House panel’s hearing attracts little interest, except for its long title

Joe Davidson
Columnist February 15, 2012

The most interesting thing about the government reorganization hearing was the title: “Why Reshuffling Government Agencies Won’t Solve the Federal Government’s Obesity Problem.”

Although the witnesses were sharp, their testimonies were dull — talking about government reorganization doesn’t provide much room for exciting moments. The repartee between Democrats and Republicans was much less vigorous than the partisan House Oversight and Government Reform Committee often experiences.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Even the catchy title couldn’t entice most members to the Wednesday morning session. Only a handful of the 40 representatives assigned to the panel were there for any portion of the meeting, the absence of the others noticeable even in a legislature where panel meetings frequently are not well attended.

Perhaps the members knew the hearing would amble along, with some mention of the size of the federal workforce and some mention of President Obama’s reorganization plan, without a sharp focus that really examined either issue.

The main purpose of the hearing apparently was to provide a platform for Republicans to swipe at Obama’s plans, but they took those swipes with little of the zeal that, along with passionate Democratic replies, can make these meetings entertaining.

“Since the 2008 election, spending on federal programs has increased by $211 billion and the federal government workforce has increased by 200,000 employees,” Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “This expansion has occurred with little concern for streamlining government service to maximize the use of taxpayer dollars. Instead of proposing serious reforms, the President offers platitudes.”

Obama wants Congress to grant the White House authority it had until 1984, the power to fast-track executive branch reorganization proposals. Obama has proposed forming a new department that would house core trade and business operations, including the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Export-Import Bank, among others.

“By bringing together the core tools to expand trade and investment, grow small businesses, and support innovation, the new Department could coordinate these resources to maximize the benefits for businesses and the economy,” says the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, confessed to being “a little confused” about the topic of the hearing. The title “refers to a recent proposal by the president to reorganize and consolidate a number of our nation’s trade agencies into a single department that will save billions of dollars in the process. Unfortunately, we will not be addressing the details of this proposal today,” he said in his opening statement.

“Instead, today’s hearing appears to be a survey of proposals to reduce the size of government and cut the pay and benefits of federal employees, without focusing on the negative impacts of these proposals on core services that the American people depend on.”

Yet Republicans, the few there, who generally go after federal pay and benefits like a lion does red meat, were fairly tame in their comments. Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.) came across Capitol Hill to testify, but his bill to cut the federal workforce was not mentioned in his prepared testimony.

He did agree that “the federal government is obese.”

“For 50 years, from 1960 through 2008, federal spending averaged 20.2 percent of gross domestic product,” he said. “Last year, it exceeded 24 percent, and without reform, will consume 35 percent of our economy by the year 2035.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) also crossed the Hill to testify but didn’t agree with the premise of the meeting. “I’ve got to start by saying I don’t quite know what to make of the title for today’s hearing,” he said in testimony. “I don’t think our government is obese, but I certainly agree it could use a bit of house cleaning.”

He made some good points about what needs cleaning.

“We should not have 82 teacher quality programs across 10 different agencies,” he said. “And we need to do something about 56 financial literacy programs across 20 agencies.”

Warner defended the president’s reorganization plan, saying that “we should give the president as our chief executive the authority to do his job.”

If Obama is willing to go to the trouble to develop a reorganization plan, Warner added, “we should at least give him the courtesy of considering his plans in both houses of Congress.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics