Dems on Trump reorg: 'Where's the data?'

Democrats in the Senate are reluctant to support the Trump administration's reorganization plan before OMB provides the underlying analysis used to justify claims it would lead to smoother governance.

Claire McCaskill HSGAC hearing 2017
 

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), shown here at a 2017 hearing, wants to see the data behind the Trump administration's government reorganization proposals.

In a Senate hearing, Democrats expressed reluctance to support the Trump administration's wide-ranging reorganization plan before the Office of Management and Budget provides the underlying analysis used to justify claims that it would lead to smoother governance.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, called the administration's proposal "woefully short on details" and lacking the kind of cost-benefit analyses, implementation timelines or performance metrics needed to justify the broad reorganization the White House was pushing. However, she did flag some areas of potential agreement between the two parties, while panning other proposals in the plan, like the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service, as "untenable."

"We can agree about the importance of strengthening the cybersecurity workforce, improving federal agencies' customer service, ensuring federal cemeteries are well maintained," said McCaskill.

Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office for Management and Budget and one of the administration's leaders on reorganization, said that the document was meant to "showcase the art of the possible" and that some proposals will need to be further fleshed out by Congress and the public.

"The things with less specificity are going to need more public dialogue, more traditional interactions on the specifics," she said.

However, Weichert demurred when asked if she would provide the committee with evaluations the administration asked agencies to conduct on the costs, benefits and impact the reorganization would have on their operations, something McCaskill and other Democrats on the committee said was unacceptable.

"Well you're not going to get very far if you don't give us the data," said McCaskill. "I'm just telling you it's not going to happen. If you think you're going to be able to come to us and make serious proposals about reorganizing government without sharing with us the data that you're basing those recommendations on, this is a non-starter."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) echoed those concerns, saying the absence of such transparency makes it impossible for legislators to determine whether a reorganization proposal was actually endorsed by the stakeholder agency or "made up" by OMB.

"We're interested in streamlining, but we aren't getting the kind of background information that we need to support you," Heitkamp said. "Maybe you're right, maybe these are things we ought to do, but this idea that later on we'll all get to see the data and documents…. I mean, why release this without data and documents?"

Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) leapt to the administration's defense, saying he didn't see a problem with providing "a vision, an outline" that Congress and the administration then could build on as some ideas start garnering more serious consideration.

"When you're really ready to propose something, you'll have the information, you will provide that to us," said Johnson. "Developing the proposals to a position or point where you can actually make the proposal, there's a deliberative process in there, and you've got a very unequal level of detail from different agencies."

In a statement submitted to the committee, the American Federation of Government Employees, a labor union representing more than 600,000 federal employees, complained that "the administration's reorganization plan does not provide any information or indication that an analysis has been conducted to project how employees" or service delivery would be affected if the plan were implemented.

One idea that the administration believes is ready for immediate consideration is the plan to shift responsibility for all background investigations from the Office of Personnel Management to the Department of Defense. The Pentagon, which accounts for 70 percent of the current backlog of background investigations governmentwide, is already set to take over its own background checks later this year, following legislation by Congress.

"The reality of having to move 70 percent, and the economics of stranding the remaining 30 percent meant that moving the entire background investigation [process] made more sense and was less risky," said Weichert, who noted that reforms to the background investigations process has been the subject of numerous congressional hearings.

Another ready-to-go proposal highlighted by Weichert is the administration's plan for utilizing ongoing evaluations by OMB, OPM and the Department of Homeland Security to identify and categorize gaps in the federal government's cybersecurity workforce. The administration wants to use this work to "enable the development of an enterprise-wide approach to the recruitment, placement and training of cybersecurity talent."

Several members of the committee indicated they were interested in endorsing that portion of the plan, citing ongoing cybersecurity threats to the federal government's networks from foreign adversaries.

"That's one of the ideas where I think your proposal has some promise," said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).

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