Thursday, March 13, 2008

Are You Down With OMB? Yeah, You Know Me! (JM)

First of all, I apologize for the above pun. Puns are to me like cake is to fat children, I cannot help it, particularly if said pun is about early '90s pseudorap. There's pretty much no chance that AOTG is going to last another three months without some sort of reference to Vanilla Ice, no chance at all. Anyhoo, let's talk OMB loopholes.

So a while back the Justice Department suggested that a rule be implemented whereby government contractors would be responsible for reporting any malfeasance or corruption on the part of the government or surrounding organizations. This is an incredibly sensible rule given that almost 350 billion dollars of taxpayer money per year is at stake. However, the Washington Post is reporting that, to the shock of none of us, the rule that was crafted by the OMB has an exemption built in to not require such disclosure on foreign soil.

This is really no big deal, since we actually use almost no government contractors on foreign soil. In fact, it only governs a mere average 20 billion dollars a year over the last five years; a pittance. The smaller point is that this is obviously bad, and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) is threatening to hold investigations. Meanwhile, OMB could simply change this rule, but they haven't, nor have they offered a coherent rationale for such an exemption. There is however a larger point: the regulation of government bureaucracy.

The executive branch has operated reasonable well over the last 200 somewhat years. Honestly, even during the worst of times, Watergate, the executive branch bureaucracy acquitted itself in a relatively noble manner, acting as a somewhat independent body with respect to their institutional mission. However, this is no longer the case, supposedly apolitical institutions, such as the OMB or the EPA have demonstrated a marked lack of independence and a total increase politicization. This makes the executive branch awfully powerful and heavy-handed, particularly given the way they tend to railroad the Senate on the appointment process and subvert any attempt at legitimate congressional oversight.

Now that these dangers are clear though, it's less clear that anything can be done. Let's say that constitutional and institutional barriers were no obstacle to a total restructuring of our political process (this is obviously a gianormous if). Even then it's not really apparent what is a better solution to the problem. Can we decouple the bureaucracy from the executive? Could we have an independent set of institutions that are self-contained, with a similar appointment process? I am not clear on any of these questions. Either way, it's an issue that requires sincere thought and reform, so any of y'all bureaucratic institutions wonks out there (and I know there are some of you) send me an e-mail or post in the comments section any relevant or interesting articles or studies on this issue.

(Hat tip: Andrew Berger and Peter Sheehy at TPM)

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