Thursday, July 7, 2011

Waste, Fraud and Abuse...

Generally when a politician indicates that he'll obtain more revenue and / or pay for a program or tax cut by identifying and eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse," there are few further details as to what that constitutes and how he'll actually get rid of them.

In the Wall Street Journal, though, NYU Professor Paul Light outlines how he'd save $1 trillion through eliminating waste, fraud and abuse:

* Eliminate about one third presidential appointees, senior and midlevel federal employees: $100b.  Light estimates that this would, in essence, put the government at about the same structure as it was in 1960 (although much larger).  Since 1960, there has been a significant growth in the number of levels of federal employees in cabinet departments from about 7 to 18 in his estimation.  This represents needless bureacracy in his view.

* Only hire for these positions upon a certification of need to meet a national priority as determined under the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.  $250b

* Curb improper payments: $500m

* Elimination of duplicative systems: $100b

* Restore the use of federal productivity measures to eliminate activities whose costs outweigh their benefits (one good example can be found here - NPR's Planet Money team talks about the USG's spending $300m on dollar coins unwanted by the public). 

* Reform federal payroll practices to reward performance rather than seniority: $100b.

* Cut the number of federal contractors by 500,000, end automatic pay hikes and demand productivty gains from the remainer.  $300b

As a tool of implementation, Light calls for the creation of a Government Reorganization Committee, modeled after the Resolution Trust Corporation.  Such a committee would have broad authority to make decisions liquidating government assets, collecting moneys owed, and proposing legislative proposals to Congress that it would receive up or down votes (i.e. no burying or amending the proposals).

Of course, such proposals would meet strong resistance from many quaters, particularly government employee unions.  It's also to be seen whether Congress would hand over such sweeping authority to unelected policy makers.  Finally, there will be many who doubtless take issue with Light's proposals and potential savings numbers. 

Still, for $1 trillion it's a debate worth having.

Today in Congress
July 7, 2011
The Senate will continue debating S. 1323, while the House will continue working on H.R. 2219 (Defense appropriations).  In essence, the Senate is continuing to posture on political matters while the House does the real work of governing.
As much as I prefer not editorialzing, the above is sadly true.  When the Republicans waste time on a measure solely for political purposes (as they have done in the past and will do so again in the future) I'll point that out as well.
For now its the Senate's Democratic leadership that is guilty of wasting the chamber's time on nothing other that trying to score political points.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Today in Congress, July 6, 2011

Today in Congress
July 6, 2011

The Senate will take up S. 1323, a "sense of the Senate" that "any agreement to reduce the budget deficit should require that those earning $1 million or more per year make a more meaningful contribution to the deficit reduction effort."  This is a political measure intended to force Republicans into taking a hard vote.  I'd expect Republicans to keep it from coming to a vote, forcing a "cloture" vote to shut off debate.  That will fail (requiring 60 votes) but it will put Republicans on record for the 2012 election as the "party of the rich."

The House will take up the bill funding the Department of Defense, as well as two items deemed to be non-controversial: a bill to reauthorize the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 and a resolution on the Israeli-Palestian conflict.  The latter reaffirms its support for a two state solution in the Middle East, achieved through direct negotiations between the parties.  Most substantively it calls on the administration to exercise the US's veto power in the UN for any attempt to establish a Palestinian state outside Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  Both measures are being placed on the suspension calendar, which provides for only short debate, and requires a 2/3 vote of the House.  This indicates that the House leadership does not expect serious opposition (not that they aren't occassionally surprised).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fixing the Confirmation Process

You can still visit the old Senate chamber, where the US Senate met from 1819-1859

One of the very worst things about how Washington works is the Senate confirmation process.

Even many routine, insignificant, part time government appointees must receive Senate confirmation for jobs with a tenure that generally lasts less than two years.  In sum, about 1,200 appointees are subject to Senate confirmation.  Between the amount of paperwork and disclosure, committee hearings, floor action, and a potential "hold" for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the nomination itself, it can take nearly as long to be confirmed as the person will hold the post for which she was confirmed.

The situation has grown significantly worse in recent decades. While cabinet officers are still confirmed with relative promptness, confirmation for the all important subcabinet posts have slowed from 114 days during the Reagan administration to nearly 200 during the Obama administration.  

As a result, many sane persons decline such appointments, and the government is denied the services of some of the most talented people this country has to offer.  Instead, a cadre of job holders who have previously been Senate confirmed tend to shuffle in and out of posts over the years.

Despite all of this, the Senate has generally been uninterested in changing its ways on confirmations, preferring instead the leverage it can exercise over the executive branch to needed reforms to improve the workings of government.

