A new report blasts dysfunction and partisanship on Capitol Hill for disrupting the management and operation of federal agencies.
The study by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit government research group, comes as ongoing budget battles in Congress could again shut down the federal government, with funding set to run out at the end of this month.
Lawmakers are working on a short-term funding measure, but that is only likely to forestall the crisis for a few months until the end of this year (E&E Daily, Sept. 16). In the meantime, agency managers have to check their shutdown contingency plans to keep vital functions running if they have to close their doors and pick who on their staff will and will not be sent home on furlough.
The never-ending funding crises in Congress that have resulted in significant cuts under sequestration, rancor over raising the debt ceiling and the 2013 government shutdown have not helped the executive branch, according to the partnership.
"The repeated failure by Congress to agree on a budget and pass appropriations bills on time, combined with a government shutdown, sequestration and repeated fights over extending the government’s borrowing authority, have disrupted government operations, resulting in lost productivity and the inability to plan," the report said.
The 2013 shutdown in particular resulted in "the furlough of 800,000 federal employees and affected a wide array of services, from denying the entry of seriously ill patients to National Institutes of Health clinical trials to putting constraints on environmental protection, food safety, public health, small business loans, and nuclear and chemical plant safety," according to the group.
Along with budget concerns, the partnership takes aim at several problems festering between the legislative and executive branches, including a "pervasive lack of understanding" between Congress and federal agencies, burdensome congressional oversight, a slow Senate confirmation process, and the stalling of important reauthorization legislation.
"These findings are a sobering and stark reminder that Capitol Hill is not an island; what happens or fails to happen in the halls of Congress has a profound effect on the rest of our government, and on the American people who fund, empower and rely on that government for everything from Social Security benefits to national defense," the report said.
The partnership makes several recommendations to improve relations between the two branches, such as Congress adopting a biennial budget and appropriations process and streamlining the confirmation of agency nominees.
To complete the report, the partnership reviewed government documents, books and articles about Congress, as well as congressional testimony. The group also interviewed former high-level political appointees from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations and ex-House members and senators.
One of the former senior officials interviewed by the partnership was Bob Perciasepe, the former deputy administrator for U.S. EPA. The agency’s former No. 2 had a unique vantage point to see Capitol Hill dysfunction close up.
Nominated in 2009 to be deputy administrator, Perciasepe was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July that year but had to wait until Christmas before the Senate confirmed him. His nomination was held up by angst over the Obama administration’s climate change policies (Greenwire, Jan. 4, 2010).
"I couldn’t go and give speeches, I couldn’t go to the White House, I couldn’t go and participate in the [deputies’] group, I couldn’t be forcefully trying to do anything," Perciasepe told the partnership.
The former EPA official also noted that funding and budget issues could be "debilitating" to the agency.
"I don’t want to make it sound like nothing gets done. A lot of work is being done. But the atmosphere is not conducive to innovation and management. It’s debilitating," Perciasepe said.