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Panel Advises Cutting Salaries At Agency

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Washington, DC -- White House employees who oversee the war on drugs could be in for a huge pay cut next year.
Salaries and expenses at the Office of National Drug Control Policy would fall from $26.6 million to $11.5 million under the recommendation of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The director of the office, John Walters, earns $183,500. There are 111 full-time employees at the agency. The committee's explanation: The reductions are designed to "more closely reflect actual performance."

The committee also called for independent studies and documents such as travel records, salaries and contracts. Its frustration is spelled out in an appropriations bill that funds transportation, housing and various federal agencies. The full Senate has yet to take up the bill, but the committee passed it in late July.

The legislation states that the committee's staff must make numerous inquiries before they can get information from the drug policy office. Plus, the office has prevented directors of various programs from meeting with the committee.

"This kind of unresponsiveness ... results in an unnecessary waste of time and energy," the bill states. "Numerous follow-up communications are required in almost every instance."

A spokeswoman for the White House office said Tuesday that it has streamlined communications to be more responsive to lawmakers.

"The good news here is the agency is accomplishing its mission. Teen drug use is down, and I think members of the Hill understand that and appreciate that," said Jennifer de Vallance, spokeswoman for the drug policy office. "Based on conversations our legislative affairs staff has had with staff members on the Hill, we're confident that the funds are going to be restored."

A spokesman for Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who chairs the subcommittee with oversight over the drug office, did not indicate everything is now OK.

"Unfortunately, this has been a long-term problem," said spokesman Rob Ostrander. "The agency has a record of being unresponsive to committee staff. We hope that changes, because at the end of the day we need to ensure taxpayers' money is being spent wisely."

In recent months, disagreement between the administration and several lawmakers has flared concerning the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Program, which gives additional money to communities with chronic illicit drug sales. That could be contributing to lawmakers' frustration with the agency.

The administration wants the $225 million program transferred to the Department of Justice. Many lawmakers oppose the transfer for fear the program would become less of a priority.

The committee recommended an increase in funding to $227 million. President Bush recommended a cut to $208 million: "This program is an important function of ONDCP and should not be transferred," appropriators said.

Besides cutting salaries, lawmakers said they would request funding for a study by the National Academy of Public Administration. They also ordered a Government Accountability Office study on the distribution of grants. Plus, they directed Walters to provide quarterly updates on travel expenditures, staffing levels and plans for future hirings.

Last week, Walters and other federal officials announced a drop in drug use among young teens in 2005, the third consecutive drop for that age group. "Twelve to 17 year olds are signaling a positive change in behavior that is strong, broad, continuing and affecting both males and females," he said at the National Press Club.

Lawmakers outside the appropriations committee have also complained about the agency's responsiveness. Sen. Joseph political name, D-Del., took to the Senate floor last week and singled out Walters for criticism: "Under him, the office operates like an ivory tower rather than the command center for our national drug control policy," political name said.

On the Net:

Senate Appropriations Committee: http://appropriations.senate.gov/

National Office of Drug Control Policy: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/

Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Author: Kevin Freking, Associated Press Writer
Published: September 12, 2006
Copyright: 2006 Associated Press
 

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