On June 28th , though, the Senate finally passed legislation, S. 679, the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, that would significantly improve this situation.  First, the bill would eliminate the need to confirm 170 positions.  These are mostly non-policy roles, e.g. public affairs, internal management officials, etc (most prominent would be the US Treasurer, not to be confused with the Secretary of the Treasury).  Next, it would provide for expedited consideration for another 250 appointees for part time boards and commissions.

Of special interest is the irregular methods used by the Senate to accomplish this task.  A special committee of Senators was formed with members from both the Rules Committee (which has jurisdiction over internal Senate operations), the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (which has jurisdiction over the confirmation process generally) and others with a "stake" in the system.  This ad hoc group drafted the legislation, which sailed through a chamber too often stifled in partisan gridlock by an impressive 79-20 vote.  Whether such tactics can work on other issues remains to be seen.

While the bill must, of course, still go to the House for approval before being sent to the President, it is expected to do so without much controversy as the House does not play a role in the confirmation process.  The Senate's willingness to pass a bill that would reduce its own leverage for the good of government overall is one very bright ray of bi-partisan sunshine in a city too often marked by competition for political power.

Monday, January 10, 2011


The weekend's events, nothing short of a political assassination (one hopes an attempted one), are generating a lot of heat, but not much light.

One theme's that is being discussed a lot is the role of heated political rhetoric.  While it doesn't appear that this particular event was closely related, but politicians of all stripes are re-thinking their use of langugage and metaphors of violence (I always have hated the term "war room," mostly used by civilians who have never seen anything like the hardships endured by those who serve in the military).  That's a good thing regardless.

So far, the best thing I've seen is Walter Shapiro's take.  He notes the trend towards less accessibility of people to their leaders, and wonders who quickly the weekend's events will accelerate this trend, and interestingly how more security would affect the mindset of Members of Congress:
Equally troubling will be the psychological effects on House members themselves as Congress gives way to the inevitable security mania. Although there is no way of proving it, I have long nurtured the belief that living inside a protective bubble exaggerates the self-importance of public officials. If everyone must be screened and frisked before being allowed to see a freshman congressman, it is easy to imagine how this legislator might soon believe that he is entitled to perks worthy of the court of Louis XIV.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Some advice for a new chairman

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) is the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  The Committee's chief role is to monitor the workings of government (oversight) and fix what's broken (reform).  It doesn't enact the laws and regulations that govern us directly, but rather the laws and regulations that govern those who carry out the laws.  Those oldest of enemies, "waste, fraud and abuse" are its meat and drink.

Issa has let it be known he plans a very aggressive agenda, with an average of a hearing a day (thank goodness I'm no longer working on Capitol Hill!) and vigorous investigation of the executive branch.  He thinks he could possibly save $200 billion, all told.  Happy hunting.

While I appreciate his optimism and think a little additional oversight is a good thing (oversight lacks when both parties control Congress and the executive branch), it's clear that Issa really needs to step up his own performance when it comes to public statements.

Most notably, Issa called President Obama "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times."  Now, this is utter nonsense (though arguably not much dumber than some of what was said about Obama's predecessor - it comes with the territory in these partisan times), but its the sort of thing politicians say all the time when they're hyperventilating on partisan talk radio and TV shows with some talking head urging them on.  The difference is, Mr. Issa, you're no longer the irrelevant backbencher who needed to say outrageous things in order to get the media to pay attention, but the Chairman of a congressional committee with subpoana authority.

Fortunately, Mr. Issa seems to get it, saying he regretted his language and trying to explain it in context of an administration that has (thanks to Congress mind you) a large amount of discretionary authority, the kind that Congress rotuinely gives the President in a crisis. 

For his sake and ours, I hope Issa grows in office, and focuses on his stated priorities:

1. Impact of regulation on job creation.
2. Fannie/Freddie & the Foreclosure Crisis
3. Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and the failure to identify origins of the financial crisis
4. Combating corruption in Afghanistan
5. WikiLeaks
6. FDA/Food & Drug Safety.

The lesson here is when you move from the minority to the majority, your demeanor and style need to change as well.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fidelity to Law For Its Own Sake

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, established by Congress, announced that it will delay, slightly, its report, due in December to January.  The reason is apparently completely innocuous - it simply wants to publish its report in book form, which will delay release by a few weeks.

There's only one problem.

The statute (aka law) that created the commission requires it to report by December 15th, 2010. 

Four members of the Commission dissented from this decision for this reason.  The dissenters point out that the work is complete and the report can still be delivered on time.

It raises the interesting question of fidelity to law simply for the sake of fidelity to law.