Sharpening the federal government’s coronavirus response

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It’s called the Conservative Framework for Recovery, Accountability and Prosperity. The Republican Study Committee’s proposals include a section on how to improve efficiency and accountability of the government itself, and its response to the coronavirus. For how the committee would change things for the federal workforce, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the chairman, Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Congressman Johnson, good to have you on.

Mike Johnson: Hey, great to be with you.

Tom Temin: Now, looking at this, you mentioned that, in the report that – the latest study committee report – that you’re looking at the government’s COVID-19 response. But in terms of federal employment at treating federal employees, hiring them and firing them and so forth, it looks like you’re proposing some long-term solutions that are not really directly related to the COVID-19. Is that a correct way to characterize it?

Mike Johnson: Well, I think it’s both. This is part of a larger framework. as you indicated there. We put out a conservative framework for recovery, accountability and prosperity. And that prosperity aspect really is how to ensure the prosperity of the country, the nation, the economy going forward. We’re in uncharted waters. And so we believe we’ve got to think outside the box in some ways. So we propose a 37-point blueprint to help Congress lead America through this pandemic, but then also ensure economic recovery on the other side. And part of that, as you indicate, is how we handle a lot of the issues related to the government’s efficiency, accountability and reforms that we believe are important going forward. One of the sections of our report, as you said, comes out of the work that one of our task forces has done on this for the 15 months prior to the pandemic and we pulled out a few of those ideas that we think are directly applicable and very timely today.

Tom Temin: And one of them was optimizing pay for high performing, I believe it was, federal employees. Tell us what the idea behind that is.

Mike Johnson: Yeah, this is something that a lot of people don’t talk about a lot. You know, conservatives, those on our side of the political spectrum, sometimes get criticized for being involved in bureaucrat bashing. You know, if you talk about lowering pay for federal bureaucrats or competitive pay to put pay within the government really more on parity with the private sector, merit-based bonuses and things like that. And people say, “Oh, you’re being insensitive, you’re just bashing the bureaucrats.” And so a lot of people don’t talk about this. But our theme in our intention is very different. We believe parity with a private sector would be a good thing. It would be good for everyone involved, because you can talk more about streamlining the hiring process, taking the bureaucracy out of it. It’s not about the individuals involved. It’s about the broken system that we believe holds a lot of this back. The status quo is really not something that we ought to maintain in this area. And we think wages should be modernized. We think that people should have increased pay when they have highly sought after skills. And when people perform well, they ought to have merit based bonuses. I don’t think those are earth shattering proposals. But when you’re talking about the difference between the private sector and those who work for the government, it’s often very different.

Tom Temin: And also you pointed out in the report, which I think not many people actually caught is that the CARES Act waived the Title V federal hiring requirements for housing and urban development, and the chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, for streamlined hiring. This proposal would expand that, I guess permanently, to all of the government?

Mike Johnson: Well, that’s right as much of it as we can. And that is a very important point. This is obviously a hugely popular piece of legislation, the CARES Act – it passed virtually unanimously. And Congress has recognized this, I mean, on both sides of the aisle. Obviously, Speaker Pelosi and her party and the Republican Party, our side, has acknowledged that there is something that needs to be addressed here. So in the legislation, as you know, we’ve addressed hiring flexibility, and that was an important part of the federal response to COVID-19 and the pandemic, everything we’re dealing with. We believe that that temporary streamlining of the hiring authority ought to be something that is considered and enacted going forward because it just makes good sense. If you acknowledge that you need to do it during a pandemic, why would it not also then be a good idea going forward? We think this is kind of a common sense proposal.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Congressman Mike Johnson, chairman of the Republican Study Committee. And people are not so much concerned with Title V per se. As for the general notion that hiring for the federal professional civil service should not be politically based – so can that happen in the absence of Title V?

