Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., speaks to reporters in late January as he walks into a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., speaks to reporters in late January as he walks into a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans. Andrew Harnik/AP

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Senator Takes on Budget, Pay and Hiring Reforms in Latest Version of Annual Waste Report

Lankford goes beyond the usual rundown of silly grants, suggesting ways to end shutdowns and save money through benefits changes.

Frivolous-sounding grants from the national endowments once again jump out from a senator’s annual catalog of what he sees as government waste. But the 2019 edition of Sen. James Lankford’s “Federal Fumbles” fakes right and goes deep, to continue the football analogy, offering hefty proposals to reform Congress’s budget woes and modernize agency hiring.

“Federal Fumbles is my to-do list,” Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, wrote in introducing Volume 4 released on Tuesday. “Highlighting issues in previous Fumbles volumes ('Doggy Hamlet,' anyone?) only goes so far. This year I highlight substantial reforms to government programs that not only save tax dollars but provide more transparent and efficient programs for you and your family.”

Hence the index entries for agencies doing the spending decried by Lankford (and his predecessor Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in his past “Wastebook”) are fewer. Homeland Security had the most with six, the same number as the organizations that provide much of the senator’s research and solutions: the Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office.

The reason for the shift? “In the past we focused on numbers and specific ideas, but this focuses a lot on process,” Lankford told reporters Tuesday. “Frankly, we want to get some attention and build bipartisan support.” Debt and deficit make “a depressing conversation, so few people are talking about it around the country and in Congress,” he added.

Perhaps the most timely example of a process proposal is the report’s discussion of the recent 35-day partial government shutdown, which prompted introduction of Lankford’s Prevent Government Shutdowns Act. “The idea is simple: if Congress fails to get its work done by the end of the fiscal year, the government stays open and funded at the previous year’s levels,” Lankford said in the report. “My proposal also takes away what members of Congress often look forward to the most: hopping on a plane and travelling home at the end of the week. My plan would prevent any travel for Congress or the president’s Cabinet until the funding conversation is complete.”

Lankford told reporters he found it regrettable that Congress in December left town without resolving the budget stalemate that shuttered the agencies.

Even more overarching are the report’s budget process proposals: “Congress should remove the President’s budget request from the beginning of the congressional budget timeline,” it said. “The executive branch should still send current spending and fiscal data to Congress early in February as it does now, but there is no need to continue to produce the political priorities document that causes mass confusion throughout the nation and is disregarded almost immediately by everyone, including Congress.”

Also proposed is capping the use of budget reconciliation bills for major policy changes to focus on deficit reduction; converting Congress’s annual in-house “concurrent resolution” on the budget to a “joint resolution” that requires the president’s signature; and replacing the budget committees’ current membership with the major leaders of Congress.

Another example of the compendium’s new focus on Congress itself is Lankford’s proposal—still under debate in the Senate—to limit the number of hours the minority party can demand to debate agency nominees.

The federal workforce, in Lankford’s vision, should face changes in hiring, pay raises and retirement benefits. “Congress should allow agencies to directly hire proven interns or recent graduates with high GPAs,” the report said. “Giving agencies, [human resources] departments, and managers more hands-on control to expedite the hiring process will allow the government to move forward with considering real talent and recruits in a timely manner, instead of getting pushed back by a delay of game.”

Step increases in pay “should be merit-based and performance-focused with less emphasis on waiting periods,” Lankford wrote. “Focusing higher-income step increases on merit as opposed to simply running out the clock will increase incentives for stronger performance and boost workplace morale among employees.”

The report also included proposals to limit paid administrative leave for employees facing scrutiny. “Paid administrative leave should not be used as a long-term mechanism for agencies that are either reluctant to take timely investigative steps or unwilling to engage in adverse action toward an employee for poor performance or serious misconduct,” it stated.

Perhaps most dramatic, Lankford cited $22 trillion in federal debt in his proposal to phase out the “perk” of the Social Security-based retirement supplement for federal employees after age 62, which costs $18.7 billion over the next 10 years, he said. Lankford stressed to reporters that the phase-out wouldn’t apply to current employees.

In the agency performance area, the report sought to untangle an enduring knot in implementation of the 2010 Government Performance and Results Act. “The law required federal agencies to describe the purposes of their federal programs,” it noted. “However, the ball was fumbled because agencies took different approaches to define their programs, which made it impossible to compare them.” Lankford said the Taxpayers Right to Know Act “clearly defines the term program for each agency so agencies cannot hide from oversight by just renaming their programs.”

In policy areas, the report devotes significant space to immigration issues, among them the need to hire more immigration judges to decrease the backlog of new arrivals.

Lankford supported new standards for transparency in the process of creating regulations, and said he favored free markets in energy—a home-state priority—over subsidies for environmentally greener alternative fuels. “It’s a no brainer that people on the ground in Oklahoma know our environment better than people in D.C.,” Lankford wrote. He also favored requiring agency rulemakers to create a “plain-language summary of 100 words or fewer” for each new rule.

As for “wasteful” grants, this year’s report singles out the National Endowment for the Humanities for a $50,400 fellowship to a professor at Sonoma State University to study the ways “Russia used its wine industry to befriend Europe during the Russian Empire and the Soviet eras.”

And the report took the National Endowment for the Arts to task for its long-standing $50,000 grant to the City of San Fernando, Calif., for its Mariachi Master Apprentice Program ($725,000 since 2001). “This after-school program provides an opportunity for youth in the community to learn how to play mariachi instruments,” he asked. But “why are the people of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Vermont paying for kids in California to learn how to play jarabes and huapangos?”

Asked about working across the political aisle on his reforms, Lankford said, “absolutely” citing near- unanimous passage in the House and, soon, the Senate of his Taxpayers Right to Know Act, as well as bills for grant reform, election security and his proposal to prevent shutdowns. “What is the leverage point is travel,” he said of the lawmakers who left town rather than work to avoid the latest shutdown. “If they have to be here, if they can’t take CODELS [congressional delegations traveling overseas], if their staff can’t travel, it’s a very effective motivator.”