Senate panel considers Obama’s reorganization plan

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 21, 2012

With all the talk about duplication, consolidation and reorganization, Wednesday’s Senate hearing could have been a planning session for a movement of small-government zealots.

In a way, it was.

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

Participants on all sides of the issue at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee session supported cutting government. How to get there is the issue.

One way, favored by President Obama, is the Reforming and Consolidating Government Act of 2012, which would increase his power to reorganize government.

“This proposal reinstates the government reorganization authority that past presidents relied on from 1932 to 1984,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who introduced the bill along with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).

“Any plan a president proposes under this legislation must decrease the number of executive agencies and result in cost savings,” Lieberman said. “Such presidential reorganization proposals would be put on a fast track through Congress, with no amendments or filibusters permitted if this legislation as introduced is adopted.”

Daniel Werfel, controller in the Office of Federal Financial Management, told the panel that “changing the way Washington works is a priority for the president.” He said the legislation would permit the president to submit a reorganization proposal if it would “reduce the overall number of agencies or achieve cost savings.”

The first use of the fast-track authority, Werfel said, “would consolidate six agencies into one, integrating the Department of Commerce’s core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.”

Programs from those agencies would be consolidated into four divisions: small business; trade and investment; technology and innovation; and statistics.

“This consolidation would serve the American people more efficiently and effectively while saving $3 billion over 10 years by cutting waste; eliminating duplication, overlap and unnecessary overhead costs; and reducing the size of Government,” Werfel said in his testimony.

Any reduction in the workforce, he added in an interview, would come through attrition.

To demonstrate how confusing government duplication can be, the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Susan M. Collins (Maine), displayed a bewildering chart, based on Government Accountability Office data, showing 11 agencies and their 94 green building initiatives.

“Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a worthwhile goal, but surely, overlapping and duplicative programs are not the best way to achieve that goal,” she said. “There is no consistent oversight, there is no accountability, and it is a virtual certainty that there are millions and millions of dollars wasted.”

Collins indicated no problem with the president’s objectives, but she’s not sold on giving the White House more power at the expense of the legislative branch.

“While I understand that Congress is sometimes an obstacle to speedy reform, it is important that, in considering ways to expedite the process, we do not undermine Congress’s ability to carefully consider and amend legislation,” she said. “That is a mistake.”

Moira K. Mack, an Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman, said the president “intends to treat Congress as a full partner in this effort to consolidate and reform government.”

In fact, Congress would have power under the fast-track authority even if it did nothing. Under Obama’s plan, a reorganization proposal would fail if Congress did not vote on it within a certain 90-day period. The authority of previous presidents generally allowed reorganization proposals to take effect automatically unless nixed by either chamber of Congress.

While critical, Collins’s remarks had a less partisan tone than is frequently heard on Capitol Hill and were in keeping with the bipartisan approach Lieberman and Collins foster in the committee.

The bipartisan support Obama would like to see for the legislation was exemplified by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). “I’m fully supporting the president’s idea,” he said. “I’m going to help on this bill. It’s got to be cleaned up some, but I’m going to help.”

He was much less pleased, however, with Werfel’s explanation on the inability of agencies, except Education, to fully list all of their programs. Werfel said that’s more difficult than it seems, in part because defining a particular activity as one program or multiple programs can be complicated.

“If that’s the fact, we’re in a whole lot more trouble,” Coburn said. “What you’re saying is we can’t tell you what we’re doing today.” If there’s a problem with defining an activity, he suggested, simply footnote it.

“If you can’t measure what you’re doing,” he added, “you can’t manage it.”

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

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