Politics & Policy

Now He Wants Competence!

Six years in, Obama seeks “competent governmental management.”

‘​For the remainder of President Obama’s term, what matters most to his success is what Washington watches least: competent governmental management,” wrote John Harwood in the New York Times on Monday, noting that the administration recently added three “competent, low-key managers.”

That’s fabulous news, although one can wonder why it took until the sixth year of an eight-year presidency for President Obama and his staff to recognize that “competent governmental management” is “what matters most to his success.”

#ad#Here are just a few recent examples of . . . not quite competent management:

Egregiously Unqualified Donor Diplomats: The American Foreign Service Association threatened to sue the State Department if it didn’t release the “Certificates of Demonstrated Competence” that the agency customarily fills out for each ambassadorial nominee. The group, representing career foreign-service workers and diplomatic professionals, took this extraordinary step after a series of ambassadorial appointees embarrassingly demonstrated no knowledge of their assigned countries. The State Department finally relented this month.

The use of key ambassadorial posts to reward big-time political donors is expanding rapidly under this president, reports the L.A. Times:

The AFSA said about 37% of Obama’s ambassador appointments have been political picks, compared with an average of about 30% during the past three administrations. Looking only at Obama’s second term, the ratio of political nominees is 53% so far, the group said.

Deadlines Ignored, Missed, and Pushed Back: The Congressional Research Service examined and documented every provision with a specific deadline within the health-care law and the administration’s actions taken as of April 15, 2014, and found that the Department of Health and Human Services had missed more than half of the 83 deadlines that had passed since March 2011.

More Deadlines Ignored, Missed, and Pushed Back: Regulators have missed deadlines on 128 of the 398 rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law, and only 206 rules have been completed, according to law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. The law passed in 2010.

A Scofflaw Culture in Organizations Enforcing the Law: It would be funny if it weren’t so maddening: “The Internal Revenue Service handed out a combined $2.8 million in monetary awards to more than 2,800 agency employees recently disciplined for conduct issues. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration also found more than 1,100 of the disciplined employees were given cash incentives or time off even after they failed to pay their taxes, according to an audit released by the IRS’s auditor Tuesday.”

This raises the question: Just what does an IRS employee have to do to not get a bonus?

Big Energy Expenditures, Little Results: Another Congressional Research Service report found that “Congress has appropriated approximately $6 billion in total since FY2008 for carbon capture and sequestration research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) at DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy.” Despite the considerable expenditures over six years, “to date, there are no commercial ventures in the United States that capture, transport, and inject large quantities of CO2 (e.g., 1 million tons per year or more) solely for the purposes of carbon sequestration.”

Development of these technologies progresses at a glacial pace, as the report noted: “More than a decade after the George W. Bush Administration announced FutureGen — its signature clean coal power initiative — the program is still in early development.” For perspective, the Manhattan Project was approved in 1941 and split the atom four years later.

Elsewhere at the Department of Energy, the top executive at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory made a salary of approximately $1 million per year, and three other top execs earned approximately $500,000 each, 20 percent more than the president of the United States.

Throwing Away Usable Ammunition: How often do you see an institution deliberately destroy something worth $1 billion? “The Pentagon plans to destroy more than $1 billion worth of ammunition although some of those bullets and missiles could still be used by troops, according to the Pentagon and congressional sources. It’s impossible to know what portion of the arsenal slated for destruction — valued at $1.2 billion by the Pentagon — remains viable because the Defense Department’s inventory systems can’t share data effectively, according to a Government Accountability Office report obtained by USA Today.”

Duplicative Research Programs: Few would argue that minority AIDS initiatives and autism research aren’t valid and worthy ways to spend taxpayer money. The question is whether the federal government really needs ten different agencies at the Department of Health and Human Services spending a combined $3 billion on minority AIDS initiatives, or eleven agencies spending more than $1.2 billion on autism research, as the General Accounting Office found this month.

No-Bid Contracts That Ignore Less Expensive Options: Entrepreneur Elon Musk filed a lawsuit against the federal government, contending his rocket-launch startup SpaceX is unfairly shut out of big aerospace contracts. He says his company could do the job of launching government satellites for $4 billion less than current contractor United Launch Alliance, a venture of longtime government contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Widespread Abuse of Overtime Pay: In January the Department of Homeland Security suspended an overtime program, concluding it had been widely abused. In one case, reported the Washington Post, “95 DHS employees at facilities in Northern Virginia allegedly increased their pay by 25 percent through overtime abuse, according to the Special Counsel Carolyn N. Lerner.” Her investigation found that some employees were improperly claiming an extra two hours of overtime every day. A former agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection contends overtime abuse is a system-wide problem, indoctrinated into new agents from day one. “I think it’s in the culture of the Border Patrol,” he said. “If you don’t work it, you still pencil it in.”

DHS Gambling with Taxpayer Dollars: Elsewhere at DHS, reports the West Virginia State Journal, “a former supervisor has been charged with using his government-issued credit card to obtain nearly $116,000 in cash advances at the Hollywood Casino in Charles Town.” Thank the West Virginia State Police for catching this one.

Amtrak’s Sponsorship Deals with Pro Sports Teams: Coverage of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s offensive remarks noted that Amtrak announced it would not renew its sponsorship deal: “The passenger railroad, which operates as a private company but is partially funded through taxpayer subsidies, said in a statement Monday that its sponsorship of the NBA team ‘expired at the end of the regular season a few weeks ago.’”

Why does Amtrak, which runs many routes that lose money, including all of the routes that begin, end, or pass through Los Angeles, throw money around sponsoring any professional athletic team? Do people buy train tickets because that mode of transportation is affiliated with the team? Are they worried some other cross-country rail provider will become the official railroad of the Clippers?

Amtrak refused to specify how much was spent on sponsoring the Clippers, but 2001 coverage of a past deal with the Washington Wizards offers some sense of the scale:

In a five-year deal, the arena’s club-seat concourse has been renamed the Acela Club Level, after Amtrak’s new high-speed train in the Northeast. The club-level restaurant, operated by Levy Restaurants, has been renamed the Acela Club.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but industry experts speculate it’s worth about $800,000 to MCI Center. WSE officials confirm that number is “in the ballpark.”

Letting Employees Walk Away with Taxpayer-Funded Equipment: The National Science Foundation gave Virginia State University a grant to purchase a microscope worth $186,224; a professor removed the microscope when she left her job four years ago and hasn’t returned it. The university didn’t press charges for theft but did send e-mails asking for its return.

Clearly there’s a huge need for “competent governmental management,” but there are some potential hitches in the administration’s newfound focus on this. First, the bureaucracy will resist new demands for efficiency and accountability. Second, federal employees can just wait out any whip-cracking, reform-minded manager; they know that any new cabinet secretary or agency director will probably be leaving in January 2017. Finally, the president has never shown anything resembling the kind of discipline and diligence required to be this kind of detail-oriented, accountability-demanding leader.

Harwood’s Times article helpfully includes this quote: “‘He’s a nonmanager,’ said Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar and a senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.”

He’s the president who binge-watches HBO shows, who was described by his own appointees as “disengaged while listening to the debate [over options in Syria], sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum,” and who remained completely oblivious to the extent of the problems with the HealthCare.gov website even after its launch.

Does this sound like the kind of man who can lead a new era of “competent governmental management”?

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO. His first novel, a comic satire of the federal bureaucracy entitled The Weed Agency, will be published by Crown Forum in June.

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