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Cybersecurity Boost, Postal Rescue Doable as House Panel Shifts

Dec. 26, 2018, 11:06 AM

Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee won’t agree on much in the 116th Congress beginning in January, but there could be progress on beefing up the government’s cybersecurity workforce and rescuing the U.S. Postal Service.

Ensuring the Postal Service’s long-term financial health shouldn’t be a partisan issue, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s top Democrat and its likely leader beginning in 2019, told Bloomberg Law in a recent interview. The panel under former Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in 2016 approved a USPS overhaul bill with bipartisan support, but the House never acted on the measure, he said.

“Going forward, I believe there are real issues of common ground we should work on together,” Cummings said.

The committee is responsible both for fighting waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government and for overseeing the operation of a workforce of about 2.1 million federal employees. It’s long been a battleground, with the parties at odds on oversight of the president and on issues involving federal pay, benefits, and unionization. But the current polarized political environment likely will sharpen partisan divisions.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), who will be the committee’s top Republican come January, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Fighting Over Labor Issues

Jordan and Cummings may be able to agree on updating the skills of federal workers or allowing more people with sought-after cybersecurity skills to join the government for short-term projects, according to Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, which promotes conservative public policies and limited government.

Beyond these kinds of bread-and-butter initiatives, progress could be difficult because the lawmakers have “two highly conflicting or opposite personalities” and are far apart in their views, Greszler told Bloomberg Law. Cummings is a top defender of federal employee unions and Jordan is a “strong conservative” who favors limited government, Greszler said.

“Anytime you touch on federal workers, it’s going to be hard. There will be some pushback to keep things the way they are. It’s going to be a struggle, but I won’t say that nothing can be accomplished,” Greszler said.

Agreement Possible on IT, Cybersecurity

Rep. Gerald Connolly (Va.), the top Democrat on the panel’s Government Operations Subcommittee, said the parties can work together on cybersecurity and information technology issues.

Republicans and Democrats on the panel’s Government Operations and Information Technology subcommittees “have a good working relationship” and this likely will continue in the next Congress, Connolly told Bloomberg Law.

There’s no reason why protecting government databases—and ensuring the government has the employees it needs to do this work properly—can’t be done with bipartisan support, he said.

Democrats will formally announce committee assignments and unveil changes to the structures of House committees in early January, Cummings said. The GOP changed the jurisdiction of the House oversight panel’s subcommittees “quite a bit over the years, so we are examining them with fresh eyes in consultation with our members,” he said.

Cummings said he also wants “to focus on improving the lives of Americans in real and meaningful ways,” for example, by looking at what the government can do to lower prescription drug prices.

Conflict on Federal Employees?

Ensuring that federal workers are compensated fairly in pay and benefits, while preserving their union rights, will again be a top priority for the committee, Connolly said.

“You will see a sea change in how we approach federal employees and their workforce issues,” he said. This likely won’t be welcomed by Jordan and other committee Republicans, Connolly said.

Jordan isn’t likely to back down from his own agenda of downsizing the federal government, Greszler said. The congressman is a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, which has criticized GOP leaders for not being tough enough on government spending.

“Jim Jordan is very committed to conservative policies. He’s not incredibly willing to compromise on his principles,” she said.

The committee still may accomplish work on issues that aren’t related to the administration and federal worker unions, Mike Hettinger, a former subcommittee staff director, told Bloomberg Law.

“You can be very contentious on subpoenas and then go ahead and pass nonpartisan legislation” to improve federal IT, Hettinger said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Phil Kushin at pkushin@bloomberglaw.com

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