‘Doing More With Less’ on Oversight

Posted October 26, 2011 at 9:53pm

Since taking the gavel in January, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has dramatically reformed a little-known but powerful team of senior staff, outside investigators and other individuals who form the core of the panel’s oversight activities.

Known simply as Surveys and Investigations, the unofficial team produces nothing in the way of public documents, is not listed on the committee’s own website and is holed up in the largely forgotten Ford House Office Building, far from the committee’s main offices in the Capitol.

But despite a low public profile, the team’s influence on the appropriations process cannot be overstated — S&I reports to Rogers, ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) and the subcommittee chairmen and ranking members, and their work product more often than not becomes the backbone of the yearly appropriations process.

According to aides and others familiar with the panel, under Rogers’ watch, S&I has become more streamlined, reducing its costs and reliance on outside contractors significantly while at the same time doubling its workload over last year.

Rogers also brought in former Housing and Urban Development budget chief David Gibbons to head up the team and has significantly increased the use of detailees from the executive branch as investigators, drawing on their knowledge of the individual budgets in identifying areas for cuts.

“We’re doing a lot more with less,” Rogers spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said.

According to Hing, Rogers has increased full-time investigators on the S&I staff from six and will have 14 total by the end of the year.

Under Rogers, S&I is on pace to conduct 30 investigations and surveys this year, up from 14 last year.

But those reforms have come at a cost.

Between March and June 2010, the committee spent $912,000 on 50 contract consultants. Those consultants hail from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from former agency budget officials to former investigators for the FBI.

But after taking control of the committee, Rogers slashed the S&I contractor budget, reducing it by $579,000 and cutting 30 contractors during that same period, according to a Roll Call analysis of Congressional disbursement forms.

Part of the impetus for those cuts was the across-the-board belt tightening that Congress has undergone this year.

Additionally, S&I staffing needs “had not been reviewed in a while,” Hing said, adding that Rogers felt it was time to “implement some reforms.”

But critics insist the reductions in staffing have hurt the committee’s ability to conduct proper oversight.

If “you cut 20 contract staff … it probably means you’re not staying even,” said Scott Lilly, a former top Appropriations aide who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Lilly, who was chief of staff to former Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) as well as a clerk and staff director on the Appropriations Committee, argued that “if your agenda is to cut waste out of the federal government … failing to increase the overall effort is a step in the wrong direction.”

Those investigations and surveys are not only at the heart of what S&I does but are also central to the work of the committee in general, according to House aides.

While committee and subcommittee staff typically craft appropriations bills on the top level, S&I to a large degree provides the background information for them to do their actual work. Investigators identify specific projects, programs and spending items in a given agency or department’s budget.

Following a detailed review of the budget and program, they will provide reports to subcommittee staff and members on their findings that often form the basis of recommended areas to reduce spending, protect spending levels or provide an increase.

According to aides, the highly technical nature of the work generally makes S&I intensely nonpartisan, and it is common for investigators to remain with the team after a switch in control of the committee.

Additionally, the committee has generally taken steps to further reduce the chances of partisanship seeping into the process by requiring any survey or investigation that is conducted to be approved on a bipartisan basis by Rogers, Dicks and their lieutenants.

Part of the concern for Lilly and others is the fact that unlike authorizing committees — which typically conduct prominent but often partisan-minded oversight investigations — the Appropriations Committee has the power to implement real, meaningful reforms.

After all, Rogers and Dicks control the purse strings, and while political attacks hurt, budget rescissions can hurt federal bureaucrats even more.

“Appropriations has the hammer … but the authorizers, they really have the people” to conduct comprehensive investigations, Lilly said.

The cuts in investigators also mean that “a lot of the decisions are misinformed,” Lilly said. For instance, he points to last winter’s continuing resolution in which funding was reduced for the Food and Drug Administration’s construction budget. With the FDA moving into a new headquarters, the reductions have meant significant delays in completing work, which has left a key division of the agency in charge of approving biologically derived drugs stranded in temporary work space.

A House GOP aide, however, dismissed Lilly’s concerns, arguing that the committee understood the FDA’s funding needs “and made the decision to cut the project anyway.” Arguing that even if S&I had recommended maintaining funding, it would likely not have had an impact on the committee’s decision-making because “pretty much the only thing that needs to be funded in this project is parking lots — which probably won’t be needed right away anyway.”

Hing also downplayed those concerns, arguing that while the number of investigators has been reduced because of cuts to the contractor budget, Rogers has boosted S&I’s ability to more carefully target its work by relying on detailees from the agencies.

Detailees are the “types of people who know these agencies and bureaucracies inside and out on every layer. They have the experience and expertise to know where the bodies are buried.”

Additionally, beyond identifying places to cut spending, these officials can also “defend good programs … they know the good and the bad,” Hing added, because they have a better understanding of how programs are working.

Nevertheless, Lilly argues that the changes could result in higher long-term costs to taxpayers and that the GOP’s insistence they are using well-aimed scalpels to identify cuts “flies completely into the face of what they’re actually doing.”

Laura Barron-Lopez and Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.