Mark Warner: Pushing for performance

In a sharply divided Congress, the Senate's management guru gains ground in his nonpartisan approach to the government's fiscal and performance challenges.

Mark Warner

At a recent lunchtime speech to workers at the Clifton, Va., cafeteria of Carfax, Sen. Mark Warner enthusiastically cited his private-sector experience and extolled successful start-ups like his host, which provides detailed vehicle history information for buyers and sellers of used cars.

However, in response to a question from the audience, Warner conceded that his work on Capitol Hill to improve government management has struggled to succeed.

"When I entered the Senate, I put together a list of 16 program cuts that had been recommended by both presidents Bush and Obama," he said. But his efforts caused consternation among members of both political parties, and those programs are mostly still intact.

The Virginia Democrat also voiced unhappiness with sequestration's across-the-board budget cuts, which he called "stupidity on steroids…like a cancer growing from the inside," because they stifle medical research and compound the military's problems.

Still, the Harvard Law School graduate and venture-capital pioneer said he is not discouraged and he wants agency officials to know that they have an ally in the effort to improve government performance.

With his mix of warmth and frustration for Washington, Warner seems most comfortable when he is speaking with or about entrepreneurs. That's not surprising given his corporate success as a co-founder of the cellular phone company that became Nextel, which later merged with Sprint Communications and made him one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

His business success is rooted in his attention to management, which has remained his priority as a public official. It is an area "that I still get jazzed about," he told the Virginia General Assembly in his 2006 farewell address as governor, during which he recapped his reorganization of the state's government, including the establishment of centralized purchasing, and his "cutting-edge consolidation of information technology."

As he nears the end of his first term in the Senate, his proudest legislative accomplishment is a statutory mouthful known as the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. That little-known law, which he pushed through the Senate in 2010, is designed to encourage common objectives across federal agencies and review their progress on a quarterly basis.

"When Congress adds 50 goals, that means that there are no goals," Warner told FCW. "I want to limit programs to having three to five goals."

Following initial resistance by the Office of Management and Budget — which Warner said is "more B than M" — he voiced hope that executive branch officials are starting to implement the new law. He praised OMB's release in early June of a program inventory from each Cabinet department as a step toward reducing duplication and improving efficiency. But, he added, "there is still work to do to make [OMB's] Performance.gov website more user-friendly."

In its review of OMB's progress, the Government Accountability Office issued recommendations for enhanced implementation of the new law, including steps for the OMB director to "clarify the ways that intended audiences could use the information" on its website.

Revealing the 'black art' of budgeting

Warner's unofficial status as the Senate's guru on government management was formalized by the Budget Committee's creation in 2009 of a bipartisan Performance Task Force, which Warner has chaired ever since. The group's initial goal, he said, was to provide oversight and encourage agencies to be more efficient, especially "if they are asking for more revenues."

"Warner's allies add, with some humor, that it might have also been a way for senior Democrats to keep the rambunctious newcomer busy.

Another recent step in Warner's broad plan to improve government performance has been a revision of the proposed Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which he reintroduced with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). Sponsors view the measure, which they hope to enact this year, as a companion to the 2010 law because it would improve management of program spending and institute uniform standards for data reporting.

"There is a black art around budgeting," Warner said. "Budget experts try to keep it oblique" with dozens of separate financial systems. By establishing a single approach for all agencies, the bill would make it easier to monitor where the money is going.

"Washington should be doing all it can to track how taxpayer dollars are spent," said Portman, who was OMB director from 2006 to 2007.

Warner said those improved efficiencies in spending and program management would help him achieve his paramount objective of a "more rational budget," which includes reducing the deficit.

