Pelosi tells panel chairmen to 'redouble' efforts to chip away at federal budget

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is renewing her call on committee chairmen to take a more active role in chipping away at the federal budget, part of a broader attempt to demonstrate that Democrats are serious about fiscal discipline.

Pelosi sent her chairmen a letter on Wednesday asking all of them to "redouble your efforts in conducting oversight of all aspects of federal spending and government operations to help achieve deficit reduction and long-term fiscal responsibility." This is the third time the Speaker has written the committee heads on this topic since early last year.

Saying that "more work needs to be done to reduce the deficit and restore accountability,” Pelosi asked each House chairman to send her back a letter, by May 28, outlining any oversight hearings already held or planned for this session that are “intended to scrutinize departments, agencies, and programs under your jurisdiction."

In recent weeks, Pelosi has tied the task of conducting committee-level oversight of wasteful government spending to a host of efforts to show that Democrats are earnest about trimming the federal budget, even a little bit at a time.

"On our side, this is fiscal responsibility," Pelosi explained at a Thursday press conference before mentioning her latest letter to the House chairmen. "On the floor of the House, we've had the IMPROVE Acquisitions Act to save tens of billions of dollars to the taxpayer in terms of Defense Department procurement. We also have another bill, the Improper Payment Elimination and Recovery Act, which passed on the floor yesterday."

So far, the effect of the oversight initiative has been hard to gauge.

Almost exactly a year ago – on April 27, 2009 – the Speaker sent a similar letter to the chairmen requesting a list of deficit-reducing proposals for the areas of the federal budget each committee oversees.

"As you continue to conduct your oversight investigations, I ask you to develop a specific list of initiatives aimed at reducing costs, ending duplication and promoting efficiency in order to cut the costs of government as aggressively as possible," the Speaker wrote.

"A vigorous oversight process, with the goal of reducing inefficiency and consolidating operations, is one way for Congress to demonstrate our commitment to fiscal discipline," she continued. "I would appreciate your providing a list of recommendations to me by June 2, 2009."

Although a few committees provided The Hill with copies of the plans they sent to the Speaker by that deadline, the recommendations as a whole were not made public. And Pelosi's office was unable to say how much potential savings had been identified, or how she planned to vet those recommendations for possible enactment.

It’s unclear how Democrats would incorporate plans for additional hearings into any deficit-cutting recommendations they are considering from their committee chairmen.

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said "that's something to be worked out."

He also said a savings target was unavailable.

"We've asked them to look for whatever they can find," he said. "We think there can be significant savings here."

House Democrats left town Thursday night still lacking a 2011 budget draft and a roadmap for producing one that can win the support of enough Democrats to pass the House.

The same group of conservative Democrats that has pushed Pelosi to enact various deficit trimming measures is calling for a budget that reduces non-defense discretionary spending by 2 percent – below the level liberals say they're comfortable with.