Current and former officials at the General Services Administration will face a gauntlet of congressional hearings this week, following reports of excessive spending on a 2010 regional training conference and other programs.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee’s chair, will hold the first hearing Monday afternoon.
Tom Davis, the director of federal government affairs at consultant Deloitte & Touche, knows the inner workings of an oversight hearing well. As a former Virginia congressman, he chaired the Oversight Committee from 2003-2007.
In an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose, Davis shared his insights and what to look for in the hearings.
Competing committee hearings
The Oversight Committee — which expects testimony from ousted administrator Martha Johnson and the regional commissioner who planned the Las Vegas conference, Jeff Neely, among others — isn’t the only one aiming to grill GSA employees over the agency’s spending habits.
Davis said the House Oversight Committee is, perhaps, best poised to examine the controversy at GSA.
“When it comes to waste, fraud, abuse — those kinds of things — the government [Oversight] Committee generally takes precedence,” he said, because it has official oversight jurisdiction authorities.
The House Transportation Committee, on the other hand, “only has a small piece of that jurisdiction under federal buildings,” he added.
So why will three committees all hold hearings next week? Davis chalked it up, at least in part, to some political posturing. “In politics, they’re always looking for a parade to lead,” he said.
“I think having multiple hearings on the same subject is probably not very constructive at the end of the day,” he added, citing the extra preparation time and costs for both GSA and the committee. “But look, it’s a political year in Washington. And the first casualty in these kinds of cases is efficiency.”
Still, having Congress look into what has become a political controversy of the first order is appropriate, Davis said, especially for the Oversight Committee. “I think if they didn’t do it, they’d be derelict because they have the jurisdiction on this issue.”
Hearings will shine a light
Davis said the hearings will be important because much of the facts surrounding the case remain vague.
“We still don’t know a lot about what happened in Vegas,” he said. “We’ve gotten some initial reports, we’ve seen a video that one of the employees put together. But the books are not closed on this at this point. Once you start shining a flashlight on this, it’ll be interesting to see what else is uncovered. But I suspect we haven’t heard the whole story at this point.”
And despite the atmosphere of political posturing, the hearings will still provide an important function, Davis said.
“Congress, I think in holding their hearings, is doing something in a positive way,” he explained, helping to send a signal that the federal government and federal employees aren’t exempt from lean economic times.
“We know here in the Washington area federal workers aren’t particularly overpaid,” he said. “But across the rest of the country, there is this image that federal workers are getting paid more than anybody else … And this adds to that narrative unfortunately.”
Political climate helped create firestorm
GSA is no stranger to controversy. A previous administrator, Lurita Doan, resigned in 2008 amid allegations of trying to steer a contract to a friend and violating the Hatch Act.
But Davis said the uproar over GSA also has something to do with the current political environment.
“It’s not just about the agencies. We also need to consider the political environment we’re dealing in right now,” he said. “And that is [if there’s] any single mistake anywhere in the bureaucracy right now, somebody’s going to pounce on it.”
It wasn’t necessarily the amount of money spent on the training conference — nearly $823,000, but the “optics” of it, he explained. GSA officials must have had a “tin ear” to spend so much money so frivolously “at a time when Americans are unemployed, when government’s starving for dollars,” Davis added.