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Obama teams are scrutinizing federal agencies

Obama teams review agencies in an attempt to minimize tension during the transition, but it creates anxiety among some Bush officials.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Wearing yellow badges and traveling in groups of 10 or more, agency review teams for President-elect Barack Obama have swarmed into dozens of government offices, from the Pentagon to the National Council on Disability.

With pointed questions and clear ground rules, they are dissecting agency initiatives, poring over budgets and unearthing documents that may prove crucial as a new Democratic president assumes control. Their job is to minimize the natural tension between incoming and outgoing administrations, but their work also is creating anxiety among some Bush administration officials as the teams rigorously examine programs and policies.

Lisa Brown, who served as counsel to Vice President Al Gore and is helping manage the reviews, said typical questions include: "Which is the division that has really run amok? Or that has run out of money? If someone is confirmed, what's going to be on their desk from Day One? What are the main things that need to happen, vis-a-vis Obama's priorities?"

Every presidential changeover includes some type of review of the federal landscape, but some have succeeded more than others, experts say. Obama's teams -- 135 people divided into 10 groups, along with a list of other advisers -- started earlier than most, gearing up months before Election Day with preliminary planning, and will work until mid-December preparing reports to guide the White House, Cabinet members and other senior officials.

The team members include Democratic Party loyalists jockeying for senior administration jobs and subject experts in areas ranging from military systems to Medicare policy.

The Obama teams say they have benefited from a commitment by the Bush White House to cooperate as fully as possible to ease the shift.

"President Bush initiated preparations for the transition earlier, and with more extensive planning, than has ever been done before," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "We've also benefited from new legal authorities that allowed for better preparation of the transition teams. As we're at war, defending the nation against terrorist threats, and addressing a global financial crisis, it's more critical than ever that we have a successful transition."

John D. Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff and co-chairman of the Obama transition, said the Obama teams have been dispatched with "clear roles and missions." In assembling the study groups, Podesta drew heavily from the Clinton administration, academia and think tanks such as his own, the Center for American Progress. Many team members were informal advisers to Obama throughout the campaign -- such as Sarah Sewall, a Harvard University human rights specialist who is a leader of the national security team.

Many chosen for the teams come with high-level, firsthand knowledge of certain agencies.

"They were part of that culture; they understand the political issues as well as the bureaucratic issues," said Melody C. Barnes, Obama's incoming Domestic Policy Council director, who is helping with the agency reviews.

Some teams parachuted in at the top. At the State Department, Obama team leaders Tom Donilon and Wendy R. Sherman met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At the Pentagon, transition team members John White and Michèle A. Flournoy dropped by the offices of four senior officials and arranged for further interviews over the coming days. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates named a transition leader, Robert Rangel, to work with the group, even though Gates is slated to continue in his job when Obama takes office.

A typical approach has been playing out at the Environmental Protection Agency, where the Obama team is led by Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and Robert Sussman, a former Clinton official and now a lawyer and fellow at the Center for American Progress. Both are considered front-runners for senior administration jobs (Jackson as EPA administrator, Sussman as a top EPA deputy).

On a recent Monday, the pair arrived at an 11 a.m. EPA senior staff meeting. Both had worked at the agency under President Bill Clinton, so they fit in easily, fully acquainted with the acronym-laden lingo.

Their team's questions have been specific, trained on a handful of issues, according to employees and other sources interviewed. A top concern is climate change, an issue they want to address with several EPA program initiatives. They also are asking how much money the enforcement divisions need to go after polluters.

The team also has focused on drinking-water standards, asking about how to reduce children's and mothers' exposure to perchlorate, a chemical in rocket fuel that is leaching into groundwater near military bases.

Jackson, Sussman and their team members hope to interview 100 staffers before filing their report, but they will do so with agreed-upon "rules of engagement," as the EPA's lawyers call them. The lawyers have urged senior managers to answer questions but to avoid idle chatter.

On Nov. 15, Podesta and his co-chairs agreed with the White House that the teams would not ask agencies for information in three nonpublic areas: individual personnel matters, legal deliberations and internal debate on pending regulatory matters.

Some managers have clearly communicated the ground rules. At the Transportation Department, Rose McMurray, assistant administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, initially urged staff members to quickly alert a senior policy manager about questions from transition team members so that management could ensure the answers were correct and "suitable for release."

Gus Coldebella, acting general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, told his staffers in a Nov. 19 memo that they should think carefully before talking about anything with their transition guests. He also stressed that issues involving the White House should not be discussed without consultation.

Among career employees, the arrival of the teams -- whose members wear yellow badges to distinguish them -- has brought both excitement and anxiety. Some remember the turbulence of what many considered an ill-planned transition to the Clinton administration, whose officials waited late to begin preparations.

"Most people are cautiously optimistic" about the Obama team's work, said Alex Bastani, the Labor Department union representative. "We are happy they are asking for a lot more detail, so perhaps, unlike the Clinton administration, they will lay the groundwork before they arrive and not just show up on Day One expecting everything will go smoothly."

Interviews with the teams offer some workers a chance to share their knowledge and pent-up grievances about programs that have run into funding difficulties or about bosses they did not like.

But those closely watching the review process warn that it is too early to judge its value. "I feel like those of us in the good government community need to settle in for a wait," Alyssa Rosenberg, a blogger for the publication Government Executive, told readers last week. ". . . It's not clear how much information about the agency and policy review teams' conclusions will be made public. There are signs that Obama has ideas about management, although not perhaps a comprehensive management agenda, and it's not clear if someone will be tasked with a Reinventing Government-style effort."

John P. Burke, a University of Vermont professor of political science who has studied presidential transitions, said Obama's review appears to have worked well because of its clearly defined goals. Historically, he said, problems sometimes arise when review teams "become too proactive," as evidenced during the shift to Ronald Reagan's administration in 1980. The Reagan Pentagon team, he said, produced a detailed policy blueprint that incoming Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger rejected.

But government experts warn that federal employees should manage their expectations as Obama arrives; he will face many challenges in implementing new initiatives, they said. During a news conference last week, Obama vowed to embark on a budget reform process that could prove painful.

"We can't sustain a system that bleeds billions of taxpayer dollars on programs that have outlived their usefulness or exist solely because of the power of politicians, lobbyists or interest groups," he said. "We simply can't afford it. This isn't about big government or small government. It's about building a smarter government that focuses on what works."