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Mule Skinner Blues

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Terror wears a bonnet...

The new face of terror?

Say what you will about the Transportation Security Administration, at least they’re being thorough this time. CNN says TSA is requiring some colonial reenactors at an Easton, Pa., historical park to undergo background checks and apply for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential card.

These mule skinners regularly guide two mules named Hank and George as they pull a boat down a two-mile canal at the Hugh Moore Historical Park. Usually only transportation workers such as longshoremen or truck drives are required to apply for TWIC cards, but since the mule skinners hold Coast Guard credentials to operate the canal boat, TSA says they need a TWIC card as well.

Park officials say that’s ridiculous, since the boat travels at 2 miles an hour at best and is an unlikely terror target. They also say TWIC cards will cost the park $100 apiece. And Congress is starting to take notice: Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., grilled new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the mule skinners at a hearing on Wednesday. Napolitano said TSA would try to be flexible.

‘Now Hank and George, while sometimes are ornery, they are not terrorists,’ Dent said.

But maybe that’s just what they want us to think…

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D.C. could get a voting representative

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The Senate passed a long-awaited bill giving District of Columbia residents a voting representative in the House. The bill, S 160, passed Thursday 61-37 with six Republicans voting in favor of the bill.

The bill also creates an at-large House seat for Utah, which barely missed gaining a seat in the 2000 Census. That measure was expected to garner more Republican support for the legislation, which would create a Republican seat to balance out the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia.

That doesn’t mean representation for the district is a sure thing; groups opposed to the legislation are sure to quickly challenge its constitutionality in court, and many believe the case will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bill still needs to go before the House, but since the House passed a similar bill last year, passage of this bill is almost assured.

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2010 Budget: Program cuts

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During a news briefing this morning at the Old Executive Office Building to roll out his 2010 budget, President Obama provided a little more detail about some of the nearly $2 trillion in proposed cuts he mentioned during his joint session to Congress on Tuesday.

The highlights — or lowlights, depending on your view:

  • Nearly $200 million at the Interior Department by cutting programs to clean up abandoned coal mines that have already been cleaned up.
  • Nearly $20 million by modernizing programs and streamlining bureaucracy at the Agriculture Department.
  • Tens of millions of dollars by cutting an Education Department student mentoring program whose mission is being carrried out by 100 other programs in 13 other agencies.
  • Nearly $50 billion by cutting out benefits to citizens who aren’t entitled to them and closing tax loopholes to businesses.

Additionally, Obama said the budget would save billions by ending no-bid contracts in Iraq, ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas and rolling back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

The $2 trillion is just what has been identified during the first 30 days that the administration has been in office, Obama said. Further cuts will be proposed as part of the full budget Obama said will be released this Spring.

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Stress tests could stress feds (wonky)

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The Treasury Department unveiled guidelines (pdf) today for its bank “stress tests” (I have more details in this week’s paper). Seems to me the guidelines will put some federal employees — namely, the bank regulators — in a tough position. Here’s why.

According to Treasury’s guidelines, regulators have to assess the 19 biggest U.S. banks using two economic scenarios. One of them is the “standard” scenario — what most economists think will happen to our economy over the next two years. The other is a sort of worst-case scenario.

If banks fail the tests — basically if they have too many questionable loans, and not enough capital to cover their expected losses — then they have to raise money and make up the difference. They can do this through private investors, or by asking the government for another investment (more TARP money, essentially).

Read the rest of this entry »

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House passes appropriations omnibus

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The House of Representatives voted 245-178 to pass a $410 billion appropriations omnibus to fund the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year.

The federal government — except for the Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments — have been operating under a continuing resolution since the beginning of the fiscal year. The CR is set to expire March 6, but it could be extended should the Senate not vote in time.

The Senate may take up debate on the bill, HR 1105, this week, but it has not yet scheduled a vote.

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Congress could throw out outsourcing

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A provision in the omnibus spending bill could halt public-private job competitions for federal work.

The provision introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., would temporarily suspended public-private competitions for federal employees’ jobs conducted under Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76.

Other bill provisions indroduced by the lawmakers would:

  • Require agencies insource work currently performed by contractors and to allow federal employees to perform new work.
  • Require agencies determine the size of their contractor workforces.
  • Prevent agencies from outsourcing functions performed by 10 or fewer employees without holding a competition.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which backed similar provisions in previous appropriations  bills, applauded the lawmakers. AFGE President John Gage said:

The A-76 process is clearly broken…The provisions introduced by Sen. Durbin and Rep. Serrano will end years of privatization studies that never saved taxpayer money and were skewed to promote the use of contractors over federal employees.

According to OMB’s May 2008 report on competitive sourcing, however, federal employees won more than 83 percent of the competitions held between fiscal years 2003 and 2007.

The report also claims the government saved $7 billion from the competitions held during that time period because of management efficiencies gained in streamlining how federal work is performed. The savings estimates are often questioned by Congress and employee unions because the estimates do not include the planning costs for the competitions.

