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Cabinet Nominees Discuss the Rank and File

By Ed O'Keefe

While Senate confirmation hearings have focused mostly on major policy issues of concern, The Eye – with the assistance of's Sarah Lovenheim and intern Ethan Klapper – also reviewed the hearing transcripts for comments about the federal workforce. Workplace and employee issues were not discussed at every confirmation hearing, but several nominees voiced their views on the rank and file, how they plan to work with them, and other thoughts on changing the workplace. Here are their comments in chronological order:

Department of Health and Human Services

“I want to take ideology and politics as much as humanly possible out of the process and leave the scientists to do their job,” Tom Daschle said last week during his confirmation hearing to lead HHS. His comments came in response to a question posed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who represents thousands of HHS employees who live in Maryland.

“I think it's very important for us to allow scientists to be scientists and to give them the resources to do it right,” Daschle said later. “And so it starts with that. It starts with the importance of giving them the autonomy they need, without fear of conflict at some point with others along the decision-making process regarding factors having nothing to do with science.”

Housing and Urban Development

Secretary-designate Shaun Donovan identified several areas in need of improvement at HUD:

“There are challenges and persistent management issues facing HUD, including modernizing I.T. systems, overhauling sluggish human resource systems and strengthening contract oversight,” he told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

“It is critical that we restore HUD as a respected research institution as well. Both you and I need to know what works based on objective analysis and reliable data so that taxpayer dollars can be spent wisely and effectively. I pledge to make management reform a high priority,” he added in his opening remarks.

It seems HUD employees can expect a data-driven boss, because Donovan called himself “a numbers guy. I'm somebody who always wants to know -- I meet monthly with every single team within my agency. I have a series of critical indicators that demonstrate progress to me or where we're not making progress in the agency.”

Office of Personnel Management

Peter R. Orszag addressed the issue of the impending federal “brain drain” during his confirmation hearing with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee:

“Over the next decade, roughly 60 percent of the federal government's 1.6 million white-collar employees and 90 percent of the 6,000 federal executives will be eligible to retire.
“To mitigate and offset these expected retirements, we need to take a number of actions, including, perhaps most importantly, as President-elect Obama has said, making government cool again.
“We need to dramatically improve the federal hiring process, and we need to provide more opportunities for civil servants to rise to policy-level offices so that they can aspire to doing -- to seeing the results of their hard work in promotions.”

Environmental Protection Agency

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, urged EPA administrator-designate Lisa P. Jackson to work on morale issues at EPA, stressing at one point she wants the agency to focus on “Science science science, and the rule of law.”

“I would see nothing more important to restoring the health of the people of the United States than restoring the health of the Environmental Protection Agency itself,” Jackson told the committee.

State Department

In her opening statement to the committee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the designated Secretary of State, praised her new employees:

“Many risk their lives, and some have lost their lives in service to our nation. They need and deserve the resources, training and support to succeed.”

She added:

“State Department is a large, multidimensional organization but not the placid, idle bureaucracy that some have suggested. It is an outpost for American values that protects our citizens and safeguards our democratic institutions in times both turbulent and tame. State Department employees offer a lifeline of hope and help, often the only lifeline for people in foreign lands who are oppressed, silenced and marginalized. We must not shortchange them or ourselves.”
"One of my first priorities is to make sure that the State Department and USAID have the resources they need, and I will be back to make the case to the committee for full funding of the president's budget requests. But I will work just as hard to make sure we manage those resources prudently, efficiently and effectively."

Department of Agriculture

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Secretary-designate Tom Vilsack about the protection of potential USDA whistleblowers.

“My hope would be that we never have to have a whistleblower,” Vilsack said. “My hope would be that, if confirmed, we would run a department where employees who felt that they were not being treated fairly had some avenue within the department for resolution and that we were fair and reasonable in trying to resolve difficulties.”
“If we've -- if, for whatever reason, we fail in that effort, despite the effort, there needs -- obviously needs to be a way in which you can do your constitutionally required job of making sure that I'm doing my constitutionally required job and I don't have a problem with that. And I don't think we're going to tolerate punishment or making it more difficult for people to tell the truth.”

Department of Homeland Security

Janet Napolitano was asked during her confirmation hearing about low morale at DHS. Sen Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) asked her to discuss how the department could recruit, train and maintain skilled employees.

“We start with the premise that the men and women of this department want to work to keep America safe. That's why they're here. That is their mission. And so we start with the good will,” Napolitano replied.

“We want to provide, for employees, a sense of being part of this very important mission, and some real career paths for them, so that if they begin at a low-level position, say, in the TSA, they know that over the course of their career, if they perform well, they can advance, and that it's a -- it's a -- it's a real career path for them. Those are the kinds of things that make for good morale, and those are the kinds of things that we will be working on.”

