Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. described the government as an overloaded ship, with tighter budgets making it harder to deliver services. 'Absent a true and absolute commitment to bold reform and immediate action, it is only a matter of time before this ship sinks,' Issa said. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Over the past quarter-century, a string of independent commissions has managed to accomplish what Congress can rarely do on its own: Close and consolidate dozens of major military bases.
Now, the combination of Capitol Hill gridlock and a prolonged budget squeeze is fueling a campaign to take a similar tack to overhauling agency operations governmentwide.
Former Comptroller General David Walker is proposing the creation of a seven-member Government Transformation Commission that could propose cuts, consolidation or termination of individual government programs to lawmakers for an up-or-down vote. It would focus on management issues, not entitlement or tax policy.
“We need to figure out a way to separate the wheat from the chaff and spend less on things that don’t work and spend more on things that do,” Walker, who headed the Government Accountability Office from 1998 to 2008 as comptroller general, said in an interview last week after testifying before a House oversight committee.
The commission could first focus on unneeded real estate, duplicate programs and other areas “with a high rate of return,” Walker said at the hearing. While GAO regularly makes efficiency recommendations, they are often not specific enough to be fully acted on, he added.
The concept immediately ran into skepticism from lawmakers of both parties, while federal employee unions attacked it as an end run around normal democratic channels. In an interview, however, Walker predicted that bipartisan legislation to create the commission will be introduced by the end of next month; his goal is a signed bill by year’s end.
“This is for the country,” he said.
Pushing the idea is the Government Transformation Initiative, a nonprofit chaired by Walker whose 26 members include AARP, the National Academy of Public Administration, IBM and the Professional Services Council, according to a list on the organization’s website.
The proposed commission is modeled on the military base realignment and closure (BRAC) process first used in 1988 and repeated four times since. Under that model, a commission started with a list of downsizing proposals from the Defense Department, then presented its recommendations to the president and Congress. If the president approved them, they automatically took effect unless majorities in both the House and Senate voted to reject them. In all, the five rounds have led to the shuttering of 121 major bases, according to a GAO review released this year.
At the time the first BRAC commission was created, however, the Cold War was ending and there was a consensus that the nation had too many bases, said Paul Posner, a former GAO budget expert who teaches at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.
No such urgency exists today over reshaping agency operations overall, Posner said, even though politicians of all stripes have decried this year’s across-the-board sequester spending cuts as a senseless way to downsize government. But if Walker’s strategy is unlikely to gain traction now, Posner added, “you need to put these things out there because there will be a time when the window opens and you need some credible options.”
The proposed transformation commission would differ in several respects from the BRAC process. Although recommendations requiring legislative action would have to get a vote, they would not automatically take effect if Congress failed to override them. Walker also is open to allowing amendments, subject to the approval of a supermajority of perhaps 60 percent of lawmakers. And while the BRAC panels each convened for just a few months, the transformation commission would have an initial six-year lifespan.
Congressional leaders and the president would name the members, under the current plan.
Program changes would not necessarily result in the loss of federal jobs because most affected workers could be “redeployed” elsewhere in the government, Walker said at last week’s hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “In addition, there is little question there are too many government contractors in certain situations.” Some of the commission’s recommendations could lead to federal employees picking up work, he added.
Nonetheless, David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, urged lawmakers to stop the plan “in its tracks.”
“It would be politics behind closed doors, where the powerful reign supreme and the interests of the many are ignored,” Cox said.
National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley pointed to the involvement of the Professional Services Council, a trade group for service contractors, in the transformation initiative as a reason to reject the idea.
Walker said PSC has contributed no money to the initiative.
In a news release, Kelley asked: “Is [the commission] just another way to increase market share for [PSC’s] members?” ■