Retooling Government for the 21st Century, because the Reforming and Consolidating Government Act (S. 2129), which he co-sponsored with Virginia Democrat Mark Warner based on the administration’s February proposal, deserves a hearing.

“When President Obama mentioned his plan in his State of the Union address, most probably dismissed it as just another speech,” Lieberman said, “but I think this would be a good moment in history if we could work to get this done, no matter who is elected president for next year.”

The hearing exposed clashing views on whether Congress should give up some of its authority over programs to the executive branch, and whether the Obama administration has adequately used its own authority to reduce wasteful duplication and take accurate and transparent inventories of existing programs.

Patricia Dalton, chief operating officer of the Government Accountability Office, reported mixed results on efforts to reduce crossagency overlap since GAO last month released the second in a series on the topic. She said that four areas (or 5 percent) of the 81 that GAO identified were addressed; 60 (or 74 percent) were partially addressed; and 17 (or 21 percent) were not addressed.

“It is imperative that Congress and the administration form an effective working relationship on restructuring initiatives,” she said. “Any systemic changes to federal structures and functions must be approved by Congress and implemented by the executive branch so each has a stake in the outcome.”

When a program is up for reauthorization, Dalton said, “that is a good opportunity to ask if we really need it, should we consolidate.” She cited the surface transportation bill, which contains some 100 similar programs across agencies. She also stressed that savings might take time to materialize and good data on program outcomes are vital to effective reorganization. “Fixing the wrong problem can do more harm than good,” she said.

U.S. Controller Danny Werfel defended the administration’s campaign against waste during a time of budget crisis when agencies must do more with less. “In each of his three previous budgets, the president identified, on average, more than 150 terminations totaling $25 billion each year in reductions, consolidations and savings from federal programs and practices,” he said. “The 2012 budget proposed nearly $25 billion in discretionary terminations and reductions, and Congress enacted $23 billion of the requested reductions.”

But passage of the government reorganization bill was needed, Werfel said, to restore the authority to make “transformative” changes that the executive branch enjoyed from 1932-1984. “We need an efficient and effective government that doesn’t take an expert to know how to navigate it,” he noted, adding the many business groups, or customers, the administration had consulted said they found agencies dealing with similar issues sometimes gave out conflicting answers.

Werfel also promised that Congress, despite the bill’s language giving lawmakers a 90-day deadline to accept or reject an administration reorganization plan, would “be consulted every step of the way.”

But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the panel’s ranking member, was skeptical, saying the bill in some ways puts Congress out of the process. “The president’s plan might, and I underline might, address the problem,” she said, noting some duplication is created because a president wants to “make his mark” while other redundancies are generated by Congress with its overlapping jurisdictions. “But rarely do we see proposals to fix the problems,” Collins said. The past decade’s major restructurings -- creation of the Homeland Security Department and the intelligence agency reforms - - “emerged through this committee’s effort, not from a presidential fiat,” she added.

The duplication problem is compounded, Collins said, by “a lack of transparency of what programs even exist.” She spoke of 94 initiatives across 11 agencies devoted to promoting green buildings in the nonfederal sector. “Think of how much overhead we pay for a box on an organizational chart,” she said, adding she backs a plan by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to require agencies to list all their programs online.

“Why doesn’t the Office of Management and Budget just issue a directive requiring agencies to list all programs and put it on a website?” Collins asked.

Werfel said such a move already is under way as required by the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, with pilot programs at nine agencies. He agreed the pace is “frustrating, but unfortunately we can’t produce a comprehensive inventory of programs overnight.” He cited “definitional issues,” the need to validate accuracy and complexities surrounding information flow, and budget and accounting systems.

“I don’t think it’s that complicated,” Collins replied, saying the situation “reflects an alarming lack of information within agencies, which OMB needs to tighten up.”

Coburn himself weighed in passionately. “We don’t have time to wait,” he said. “That’s how sick Washington is that we don’t know what the government is doing.” The “absence of leadership,” he said, is the fault of both the Bush and Obama administrations and of Congress, which voted against bills to have the Congressional Research Service evaluate each bill for possible redundancy. Congress hasn’t passed one bill in response to the GAO reports, Coburn added. Still, he said he planned to “help on the president’s bill, after cleaning it up a bit.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., asked Werfel how reorganization authority would help “move agencies from a culture of spendthrift to a culture of thrift.”

Werfel said the authority would not only streamline and save money by curbing duplication, it also would “help agencies meet the reality of 21st century demands, [creating] multiple benefits such as sharing information and infrastructure all under one roof.”

He said Congress would be the “ultimate arbiter” of whether reorganizing saves money, after OMB provides the “raw material” of information and action plans. And he stressed that because many past reorganizations were done in response to a crisis, it is important to give the president “this global opportunity” to overcome “general inertia.”

GAO’s Dalton agreed “specific proposals from the president would provide a strategic focus.”

Lieberman ended by saying he would like to add the bill to his “bucket list” of bipartisan efforts he’d like to see through before he retires at the end of the year.