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Senate considers continuing resolution

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The Senate may vote on a continuing resolution late this afternoon, just hours before the end of the fiscal year at midnight.

The House passed the CR Sept. 25, which includes additional funding for veterans health care and the Census Bureau. All other federal agencies would operate under fiscal 2009 funding levels until their appropriations bills are passed or the CR expires Oct. 31.

We’ll keep you posted on any congressional action on the continuing resolution.

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Sen. Robert Bennett Joins Oversight Subcommittee

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Sen_Bennett_5X7_300dpiSen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, made his debut as ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight today.

During the hearing on improving government procurement data systems, Bennett spoke of the importance of balancing the need for transparency with the need to protect some contract information from the public eye. (Check FederalTimes.com later for more on the hearing)

Industry representative, Trey Hodgkins, national security and procurement policy vice president for TechAmerica, testified that companies were concerned new policies might permit the publication of un-redacted contracts and allow access to past performance reports, which could contain proprietary information.

If government creates a central database contractors won’t agree to use, it’s the government that loses because it narrows the pool of contractors willing to compete for work, Bennett said. The fewer the players, the higher the cost to government, he said. Already, government’s cumbersome procurement rules cause some of the best players in the market to eschew government contracting, hurting competition, he said.

Bennett expressed similar views last week during an interview with Federal Times about what he hopes to accomplish on the subcommittee.

One of his top priorities is to encourage competition. Last week, Bennett said:

There are too many organizations that say ‘we don’t want to bid for government work because it’s too cumbersome and there are too many rules and restrictions that don’t make sense.’

Bennett said he hopes to take a look at policies that make it too costly for some firms to do business with government to ensure the largest competition pool possible.  Without reform, “you run the risk of good businesses staying away from federal competition and you end up with a smaller competitive pool to choose from. As a result you don’t have the best value.”

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New Recovery.gov goes live

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You can visit it here, obviously. I got a preview of the site on Friday, along with about a dozen other journalists, at a session hosted by the “RAT board” and Smartronix, the company that developed the site.

Overall it’s a big improvement over the previous Recovery.gov site. The new site includes a mapping feature that allows you to view spending data by state, county, and congressional district; it also contains exponentially more spending data than the previous site.

There are still some glaring omissions: You can’t enter the name of a contractor and view all contracts awarded to that company, for example. Smartronix says that feature (and others) will be added in future releases.

The biggest omission, of course, is “recipient data” — spending data reported by the recipients of federal grants and contracts. Recipients aren’t required to start reporting until Oct. 1; Smartronix says the data will go live in mid-to-late October.

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Eliminating FEHBP? Not so fast.

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Sen. Charles Grassley has introduced a health care amendment that would eliminate the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, but feds shouldn’t panic that they’ll be losing their health coverage as recent news stories have hinted.

Grassley’s amendment would have ended FEHBP and required feds to purchase insurance through state-based exchanges, just as average civilians would. But a modified version of the amendment accepted Tuesday as part of the Senate Finance Committee chairman’s mark weakens the language, allowing federal workers the option of leaving the FEHBP and enrolling in state exchanges.

Grassley, R-Iowa, offered his amendment to draw attention to a main point pushed by Republicans — why should federal employees receive coverage that’s much better than anything that would be offered through a public plan or a state-based health exchange? If a state-based exchange is good enough for the average taxpayer, why shouldn’t feds participate?

A Grassley staffer said the original amendment requiring feds to enroll in exchanges is a matter of fairness.

Sen. Grassley’s amendment to require elected officials and federal employees to buy insurance through exchanges is meant to apply the same standards to elected officials and federal employees as everyone else.”

The Senate Finance Committee’s markup of a draft health care bill is expected to continue into next week. We’ll keep you posted on any news affecting feds.

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Yet another FAA authorization extension

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The House passed a temporary Federal Aviation Administration authorization extension Wednesday, giving the Senate until the end of the year to pass the full reauthorization bill.

The temporary extension won’t be a surprise to the FAA, which has been operating under them since its authorization expired during the last Congress.

The sixth temporary extension expires Sept. 30. The new extension goes until Dec. 31 and allows the FAA to continue to collect and spend revenues.

The House passed a multiyear reauthorization bill, HR 915, in May, but the bill has stalled in the Senate, just as it did in the last Congress.

The Senate bill is tied up in the Senate Finance Committee, which deals with the revenue portions of the bill. That committee has been consumed with health care for much of this congressional session, so a timetable for progressing on the FAA reauthorization is unclear.

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More concerns about DCAA audit opinions

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Earlier today I previewed reports the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department Inspector General will release tomorrow highlighting the depth of auditing problems at the Defense Contract Audit Agency.

But these watchdogs are not the only ones with concerns about DCAA’s audit management. The Wartime Contracting Commission — a bipartisan, congressionally chartered panel tasked with making recommendations to improve contingency contracting — released this report today calling on DCAA to abandon the all-or-nothing approach it takes when rendering opinions on contractor business systems.

