Shutdown threat fueled by bickering Congress

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Government Operations, said the threat of another government shutdown has not pushed members of Congress any closer to the budget negotiating table.

It’s a lack of leadership on Capitol Hill, he said, that emboldens some partisan members to hold budget talks hostage until their demands are met.

“I don’t think anybody knows how we’re going to get on a path to full funding of the government,” Connolly told In Depth with Francis Rose, in an exclusive interview“I don’t think you can rule out, unfortunately, the prospect of another shutdown.”

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Much like the government shutdown of 2013, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) find themselves in open conflict with Republican members.

“They by no means want to see another shutdown, but I don’t think that’s reflective of the far right of their base,” Connolly said. “So you have people like [Rep.] Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) saying frankly defunding Planned Parenthood is worth shutting down the government, you have [Sen.] Ted Cruz (R-Texas) saying the same.”

It remains to be seen when Congress will pass the 12 spending bills needed to ensure funding for fiscal 2016, which starts on Oct. 1.

Connolly said the best-case scenario right now would be for Congress to approve a continuing resolution that would keep funding the federal government at pre-existing levels, until it agrees on a comprehensive spending plan.

“I would predict that, at the 11th hour, we will be asked to vote on something. And I would predict that that something will require an overwhelming majority of Democrats and a substantial minority of Republicans to pass,” Connolly said. “We need a clean CR with fair and reasonable funding levels, and I don’t see why that’s a difficult challenge, but in the current climate, it is.”

Boehner faces a dilemma that jeopardizes his leadership role in the House, similar to the one that nearly cost him the office in 2013.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), just one day before Congress’ August recess, made a motion to declare the Office of the Speaker vacant, which would effectively force Boehner from the leadership. 

Meadows also serves as the chairman of House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Government Operations. Connolly said he holds a positive working relationship with him.

“We’re friends, we’re good colleagues. We consult with each other on the business of the subcommittee … we’re very different people. I’m a progressive Democrat, he’s a very conservative Republican, but we do share a sense of decency and civility that needs to be returned to the Congress, and I think Mark [Meadows] sincerely wants to get something done while he’s here in Congress. That’s the party I belong to, the Get It Done party,” Connolly said.

Implementing FITARA

Where progress on the budget has been sluggish, Connolly said he’s pleased with efforts to implement the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, a bill he co-sponsored with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in 2013.

Connolly credited federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott and the Office of Management and Budget with ensuring a smooth rollout of FITARA.

“Tony Scott and OMB have been phenomenal in their support for FITARA, in sharp contrast to earlier when I was trying to get the bill passed, [when] OMB stood with [Acting Deputy Director] Steve VanRoekel. We were really disappointed with that,” Connolly said. “It’s a total different regime. It’s night and day right now, and OMB has been the strongest proponent of utilizing FITARA as a management tool, as something that can help you as an agency better cope with budget constraints and personnel constraints.”

At the time FITARA was written, Connolly said he noticed that more than 250 people across 24 agencies held the title of chief information officer. 

“When you look at what we’ve got in the federal family, it’s really inefficient, and it’s designed to make sure there’s no accountability. ‘That was the other CIO, that wasn’t me.’ What our bill did was not to codify one, but it was to create a hierarchical structure that eventually will lead to that,” he said. “We want to get us to the point where we actually have somebody with that title, ‘where the buck stops,’ and who is empowered to makes decisions, to award contracts, and pull the plug when they’re not working.”

Protecting the federal workforce against the next OPM hack

Congress hasn’t done enough to protect the federal workforce following the data breach at the Office of Personnel Management, Connolly said. OPM, he said, hasn’t even formally notified every one of the 22 million people whose data was stolen in the cyber attack.

“We ought to take that as seriously a threat as any threat we faced during the Cold War,” he said. “If you’ve been disinvesting in infrastructure and resources, both personnel and technical, how can you be surprised that an agency that has multiple systems … finds itself vulnerable to hacking from anybody?”

Connolly said he supports including identity management services in the standard portfolio of benefits for new federal employees. 

“Nobody wants to work at any agency or entity, public or private, knowing that if anything goes wrong with respect to the information we’ve actually required of you, you’re on your own. I think that would be a perfectly sensible and indeed advantageous addition to the package that is offered to prospective employees,” he said.

Making federal pay raise competitive with private sector

Federal workers aren’t thrilled about the pay raise slated for Jan. 1, 2016 — 1 percent more for civilian federal employees, and 1.3 percent for members of the military.

Connolly said at those rates, the federal government cannot compete with the private sector when it comes to hiring IT professionals. That brain drain, he said, makes the government more vulnerable to cyber attacks.

“How will you possibly attract people who could command six-figure salaries from day one in the private sector to the public sector? And it’s not like we don’t need them. The OPM breach, cybersecurity threats , the website rollout for health care reform — all of them underscore how important technical expertise is. Well, you’ve got to be willing to pay market competitive salaries and compensation if you want to attract that talent to the federal government,” he said.

Connolly has previously advocated for legislation that would increase the federal pay raise to 3.8 percent annually, but the bill has yet to receive a vote in the House.

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