What feds should know about the 114th Congress

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

Tuesday marks the first day of the 114th Congress, which mostly serves as a day of ceremony for freshman members. But once the fanfare is over, experts on the Hill say Republicans and Democrats will get right back to settling some old scores left over from 2014.

One of the first major battles of the new year will be funding the Department of Homeland Security through the rest of the fiscal year, which will mean revisiting President Barack Obama’s immigration plan, said Don Kettl, professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

“President Obama has signaled very clearly that he’s interested in not sitting back. He wants to move things forward, and he’s prepared to move through executive action if he has to, as he showed with the immigration policy. The Republicans are also determined to not let that happen as well. We’re setting the stage for new kinds of battles and new pieces of conflict,” Kettl said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

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DHS, unlike the rest of the government, was not included in the omnibus budget deal that was reached in December 2014. The agency is currently funded through a continuing resolution that is set to expire at the end of February. Compromise on this issue won’t have the same stakes as a government shutdown, Kettl said, but still poses a lot of problems.

“No one wants long, long lines for things like airport security or have other parts of Homeland Security shut down. But on the other hand, on immigration, the Republicans really want to try and find some way to force the President to back down. The President’s going to say, ‘I’m happy to do that anytime you want as long as you pass a more comprehensive immigration reform.’ And so that battle is going to be shaping up for sure,” Kettl said.

Listen to Tom Temin’s full interview with Don Kettl.

Kettl also expects that fights will be waged over how quickly the Senate approves presidential appointments.

“We’re getting into the last two years of the administration, and in every administration that’s a time when people leave and the White House faces the challenge of trying to get new people in charge,” Kettl said. “It’s very clear that on the Oversight side, the Republicans are interested in making hay wherever they can. They got increasingly good at it toward the end of the last year. They think the President is vulnerable on charges of management and they’re going to argue that he’s mismanaging the federal government. And so they’re happy to take an issue and run with it for as long as it gives them ammunition.”

The start of the new Congress will also bring a changing of the guard at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) will succeed Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) as chairman.

Erik Wasson, Capitol Hill reporter for Bloomberg Government, said to expect a change in leadership styles between Issa and Chaffetz.

“He’s a very different individual from Darrell Issa, who’s the outgoing chair of that commitee. Chaffetz is very, very friendly and amiable, less combative than Issa, has been pledging to change the tone and has actually been critical of the way Issa fought with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on that committee,” Wasson said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Chaffetz, however, will continue in Issa’s footsteps on a number of issues, Wasson said.

“They’re going to continue to do investigations such as into the IRS’ alleged targeting of conservative groups. So, that committee will get a lot of headlines for its investigations and it always has. He said he’s going to focus on embassy security. That’s something that he said that under [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton really declined,” Wasson said.

Listen to Tom Temin’s full interview with Erik Wasson.

Postal Service reform will also be a likely topic for the Oversight Committee.

“Chaffetz also said that he’s going to do substantive legislation and at the top of the list is the Postal Service. It lost $5.5 billion last year. That, the Postal Service will say, is due to an accounting issue because they have to pre-fund future retirees’ health benefits, which most organizations don’t have to do. Nonetheless, it really has suffered from the rise of email and the inability to really capitalize fully on the rise in package delivery,” Wasson said.

Proposed changes, once raised by Issa, include cutbacks in door-to-door delivery and the end of Saturday mail.

“Chaffetz is very upset with the inability to terminate what he views as slacking off employees in the federal government,” Wasson said. “So he’s really looking to find a way to ease that process.”

When it comes to mismanagement at federal agencies, Kettl said this new Congress will make mountains out of every molehill.

“One of the things that federal managers have to be alert to is the fact that even small things could end up coming to bite them,” Kettl said. “But on the other hand, they and we all need to do a much better job of trying to separate the things that really matter from the things that don’t. If you look at just the hysteria that we had over Ebola, we discovered that there was almost a national panic that was more fueled by the media’s reaction than by the realities.”

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