Mike Johnson: Well, I think so. I mean, I think at some point, there’s a difference in philosophy. Limited government conservatives like myself, we believe in the empowerment of people. We believe that people can be responsible and that they will work hard. That’s part of the American spirit, part of one of the things frankly, that makes America great, right? And if you look at, like, the federal managers who are in the system, we believe they ought to be empowered because they could improve performance. If they were allowed to do what their private sector counterparts do, it would help the government’s overall efficiency and accountability, especially when it comes to cultivating a talented workforce. The status quo is broken. There was a 2018 federal employee viewpoint survey that found only 42% of the respondents indicated that their unit within the government could recruit new employees with the appropriate level of skills. There was a lot of red tape involved. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and the ramifications of that deficiency or felt the most during the national pandemic or an epidemic. But it’s also brings into focus that there’s a lot of improvement there. So, again, we’re not talking about earth shattering proposals or really avant garde ideas. We’re just talking about making the efficiency that works in the private sector more involved in the federal government, and we think it would be a good thing for everyone.

Tom Temin: And tell us more about the Enact the Eliminate Agency Excess Space Act. That’s been around I guess, since March – almost sort of came out simultaneously with the mass response to the COVID-19.

Mike Johnson: The Republican Study Committee’s Government Efficiency, Accountability and Reform Task Force – we call it the GEAR Task Force, is the acronym – we published a conservative government reform plan. It was entitled “Power, Practices, Personnel: 100+ Common Sense Solutions to a Better Government.” That came out in February. And this was one of the pieces of that. There’s actually legislative text, it’s a bill by Rep. Greg Murphy of North Carolina. It’s the Eliminate Agency Excess Space Act. And it just talks about that federal office space, if it’s unused, it’s a waste of vital government resources, and we can’t afford wasteful uses of resources right now. So there was a – this is based off a report from the Congressional Research Service in 2017. And they indicated there were, at that point, there were 3,120 vacant federal buildings, 7,859 partially empty or underutilized office spaces. What a waste, right, of taxpayer dollars at a time when we can’t afford it. So this actually is real simple. It would eliminate restrictions on the sale and lease and donation of federal office space, and it would ease the transfer of unused federal buildings to support in this example, the healthcare workers who are serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. There’s too much red tape involved in that. And so we weren’t able to adapt uses that way. So this piece of legislation is real simple. It would just enable common sense savings at a time when we have record federal spending. And it would give these agencies more power, more authority to easily offload these costs of unused assets that are dragging taxpayers down.

Tom Temin: And how would you rate the federal response to COVID-19, to coronavirus in general because it’s big. It’s kind of hard to get your arms around and everyone has an idea about it.

Mike Johnson: Well, look, I would tip my hat to the Department of Treasury, the Small Business Administration. I mean, some of these agencies have done just truly heroic work. I mean, if we had been having this conversation three months ago, and you would ask me if I thought it was possible for a federal agency to ramp up and handle a program like the Paycheck Protection Program like this, to distribute trillions of dollars in a period of three to four weeks to every eligible small business in the country, I would have thought it was laughable proposition, but here it’s been done. And now there were speed bumps along the way. There were there were problems. But, you know, this is a case where federal employees and those who work in these agencies truly did heroic work. And I think history will tell it may have helped save the US economy. So we’ve got to give honor where honor is due. At the same time, we recognize that because the federal government is so large, and in so many ways, so unwieldy, there are lots of ways that many of the responses might have been handled differently, you know, the collection and distribution of medical supplies and equipment, for exampl. You know, critics will say that could have been done a lot easier, sooner quicker if the apparatus had been in place, and if there hadn’t been so much red tape. But overall, I think that the federal government should get a high grade for its response to this, but we recognize there are always areas of improvement and that’s kind of some of these proposals that we’re making. Let’s fix it and make it even better going forward, because that’ll serve all the people the best.

Tom Temin: Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson is Chairman of the Republican Study Committee. Thanks so much for joining me.

Mike Johnson: Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to the committee’s agenda at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand and on your device. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.