Volcker revives reorganization plan

Volcker Commission Report

The White House could gain power to enact a sweeping reorganization of the federal government if Congress approves an initiative from former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker.

In testimony yesterday before the House Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization, Volcker renewed his call for legislation to give the President authority to consolidate and rearrange executive agencies with minimal Congressional oversight. Volcker described the measure as a necessary step toward stemming wasteful spending, eliminating redundancies and making the federal workforce more efficient.

Volcker is now chair of the National Commission on the Public Service, created by the Brookings Institution Center for Public Service. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chair of the House Government Reform Committee, had strongly supported the proposal in hearings earlier this year, but has not introduced legislation.

Comptroller General David M. Walker also testified in support of Volcker's proposal. Clay Johnson III, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, offered some cautionary notes while also generally supporting the proposal.

To accomplish the reorganization, Volcker said, Congress should restore a power that has not rested in the Oval Office since 1984. While the President's Management Agenda promotes programs to make government more efficient, Volcker said granting broader powers to the White House would serve as a necessary spur to make a real difference.

Volcker laid out four principles that should guide any reorganization:

* Programs designed to achieve similar outcomes should be assigned to a single agency, unless there is a "compelling case" that they compete.

* Agencies with similar or related missions should be combined.

* The newly combined agencies should have "as few layers as possible" between top management and the "operating units."

* Agencies should have flexibility to design an organizational structure that fits their missions.

Volcker also recommended that Congress structure the legislation so that a subsequent White House plan would have to be approved or rejected as it was submitted, with no amendments and within 45 days of its submission. That sparked fears among subcommittee members of granting the administration a "blank check."

"What is it you are after that requires such haste that you don't want the normal give and take?" asked Eleanor Holmes-Norton, Washington D.C.'s delegate to the House. The President could submit an omnibus proposal that contains too many good ideas to reject, while also carrying some more controversial provisions. If Congress has no opportunity to make changes, she said, "That's a really in-your-face approach."

Allowing protracted debate could prevent action, Volcker said. "Because there so many controversial areas, it's hard to get Congress to act unless it's an up or down vote," he said.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) also urged caution. "What is emerging from these hearings on government reform is that the devil is, indeed, in the details," he said.

Johnson noted that the White House is not currently studying any reorganization plan, and that it would not be practical to do so unless Congress passes legislation authorizing it. In the meantime, he said, agencies will continue to pursue other initiatives to become more efficient.

Information technology is getting special attention, he added. "IT systems must be able to demonstrate how they will assist us in achieving results, and they must be developed on budget and on schedule. And they must be secure."

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