President Obama’s choice for deputy budget director spent a fair amount of time discussing the need for tighter management during a confirmation hearing today.
During a period of fiscal challenges, a key focus “has got to be making our government more efficient and more effective,” Brian Deese told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. President Obama nominated Deese, previously a top White House economic aide, last month for the post of deputy budget director at the Office of Management and Budget. The person holding that job “plays an important role in setting those (management side) priorities and also in making sure that we as a team at OMB would be well-positioned to execute on those,” he said.
In replies to written questions released at the hearing, Deese added that “greater focus on evidence in budgeting” will ensure effective government spending. If confirmed, Deese said he would work closely with OMB’s deputy director for management. That post has been vacant since Jeff Zients left last month; Obama has not yet named a replacement.
Deese served as deputy director of the National Economic Council from January 2011 until March; since then, he has been at OMB as a counselor to the director. If confirmed, he would replace Heather Higginbottom, who left in February for a job at the State Department.
No significant opposition has emerged so far to his nomination. At today’s hearing, committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., praised Deese as someone who understands the importance of innovation, both in saving money and in delivering better public services. Besides Carper, only Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., attended. A spokesman for the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, did not reply to voicemails asking the reason for his boss’s absence.
The Senate Budget Committee, which also has jurisdiction over Deese’s nomination, plans its own confirmation hearing later this month, a spokeswoman said.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell appears assured of Senate confirmation after two panels today approved her nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget. Burwell’s nomination cleared both the Senate Budget Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on voice votes; a final vote by the full Senate could come within the next week.
Burwell is an OMB alum from the Clinton administration who most recently headed the Walmart Foundation. If confirmed, she would replace Jeff Zients, who has served as acting OMB chief since January 2012, when Jack Lew left to become White House chief of staff.
With the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration set to begin Friday, the Office of Management and Budget posted new planning instructions to agencies this evening. The bottom line: It’s time to get specific.
Agencies should detail the number of employees who will be furloughed, for how long and when furlough notices will be issued, OMB Controller Danny Werfel wrote. Agencies should also spell out any major contracts they plan to cancel, re-scope or delay. Ditto for grants. Federal Times will have more on this subject tomorrow, but in the meantime, you can read Werfel’s memo here.
In a radio interview last week, former Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue voiced regret at leaving behind a workforce that he described as “very dedicated” and talented.
Astrue, who stepped down earlier this month, was happier at no longer having to run his every statement—even including proposed messages to SSA employees about sequestration—past minders at the Office of Management and Budget.
“I don’t miss having everything I say being cleared by a 28-year-old at OMB,” Astrue told WBUR, a National Public Radio member station in Boston. “And I’m not critical of OMB for that. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, I think the president needs to have some consistency of message. But it does get very frustrating. And particularly when you’re trying to say something important and it’s neutered down to a platitude. I always found it difficult to go out and just voice the platitudes.
“So, you know, getting my First Amendment rights back and being able to say what I think, you know, you don’t miss that until you’ve given it up. And I guess, you know, when you’ve given it up you appreciate it more when you get it back.”
Asked for comment on Astrue’s remarks, OMB spokeswoman Jessica Santillo emailed this response to FedLine: “OMB has always played an important role in coordinating activity and communications across the federal government to help ensure consistency and accuracy.”
Attention, wonks: If something seems to be lacking from the start of your week, perhaps it’s the fact that President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget request is supposed to go to Capitol Hill today. Except, of course, that it’s not and a delivery date could still be some time off.
The annual request is due on Capitol Hill the first Monday in February. But because of the uncertainties that preceded passage of last month’s “fiscal cliff” deal, the administration was “forced to delay some of its FY 2014 budget preparations, which in turn will delay the budget’s submission to Congress,” acting Office of Management and Budget chief Jeff Zients wrote in a Jan. 11 letter to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. While the White House is working to submit the request “as soon as possible,” Zients said, he did not give a date.
The word is, however, that OMB sent “passbacks” to agencies just last Monday, or about two months behind the normal schedule. By that standard, the budget request would come in at the end of March. An OMB spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking an update on the administration’s timetable. A budget committee spokesman said today that the rumor mill now puts the submission date at some time in early March.
Jeff Zients is still in charge of the Office of Management and Budget, but it turns out that he quietly lost his “acting director” title four months ago. Under the Vacancies Reform Act, which generally limits acting gigs to 210 days (or about seven months), Zients’ tenure ended in September, OMB spokeswoman Jessica Santillo said in an email.
