Are budget cuts the best way to fix troubled agencies?

Washington's ticker tape of controversy has wrapped around several agencies and departments. Republicans in Congress would fix things by cutting their budgets. ...

Washington’s ticker tape of controversy has wrapped around several agencies and departments. Republicans in Congress would fix things by cutting their budgets. But is that the best way to cause reform? Not according to the guest of Federal Drive with Tom Temin, former American University Professor Bob Tobias.

Interview Transcripts: 

Tom Temin And Bob, you’re concerned about what seems to be happening around two agencies, in particular, the IRS and the Office of Personnel Management. The IRS is having its tintinnabulation on Capitol Hill these days. But let’s talk about the idea of separating what you want for policy with budgeting just to make sure things operate properly.

Bob Tobias Yeah, Tom we’re once again in the midst of federal employee anxiety over whether federal agencies in general, but particularly the IRS and OPM will have their budgets slashed for 2024. And in the case of the IRS, the House seeks to rescind 67 billion of the 80 billion it allocated just last year, and it allocated this money to increased taxpayer assistance. So when taxpayers call, they can get accurate information and file properly, and to increase audits of corporations and individuals making more than $400,000 a year. So a recent study found the IRS is doing just great in getting $12 return for every dollar the taxpayer spends. And in the case of OPM, its budget is going to be slashed, notwithstanding its effort to reduce retirement application backlogs and to make it easier to apply for jobs in the federal government. And in the case of OPM, it’s backlogs are at the lowest level it’s been in many, many years. So it’s doing well also. But once again, agency employees who’ve been doing great work based on any objective measure and should be celebrating their success, fear job loss and shutdowns. Now, if they were in the private sector, they’d be thinking about bonuses, not shutdowns. So it’s just standing performance on its head, punishing good performance. It’s easy to think the effort will fail in the Senate, and federal employees should just ignore the House. And while it’s true, I think that most of the extreme cuts may fail in the Senate when the House and Senate need to reconcile their differences because ultimately they’ll have to negotiate a settlement. But it’s also true the Senate will have to give up something to reach agreement. So that’s something, once again, if given up, will have nothing to do with agency efficiency, effectiveness or mission accomplishment. In the budget process, agencies and federal employees should be evaluated on how well they perform their task and fund it based on their performance. Not punished with fewer funds for good performance. They should not have to worry when they do well.

Tom Temin Well, you could just to play devil’s advocate, the IRS actually hadn’t had that $80 billion yet. That was 80 billion over ten years, starts in 2024. And so with the funding they’ve had so far, they’ve done pretty well. So you could argue, well, why do they need more?

Bob Tobias Well, they hired 5,000 taxpayer assistants and this year the amount of wait time decreased to about 10 minutes as opposed to hours in prior years. So the money that was allocated has led to better service to the public and they’ve hired revenue agents and are in the process of training them. So the idea that the IRS hasn’t spent the money well I think is wrong, and to cut it would decrease service to the public and would not maximize revenue for the taxpayer.

Tom Temin We are speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a former federal union president, retired professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. But obviously still watching things very closely these days. And what is it about OPM, do you think, that makes it become a political football? I know the Trump administration wanted to kind of divide and scatter its functions around the government, keeping it a policy shop in the White House and giving its operation to GSA. And now Republicans, I guess, in the House, as you say, are trying to get at the budget there, too. What is it about OPM, do you think?

Bob Tobias I’m not sure. The Republicans in the House are just slashing OPM and the detriment will be to people who want to retire and get their applications processed. So it’s a mystery to me. I mean, if Trump were president, it’s clear what the goal for OPM was, and that was to eliminate it.

Tom Temin Well, yeah, and here it stands. And, speaking of OPM, speaking of federal policy toward employees, I wanted to ask you about just the various agencies that have been proposing return-to-the-office policies and renegotiating the telework that took place during the pandemic. It seems to settle on most agencies are asking for people to be there three days a week or six days out of the 10 day pay period. In the case of some agencies, it’s four days like the National Science Foundation. What’s your sense of I mean, you hear opposition also from the unions are saying, well, they didn’t fully negotiate that with us, but at some point something’s got to settle in. What’s your feeling about where that should be all headed?

Bob Tobias Well, I think that federal employees during COVID proved that they could work at home and be productive. And so an awful lot of federal employees commuted hour, hour and a half, 2 hours, particularly around the large cities, and did their job and did it well and feel that mandatory return to work makes no sense. If they’re doing the job, they’re performing well, they ought to have the option to stay at home. Now, that doesn’t mean that they would stay at home ten days a pay period, but it does mean that an arbitrary number doesn’t make sense to many federal employees.

Tom Temin The White House itself, this administration, is pushing for a generally more in the office experience and they say for headquarters employees. And what about the idea of at least one agency has said, well, management has to be here that amount of time, but those in the bargaining unit can remain whatever they were doing, which was maybe total telework or some fraction thereof. Is that a good way to go where there’s different rules for different levels?

Bob Tobias Makes absolutely no sense. I mean, why should I have to commute to work when I am not more productive at work than I am at home?  The Biden administration also in its policy said, well we need people to come to work so that downtowns can survive. I’m not so sure that federal employees should be responsible for the economy of cities. Rather, they should be responsible for performing the work that they’re assigned and performing it well. And it seems to me that that should be the criteria about working at home or mandatory being in the office.

Tom Temin Because if you go with the policy and the practice they’re favoring here, which a lot of people agree with you, then the question becomes, why do we need so much real estate? Let’s consolidate all of these federal buildings. We could probably get rid of at least the leases and then the place like, I don’t know, the Commerce building or the Agriculture building, which are enormous headquarters, and they’re only 10, 15% occupied. You could get three or four departments into agriculture and call it the federal building.

Bob Tobias Some agencies are now in the process of consolidating their real estate and saying, well the people who are going to be in for more than five days or more than six days will have guaranteed office. And those who are going to be in a fewer number of days will be hoteling. So I think agencies are already moving in that direction.

Tom Temin Can you see condos maybe in the Treasury building at some point?

Bob Tobias Oh, Tom, I don’t think we’re going to see any condos in the Treasury building. All of that beautiful building with their fireplaces? No, I don’t think so. Not in the Treasury building.

Tom Temin All right, Maybe I know HHS. That would make great lofts. It’s hideous from the outside, but you could clear out the inside and you have some nice big windows.

Bob Tobias I don’t think that any of these departmental headquarters are going to have that kind of an issue, because most of these headquarters agencies have huge amounts of space in downtown Washington, DC. But I do see some of those buildings being let go and consolidation taking place in the others.

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