Beard Gets an Earful From Members

Chief Administrative Officer Quizzed on Communications, Payroll Issues

Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:35pm

Members from both sides of the aisle grilled Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard on Wednesday, covering topics that ranged from poor communication to glitches in the chamber’s payroll system.

As manager of the House’s operations, Beard handles the day-to-day transactions and programs for Members and staffers. Paychecks, staff training, food services, reimbursement approval — it’s all controlled through Beard’s office.

But some of those functions have recently run into trouble, according to some Members and staffers. Offices are facing long waits for reimbursement checks, mistakes in paychecks and outdated online financial systems, for example.

“I’m just not sure what the level of tolerance should be,” said Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), adding that she understood that some problems may be temporary. “Some of the glitches we’ve seen just don’t seem appropriate.”

Wednesday’s oversight hearing of the House Administration Committee included testimony from four House officers: Beard, Clerk of the House Lorraine Miller, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and Acting Inspector General Theresa Grafenstine. But many of the panel’s questions were aimed at Beard. Not all was negative; Beard detailed his office’s progress in greening the Capitol and told Members that in the next few months, staffers will be getting larger e-mail storage space.

But ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) also questioned Beard at length about a letter sent to the committee from Chiefs of Staff Association President George McElwee.

[IMGCAP(1)]In his April 5 letter, McElwee cited problems in the CAO’s finance office. Financial and payroll counselors — usually assigned to the same offices for an extended period of time — are now “arbitrarily reassigned outside of the standard end-of-Congress changes,” he wrote. But Beard, he added, has declined repeatedly to meet with the association for feedback.

“We believe that an effective, responsive support structure is a vital part of our ability to serve our Members and constituents. We also believe that as the CAO’s only customers, we are entitled to have our views and opinions heard, listened to and incorporated into the decision making process of the office,” McElwee wrote. “Regrettably, that is not the case.”

Some of the finance issues, Beard said Wednesday, can be traced to new reimbursement regulations and the office’s preparation for a new payroll system. Financial and payroll counselors have been shuffled in a “realignment” of the office’s financial division. Meanwhile, CAO employees are learning new regulations that require offices to hand in additional documents for reimbursement of travel, office supplies and other expenses. And those same employees were hit with a spike in reimbursement requests in January and February, thanks to a flood of end-of-the-year filings.

As for meeting with the Chiefs of Staff Association, Beard told Members that he “phoned them repeatedly” and offered to “meet with them anytime.” But he also described the difficulty of handling the input and requests of 441 Member offices and thousands of staffers.

“Often, we’re asked to do things that we simply cannot do,” he said.

Lungren was unimpressed, and at one point he chided Beard for “rendering criticism” on the Chiefs of Staff Association before even hearing their suggestions and complaints.

“I hope you would be open and not resistant” to meeting with the association, he said, later adding: “Frankly, I find your resistance not only odd, I find it insulting to Members and their staff.”

Lungren also criticized Beard’s upcoming “demonstration projects” that will showcase emerging greening technology. Before Wednesday’s oversight hearing, the House Administration Committee authorized the launch of the program, which was appropriated $2.5 million in the 2010 legislative branch appropriations act. The committee’s resolution, among other things, requires the CAO to submit to the panel a justification for every project and to enlist a third-party expert to evaluate the success of each project. The vote fell along party lines.

Spending that money on demonstration projects during difficult economic times — and when Congress is about to symbolically freeze its pay — seems wasteful, Lungren said.

“While in some circumstances, we may think a couple of million dollars is not a big deal, it is a big deal in this case,” he said.

The committee also touched upon new procurement guidelines. As of March 18, Beard only has to get approval from the panel for contracts totaling more than $350,000. Beard originally requested $500,000 — double the original $250,000 ceiling.

Asked how he got to that number, Beard said it was a “logical break” but that he welcomed the extra scrutiny.

“It really is a question of how much work the committee staff wants to do or be involved in,” he said.