Budget constraints unrealistic, says Special Counsel

Tools

The Office of Special Counsel expects its overall caseload in fiscal 2012 to be 10 percent greater than in fiscal 2011, but the independent investigative agency's budget might not get a similar bump. Its budget remained flat from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2012 and the president's budget requests a decrease for fiscal 2013, said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.

"[I hope for a] more realistic budget come fiscal year 13," said Lerner.

"It's a big problem. A lot of our budget, 89 percent of it is dedicated to salaries, benefits and rent," said Lerner March 20 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia subcommittee.

"The budget is relatively small. We're talking about $18.5 million and the benefits to the government in the work that we do far outweigh what small budget we have."

If the fiscal 2013 budget proposal for OSC is approved as is, the agency will decrease its full-time staff from 110 employees to 107 employees. To compensate, the already understaffed agency is recruiting Presidents Management Fellows, interns and temporary employees, said Lerner.   

"It certainly hurts. Day to day we're really really--our hands are tied on things like ordering transcripts in our investigations." Instead, OSC lawyers sometimes listen to hours of recorded testimony, recounted Lerner.

The Merit Systems Protection Board is also feeling the budgetary squeeze, said MSPB Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann. The agency is searching for places to cut costs by increasing electronic filing and video conferencing and slashing travel and equipment budgets, but it's still processing more cases each year and staffing is inadequate.

"We are still forced to delay or freeze hiring each year," said Grundmann. "As of today, we have more than 18 critical vacancies that we are not able to fill this year."

Almost half of MSPB's administrative judges are now eligible for retirement, but rapidly hiring and training replacements--without losing stride and creating a case backlog, is a looming risk. Grundman said the agency cannot further delay new hires because the new hires will need to learn from the current judges before they retire.

Grundmann said she hopes Congress will increase the president's proposed $39 million budget for the agency--$40 million was enacted in fiscal 2011 and it's estimated to spend $40 million in fiscal 2012.

"We have to keep our fingers crossed as to what's coming," said Grundman. It's a sentiment shared by many small, independent agencies.

"We understand that every agency is similarly under the same types of pressures. But we think that the mission of the office of special counsel is so important," said Lerner.

Not only is OSC hoping to see its budget increased, it's looking for greater budget flexibility in apportioning its investigative resources. Hatch Act modernization efforts underway in Congress could be helpful, said Lerner.

Forty-five percent of the cases in OSC's Hatch Act unit right now involve investigating state and local political campaign cases, not to mention a slew of formal and informal advisory opinions on the topic. Because it is a federal election year, an influx in cases will make prioritization all the more important, said Lerner.

"These state and local cases...[take] a lot of time to investigate," said Lerner. "If we could reallocate our resources, we could focus on cases where there is coercion and actual misconduct. We could do more education and outreach, which I think is vital to prevent Hatch Act violations in the first place."

For more:
- go to the hearing page (prepared testimony and archived webcast available)

Related Articles:
Most prohibited personnel practices at 18-year low, says Merit Systems Protection Board
OPM moves forward with internship, hiring reform
Despite improvements, female federal workers still struggle with empowerment, fairness issues