He then reverted to his previous job as OMB deputy director for management. Even so, Santillo said, Zients “continues to lead OMB and his authorities and responsibilities have not changed.” For what it’s worth, Zients’ profile on the White House blog still lists him as “acting director.”
Zients had taken over as acting director in January 2012 when Jack Lew left to become White House chief of staff. Under the Vacancies Reform Act, his term was extended into September because the Senate was not in session when it otherwise would have expired.
Following Lew’s departure, the Obama administration never nominated a permanent OMB chief. In part, observers speculated, that was because it didn’t want an election-year confirmation fight that would have drawn attention to politically charged budget issues, and in part because the White House was comfortable with Zients, who had done a previous tour as acting director in 2010.
Over the weekend, however, several outlets—citing unnamed sources–reported that President Obama is likely to name Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who worked in the Clinton administration and now heads the Walmart Foundation, to the job. A White House spokeswoman did not respond to voicemail and email messages yesterday seeking confirmation.
In a memo earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget ordered agencies to step up planning for across-the-board budget cuts set to begin in March. Along the way, OMB added, agencies should involve employee unions “to the fullest extent practicable” in any decisions on hiring freezes, furloughs and other measures to cut workforce costs.
John O’Grady questions whether that message made it to the Environmental Protection Agency. O’Grady heads the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents some Chicago-area EPA staff and is also treasurer for the union’s national council of EPA locals. He sees little evidence that the agency is making much effort at outreach.
“It’s maddening,” he said last week after joining in an agency conference call that, by his account, produced little of note. “People are sitting in their cubes, they’re waiting for this hammer to go down and nobody’s giving them any information.”
In the Jan. 14 memo, acting OMB chief Jeff Zients declared that agencies had already engaged in “extensive planning” for the possible cuts, formally known as sequestration. Based on documents that O’Grady shared with FedLine, EPA officials either aren’t very far along or aren’t willing to explain what’s in store for EPA’s 18,000-strong workforce.
In an extensive request for information last month, for example, O’Grady asked the agency for a list of functions nationally that could be downsized if the cuts—formally known as “sequestration”—take effect as scheduled March 1. The union also sought a list of all contracts and a rundown of any contractor-performed functions that could be transferred to federal employees in the event of sequestration.
In its reply this month, EPA declined to provide any answers. “The union’s request is overly broad, unduly burdensome and the union has failed to state a particularized need for the requested information,” wrote Mitch Berkenkemper, the agency’s director of labor and employee relations.
This could be seen as typical labor-management sparring, but the information blackout at EPA and other civilian agencies stands in sharp contrast to how the Defense Department is proceeding. In the last two weeks, the military services have outlined a host of steps–including civilian hiring freezes, layoffs of temporary employees and possible furloughs–that are under way both to prepare for sequestration and the possibility of a year-long continuing resolution.
This could be seen as prudent planning that might have the side benefit of reminding members of Congress that the cuts would have a nationwide impact. The consensus is growing, however, that lawmakers and the Obama administration will fail to reach the agreement needed to avert the reductions, at least initially.
The latest to sound that view was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “I think the sequester is going to happen,” Ryan said yesterday on the NBC talk show, “Meet the Press.”
EPA is already taking some small downsizing steps. Last month, the agency offered $25,000 buyouts and early retirement for up to 29 employees in its Washington, D.C. Office of Environmental Compliance and Assurance, and another 88 for staff throughout its San Francisco-based Region 9 bailiwick.
“Region 9 sought the authorities to facilitate the restructuring of enforcement work into a single enforcement division,” Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld wrote in a Dec. 3 memo. “The retirements will help us achieve voluntary staffing reductions and create opportunities to recruit entry-level employees.”
An EPA spokeswoman referred FedLine’s emailed questions on sequestration planning last week to OMB, which did not respond to a request for comment.
SAN DIEGO| It’s been more than a year since President Obama formally kicked off the “Campaign to Cut Waste” in a June 2011 executive order. Some agencies, though, seem to be taking the charge to reduce administrative costs more seriously than others, a newly released survey of chief financial officers and other federal financial managers indicates.