Accordingly, in 2011, he took on the high-profile job of organizing and leading the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Six, which sought to develop multi-year fiscal plans that incorporated additional revenues and sizable cuts to entitlement spending. Unfortunately, the group lacked the support of Senate leaders, and its efforts were ultimately overtaken by the budget negotiations between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

"The Gang was the kind of high-profile, vocal and self-appointed group that could dwell in the world of fiscal and budget abstractions," journalist Bob Woodward wrote last year in "The Price of Politics," his book about those talks. "That freedom also gave the Gang plenty of time to stir the pot and cause trouble."

Criticism of the group's deficit-reduction efforts was unwarranted, Warner said. He cast the blame for the failure of budget talks on the business community. "Business' failure to weigh in with a concentrated effort made a grand bargain more difficult," he added.

The retirement last year of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), one of the Gang of Six, has reduced the group's activities. Instead, Warner has been working more closely with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Conrad's successor as chairman of the Budget Committee.

Uniting the 'blue shirts and red shirts'

Tech community ties

Virginia's large technology community views Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) as one of their own, and many of its most prominent members are happy to assist him.

In 2010, after the news media reported that shoddy recordkeeping at Arlington National Cemetery had resulted in misidentified grave sites and mishandled remains, the outraged Warner sought assistance from leaders of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. Together, they worked with the Army to digitize the records for the 330,000 graves and improve burial procedures.

"Mark called me and said that we had to fix the problem…. The Army took almost all of our recommendations," said Bobbie Kilberg, the council's president. "Mark is a business person, and he understands us. He solves problems."

The chief obstacle in resolving the cemetery's problems was the Army's reluctance to take private-sector advice. When Army Secretary John McHugh initially "stonewalled," Kilberg added, Warner "pushed ahead and told the secretary that we would have a press conference…. Thirty minutes before the event, we got a letter from the Army saying that they would cooperate."

Warner took a similar approach early this year when he met with tech company executives and asked them to get involved in immigration legislation and support his interest in biometrics to promote enforcement, said Joe Vidulich, the council's public policy manager.

IT company officials and Senate aides had extensive meetings about improving identification on immigration and entry/exit documents, but Warner decided not to offer his changes on the Senate-passed immigration bill after the group failed to agree on a plan.

Nevertheless, "we have started a thoughtful discussion," he told FCW. "We want to make sure that all of the stakeholders talk to each other."

Warner still seems to be searching for the best way to serve as one of 100 in the politically unpopular Senate rather than as the boss — in the public or private sector. "A chief executive's skill is to put out a plan and listen for changes," he said. "That's different for legislators, who often are inflexible in getting their pound of flesh…. I didn't appreciate how much Washington has broken down between blue shirts and red shirts."

He will have an opportunity to test his nonpartisan approach as successor to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee. As the panel begins work on a new multi-year authorization bill, Warner has said he hopes to reform the federal government's patchwork approach to infrastructure.

Republican Senators appear to be lining up to cooperate with Warner. In addition to Portman and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who took the lead with Warner in the Gang of Six, his allies include Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), with whom Warner has filed a plan to shut down the federal housing finance agencies, and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has co-hosted a series of bipartisan dinners with other Senators. The dinners are part of Warner's effort to reduce polarization.

"If we overstate its importance," Alexander told Reuters, "it will get less done."

Warner has also increased his visits across Virginia recently, as he prepares to seek a second term next year. Although he was elected to the Senate in 2008 with 65 percent of the vote and appears to remain popular, he is mindful that his first two statewide races — his unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1996 and his victory for governor in 2001 — were both 52-47 contests.

The 58-year-old Warner likely will keep his broader ambitions in check while he seeks re-election at home. He made no secret of having explored a 2008 presidential candidacy before deciding against it, but whether he might consider running in 2016 as a centrist problem-solver would depend on various factors in the coming year. For now, he dismisses occasional queries about his interest by saying he is not focusing on his next job.

Still, Warner often gets discouraged by the slow congressional progress on the issues that concern him most. When that happens, as he often tells audiences in the closing remarks of his speeches, he recalls the advice of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the early days of World War II: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they have tried everything else."

And Warner adds, "We are at that point."

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