Congress offers no timeline on OSC, MSPB reauthorization

The Merit Systems Protection Board, Office of Special Counsel and Office of Government Ethics have officially asked Congress for new authorizations, after eight years without them.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations made no concrete promises and mentioned no timeline for an official reauthorization. Instead, committee leaders expressed an interest in looking at the legislation that impacts each of the three agencies, suggesting they wanted to tweak and update language to old statutes and controversial laws.

“Why has it taken eight years, to the point where we’re hopefully going to consider reauthorization?” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations asked the witnesses at a Dec. 16 hearing.

The three agencies have relied on annual appropriations since 2007 and now have larger — and more complicated — workloads than ever before.

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But no one had a clear answer as to why reauthorization has taken so long.

There was some movement to reauthorize a few years ago, MSPB Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann told the committee, but it “fell off the wagon.”

Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, said his agency hasn’t been a part of a reauthorization hearing since 2007.

Carolyn Lerner, special counsel at OSC, said she hesitated when she was first asked to lead the agency in 2011.

“Frankly it gave me a little bit of pause to take the job, not knowing whether the agency was going to be around,” she said. “I was assured that it would be, we just needed to have a reauthorization process started. It’s something we’ve been asking for periodically since I became Special Counsel.”

Timing aside, the committee and agency leaders acknowledged some legislation and statutory changes could help agencies better handle growing workloads.

OSC, for example, received 6,000 cases in 2015, a tough workload for Lerner’s staff of 135 employees, she said. In the agency’s Complaints Examining Unit, for example, each employee handles about 40 more cases now than they did in 2012.

OSC specifically recommended several changes that Congress should consider if it does decide to reauthorize the agency. To ease the burden, OSC suggested Congress grant it access to some privileged information, which in some cases has been hard to obtain. Lerner said she envisions gaining access in a way similar to that of the inspector general community.

Other OSC recommendations included more authority to monitor agencies’ responses to substantiated whistleblower claims and eliminating unnecessary annual surveys.

Ten percent of federal employees who came to OSC for help in 2014 responded to a survey the agency sent out at the end of the year, Lerner said. Nine of 199 respondents said they were pleased with the result OSC gave them. Lerner said the survey is unnecessary, because the response rate is so low.

The MSPB has been inundated with work too.

For the last four fiscal years, MSPB issued more than 61,000 decisions, Grundmann told the committee. In a normal fiscal year, MSPB processes between 6,000 and 7,000 appeals in the individual regions and several hundred claims at the headquarters level.

“The last two years have been anything but normal, with a workload five times a regular fiscal year,” Grundmann said.

The agency is also working through the 32,000 furlough appeals it received in 2013, due to sequestration.

To date, MSPB has completed 97 percent of those furlough cases, she said.

“What I’d like you to do as we look at the reauthorization of your particular agency, is if you would look quantitatively and [with] a little bit more forward thinking, in terms of what are the types of reforms that you say ‘I wish this were happening, or that was happening,'” said Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N,C.). “Sometimes we get used to laws or rules that we have grown up under.”

A reauthorization for the Office of Government Ethics, however, may be more complicated.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) questioned OGE’s broader role in investigating financial reports and other disclosures, particularly for Senate confirmed and politically appointed federal employees — and presidential candidates.

“You shuffle paperwork,” Chaffetz told Shaub after a lengthy questioning. “There’s no consequence, there’s no accountability, there’s no review and there’s no investigations. Why do we need you?”

MSPB and OSC are each asking Congress for five-year reauthorizations through 2020. The Office of Government Ethics, however, requested a seven-year reauthorization through 2022, to account for the work it will have to prepare for a presidential election.

Meadows told agency leaders that he would look specifically legislation impacting OSC and OGE. Ranking member Connolly will focus on MSPB.