In December, DCAA scrapped its opinion that allowed business systems with minor deficiencies to be deemed “inadequate in part.”  A prior GAO report that found the auditors in DCAA’s western region were pressured by supervisors to change the middle-ground opinions to “adequate” in order to please contractors. Contractors can only directly bill the government for work if their systems are deemed fully “adequate,” or reliable. If a contractor can directly bill the government, it doesn’t have to go through a lengthy invoice approval process.

But the commission, which has held a series of hearings about the adequacy of contractors’ cost estimating and accounting systems, found the new pass-fail policy increases the government’s risk of wasting money because it diminishes the importance of an inadequate audit finding.

Under the new rules, a system is deemed “inadequate,” or unreliable, if even one minor aspect of the accounting system is broken. Such a blanket finding is “not informative enough to help contracting officers make effective decisions” about how to hold the contractor accountable for fixing problems, according to the commission report.

The report went on to say:

Rather than giving system deficiencies more importance, it seems to have the opposite effect — undermining the significance of the audit findings and weakening their effectiveness…Without any reasonable provision for more accurately describing systems that are less than perfect, contractors and contracting officers find the ‘adequate/inadequate’ options too restrictive.”

A graduated grading system is needed to give contracting officers clear information about the monetary losses that could result from a system deficiency and the level of risk that deficiency poses, so contracting officers can decide how to hold contractors accountable, the report said.

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VA employees offer 3,000 ideas for improvement

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President Barack Obama said in August he wanted to hear from Veterans Benefits Administration employees on how to improve the agency, and employees are responding.

In the first week, the survey site for VBA employees was visited 29,000 times by 7,000 employees, who submitted more than 3,000 ideas, said U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and VA Chief Technology Peter Levin in a blog post on whitehouse.gov Monday.

Obama said he wants employees to contribute their ideas to solving its claims backlog and improving agency efficiency, and the survey is yielding results, Chopra and Levin wrote. Employees can also vote on the best suggestions on the Web site.

The VA innovation competition will create a new channel for best ideas to rocket right to the attention of the President and Secretary Shinseki, and for the outstanding employee-innovators behind those ideas to get some serious recognition.”

Chopra and Levin expect the survey process to be quick, with results coming in the next few months.

The next step is for the regional office directors to cull through their treasure chest, figure out which jewel they’d like to develop more, and submit it to headquarters. Next, (Benefits) Undersecretary (Patrick) Dunne and his team will pick the fifteen best, and invite them to Washington for an in-person presentation. The winners should be announced in the first couple of weeks of January, and we fully expect regional offices to fast-track the low-hanging fruit.”

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The incredible shrinking government

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The federal government may be growing under President Barack Obama, but a just-released report shows the government is actually getting smaller.

Confused?

It turns out that while federal agencies are hiring more workers, they’re also getting rid of thousands of buildings they no longer need. The number of buildings in the federal inventory declined nearly 9 percent in 2008, or roughly 70 million square feet, according to a report posted today by the General Services Administration.

GSA attributes the decrease to a reduction of 36,000 military housing units and 4,000 warehouses by the Air Force and Navy.

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House to take up continuing resolution

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The House will take up a continuing resolution this week to keep agencies operating at fiscal 2009 levels while Congress completes the 12 annual appropriations bills, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced Sept. 17.

The CR will not come up before Wednesday, according to the tentative House floor schedule. A final vote has not been scheduled, so it’s unclear if the CR will be finished this week.

The House has passed all 12 of its fiscal 2010 appropriations bills, while the Senate has passed six. The end of the fiscal year is Sept. 30, and agencies have adapted to the annual pattern of continuing resolutions, also known as CRs.

Congress has not completed its work on all federal appropriations bills before Oct. 1 since 1997. It usually passes one or more continuing resolutions, keeping agencies funded at the previous years’ spending levels, until Congress either completes work on all of the bills or wraps them up into a consolidated spending bill, known as an omnibus.

In 2009, Congress passed on-time appropriations for three agencies: Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. All other agencies operated under a CR until March, when Congress passed an omnibus containing new spending levels.

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Ron Howard developing IRS sitcom

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Is the IRS funny? Famed director Ron Howard thinks so.

Howard and his producing partner, Brian Grazer, are the team behind the critically-acclaimed and ratings-challenged “Arrested Development.” Howard may need to tap that blend of hysterical awkwardness with his new sitcom, which will be centered around an Internal Revenue Service field office. Trade publication The Hollywood Reporter first announced the project.

The show has a pilot commitment with Fox, which means the network will pay to develop the first episode of the show, known as a pilot, and will pay a penalty to Howard and Grazer should it not pick up the pilot for air. Howard hired Brent Forrester, a writer-director on NBC’s “The Office,” to write the pilot.

Forrester had kind words for IRS’ employees, describing the boss in the show as “trying hard to believe that his job is good and noble and provides a very important, vital service.”

The one thing that unites all Americans is their suspicion and hatred for the IRS. That makes the characters on the show underdogs, because outside the office everyone is suspicious of them.”

Do you think this show sounds like a promising sitcom? Would you watch? Or do you think Americans don’t want to watch feds at work?

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