In the Senate, a search for solutions
Sen. Tom Carper, the new chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is looking for answers to problems plaguing the federal government. (FCW Photo by Zaid Hamid.)
Like many on Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) voices frustration with the gridlock on multiple issues, notably the budget. But unlike many of his colleagues, Carper has been reaching out for solutions in an open, can-do style, with a large dose of humility. And he is positioned to get results.
"There are real consequences from our failure to make tough choices," he said at a recent hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He voiced regret that the recent battles over the fiscal cliff and details of the across-the-board budget sequester have taken time away from "the real mission" of government and have reduced federal employees' morale — and he asked the witnesses how members of Congress could do their jobs better.
Few senior lawmakers have been known to publicly seek such advice.
As the committee's new chairman, Carper emphasizes his friendship and cooperation with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the frequently outspoken conservative who is the panel's new ranking Republican. That collegial tone has characterized the panel in recent years — notably with previous chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who retired last year, and previous ranking Republican Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
But on key issues such as cybersecurity and U.S. Postal Service reform, the committee's bipartisan approach ran into opposition last year from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The Senate passed a revised postal measure, which died in the House. And senators were unable to successfully compromise on their competing cyber bills.
Carper wants to continue the bipartisanship, but he is intent on more successful congressional outcomes. That is a notable contrast with recent operations of the counterpart House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, under chairmen of both parties. In the past Congress, for example, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) focused on bringing a contempt citation against Attorney General Eric Holder and made scant legislative progress.
But even Issa and top Democrats on the House committee appear to have been influenced by Carper's cooperative style. On March 20, the panel approved a measure sponsored by Issa and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) to overhaul federal IT procurement — and Senate staffers praised their House counterparts for opening a bicameral discussion on the bill even before it was formally introduced.
Since Carper took over as chairman of the Senate committee, Republican colleagues have lauded his approach. Coburn called Carper a good friend and praised his focus on long-term issues such as the budget deficit. With Carper as chairman, "we believe we can get there," Issa said to him at a Senate hearing as both welcomed the progress toward consensus on postal legislation after extensive private meetings late last year.
A history of bipartisanship
There are multiple ways to characterize the earnest 66-year-old Carper and his growing influence in the Senate. As far back as the 1980s when he served in the House, he was a moderate Blue Dog who sought bipartisanship. His eight years as Delaware governor left him with a hands-on, results-oriented approach to making government work.
He graduated from Ohio State University on a Navy ROTC scholarship and served three tours of duty as a tactical coordinator of low-flying aircraft during the Vietnam War. He then received an M.B.A. from the University of Delaware and, at 29, was an unlikely winner in a contest for Delaware's treasurer after having lived in the state for only three years.
Since his 2000 election to the Senate — when he ousted influential Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Roth, who had earlier led the panel Carper now leads — Carper has kept a low profile. But at a time when Congress is struggling to overcome deep polarization, he has become a diligent workhorse who seeks to build bridges to nearly all players: across the congressional aisle, throughout government and in the private sector.
"My style is collaborative…. I am into team building," he told FCW in a recent interview in which he described his quick-start leadership of the committee, which has cross-cutting jurisdiction over federal employees and contractors. "If credit doesn't matter, you can get more done."
He referenced recent meetings he held with Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency; other senior lawmakers; and leaders of interest groups seeking enactment of cybersecurity legislation.
"I am drinking from a fire hose," he said. "These issues are complicated."
Because other Senate committees share control of the cybersecurity issue, Carper said he plans to meet with Senate leaders to coordinate team building on the measure. Lawmakers expect to work within the framework of the executive order on cybersecurity that President Barack Obama issued in February.
The order addressed many of the chief issues with which Congress wrestled last year but left other topics unresolved — such as the role of the Department of Homeland Security. The White House's national security aides have been working on legislative options.
Lieberman was instrumental in the legislation that created DHS in 2002 and a consistent ally of the department. Carper, however, takes a broader approach to government management and has "less ownership of homeland security," said a Democratic aide who has worked on related issues. That will result in a fresh perspective on the handling of cybersecurity, another Senate Democratic aide suggested.
Although Carper has moved more deliberately on IT legislation, he has worked extensively on the issue over the years through his efforts to improve government efficiency and combat waste and abuse of taxpayers' money. Issa's early action on his own proposal to reform federal IT has set the initial framework. That measure includes greater authority for CIOs in most Cabinet departments and an approach to streamlining acquisition practices that emphasizes a centralized program and technical expertise.
Carper said congressional oversight — with hearings, on occasion — can be an effective tool to encourage agencies to operate more efficiently. However, "sometimes you can accomplish things by sending a letter," he said. He cited his past efforts to reduce the more than $100 billion agencies spend annually in improper payments and his experience as a "recovering governor" who understands the public's demand for results. Carper plans to work closely with Coburn on oversight and seek support from the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and private-sector watchdog groups.
There are real consequences from our failure to make tough choices. - Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.)