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Orszag: Sufficient numbers of procurement personnel a must

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Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag told agency officials gathered for the first recovery plan implementation meeting today to make sure they have enough contracting and acquisition personnel to oversee stimulus spending.

In addition to following the reporting guidelines he laid out in 62 pages last week, Orszag said:

I would identify the need for sufficient numbers of acquisition and contract officers to oversee the money flowing through the system, to make sure that it is well spent.

Earl Devaney, who was named the chair of the Recovery Transparency and Accountability Board earlier this week, expressed similar sentiments:

Pre-9/11 we had about … $220 [b]illion worth of contracts per year governmentwide, and now we have over $500 billion. … During the same amount of time the procurement staffs have not risen in the departments; they’ve stayed the same.  So that will be a major challenge for all of the secretaries to address, to make sure that the staff is available to make this happen quickly and to monitor it once it goes out.

And Vice President Joe Biden, who President Barack Obama said last night will be his top oversight official for stimulus spending, said he wants Orszag to get weekly reports from each agency on what they’ve accomplished week-to-week.

Biden said:

I’m going to be a bit of a pain in the neck. I know you’ve got a thousand other things to do in your agencies, but … you’ve got to let me know what roadblocks you encounter … we’ve got to make sure that we hold as many people accountable, not in a draconian way, but to actually get this done.”

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Transition watch: Third time's a charm?

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President Barack Obama today nominated former Washington Gov. Gary Locke as Commerce secretary.

Obama said he’s grateful that the two-term governor, the nation’s first of Chinese descent, has “agreed to leave one Washington for another.” He said the Commerce Department will play a vital role in helping carry out the administration’s economic recovery policies.

Gary will be a trusted voice in my cabinet, a tireless advocate for our economic competitiveness, and an influential ambassador for American industry who will help us do everything we can – especially now – to promote it around the world.

Of course, Locke wasn’t Obama’s first choice for the Cabinet position, or even the second. The first pick, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, bowed out in early January because of an ongoing federal investigation into one of his political contributors. Obama’s second choice, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, abruptly withdrew his nomination Feb. 12 after deciding that he couldn’t work in a Democratic administration.

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Green products guide

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With pressure mounting to purchase environmentally friendly products, sorting through the various federal programs to determine whether there are specific products identified that meet environmental standards can be daunting.

After all, federal agencies are rating scores of products — everything from awards and bed linens to vending machines and water coolers — for recycled and biobased content, energy and water savings and absence of environmentally harmful chemicals or gases.

Agencies are required to buy environmentally preferable products, but finding out whether green alternatives exist for products being purchased is often a time- consuming and frustrating exercise.

Now there is a tool to make it a little easier. An intern at the White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive has compiled environmental ratings from nine federal programs on products cutting across 18 broad categories into an Excel spreadsheet.

It’s the first time all of the designated products have been compiled into an easy to use tool for facility and fleet managers, information technology personnel, contracting officials and those who are certifying the products and services, said Dana Arnold, the acting federal environmental executive.

Arnold said the tool will be posted to both www.ofee.gov and www.fedcenter.gov and updated as new products are designated.

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Obama promises budget reform, no earmarks

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Days before he presents his first budget, President Barack Obama Tuesday night pledged to restore accountability to the budgeting process and cut outdated programs.

“This budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules — and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price,” Obama told a joint session of Congress.

He added that his proposed 2010 budget will would end no-bid contracts in Iraq, as well as eliminate education programs that haven’t worked. He also touted his administration’s line-by-line review of the federal budget and agency management in a quest to eliminate useless programs.

“As you can imagine, this is a process that will take some time. But we’re starting with the biggest lines. We have already identified $2 trillion in savings over the next decade,” Obama said to applause from both sides of the aisle.

He also informed Congress he expected the budget to contain no earmarks just like the recently passed economic stimulus package, which brought laughs and hisses from the Republican side of the House chamber. Republicans have contended that the stimulus contained too many pet Democratic projects and not enough tax cuts.

“I’m proud that we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks, and I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities,” Obama said.

Much of his speech addressed the state of the economy as well as the failure of the Troubled Asset Relief Program to hold banks accountable for public money they received. He said banks will be made to account for how taxpayer dollars have resulted in more lending, freeing up stalled credit markets. He also called on Congress to change the regulatory system he said allowed the economy to sink so low.

“And to ensure that a crisis of this magnitude never happens again, I ask Congress to move quickly on legislation that will finally reform our outdated regulatory system. It is time to put in place tough new common-sense rules of the road so that our financial market rewards drive and innovation and punishes short cuts and abuse,” he said.

Obama received an overwhelming welcome for his first address to Congress as president. Two others received a particularly rousing welcome as well: Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, weeks removed from pancreatic cancer surgery, and Chesley Sullenberger, captain of US Airways Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River in January.

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