Although 45 percent of respondents said they have been getting “good results” from the campaign, almost as many (44 percent) said they had little to report, were just getting started, had laid plans to start, or (uh-oh) hadn’t done anything, according to the unscientific survey, sponsored by the Association of Government Accountants and consulting firm Grant Thornton. The report on the findings was released this week at AGA’s professional development conference here.
“We’ve spent more on meetings about the Campaign to Cut Waste than we’ve actually saved from cutting waste,” one unnamed CFO is quoting as saying.
Given that the campaign has now been under way for some time, the report labels the results “a little surprising,” Part of the explanation, it says, may lie in the fact that the effort is “an ongoing, evolving exercise rather than a one-shot drill.”
Through fiscal 2013, the White House wants to save a total of about $8 billion on administrative spending in comparison with FY10 levels, according to figures in its latest budget request.
Danny Werfel, controller for the Office of Management and Budget, said yesterday that he had not seen the results, but added that agency reports show the campaign is “making very critical progress” toward the $8 billion goal.
“We are, from a macro standpoint, where we need to be,” Werfel said. He acknowledged the likelihood, however, that some agencies are “kicking on all cylinders,” while others are just getting started.
The survey is based on in-person interviews with 115 CFOs, deputy CFOs and other senior federal financial management officials, including OMB staff, the report says. The results also reflect input from more than 200 online interviews with AGA members who indicated that they work for the federal government.
The Office of Management and Budget can no longer ignore the signs that Congress probably isn’t going to get its act together and avert devastating sequestration cuts by the end of the year. Acting Director Jeff Zients today issued a memo to agency leaders that said OMB will start discussing how sequestration could be implemented over the next few months.
In his memo, Zients repeatedly reminds Congress that the whole point of sequestration was that it was so bad and devastating that they had no choice but to agree on a way to reduce the deficit, and prods them to act. But there are no signs that they’ll get their act together and come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by Jan. 2, 2013.
Zients said planning for sequestration “will necessarily divert scarce resources from other important agency activities and priorities,” which is presumably why agencies have not yet even begun laying the groundwork for such cuts.
Zients said that OMB will soon start talking to agencies about how exemptions will be applied, and other reporting requirements. Further down the road, OMB and agencies will start working on the details of sequestration, such as exactly how much will be cut. Those dollar figures “can only be calculated once FY 2013 funding levels are known,” Zients said.
But Zients said that “in the meantime, agencies should continue normal spending and operations since more than 5 months remain for Congress to act.” And that kind of talk always reminds me of Kevin Bacon’s final, immortal words from Animal House:
Granted, it’s been a long time since Mitt Romney ran Bain Capital, the private equity firm that has taken a central role in the presidential election campaign. But considering the intensity of President Obama’s attacks on the presumptive Republican nominee’s record at Bain, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that a senior Obama administration appointee had money invested with the firm—at least until a few months ago.
Last year, acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients held roughly between $116,000 and $315,000 in what his annual financial disclosure report describes as “Bain Capital Fund VII.” OMB released the report, which requires federal officials to list their assets only in dollar ranges, this week in response to FedLine’s public records request.
By last year, Zients’ remaining primary holdings in the fund were Bombardier Recreational Products, a Canadian snowmobile manufacturer, and Unisource Worldwide, an Atlanta-based paper and packaging distributor. If you’re in the mood for a little more irony, Unisource’s ownership–according to its web site—is split between Bain and Georgia-Pacific, the paper manufacturer controlled by Charles and David Koch, brothers who are prominent backers of Romney and a host of Republican causes.
Zients, who was not available for an interview, acquired his Bain stake more than a decade ago as part of a “broadly diversified portfolio,” OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an email. He sold that stake, along with other assets, early this year, she said. While Bain by that point was already looming as an issue in the November presidential election, the sale was “part of a normal portfolio review,” she said. The holdings, Mack added, were also unrelated to Zients’ work from 1988 to 1990 at Bain & Co., a consulting firm distinct from Bain Capital.
Zients, a former management consultant, is in his second tour as acting OMB director. His Bain stake represented a sliver of a varied portfolio that last year included numerous mutual funds, municipal bonds and between about $1 million and $5 million in gold. Among his largest transactions, Zients reported selling between $5 million and $25 million in shares in BestPractices, described on his disclosure report as a “privately held emergency [department] outsourcing company.” On its web site, BestPractices says that it is an “emergency physician and hospitalist staffing and management group.”
A bit less conventionally, Zients also put money into Riot Act DC, a Washington, D.C. comedy club.