WASHINGTON — While Congress continues to get mired in issues from immigration to food stamps and farm subsidies, a bipartisan group of 70 lawmakers is moving forward on its own.
The representatives will gather on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday in what they say is a common-sense show of force and urge their colleagues to pass a legislative package aimed at cutting government waste.
The nine bills in the package, most of them introduced in the past month, would require federal agencies to pool their purchasing power, stop automatic annual funding increases, eliminate duplicate programs, replace half of government employees’ travel with video-conferencing and take other steps to increase efficiency.
Rep. Ami Bera, an Elk Grove, Calif., Democrat who is pushing a measure to consolidate electronic medical records of the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department, acknowledged that the nine bills wouldn’t tackle the difficult, high-profile issues that have helped create gridlock in Washington.
Bera, though, said Republicans and Democrats can work together on more modest measures to build trust and establish common ground that would make it easier to deal with tougher problems such as immigration legislation, gun control and spending limits.
“First we demonstrate to America how Congress can work, then hopefully we gain some momentum and start tackling more divisive issues,” Bera said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, authored the Senate version of the bill to merge veterans’ digital medical records. He and Bera said having two databases run by two outside vendors increases costs and contributes to delays in vets getting benefits and health care.
“This lack of coordination can threaten the lives of our soldiers and veterans, and it’s not acceptable,” Nelson said. “They need to have these medical records compatible by the end of the year – no excuses.”
The lawmakers who plan to gather outside the Capitol are among 79 members of Congress who have signed “problem solvers” pledges to try to overcome partisan divides and cooperate for the good of the country. They include 42 Democrats, 36 Republicans and one independent.
Sen. Mark Begich, an Anchorage, Alaska, Democrat, is one of seven senators in the group. He’s lead author of a bill, which he introduced Wednesday, directing federal agencies to work together and buy in bulk instead of making separate purchases of the same goods and services.
“Bulk purchasing seems so simple and logical, but if you don’t mandate it, every agency believes that what they’re buying is unique to their agency,” Begich said. “This is about good government and saving money for taxpayers.”
Even small volume discounts could recoup billions of dollars a year from the $500 billion in goods and services purchased annually by the federal government, Begich said.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land, S.C., Republican, said the nine bills focus on achievable goals with concrete benefits.
“There’s a common thread in these that deals with saving money,” Mulvaney said. “I want to balance the budget. There’s some (Democratic) folks on the other side (of the aisle) who want to redirect funding and spend more on certain programs. I’m interested in reducing the deficit, they’re interested in moving money from inefficient programs to more efficient programs. That might create a basis for bipartisan understanding.”
Mulvaney especially likes a measure that would give federal contractors a cut of any savings they can find in the government’s huge electric and other utility bills.
“You can drive down Independence Avenue (in Washington) and see that the lights are on at the Transportation Department 24 hours a day,” Mulvaney said. “That’s absurd. Right now there’s no incentive for that agency to save money. If we can create incentives in the private sector that will cut spending, create jobs and appeal to environmentalists, who would that not appeal to?”
The number of “Problem Solvers” has almost doubled from the 40 lawmakers who wore orange lapel pins at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in February, with the motto: “Committed to fix, not fight.”
Bera, a first-term representative and a physician, has been recruiting new members. He thinks the caucus ranks will have to reach 100, not quite one-fifth of the 535 members of Congress, before it can start having real legislative clout.
Most members are in their first few years in Washington. Bera said they’re pushing back against hyper-partisanship and infighting that’s mainly based among the small number of Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.
“What we’re trying to do is show leadership there’s got to be a different way,” Bera said. “The bottleneck seems to be at the top. This is a bottom-up movement. How do we start pushing through as rank-and-file representatives?”
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