Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: How Congress and federal leaders can work better together

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

As the 114th session of Congress begins, we turned to two former legislators for greater insight into how congressional leaders and the federal leaders could work more effectively together. Olympia Snowe, a former Republican senator from Maine, and Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas and secretary of agriculture, are co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform. Their commission focuses on finding ways to overcome the polarization and gridlock in Washington.

Snowe and Glickman spoke with Fox about the relationship between Congress and executive branch agencies during this time of extreme partisanship.

Is Congress doing a good job overseeing the work of the executive branch?

Snowe: Oversight activities are an extremely critical role for members of Congress. To the degree that their hearings are used for improving agencies and programs, it becomes an effective function. If it’s just for politicizing a message, that obviously becomes a different question. I often describe these hearings as a road to nowhere when they are used to highlight the politics of the problem rather than how to solve the problem. So it really depends.

Glickman: I was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for six years during the Clinton administration, so I participated in these oversight hearings, which at the time were somewhat distracting. But they were very important. While this administration hasn’t liked it, Congressman Darrell Issa has been fairly tenacious and effective, and Congressman Jason Chaffetz seems to be taking that role on as well. Former Senator Carl Levin and former Congressman John Dingell also were role models for effective committee oversight of administration policy.

Often times, members of Congress do not appreciate the power that they have. They really need to exercise those authorities aggressively because, otherwise, administrations can run over the Congress. The best oversight is having an objective non-partisan review of administration activities. Partisan witch hunting creates ill will and rarely accomplishes anything of value.

Do today's members of Congress have the same depth of understanding of federal agencies and programs as in the past?

Snowe: The question is: When they conduct these oversight hearings, what happens? Virtually nothing. It does not usually result in any specific policies based on what you learn. We recently saw how the Congress responded to what transpired at the Department of Veterans Affairs when employees covered up long waiting times for veterans to receive medical care. The quick congressional legislative response was unusual by today’s standards because they coalesced around a bipartisan solution to that catastrophic problem. And that made a difference between life and death for so many of our veterans.

Ordinarily, you don’t see the Congress responding. You don’t have a legislative process that nurtures the necessity for that knowledge. You don’t get rewarded for that knowledge, that’s for sure.

Glickman: When I was first elected, I was advised to find a couple of things I could become an expert in and focus on that. If you develop expertise in certain areas, then you’ll develop influence in the process. So that meant learning, overseeing, understanding, drilling down and digging into the process. On several occasions, I’d do that and find a way to offer amendments and affect the legislative outcome. Not that you can’t do that now, but it’s harder without many legislative vehicles.

What should Congress be doing to help agencies better do their jobs?

Snowe: Congress isn’t addressing a number of issues affecting agencies, because they are not passing legislation. So it ends up being almost futile. If the agency leaders want to communicate some of the problems they have, there is not really an avenue to channel constructive change. And I sense that if you are working for an agency, it would be very difficult to consult with Congress on any issues in this current environment.

Glickman: The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is supposed to head the management functions of government, but I don’t think Congress gives enough attention to OMB in this regard. There needs to be a better way for OMB and the Congress to relate to each other on the management end.

What are the mistakes agency leaders make in working with Congress? What should they be doing to build better relationships?

Glickman: For most agency leaders, frankly, the best relationship with Congress is no relationship, when you have such a partisan atmosphere. But the best thing that a good agency manager can have — other than being a good manager — is good political antennae to know what’s really going to get Congress agitated and upset. Yet, there may be some agencies that will always have a problem; the IRS is probably never going to have a positive experience with Congress.

Snowe: It’s having good relationships, especially for those in Congress who are overseeing your agency. A secretary or others within the agency have the ability to meet with members of Congress, or the ranking members of the committees and subcommittees, and that can be helpful. They have to build relationships, not just for the good times but also for the bad, and they must be transparent and upfront and tell each other when there’s a problem.

Glickman: Anytime an agency tries to hide or obfuscate, that’s big trouble. It’s always going to come out, especially in the modern world with social media. Nothing is a secret anymore, so they have to deal with it the best way they can. And with some problems, you’re going to get slapped around. That’s just the nature of the beast.

I had some hearings where I felt really slapped around and the chairman came up to me afterwards and said, “Great job! You did it.” It’s just part of the game. But if you’ve got problems, deal with them right away. You need Cabinet-level outreach to members of Congress. How do you do that? Breakfast, lunch, go visit or bring them over to your department. You do whatever you can so that even when they’re mad at you, they’re not personally mad at you.

Snowe: I agree.

If you have a problem in your agency and you want to be transparent, what’s the best approach? Do you go through the White House or directly to the oversight committee?

Glickman: It’s a combination, and every administration is different. In my case, I had two chiefs of staff at the White House — Leon Panetta, whom I served with in Congress, and John Podesta, who was about as savvy a political operator as anybody. I could go to them and get great advice if I had a problem.

Some things you need to handle on your own. If the target price for wheat was at the wrong level, I’m not going to go to John Podesta, I’m going to deal with that myself. If there’s a serious problem with the food stamp program, then you have to go to the White House and get their help. But it’s important that the White House not be control freaks, either. They have to give Cabinet officials and agency heads enough flexibility to make those judgments. If everything has to be run through the White House, you’re going to slow the process down and make people believe you’re hiding something from them.

What are the obstacles to recruiting the best talent to government?

Snowe: The current environment is the obstacle. Obviously the hyper-partisan environment has spillover effect on the executive branch of government. People feel there are other ways in which they can serve the country other than in government or running for political office, which is unfortunate. It’s one of the aspects that we’re focusing on at the Bipartisan Policy Center in our report on political reform.

We need to focus on how we can encourage young people to pursue some avenues of public service — whether it’s in the agencies, running for office or even in other civic activities. I’ve spoken on numerous college campuses and I am impressed with the young people who really want to contribute to their country, but they’re evaluating which is the most effective means. The present political paralysis doesn’t lend itself to inspiring people to pursue those options.

Glickman: We make it almost impossible for people with experience to come into the government and then rotate back into the private sector. We need to encourage people who have had some success in the private sector to come into the government and contribute.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jan 20, 2015 at 1:49 PM

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