Where Were All the Senators?

By Joe Davidson
Friday, March 27, 2009

Everyone knows that people are the most important asset in any organization.

Even politicians who bash the federal bureaucracy praise the hard-working stiffs who staff it. And it's the Office of Personnel Management that oversees many of the policies that can make working for Uncle Sam a pleasure or not.

So why did nearly all members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee considering the qualifications of the man nominated to lead that office stay away from his confirmation hearing as if he had a communicable and terminal disease?

The audience section of the hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building yesterday was standing room only. But the seats reserved for the distinguished senators were largely empty; their water glasses full and untouched.

The two senators who attended the hearing, Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), did their duty well.

Those absent included members of the subcommittee that oversees federal employee issues: Democrats Carl M. Levin (Mich.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Roland W. Burris (Ill.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), and Republican Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). They could have raised unasked questions about the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, telework and pay parity between civilian and military personnel, among a host of other issues.

The truth is, they didn't miss much. As is customary, M. John Berry introduced his family -- his sister, his brother and his partner of 12 years, Curtis Yee. Refreshingly, having an openly gay person in a high government position is no longer a big deal, which is not to say homophobia is dead.

Berry seems to be a very likable guy who is well-equipped to do the job. He has been director of the National Zoo since 2005 and held a variety of important jobs before that. When he was legislative director for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) from 1985 to 1995, he dealt with many federal workplace issues and earned the respect of federal employee unions. He moved through the hearing smoothly, causing no slip-ups, making no waves.

Yet, it's also true that the hearing could have revealed more about his plans, more about his vision, more about where he will take the workforce had the absent senators been there to offer their questions and insights.

Berry, a 50-year-old Montgomery County native, opened with a fairly bland statement, filled with generalities, that avoided critical issues facing the federal workforce. That's no knock on him; it's routine for nominees to avoid the controversial before they get the job.

He delivered expected pleasantries about the civil service carrying on a "proud American tradition," saying "we are fortunate to have the best and the brightest" and "as the nation's largest employer, we should be its 'model employer.' "

The closest Berry's prepared statement came to dealing directly with any of the serious issues facing the federal workforce was his remark that "in the next decade, there will be a significant increase in the percentage of those eligible to retire. We need to consider and craft creative approaches that will allow us to engage the skills and experience of our retirees and the nation's aging population."

What are those creative approaches, an absent senator might have asked.

While Berry understandably did not need to get too detailed in his remarks, it is the job of senators to ask pointed questions that will give them the information they need to take their advise and consent role seriously.

Akaka and Voinovich played that role, but they should not have had to do so alone.

Akaka, for example, asked about "fixing the broken hiring process," with Voinovich later following up with a comment about that process being "in the Dark Ages." Berry seemed to agree with those assessments, but without much in the way of his own opinion or how it can be fixed.

Akaka asked about OPM's poor showing on the Partnership for Public Service list of best places to work. The agency was number 25 out of 30 in the latest rankings from 2007. Berry responded generally about the need for leaders to lay out a "clear vision" with goals for employees.

Voinovich pushed for a more detailed answer. When Berry continued with the generalities , Voinovich interrupted to press the issue of how Berry would move OPM from a place where people don't feel good about working there.

"You're going to have to spend the next couple of years shaping that place up," the senator from Ohio said.

Voinovich also asked about the pay-for-performance systems that have come under attack by employees at the Defense Department and the Transportation Security Administration. Berry promised to approach the issue with an open mind, which is interesting since his boss, President Obama promised to "strongly consider a complete repeal" of the Pentagon system.

Max Stier, the Partnership's president, got it right when he said, "Mr. Berry is likely to be one of the most important appointments made by President Obama to the success of his agenda, although he is unlikely to receive anywhere close to the attention he deserves."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com

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