Government Needs Joe to Get His Groove Back

Posted January 5, 2009 at 5:27pm

Now that Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) has won his battle to remain chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, he needs to get his groove back.

As head of the Senate committee with the largest number of confirmation hearings for people who will both run the federal government and hold it accountable, he surely needs it.

Lieberman’s personal brand of political independence could serve him well in this role.

The 2008 elections produced a fundamental shift in the value placed on government — from the Bush administration’s generally negative view to President-elect Barack Obama’s view of government as a force for good.

This shift in presidential philosophy creates a real opportunity for Lieberman and other committee members to depart from the traditional verbal jousting with nominees over technical processes and policies. Senators who prepare for hearings in order to show that they can keep up with the nominees are doing little more than speaking “interview financial management” or “interview civil service” or “interview procurement.”

After all, the committee will hold hearings on six top officials at the Office of Management and Budget: the agency’s director and deputy director, the deputy director for management, and the directors for financial management, procurement and regulatory affairs.

This provides Lieberman and his colleagues with the most direct opportunity of any on Capitol Hill to knock on the door of the executive office of the president.

Jonathan Breul, a former OMB official and now executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, suggests using the hearings to make a public connection between the nominees and the “real world decisions that the White House will make about resources, mission and program results that matter to the American public.”

Lieberman and the committee also face the “CNN klieg light factor” while conducting the hearings.

The lights only go on and the cameras only start running when there is a source of power in the room — political power that is. Hearings for the OMB director, the head of Homeland Security and the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, will qualify.

By asking these questions, the committee can use these hearings to foster higher levels of interest, media coverage and accountability, and perhaps, to again make it “cool” to work in government.

• What plans do these nominees have, what is their philosophy on the position that they will occupy and what do they want to accomplish in the first six months and first year?

• How do the nominees plan to motivate people around them, and most importantly, how will they work to gain the trust and rapport needed with the career executives, managers and employees to fulfill the mission of the agency or office?

That does not mean treating the hearings that attract less media fanfare less seriously. In fact, it is a better opportunity to get down to business and roll up your sleeves. Most of the committee’s nominees, in fact, fall into this category, ranging from small agencies to individual “chiefs” for finance, information and human capital for larger agencies.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also has responsibility for virtually all the accountability laws in government and the related “accountability community.”

This will include any inspectors general requiring nomination by the president. Perhaps more important to Congress will be the committee’s likely 2009 hearing on a new Comptroller General of the United States, the same person who will head the Government Accountability Office.

Confirmation hearings are important because they set the stage for expectations, communications and accountability between Congress and the administration.

Perhaps the biggest reason that Lieberman needs to get his groove back is because government needs to get its groove back.

Steven L. Katz served as counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee under former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and as senior adviser to former Comptroller General David Walker.