Department of Justice

During his opening statement, Eric Holder acknowledged the work of DOJ’s career employees.

“They have been my teachers, my colleagues, and my friends. When I first joined the department's public integrity section in 1976, they showed me what it meant to serve the people.
“When I was the United States attorney in the District of Columbia, they worked beside me to fight drug crimes, drug trafficking, and public corruption. And when I was deputy attorney general of the United States, they were my troops in the daily battle for justice.
“These career professionals are not only the backbone of the Department of Justice, they are its soul. If I am confirmed as attorney general, I will listen to them, respect them, and make them proud of the vital goals we will pursue together.”

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 16, 2009; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Confirmation Hearings, Congress, Workplace Issues  
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Next: Eye Opener: Jan. 19, 2009


I understand Timothy Geithner's Apointment to the Treasury Department will not be held until the day after inaurguration, Wednesday. So may I be the first to ask a question. Mr. Geithner, I see you were the head of the New York Federal Reserve.
As a self-employed recycler in New York City, New York. I return recycled containers to the recycle centers in New York City for the New York State embossed seal of a Bounty Hunter's fee of Five (5) cents a container. Containers being plastic, glass, and metal. I find in at least one of these centers, I will not name the grocery store. Nichols are given in place of regular currency. Example, 40 containers at five cents per container are returned. A roll of nichols given, in place of two one dollar bills. In other stores nichols are given instead of dimes, nichols and dimes instead of quarters. Five one dollar bills will be given instead of one five dollar Lincoln Bill. Is this legal? I also return to the public schools of New York City the General Mills 10 Cent, Boxtops 4 Education, and Campbells Soup, Labels 4 Education. Never do I get much of a reply as to the use of these. As a recycler it is hard to pass on something that is supposed to give our elementary schools something important. I have no children, want no children and do not like children. I know education is a necessary tool for children to become adults. How are these Labels 4 Education and Boxtops 4 Education backed by/or are they backed by the Treasury? I find these on cereal boxes and soup cans that come across State Lines. Does the Treasury of New York State or the Federal Government have any say in their use? I consider them to be a part of recycling in New York State. I list them as paper on my business card. Are they truthfully paper?

Rose Watkins
Crance Watkins Recycling
Since 2004

Posted by: motherschild | January 17, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

The Eric Holder OxyContin drug case should cause Americans, Democrats and Republicans, to try and derail the Eric Holder nomination. Holder took a huge fee for fighting to keep a drug on the market that was causing deaths, addictions, and medical problems for thousands of Americans, Holder did the same thing for Merck Pharmaceuticals. He again took megabucks to help them fight Medicaid fraud charges and end of paying far less in fines than they made in overcharges to the government. He has been a paid scumbag lawyer selling out to the highest bidder his whole career.

The fact he was paid to keep a drug on the market that was killing people and causing serious addiction and medical complications is unconscionable. And this was as recently as 2004. This wasn't a mistake of his youth. It is frightening to me that Democrats just can't join with Republicans and get rid of this man before he becomes Attorney General. Why are all of you defending him so fiercely? He sold out seriously ill Americans for a big paycheck. Just because he's Obama's nominee doesn't mean we should ignore all he has done. The liberal Mother Jones publication didn't. Surely there are some principled Democrats who would be a better choice.

See the Mother Jones article from 1/14 titled, Why Eric Holder Represents What's Wrong with Washington.

Posted by: CaptainQ | January 19, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Considering Mother Jones is one of the most respected liberal publications in America, this article on Eric Holder should be mandatory reading for everyone. Kudos to Mother Jones for telling it like it is, regardless of its own political bent.

See the Mother Jones article from 1/14 titled, Why Eric Holder Represents What's Wrong with Washington.

Posted by: BothSides | January 19, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

As a recently, and involuntarily, "ex" IRSer, I'd propose that the 90% of Federal execs eligible for retirement be required to retire at their earliest possible eligibility. Or sooner. And take their mid-level managers with them. As a 20-year Federal employee, I've witnessed the demise of anything approaching "Ethics in Government," all lip service to the contrary nowithstanding. As long as the most incompetent and unethical among us continue to rise through the ranks at the expense of those truly motivated by a sense of, and belief in, public service, ethics and integrity, the Federal government cannot hope to recruit and retain "the best and the brightest," as they claim to want. If this abominable inbreeding of the very worst character traits at the upper levels of our agencies continues, they might as well confine their recruiting efforts to the Federal prison system to ensure the most promising crop of upwardly mobile pawns to continue their sad and demoralizing legacy.

Posted by: NanaX3 | January 19, 2009 6:56 PM | Report abuse

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