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Why not close the borders?

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I’ve done a lot of swine flu reporting this week, and one question that keeps coming up is why DHS doesn’t just close the Mexican border. Congress has held a few swine flu hearings; someone invariably asks this same question at each hearing.

Let me take a stab at answering it, based on conversations I’ve had this week with scientists and doctors and other people much smarter than I am.

First, a little history. The chart on the right (courtesy of Wikipedia) shows the spread of the Black Plague through Europe in the 14th century. You can see the disease started along the Mediterranean coast and then moved across the continent in bands. It’s a fairly straightforward progression, moving slowly across Eastern Europe and into Russia.

This is how pandemics used to spread. They were limited because people didn’t travel much; when they did, they traveled short distances, and only as fast as their horse could move. So in those days there might have been some benefit to closing borders.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Video tour of federal green roofs

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Last week, I wrote about how federal agencies are using some of the billions of dollars in stimulus funds flowing to them for facility and energy projects to replace or retrofit their building rooftops with green alternatives.

Options being considered include thin solar films that are imbedded into roofs, additional insulation to repel heat, and vegetative roofs such as a 5,000-square-foot garden patch atop the seven-story Interior Department headquarters building in Washington.

Other agencies have outfitted their roofs with vegetation, recognizing both the environmental and economic benefits. Our videographer, Colin Kelly, recently toured two examples outside the nation’s capital in Suitland, Md. Follow the links for video of green roofs at the Census Bureau headquarters and at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility.

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Senate confirms Sebelius for HHS

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The Senate voted 65-31 Tuesday evening to confirm Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services, filling the last vacant Cabinet post in Barack Obama’s administration.

Sebelius will take over the agency as it responds to worldwide panic over swine flu, which has sickened more than 60 in the United States and possibly more than 200 in Mexico. None of HHS’ 18 agencies has political leadership in place, with career employees and temporary leaders steering the agencies.

Sebelius, the Democratic governor of Kansas, faced considerable opposition from Republicans who were displeased with her pro-choice views. They also criticized her failure to timely disclose accepting donations from George Tiller, a prominent Kansas doctor who performs late-term abortions.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was President Barack Obama’s first choice to lead HHS. He stepped down from consideration in February after revelations that he owed nearly $144,000 in back taxes for use of a car and driver.

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Sen. Mikulski to "CLEAN UP" outsourcing

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Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is expected to introduce a bill tomorrow that will suspend government’s use of public-private competitions for federal work.

If Mikulski’s Correction of Longstanding Errors in Agencies Unsustainable Procurements (CLEAN UP) Act becomes law, agencies will be barred from using competition rules set under Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 until they implement the following provisions:

  • Amend the A-76 process to include the full cost of conducting a competition, to charge in-house bidders only for actual overhead costs, to abolish automatic re-competition of work won by federal employees, and to impose a firm time limit on studies.
  • Ensure that work considered inherently governmental functions and functions closely related to inherently governmental work is only performed by federal employees. Where such work is outsourced, agencies must develop plans to bring the work back in house.
  • Encourage agencies to give feds the opportunity to compete for new work, work outsourced without competition or outsourced work that is poorly performed, even if the work was properly outsourced.
  • Require that agencies inventory contracts to find contracts for inherently governmental work, contracts awarded without competition, and contracts that are being poorly performed.
  • Require agencies to develop plans for handling predicted staffing shortages in federal career fields.

The proposed, temporary suspension of A-76 competitions– frequently referred to as outsourcing, privatization or competitive sourcing– would be lifted once the OMB director and the inspectors general of the five largest departments determine these provisions have been “substantially implemented.”

In a statement, Mikulski said:

The Bush Administration made a mess of federal personnel contracting – pushing contracting out even when it wasted taxpayer dollars and undermined the mission of our federal agencies. … This bill will be a major step towards cleaning up the contracting abuses of the last eight years and bringing jobs that were wrongly awarded to private contractors back to where they belong – with our first-rate federal employees.

The bill will be co-sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Roland Burris, D-Ill.; Robert Casey, D-Pa.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Edward Kennedy D-Mass.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

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OPM to unveil new telework policy

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The Office of Personnel Management is going to announce the Obama administration’s new telework policy tomorrow morning. OPM Director John Berry, along with Reps. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and Gerald Connolly, D-Va., will outline his plan to improve the government’s efficiency by expanding the use of telework.

