Some may consider it fitting, if not desirable, that a House subcommittee hearing focused on the reasons that federal government agencies, in a post-pandemic America, are still running behind and continuing to be tardy in delivering services started about a half hour late.
But the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce was finally called to order on June 21 to conduct its hearing titled, “Please Leave Your Message at the Tone: Addressing Post-Pandemic Backlogs at Federal Agencies.”
Testifying at the hearing were Rena Bitter, assistant secretary for consular affairs with the U.S. State Department; Scott Levins, director of the national personnel records center; and Chad Poist, deputy commissioner for budget, finance, and management with the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA).
The agencies that the witnesses represented, collectively, process and issue passports and visas; archive and store the personnel records of discharged and deceased member of the U.S. military and those who held civil positions in the U.S.; and review claims and process SSA payments for retired and disabled workers and their family members.
Subcommittee chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas), in his opening statement, acknowledged the pressure and difficulty of meeting customer demand during a period of challenge but said that it is the responsibility of the subcommittee to seek answers and hold agencies accountable.
“We are here today to make sure that we have a clear understanding about not just what is behind us but what lies in front of us, and the daunting challenge for each of the members of Congress as we attempt to also do business with the government on behalf of many constituents,” said Sessions.
“I want to try to be fair, and it would not be fair to look back without the benefit of hindsight, of recognizing what our nation went through.”
Sessions added: “It is our duty and my duty, not just as a member of Congress, but as the chairman of this subcommittee, to ask sometimes tough questions, to make sure that we get straight answers.”
Ranking subcommittee member Kweisi Mfume, in his opening remarks, cited the problems that Covid created for federal agencies. But he also mentioned the three-month federal hiring freeze–which Mfume noted was actually for 16 months at the State Department–that the Trump administration implemented in 2017, as a key factor in agencies being unable to deliver services on time.
“The American Federation of Government Employees reports that in fiscal year 2022, the Social Security Administration’s workforce was one of the smallest it’s been in 25 years,” said Mfume. “And yet we know that the number of people on Social Security, people who rely on those benefits to pay for food, to pay for medicine, has increased by more than 10 million people in the past decade.”
The Issue of Remote Work
Subcommittee members pressed the witnesses on a productivity and operational issue that is multifaceted, and which both the private and public sector are wrestling with and trying to manage-and that is getting employees, who had worked remotely during the pandemic, back in the office.
As well, though, a subtext of that discussion is whether all employees need to return to the office in order for the agencies to function optimally and to best serve and respond to consumers and taxpayers.
Last month, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) led a coalition of GOP senators in filing the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems (SHOW UP) Act, which, if it becomes law, would require federal agencies to return to the remote work policies they had
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