OMB, oversight committee fail to connect

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The relationship between the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Obama administration isn’t starting off on the best foot.

For the second day in a row, the Office of Management and Budget declined an invitation to testify during a hearing on a White House priority.

Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and other majority members hammered OMB for not showing up Thursday to discuss its plans to reduce the staggering number overlapping programs across the government. The Government Accountability Office issued a report Tuesday detailing scores of redundant programs that could be costing agencies hundreds of billions of dollars.

“The OMB Director refuses to show up and that leads me to ask whether the President is serious about doing a line-by-line review of the budget to find cuts,” said Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.). “It also leads me to ask is the director of OMB trying to hide or duck questions? I think this is outrageous that we find ourselves at a hearing where we have the opportunity to get rid of waste, cut spending and cut funding-there is upwards of $100 billion in duplication–and the director of OMB will not show up.”

A request to OMB for comment on why it didn’t send anyone to testify was not returned.

OMB also declined to send someone to testify Wednesday during a hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy about Postal Service reform.

Previously, the administration expressed support for both of these issues. In the 2012 budget request, President Obama called for USPS to receive relief from its mounting financial obligations to pay for retiree benefits and worker’s compensation funds.

And just Wednesday, OMB Deputy Director for Management Jeff Zients said the administration and GAO are on the same page when it comes to cutting programs.

“There’s a tremendous overlap between GAO’s recommendations and what we’re doing — things like reducing improper payments, reforming contracting, saving money on information technology, and consolidating and eliminating programs,” Zients said during a briefing at the White House. “The President recently took another important step in streamlining government. At his direction, I’m leading an effort to take a hard look at how federal programs and functions are organized and to make recommendations at how we might reorganize to improve our global competitiveness.”

Despite the support, OMB told the committee it was not prepared to testify about the GAO report, said Issa. But Issa didn’t believe the administration’s reasoning.

“Our consternation is the President talked about it in the State of the Union, which means it was well thought out and prepared,” Issa said. “The people at OMB and the whole management structure and budget structure have in fact been out on the road selling various ideas and the President prepared a budget. That tells us that relative to those actions they should have been able to come here, listen to this report and answers questions as to, for example, the President’s budget.”

He added that the invitation remains open for OMB to testify.

And administration officials will have plenty of chances over the next year. Issa said the committee will hold hearings quarterly on GAO’s findings and how agencies are eliminating widespread programmatic duplications.

“I don’t think OMB is hiding,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member in response to Mack’s criticisms. “The President talked about cutting programs in the State of the Union, and OMB is conducting its own analysis to streamline government and cut unnecessary costs.”

Issa and Cummings will send a letter to OMB in the next week or two asking for regular updates on the administration’s reorganization plan and progress in implementing it.

OMB also hasn’t met with GAO yet. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said his agency will reach out to senior officials in the coming weeks to discuss the report, and how they can work together on reducing duplicative programs.

GAO found there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Dodaro said there are 34 different areas of overlap and duplication and the report outlines specific activities need to be reviewed.

He said there are multiple programs in specific areas that have developed over the years, including 40 programs that address employment and training areas, 80 programs trying at least in part to improve teacher quality and 80 programs that promote economic development. The Defense Department is another big area of opportunity to reduce costs and overlapping programs, he said.

“These programs have developed over the years and there is not a lot of empirical evidence that they are operating effectively,” Dodaro said. “This is the perfect opportunity for Congress and administration to look at the portfolio of programs and rationalize and prioritize the role of the fed government and give specific direction for what needs to be accomplished to streamline delivery systems and reduce costs.”

Committee members asked Dodaro and former committee chairman and Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, now a director for federal government affairs at Deloitte, whether agencies should be punished or incentivized to reduce programs.

Both said incentivizing agencies to change is the best approach.

“When you try to starve a budget, they look within their budget,” Davis said. “They don’t look at how they can share savings with another agency. It’s just not in the nature of the beast. If you can incentivize groups to work together in those kinds of shared savings environment you can do much better.”

He added Congress should tell agencies to identify two or three lines of business where they could share technology and processes to meet their missions.

Dodaro said disincentives don’t work because agencies already have enough through the way Congress appropriates funding.

“Our report discusses opportunities virtually across government,” he said. “The DoD is an opportunity for significant savings. I also mentioned the need to focus on revenue collection where we aren’t cutting, we’re actually getting more that we are owed in from a revenue standpoint.”

Dodaro said the Interior Department needs to consider collecting more money from the private oil companies for drilling on public land, and the IRS could take actions to close an estimated $290 billion gap in taxes collected versus taxes owed.

Davis said to make these changes across government it will take Congress, the administration and GAO working together.

“We all caused the problem, and we all need to be there to solve it,” he said.

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