Never Say Never

Posted April 4, 2008 at 6:11pm

After years of debate, hundreds of Government Accountability Office employees are closer than they’ve ever been to getting their cost-of-living raises for 2006 and 2007.

[IMGCAP(1)]Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) introduced legislation last week to require a lump sum payout to the denied employees. On Thursday, that bill passed through the subcommittee that Davis chairs.

Now it will go to the full Oversight and Government Reform Committee for approval. Its chances look good: Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is a co-sponsor, and GAO officials say they are supportive.

If the bill does succeed, it would be a first step toward ending the controversy over the agency’s switch to a market-based, performance-driven pay system.

That new system led to more than 300 employees not receiving annual raises in 2006 and 2007, despite getting satisfactory reviews. It also jump-started the effort to create the agency’s first-ever union, which officially formed last fall.

Davis’ bill actually is a revised version of legislation requested by then-Comptroller General David Walker earlier this year. The original version did not include anything about COLAs; instead, it created a statutory inspector general and raised the pay cap for top GAO employees, among other things. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) introduced a bill in the Senate at Walker’s request, but he hasn’t brought it up in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs. Staffers have said that the bill will be subject to revision.

Most of Walker’s requests remain in the House bill, but Davis has added the retroactive payout, along with a requirement that COLAs are never denied again to an employee who get a “meets expectations” performance rating.

Weathering the Storm. The founder of the Web site that publishes staffers’ financial disclosure forms offered a solution last week to lingering complaints his site is violating people’s privacy: If you want the forms changed, you’ve got to pay for those changes.

As Roll Call first reported last month, LegiStorm’s founder, Jock Friedly, has been working closely with House officials to remove any information on the forms that clearly violates privacy, such as Social Security numbers or bank account information. He reiterated that point in a blog posting Thursday.

But removing information such as personal addresses presents an enormous upfront cost for the site, which makes less than $10 a day, Friedly argues. So, if Members decide that the forms must be redacted, Members must find the funds to do so.

“The House should pay — only out-of- pocket costs, with no overhead or profit — for us to redact the past disclosures to their liking, assuming the redactions have no significant public disclosure consequences,” Friedly writes.

In an interview Friday, Friedly said staffers should understand LegiStorm is publishing nothing that hasn’t already been reviewed by the House and made public.

Friedly added that the House should make minor changes to future forms so information such as addresses and personal signatures aren’t released, and better review the forms for private data before releasing them.

“It was Congress that reviewed these things for the adequacy of the filings,” Friedly said. “They released it, and now they are complaining about us simply publishing what they’ve already published.”

A spokesman for the House Administration Committee declined to comment on Friday, saying that House officials were still working to solve the issue.

Back to the Basics. To get the 2010 Census done right and done on time, officials have decided to go back to pen and paper for part of the process.

For years, Census Bureau officials planned on using electronic handheld devices to record information from citizens who did not return the mail-in survey. But tests last year revealed flaws in the devices, including time lags and technical issues.

So on Thursday, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Congress that the handhelds only will be used to map out residences — and not to take surveys.

The change in plan could make the census up to $3 billion more expensive, adding to an already record-breaking $11 billion budget.

With less than two years left until the survey, census officials don’t have much time to fix the problem. And it’s important that the census is timely and accurate: The constitutionally mandated survey is used for redistricting, reapportionment and a slew of government programming.

Last month, the GAO put the 2010 Census on its “high-risk” list, meaning the watchdog agency thinks the issue needs immediate attention. One of the main problems, GAO experts said, was that the Census Bureau was relying on a private-sector business, the Harris Corp., to develop the handhelds without setting appropriate standards.

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