Statement of Senator Mike Crapo
Legislative Hearing on S. 606, the Ombudsman Reauthorization Act June 25, 2002
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I appreciate your convening this legislative hearing on S. 606, the Ombudsman Reauthorization Act. As you well know, this measure is of critical importance to Idahoans and many communities throughout the country.
Before I make my opening statement, I would like to extend a welcome to all of our guests today who have been invited to comment on the legislation. I would also like to express my appreciation to Kathy Zanetti of the Shoshone Natural Resources Coalition, who has traveled all the way from Wallace, Idaho, to be with us today.
The position of ombudsman has a long and distinguished history. Several federal agencies, state governments, and other organizations in the U.S. have established ombudsmen to fill a unique role of resolving grievances. An ombudsman is more than just a fact-checker or a bean-counter. An ombudsman is link to our communities and a last recourse for many who cannot find assistance with their grievances.
Establishing an ombudsman is a delicate task. It requires just the right amount of initiative, investigative experience, and confidence of and advocacy for the public. To maintain the trust of the public, however, an ombudsman needs to operate without even the appearance of interference from others within the agency. For their part, operations officials whose work may be investigated need to feel that an ombudsman is fair and professional.
For another analysis on the proper functions of a federal ombudsman, I'd like to take few moments to read some excerpts from the Administrative Conference of the United States' report entitled, "The Ombudsman: A Primer for Federal Agencies."
· "Creating an ombudsman provides both the public and the government a way to resolve a dispute that persists in spite of efforts to deal with it at the operational level."
· "Executive ombudsmen ... should report to the head of the agency..."
[The report is from 1990. No longer in existence, the Administrative Conference of the United States was established as an independent federal agency to "promote improvement in the efficiency, adequacy, and fairness of procedures by which federal agencies ... [perform] governmental functions.']
Turning to another source, we should look to comments of the United States Ombudsman Association, the organization of public ombudsmen, which will also be submitting testimony today. While the USOA generally supports the establishment of independent ombudsman agencies, a model many states have followed for public ombudsmen, for the investigation and resolution of complaints, the association believes that S. 606 would do much to improve the functionality of the ombudsman's office within the EPA. What's more, the USOA recommends that "everything reasonably possible should be done to maximize the ombudsman's independence within the agency where the office is situated."
The GAO wrote a report in 2000 on the problems with which the EPA has established the Office of the National Ombudsman and will be testifying here today. The report closely follows the American Bar Association's guidelines for ombudsmen - independence, budget and staffing authority, and the power to select cases. It is my expectation that the GAO's statements today will point out that the EPA's transition of the Office of the Ombudsman at best leaves many questions unanswered and at worst, fails to heed the recommendations of the report. The GAO's recommendations for the EPA Ombudsman are generally consistent with the language of S. 606.
Despite all the support for the approach outlined in S. 606, perhaps what is most troubling is the reaction of the EPA to the communities throughout the country that have expressed concern with what they believe to be a "muzzling" of the important ombudsman function. When asked about how the ombudsman will function, agency personnel have indicated that there is no current operating model, nor is one expected for the foreseeable future. For communities that depend on the last recourse provided by the ombudsman, this is not a comforting development. It is my hope that the EPA will be able to announce today its guidelines for the operations and future of the Office of the Ombudsman and lay aside many of our troubling concerns.
Mr. Chairman, I understand that you have other commitments that do not allow you to remain with us for all the panelists. Before you leave, I want to share with my thanks for calling this important hearing.
I look forward to a productive, informative, and vigorous discussion on S. 606 and the many issues involving the Office of the EPA National Ombudsman.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.