"I believe in leverage," Carper said. "We spotlight behavior that needs to be improved…[and] encourage good practices."
The two committee leaders also served together on the Senate Finance Committee, where they worked together on steps to reduce waste and fraud, especially in programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. (Coburn has since stepped down from the Finance Committee.) Such strategies could be especially popular among lawmakers this year as Congress pursues a possible grand bargain on deficit reduction that would likely include entitlement savings.
He said he is counting on working closely with Sylvia Mathews Burwell, whom Obama has nominated for OMB director and who appeared before Carper's committee for an April 9 confirmation hearing. "She is the complete package," with deep expertise on both management and budget issues, he said. And, he proudly added, she shares his background as a native of West Virginia.
Carper often uses colloquialisms and upbeat clichés — many of which reflect his down-home West Virginia ancestry — to make his point. He disdains the confrontational rhetoric of many politicians. "If it's not perfect, make it better," he said at a March committee hearing in which he explored the adverse impacts of recent crisis budgeting. "One thing that annoys me is when people say, 'It's good enough for government work.'"
As Carper works to balance his objectives of serving as a partner with the Obama administration and the need for bipartisanship in Congress, he hopes Burwell will be a vital ally. In addition to his full plate of government management issues as committee chairman, he has made it clear that he also wants to be part of the budget solution, which includes multiple spending and tax issues.
The ongoing budget conflict "has likely made our government less effective and more costly for taxpayers," he said at the recent hearing on the budget crisis. "The American people know this. It's not the way that they run their family budgets or their businesses."
The four witnesses, all experts on the federal budget, responded that Congress needs to meet its responsibilities. "Pass appropriations in a timely way…so that federal employees can do their job effectively," urged Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Given the inevitable pain of solving the budget problems, Philip Joyce, a professor in the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, stressed that lawmakers should "make the decisions as quickly as possible."
As a lifelong public servant, Carper said he plans to pursue a common-sense approach to governing. Given the recent failings of more complex strategies for dealing with budget issues, it is definitely worth a try.
Meet the staff of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
Richard Kessler, Staff Director
Kessler knows his way around Capitol Hill, having held several House and Senate committee posts since the 1980s. Most recently, he was the Democrats' staff director on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he reported to former chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.). Kessler's latest position marks a return to the Senate committee, where he previously served as a top aide to Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) on multiple issues, including government management and the federal workforce. Kessler worked on the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security, and he is also well versed in intelligence and terrorism issues.
John Kilvington, Deputy Staff Director
Kilvington is a veteran aide to the Senate committee with a longtime connection to Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.). Soon after graduating from the University of Delaware, Kilvington worked on the then-governor's successful 2000 Senate campaign. In the Senate, Kilvington's tasks have taken him from legislative correspondence to subcommittee staff director. His workload has included legislation that deals with cybersecurity and the U.S. Postal Service, and efforts to reduce government waste and fraud. He has spearheaded numerous investigations on a range of issues, including IT management.
Beth Grossman, Chief Counsel
Grossman has worked for the committee for a decade and has been chief counsel since 2010. Her assignments have included many investigations, including the one into the collapse of Enron, and numerous pieces of legislation, such as intelligence reform and the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act. Earlier, she dealt with false-advertising cases as an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission and launched the FTC's program to assist victims of identity theft.
Jonathan Kraden, Senior Counsel
Kraden has been a central figure on cybersecurity and other key IT issues — work that earned him a Federal 100 award earlier this year. A longtime aide to former Chairman Lieberman, Kraden works with Office of Management and Budget leaders on PortfolioStat, House counterparts on IT acquisition reform, and the General Services Administration on interagency collaboration. Now, in his sixth year working for the committee, Kraden is a trusted adviser to Carper on just about everything. When IT legislation starts to move this year, Kraden is the one to ask where it's headed.
Matt Grote, Senior Professional Staff Member
Grote handles cybersecurity and information management issues, including federal IT. He has a background in computer science, and worked on security and management issues at the Government Accountability Office before he joined the committee's staff in 2010. The cybersecurity legislation he helped champion won bipartisan support in the committee in 2012 but ran into a Republican-sponsored filibuster in the Senate. The experience will no doubt help Grote as he seeks new opportunities for consensus on that important issue.
Emily Spain, Communications Director
A veteran of the Capitol Hill communications wars, Spain has worked on both the Senate and House sides and in several federal and local campaigns. She joined Carper's personal staff in 2010 and has become a font of information about his work and that of the committee. Her expertise in policy and political strategy gained a bipartisan flavor when she married Ken Spain, a former top House Republican campaign spokesman who now works for a private-equity trade group.
Corrections: This article has been updated to reflect Kraden's new title of senior counsel -- a promotion that took place between the article's reporting and publication -- and to clarify that Sen. Coburn no longer serves on the Senate Finance Committee.
Richard E. Cohen, an FCW contributing writer, has covered Capitol HIll for more than three decades and is the author of several books on Congress.