House members quiz heads of Government Ethics Office, Special Counsel and Merit Board.
It’s been more than seven years since the three major federal ethics agencies were last reauthorized.
Members of a House panel on Wednesday expressed hope they could remedy that situation, but they first demanded that the agency heads justify their roles and display more aggressiveness in tackling misbehavior at agencies such as the Veterans Affairs Department and the Secret Service.
“In the nearly 10 years since their authorizations have expired, there has been little opportunity for even the most basic and needed reforms at these agencies,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, addressing the heads of the Office of Special Counsel, Office of Government Ethics and the Merit Systems Protection Board.
“These three agencies are some of the smallest agencies in the federal government, but their work has a tremendous impact on the integrity of the federal civil service, said ranking member Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. He called congressional action to reauthorize them “long overdue. This is precisely the type of unsexy, yet important work on which our committee ought to be focused if we are to provide effective oversight and begin to restore the public’s confidence in our government.”
Meadows demanded that Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner name the agencies that produce the most whistleblowers and prohibited personnel practices debates, suggesting that the Secret Service would be a major contributor. “Surprisingly, the Secret Service is among the smallest,” Lerner said, naming the largest contributors, in order, as the Veterans Affairs, Defense and Homeland Security departments.
Meadows countered that he “has a plethora” of anonymous whistleblower complaints from Secret Service employees “who have my phone number.”
Full committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, whom Lerner commended for his panel’s efforts in saving the government money, tore into Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub Jr., for citing no ethics violations for a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the University of California at Los Angeles, for which her fee went to the Clinton Foundation.
“I question why we even have such an agency if you’re just taking disclosure and putting it in a file,” Chaffetz said: “You shuffle paperwork, but there are no consequences. Why should we even have you if you’re not holding people accountable and investigating?”
Shaub suggested the chairman was confusing Hillary Clinton’s 2014 speech with one by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, at UCLA in 2012, when he was an “agent” for the Clinton Foundation and his fee was not reportable. “We did not investigate the factual description because we take the facts at face value” and do the legal certification, he told the chairman, adding that House members, because they are not involved in the Senate confirmation process, may not understand what is required of presidential appointees and presidential candidates that his office vets and advises. “Congress left us no discretion, and it’s not the statute I would have written.”
Connolly expressed frustration toward Susan Tsui Grundmann, chairwoman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, because so few Veterans Affairs officials implicated in the scandal over misreported patient wait times had been fired since passage of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. “There was deep outrage on this committee—these are our veterans,” he said, adding, however, that “no one wants to trample on due process.”
Grundmann said she “wonders whether the bill is doing what it is supposed to because the agency is actually taking longer to prepare” a recommendation for dismissal and the employee in question remains on the payroll until the referral comes to the MSPB. “A shorter amount of time doesn’t get rid of the employee faster,” she said, noting her backlogged staff and administrative judges need time for due process. “For us to get involved, the agency has to act.”
A Workload Spike
The MSPB, a $42 million agency that seeks a five-year reauthorization, has experienced the past three years “as the most eventful and challenging in its history—incredibly trying times,” Grundmann said, citing the 32,000 furlough appeals from the government shutdown of 2013. “Our workload in past few years is five times what it was in a regular fiscal year.”
Yet, the regional and headquarters offices, board and judges, she said have completed 97 percent of those furlough appeals, and in the past three years processed 61,017 appeals, compared with as few as 5,000 in earlier years. She cited a 96 percent employee satisfaction rate in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. “With workload at a peak, morale did not falter,” she said. She also touted MSPB’s influential studies on ethics, helping in passage of the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and new training programs introduced this week in response to President Obama’s new executive order on reforming the Senior Executive Service.
Lerner touted productivity at the $23 million Office of Special Counsel, which seeks a five-year reauthorization. She said it “operates more efficiently that at any time in its history.” Out of 6,000 complaints it received in fiscal 2015, it resolved 278 favorably for whistleblowers, a 55 percent increase in volume and productivity.
She made several requests of Congress, including that it streamline her agency’s access to agency information similar to that enjoyed by inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office, to avoid duplicative investigations. She asked for greater flexibility in ranking priority cases over unpromising ones, and requested an end to a mandatory survey of federal employees who submitted complaints. “It’s costly, time-consuming not statistically valid,” with only a 10 percent response rate, most of them voicing dissatisfaction, she said.
Shaub highlighted work of the $15 million Office of Government Ethics, which seeks a seven-year authorization. He mentioned its planning for the coming presidential transition “at a time when our government is vulnerable” and nominees need advice on financial and other ethical landmines. Its 70 employees have issued 100 legal advisories since its last authorization, fielded 2,000 queries this year while also setting up an electronic data system for compliance with the financial declaration requirements of the STOCK Act, he added.
At the end, Chairman Meadows said he would like to move toward reauthorization if the agencies, Lerner’s in particular, submit a “matrix” of “quantifiable” data on their effectiveness.