Federal Times Blogs

Debt ceiling follies growing worse by the day

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(William Thomas Cain / Getty Images)

With four days to go (roughly) until the federal government runs out of cash, the effort to raise the debt ceiling is growing more and more chaotic. Last night, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, couldn’t muster enough GOP votes to pass his plan to raise the debt ceiling in two stages while cutting some $917 billion in discretionary spending (give or take a few hundred billion).

The strain is evident. Earlier in the week, Boehner told House Republicans to “get your ass in line” and back his plan, with no success. House GOP leadership is now scrambling to revise the bill and salvage a vote. But that’s bound to be a futile exercise anyway. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., already pledged to sink Boehner’s bill, Obama just denounced it as having “no chance of becoming law,” and making it more conservative just makes it even less likely to pass the Senate.

Meanwhile, millions of federal employees and retirees are growing increasingly nervous with no official word on how a potential default would affect them. The National Federation of Federal Employees today announced their “Each One, Reach One” campaign to pressure lawmakers to get their act together. NFFE President Bill Dougan wants all federal employees to call one or more of their representatives and tell them to raise the debt ceiling by the Aug. 2 deadline.

Because we’ve got to laugh so we don’t cry, here’s Stephen Colbert’s inspired — and incredibly dorky — riff on John McCain’s dismissal of Tea Partiers as “hobbits.”

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Government satellite helps rescue hikers after bear attack

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On July 23, a group of students were hiking 93 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska, when they were attacked by a Grizzly bear. One of the students activated an emergency personal locator beacon, which alerted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-11 satellite, which worked with a European satellite to pinpoint their location.

The coordinates were relayed to the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, which alerted Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Air National Guard, who rescued the group. Four had been injured, with two requiring hospitalization.

A brief explanation of how the system works (from NOAA):

When a NOAA satellite finds the location of a distress signal within the United States or its surrounding waters, it relays the information to the SARSAT Mission Control Center based at NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md. From there, the information is quickly sent to a rescue coordination center operated by either the U.S. Air Force (for land rescues) or the U.S. Coast Guard (for water rescues).


Rep. Ross confirms higher pension, health care payments on the table

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Rep. Dennis Ross (photo by Blair Tomlinson)It’s looking increasingly likely that a deficit reduction deal is going to hit future feds particularly hard, as we reported last week. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., today confirmed that not only are lawmakers seriously considering raising the amount federal employees contribute toward their pensions, but the increase would be a lot higher for new employees than for current employees.

Ross told me that he’s not personally involved in the negotiations and couldn’t say how big the increases might be. (Unions have been told that current employees’ contributions — to both the Federal Employees Retirement System and the Civil Service Retirement System — would go up by either 0.4 or 0.5 percentage points per year for three years once the pay freeze ends, and that future employees’ FERS contributions would be either 5.5 percent or 6 percent. FERS contributions are now 0.8 percent.)

“For those existing employees, it will not be as significant as what it will be for new employees,” Ross said. “There’s no question that that’s going to be considered. To what extent, I don’t know.”

Ross said the deficit reduction deal may also require federal employees to pay more toward their health insurance.

But just how deep will the cuts to federal employees’ pay and benefits go? “I think that’s probably some of the fine print that’s going to be decided after an overall deal is made, as to the amount of [spending] cuts,” Ross said. “We’ll probably know more, maybe before the weekend.”

Although negotiations now appear in disarray, Ross is confident that lawmakers and the White House will find some way to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. “There’ll be a deal struck,” Ross said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

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One state spared from possible post office closings

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Here’s a fun fact to know and share about the post office
downsizing process unveiled today: From Alaska to Rhode Island, every state
(and the District of Columbia) has post offices under review for closing.

Except one: Delaware, which is also the home state of one of
the U.S. Postal Service’s closest allies on Capitol Hill: Democratic Sen. Tom

Carper not only chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees
the troubled mail carrier, he is also lead sponsor of the Postal Operations
Sustainment and Transformation (POST) Act, which is the Postal Service’s
preferred bill for addressing its many problems, mainly through a combination
of increased management flexibility and billions of dollars in refunds of federal pension overpayments, as identified by the agency’s inspector general and an outside actuarial firm.

