The Platts Plan

House Reform Committee

A heap of federal financial paperwork isn't evidence of close oversight. Neither is an army of agency number-crunchers pulling off another all-nighter. And a mass of legislation containing superseded code and redundant reporting requirements that dates back more than two decades means it is time for Congress to act.

Enter Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), back in Congress for a third term. The returning chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's federal financial oversight subcommittee, Platts is gearing up for the 109th Congress by planning legislation to cut government waste.

"We don't want to play 'Gotcha'. That's not my interest at all," Platts said. "It's about where do we need improvement and how do we achieve that improvement."

In the coming months, Platts is planning a series of hearings likely to culminate in his most ambitious piece of legislation to date — a yet-unnamed act that rationalizes and consolidates existing financial oversight legislation into a single law.

About a dozen laws passed in waves since the late 1970s dictate what agency officials must do to keep their financial status healthy. The roll call includes the Debt Improvement Act of 1982, the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, the Debt Collection Act of 1996, the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act of 1996, and others.

As each successive law filled in gaps, it added layers of overlapping code. Combined, the financial oversight acts amount to 800 pages of dense legal language.

Even if financial managers successfully navigate the maze, the financial reports they produce may not achieve the intended results. "It's no use to produce a report that gets printed and sits on a shelf somewhere," Platts said. "Yet we're still spending time and money to produce them."

Jeff Steinhoff, the Government Accountability Office's managing director of financial management and assurance, also said it is time to review the range of existing laws with an eye to reform. "I second the chairman's view that we need to step back," he said. "To go back and rationalize, that makes a lot of sense."

Internal controls on financial management are also in need of renewed emphasis, Platts said. A danger exists that controls have "maybe been lost in the shuffle some as new acts are passed," he said. "A manager ought to be able to say where we stand today, not just at the end of the year."

Although Office of Management and Budget officials released a revised circular in late December requiring federal officials to improve how they document and test internal financial controls, consolidating the existing mandates will ensure that those changes become permanent, said Michael Hettinger, staff director of Platts' subcommittee.

"You want to put that foundation there so the statute is always enhancing [OMB circulars], so there's a floor," he said. Not on the agenda, however, is compelling agencies to perform annual internal control audits as Homeland Security Department officials must do, Hettinger added.

Platts said he plans to take a measured pace in getting his consolidation legislation through Congress. Getting it to the president's desk will be a two- or three-year project, he said. "We want to get it right, which means getting a lot of feedback from all the partners in this effort."

More immediately, Platts will focus on a re-introduced version of his program assessment legislation. This new version of a bill Platts first proposed in February 2004 mandates that OMB and agency officials perform program evaluations at least every five years.

"It has a lot of legwork behind it," Platts said, including provisions suggested by Democratic colleagues to ensure that agencies have a clear role in the evaluation process. The assessment data would also now be transparent and incorporated into the president's annual budget submission and posted on the Web.

"Patience is a virtue, and persistence is always important," Platts said, referring to passing the assessment legislation.

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