Agencies should expect more aggressive oversight by GOP-controlled Congress

Experts from both sides of the aisle expect the Senate and House to coordinate investigations and hearings on executive branch programs. The budget and the conf...

Agencies should expect more coordinated and aggressive oversight of government programs now that Republicans have the majority in both houses of Congress.

Experts from both sides of the aisle say now that Republicans control the Senate, the two chambers will work more closely together on oversight and investigations.

“If there are programs that the majority doesn’t like or they think aren’t being run well or they think are wasting money or abusive, they are going to investigate them, not necessarily just through the oversight and investigations committees, but it could be that the authorizing committees now will get involved in a more active way,” said Seth Harris, the former deputy secretary of the Labor Department under President Barack Obama and now counsel at Dentons. “We didn’t see that all that aggressively before this election since 2010, but we definitely saw that in the 1990s. I think we may be heading more back to something like a 1990s atmosphere.”

Harris added he doesn’t think the Senate will have a tempering effect on the House in terms of how aggressive they have been and will continue to be, and there even could be some competition among the two chambers.

He said in the 1990s when he was at the Labor Department under President Bill Clinton, the agency received something like two letters a week asking about programs and actions from the Republican-led committees.

This idea of more aggressive and coordinated oversight of federal programs is one of several changes federal employees and contractors should expect with the changes in the House and Senate.

New tone in the House, Senate?

Dave Marin, a principal with the Podesta group and a former chief of staff in for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the Republican majority likely will be focused on making the President’s last two years pretty difficult.

“The other uncertainty after [Tuesday] is one of tone. It’s hard not to argue that the oversight committee devolved into a pretty bitterly partisan place over the last couple of years. Does that change with a new chairman?” Marin said. “On the Senate side, what will the dynamic be with a likely [Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee] chairman Rep. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who tends to view the world through the eyes of the business owner that he is? And I think that will dominate his agenda. The question is can he coordinate with whomever succeeds [Oversight and Government Reform Committee] chairman [Rep. Darrell] Issa (R-Calif.) in a way that makes the Republican oversight agenda more effective, more compelling, more persuasive and less radioactive?”

The changes in the Senate will be more dramatic than the House. In the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, not only is Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the ranking member, retiring, but on the Democrats side, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also is retiring, and Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) both lost their reelection bids. Additionally, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is in a run off and could potentially lose meaning there will be at least three or four new Democrats on the committee.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the likely new ranking member of the committee, John Tester (D-Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) as the senior members of the committee.

On the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R- Utah) and Michael Turner (R-Ohio) are vying for the chairmanship to replace Issa, who is out based only on term limits.

Beyond oversight there are two other big management related issues that experts say agencies should expect.

One is obvious — the budget.

There is broad agreement among the experts that another government shutdown is not in the works.

In fact, expected majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that there are areas that both sides can agree on.

“There will be no government shutdown and no default on the national debt,” he said.

Feds need to make their case

J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) said the employee union’s top priority is for Congress to finish a budget for fiscal 2015 as soon as possible.

“Just because the leadership in Congress has changed, it doesn’t mean the issues we care most about have changed. We still are going to be fighting to protect the living standard of hard working government employees. We will be working to end sequestration, not just amend it,” Cox said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “Regardless of who’s in power, no one will be able to govern unless sequestration is repealed, and federal programs and services are protected from these devastating cuts. We will vigorously fight further measures that place disproportionate pain from budget polices and politics on the backs on government employees.”

Cox said he doesn’t know if a shutdown will happen or not, but AFGE is keeping a close eye on stopping further attacks against federal employees’ pay and benefits.

But the Podesta Group’s Marin said federal employees will have to make their case to a larger number of lawmakers for why they shouldn’t see further pay freezes, retirement benefit cuts or even furloughs or layoffs.

A third area federal employees need to keep an eye on is the confirmation process. Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush and now the president of American Health Policy institute, said the confirmation process slowed down considerably after the changeover in 2006.

“The biggest change for me was in the difficulty of getting confirmed. Fortunately, I was confirmed without too much difficulty, but I saw a lot of colleagues fall beside me on the battlefield as it were. A lot of people who were nominated never got confirmed. You could see that is a likely outcome of this Senate takeover, that a lot of people President Obama is going to want in his last years will be hard to get them through,” Troy said. “That has a huge impact in that in the last two years you often have people at these senior levels trying to leave the administration and it will be hard for the Obama administration to find replacements if they can’t get confirmed in the Senate.”

Still there is some hope the congressional gridlock will end. Troy said after the 1994 Republican takeover during the Clinton administration, the two parties worked together to actually get thing done such as welfare reform and a major budget deal. Troy said there was dislike and distrust, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t work together.


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