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Lawmakers question proposed CFC changes

Jul. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
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Rep. Blake Farenthold , chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, is questioning key elements of a proposed overhaul of the Combined Federal Campaign. (Mike Morones/Staff)

A planned overhaul of the Combined Federal Campaign faced sharp criticism Wednesday from the chairman of a House oversight panel.

At an hour-long hearing, Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said that he is “troubled’ by several of the Office of Personnel Management’s proposals for remaking the charity drive. Some lack specifics and are untested, he said, while others go beyond the recommendations made last year by an independent advisory panel known as the CFC-50 Commission.

While acknowledging that the CFC needs change, Farenthold added that OPM’s track record on other initiatives — such as a “failed redesign” of the USAJobs.gov website in 2011— “does not inspire confidence.”

Farenthold heads the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce; in varying degrees, his criticisms were echoed by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and representatives of several groups that participate in the CFC.

But under the status quo, more than 37 percent of donors have “walked away” in the past decade, Mark Lambert, an OPM official who oversaw the campaign from 2008 to 2010, told lawmakers. The proposed changes will “attract new donors and provide new contributions to the participating charities.”

OPM, which is now reviewing almost 1,400 comments received on its plan, has historically worked with CFC stakeholders, Lambert said and “will continue to partner with them going forward.” In an interview after the hearing, he added that OPM does not have a timeline for moving ahead with a final plan, but will do so as quickly as possible.

The hearing before Farenthold’s subcommittee came as OPM is facing broad resistance to key parts of the proposed makeover, which would supplant the local federal coordinating committees with a regional approach, shift to all-electronic giving and require charities to pay a non-refundable application fee. Although the CFC generated almost $260 million in pledges last year, that figure marked a decline for the third straight year.

The proposed changes draw on recommendations from the CFC-50 Commission, which then-OPM Director John Berry created in 2011 to examine the campaign’s operations a half-century after its founding. Farenthold and other critics object, however, that OPM has in some instances gone well beyond the commission’s blueprint.

While the commission said that OPM should “encourage” online giving, Farenthold said, the agency is now proposing to “eliminate paper donations.” In the interview following the hearing, Lambert disagreed that OPM overstepped, saying that all of its proposals could be traced back to the commission’s report last year.

He also did not rule out pilot testing for some aspects of the plan, such as the proposed charity application fee. “We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet ... ” he said, “but we will work with our stakeholders to determine how that fee is determined and how it’s assessed.”

The hearing marked the first time that OPM has publicly responded to criticism of its plan, which was formally unveiled in early April. Asked afterward whether legislation is an option, Farenthold replied that “we’re still early on in the process.”

Just by holding the hearing, lawmakers have alerted OPM “to the fact that Congress is concerned that they don’t take a good program and wreck it,” Farenthold said. “We’re also concerned that they find ways to improve it.”

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