Sens. praise Portman but question 'paygo'

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee questioned Rob Portman yesterday about “paygo” fiscal restraint and White House interference in the development of federal regulations. But members voiced unanimous support for his nomination to become the next director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Most of the questions during the hearing focused on the national debt and how Portman, a former Ohio Republican congressman who has been the U.S. trade representative for a year, would save money by reducing government inefficiency and mismanagement.

Several lawmakers noted Portman’s experience as a former House Ways and Means Committee member and said they believe his confirmation would lead to better communications between Congress and the White House, which had grown increasingly frosty.

While members voiced support for Portman, it seems clear that several disagreements will remain between the White House and the Senate over budget and regulatory policies.

Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Portman that she believes paygo rules were a “much-needed restraint for members of Congress as we wrestle with fiscal decisions.”

Under paygo rules supported by Collins and others, senators proposing new spending programs or tax cuts would have to find a way to pay for them without adding to the deficit. Paygo rules could be suspended with the support of 60 senators.

Government watchdog groups such as the Concord Coalition and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities strongly support the approach backed by Collins. But the administration has resisted paygo rules for tax cuts, although it supports paygo for new spending.

That position doesn’t seem likely to change under Portman. He said it would be unfair to apply the same fiscal rules to tax breaks. Tax cuts are more appropriately considered temporary and therefore should not affect the budget indefinitely, as new spending programs likely would, Portman said.

The House’s paygo rules exempt tax cuts.

Transparency within the OMB, which has broad authority over the federal bureaucracy, was a second topic of concern among members of the Senate panel.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) questioned Portman about what the Government Accountability Office says has been a rapid increase in the number of “informal meetings” between OMB and federal agency officials. Levin suggested these meetings are on the rise because the administration is trying to “frustrate the intent” of a law requiring that interaction between the OMB and agencies over the development of regulatory policy be available to the public.

Through the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), the OMB is empowered to review agency rules. The worry is that the administration as represented by the OMB is more likely to allow politics to creep into federal rulemaking than are federal agencies, which are peopled with career civil servants.

Formal meetings have to be reported, but informal give-and-take does not.

“It is important to know which rules come from the regulatory agencies and which from OIRA,” Levin said.

Portman said that he would try to make the process more open but that the interaction between OIRA and agencies is “working very well.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), meanwhile, asked Portman to uphold a commitment made by outgoing OMB director Joshua Bolten, whom President Bush tapped to replace Andrew Card as chief of staff, to publish reports that federal agencies give some lawmakers to justify spending.

Coburn said he hasn’t been given access to the “budget justifications,” which he was told were only shown to members of congressional appropriations committees. Coburn said Bolten had said he would make the justifications available to every member, and would post them online for members of the public to see.

Portman said he would honor Bolten’s commitment.

“The truth shall set us free,” Coburn said.