In a statement announcing the Capitol Hill press conference, Berry said:

Telework is good for the environment [and] good for the continuity of government operations. It also shows the commitment of President Barack Obama to provide a work/life program that is improving the quality of life for federal employees.

Check back with Federal Times tomorrow to find out what OPM has planned.

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We need more power!

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The Social Security Administration needs a new National Computer Center. The existing one near Baltimore is more than 30 years old and in perilous shape — so much so that the Social Security Advisory Board said it’s in danger of catastrophic failure, which could delay disability and seniors’ benefits from being paid on time.

Now Congress wants to know why SSA only let them know last fall that the building needs replaced as soon as possible. And that explanation is a simple one, said Mary Glenn-Croft, deputy commissioner for budget, finance and management for SSA.

By 2006, the SSA had converted much of its claims processing from paper to digital, creating a need to buy many more servers to store data, she told the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security Tuesday.

“Servers now come with two plugs, not one as they used to, because of (power source) redundancy. What happened was we realized we were running out of electronic capacity … we’re adding 25 servers a month. By 2012 we’ll run out of the ability to plug servers in.”

A replacement NCC is scheduled for completion by 2016. A supplemental computing center, which could act as a backup should a crisis ensue at the NCC, is scheduled for completion in North Carolina by 2012.

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BREAKING: Specter to leave GOP

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CNN and the Washington Post are reporting that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania plans to switch parties and become a Democrat. Assuming Al Franken is also seated as Minnesota’s newest senator, this would give the Democrats a 60 vote, potentially filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Specter is planning to hold a press conference this afternoon to discuss his decision. Had he remained a Republican, Specter would have faced a tough primary challenge from former Rep. Pat Toomey next year.

UPDATE: In a statement, Specter said his vote for the stimulus “caused a schism” between himself and GOP party leaders and primary voters “which makes our differences irreconcileable.”

Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans. [...]

I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.

But Specter also cautioned that Democrats won’t always be able to count on him to end a filibuster on every issue:

My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats [than] I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Sen. [Jim] Jeffords’ switch, which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. [...]

Whatever my party affiliation, I will continue to be guided by President Kennedy’s statement that sometimes Party asks too much. When it does, I will continue my independent voting and follow my conscience on what I think is best for Pennsylvania and America.

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More nominations head to Senate floor

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The Senate could vote this week on more of President Barack Obama’s nominees.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee approved two nominations by voice vote Monday: W. Craig Fugate for Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator and John Morton for assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Senate may vote this week on their nominations, which aren’t controversial. No vote has been scheduled.

Meanwhile, senators are debating the nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for secretary of Health and Human Services Tuesday, with a vote expected later in the day. The vote on her nomination has been delayed almost three weeks, as some Republicans have taken issue with her pro-choice stance and her acceptance of campaign contributions from a Kansas doctor who performs late-term abortions.

She must receive at least 60 votes for her nomination to pass, part of a compromise reached by Senate Democrats and Republicans late last week. She’s expected to have the needed number of votes, but not by much.

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Playing offense

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We’ve done a lot of reporting on cybersecurity over the past few months (cf here, here and here), mostly focused on defense — how the federal government protects itself against intruders.

But the government is also improving its offensive capabilities, a story that gets far less coverage. The New York Times has an interesting article about it this morning:

President Obama is expected to propose a far larger defensive effort in coming days [...]

But Mr. Obama is expected to say little or nothing about the nation’s offensive capabilities, on which the military and the nation’s intelligence agencies have been spending billions. In interviews over the past several months, a range of military and intelligence officials, as well as outside experts, have described a huge increase in the sophistication of American cyberwarfare capabilities.

The whole thing is worth a read. There’s a lot of concern about U.S. defensive capabilities — justified concern, in this reporter’s opinion — but it sounds like the offensive side is in much better shape.

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Sorry, my bad

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It must have seemed like a longer-than-usual Monday for Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office.

He was the one who approved of sending a Boeing 747 – the Air Force One backup plane – and an accompanying F-16 fighter flying around southern Manhattan at low altitudes this morning. The purpose of the exercise was to serve as a photo op. But the low-flying planes panicked many New Yorkers, who fled their office buildings out of fear of another 9/11-style terrorist attack.

Late this afternoon, the White House press office sent out this apology from Caldera:

“Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision. While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it’s clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused.”