Lawmakers spar over trimming government fat

Legislators want to make the government smarter, leaner and more efficient, but they can't quite agree on how to do it.

On Tuesday, lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee pushed to trim fat and eliminate waste from the federal government, which some said was too bloated and disorganized.

"Government, in fact, is currently too big to manage," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the panel's chairman, who added that he wants "bold reforms" to rein in the proliferation of federal officials.

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Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, said that efficiency and effectiveness were the most important traits for government workers.

"It we cannot be effective and efficient in what we're doing, we might as well go and play golf, even if we don't play golf," he said. "Life is short. We're here for a short period of time and then we're gone."

Despite mutual agreement on making the government more effective, however, legislators were hard-pressed to reach consensus on which areas need cutting.

Cummings pushed the panel to discuss climate change, an issue that the Government Accountability Office identified as a high-risk issue for the nation's finances, but one that Issa has delayed discussing, he said.

Other Democrats warned about trying to save money through significant cuts to the federal workforce.

"The real question is about the debate over whether government work is done by government employees or is it done by a contractor?" asked Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

"Government continues to grow," he said. "The debate is over which employees would do the work and those that would serve the government best in doing it."

Former Comptroller General David Walker pushed the panel to consider a proposal from the Government Transformation Initiative, a coalition of private companies and nonprofits of which he is now the chairman.

His organization is pushing for the creation of an outside Commission for Government Transformation to oversee and recommend improvements to the federal government. The panel of seven would be appointed by the president and Congress and focus on operational issues, not policy.

"It's highly unlikely that there will be a grand bargain this year," he said in arguing for the commission. "Something needs to be done to be able to send a signal to the American people that the Congress can work together with the president to do something that will benefit the American people. We believe this could be that option."

"I think there's great merit in having a commission that forces us to be more introspective," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who nonetheless did not wholly endorse the idea of the commission.

Though Walker said he was meeting with the new director of the White House budget office on Tuesday, prospects for the commission seem bleak.

"There's no way in hell" it will get through Congress, said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who noted the legislature's difficultly in even passing a budget.

David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, a labor union, called the plan "offensive" for empowering "seven unelected individuals" to make decisions "behind closed doors, where their power reigned supreme and the interests of many are ignored."

Members of the panel chided the across-the-board budget cuts of sequestration, which were enacted after legislators' failure to enact significant deficit reduction, but noted that the policy at least forced some budget cuts.

"While you can bash sequestration, and that's not the way we should do things, it was the only tool at hand, really, to do anything," Mica said.

Drawing parallels to the lack of action over reforming the nation's gun laws in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., Cummings noted a lack of action in moments he called "pregnant with transformation."

"You know the interesting thing is that when those things happen, if you don't transform it, it usually gets worse," he said.

Cummings added, "I don't know what has to happen to jolt us."