BRAC-like commission proposed to hunt down government cost savings

Tuesday - 6/18/2013, 6:47pm EDT

The Government Transformation Initiative's David Walker and Steve Goodrich discuss the proposal on "In Depth" with Francis Rose

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By Melissa Dawkins
and Jack Moore

(Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the types of experts who would be appointed to the commission)

A proposed commission tasked with identifying efficiencies and cost-savings across the government would save billions and dramatically improve the performance of federal agencies, the author of the proposal testified Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

David Walker, chairman of the Government Transformation Initiative and former U.S. comptroller general, said the Government Transformation Commission would help bridge the gap between work done by the Government Accountability Office and agency inspectors general. It would also add teeth to their recommendation by requiring an up-or-down vote by Congress on the commission's cost-saving recommendations.

"Establishing such a commission would provide Congress and the president an entity dedicated entirely towards improving government operations and management, resulting in significant federal savings and improved performance," Walker said in his testimony. "Savings could be repurposed to address shortfalls in other areas, expand improvement initiatives and innovation, and/or reduce the federal deficit. Additionally, by implementing cost-savings measures, the federal government would have more fiscal flexibility for needed investments."

But committee members, who heard from a variety of witnesses on reinventing government, still have a lot of unanswered questions about the proposal: Who would serve on the panel? What would its focus be? And how would the recommendations impact the federal workforce?

Would commission circumvent Congress?

The proposed commission would consist of seven independent experts — from government, nonprofits and the private sector — who would be free of any conflicts of interest. The new commission, unlike the recent Simpson-Bowles deficit panel and others like it, would not deal with policy, Walker said. Instead, the goal would be to streamline government by eliminating duplications, redundancies and inefficiencies within government agencies. The commission would also require some start-up funding, he said, although after being funded for at least two years through congressional appropriations, it would become self-sustaining.

Some lawmakers voiced concerns that such a commission would unconstitutionally circumvent the role of Congress in setting policy and overseeing agencies. But Walker said the role of the commission would actually supplement the work of Congress.

"This is not a policy-making mechanism to decide what good public policy is," he said. "This has to do with the organization and operations of government. So, if Congress has made the decision that certain things ought to happen, the question is how do you go about executing on that that's a modern, efficient organization that maximizes economy, efficiency and effectiveness," he said.

However, one of the largest federal-employee unions said it's worried about the impact of such a commission on federal employees.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, urged lawmakers against forming such a committee, testifying that the commission would simply be another way of imposing budget austerity on federal agencies and could provide a backdoor into cutting the size of the federal workforce.

"Agencies have many missions ... the employees of those agencies are required to carry out those missions and do that work," Cox said. "And then, if you have an unelected commission that would say 'Do something totally different,' I believe the employees are caught in the middle there — that would be a very uncomfortable situation."

Federal workforce ripe for reform

Other experts, however, testified that reforming the civil service is an area ripe for improvement.

Stephen Goldsmith, professor of government at Harvard Kennedy School and a witness at the hearing, said he believes reorganizing the civil service by better rewarding top governmental employees and making it easier to offload poor performers would foster increased government efficiency. He endorses Walker's proposed commission.

"Across the country at every level, public employees each day produce effective services and even innovative breakthroughs, but they often do so despite the structures of government which restrict discretion, value activities over outcomes and fail to utilize the best of new technologies," Goldsmith said.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who led the "Reinventing Government" initiative during the Clinton administration, said previous civil-service reform efforts hit a brick wall when the issue of collective bargaining was raised.

"Congress insisted on making the topic of civil service reform a debate over collective bargaining," Kamarck said. "And as Democrats, we weren't going there, OK? And yet there was no center ... in the Congress for looking at civil service reforms."