Carper, however, sought no special treatment for Delaware, said spokeswoman
Emily Spain, who attributed the outcome to the review process used by the Postal
Service, which generally targeted post offices with low revenue or customer traffic numbers.

In an email this afternoon, USPS spokeswoman Sue Brennan said she thought
the result had more to do with the low number of post offices–only 70–in
Delaware as a whole.

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Stay tuned: Post office closing study list out today

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Lest anyone’s forgotten, today’s the day that the U.S. Postal Service kicks off its biggest campaign to close post offices since . . . the last one, which quickly flamed out two years ago.

At a 10 a.m. news conference, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is expected to release a list of more than 3,600 post offices that could be shuttered after a newly created review process. (That list is supposed to be up on the Postal Service’s web site at 10:30 a.m.) On Wednesday, the agency will ask the Postal Regulatory Commission to formally weigh in on its plans, according to the National Association of Postmasters of the United States, one of two postmaster groups already fighting the possible changes.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because in 2009 the Postal Service started a review of some 3,200 post offices, which was then winnowed to 1,000 facilities that merited further study.  But the backlash from the public and members of Congress was fierce.  Out of almost 32,000 post offices, the agency is now in the process of shutting down about 140 (or roughly .4 percent of the total) under the initiative.

Since 2009, the Postal Service’s financial plight has worsened and Donahoe has replaced John Potter as postmaster general.  For anyone handicapping how successful this latest streamlining attempt will be, the question is what, if anything, has otherwise changed.




Reid: $2.7T in cuts, no tax revenues

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Slightly more mature than the current debate going on in Washington. (From icanhascheezburger.com)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may have swerved in the game of chicken that is our debt ceiling debate, depending on how you look at it. He and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., held a press conference this afternoon to propose a $2.7 trillion deficit reduction package that would extend the debt ceiling into 2013.

The proposal would not include any additional tax revenues — which Republicans have taken a hard line on and has scotched all previous attempts at a bargain — but it would also not touch entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Reid said it would include $1.2 trillion in domestic discretionary cuts, including defense, over a decade and another $1 trillion from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Obama immediately endorsed Reid’s plan. But since Iraq and Afghanistan were going to end sooner or later, some view counting those savings as deficit reduction as a sham budget gimmick that won’t mollify creditors. Some conservative commentators and Republican staffers are already throwing cold water on the plan for just that reason.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner outlined his own plan, which would raise the debt ceiling in two stages. First, Boehner said, the government would cut $1.2 trillion over a decade and raise the ceiling by $1 trillion. Then, Congress would form a committee to prepare a bill cutting another $1.8 trillion. If Congress passes those cuts, the debt ceiling goes up another $1.6 trillion. (It also requires a vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment later this year.)

Boehner’s plan centers on exactly the kind of short-term debt ceiling increases that Obama and Democrats oppose, since it would force us to have this debate all over again during a presidential election. (And its worth noting that Republican leaders at one point also were against short-term increases.)

All of this means we’re probably no closer to a solution than we were this morning.

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Social Security Administration trimming public office hours

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Another cost-cutting move is in the works at the Social Security Administration, where almost 1,300 field offices will soon begin closing to the public one half hour earlier each business day. The change, which takes effect Aug. 15, means that an office that has been open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will close to the public at 3:30, according to a news release.

Although Social Security employees will keep working their normal schedules, the “shorter public window” will help the agency avoid paying overtime, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said in the release. Because Congress provided the Social Security Administration with nearly $1 billion less than the amount requested by President Obama for fiscal 2011, Astrue added, that shortfall “makes it impossible for us to provide the amount of overtime needed to handle service to the public as we have in the past.” The amount of expected savings was not immediately available.

Last July, Astrue imposed a partial hiring freeze on the agency and in March stopped mailing earnings and benefits statements to the public.

Of course, not all Social Security services take an office visit, the release notes, but you’ll need a phone or an Internet-connected computer. Anyone wanting to apply for benefits, replace a Medicare card, sign up for direct deposit, obtain a proof of income letter, or provide a change of address or phone number, can do so by going to http://www.socialsecurity.gov or calling the agency’s toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778.­)



Deficit talks collapse: What are you hearing?

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House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama at the White House July 23. (Jewel Samad/Getty Images)

About two weeks ago I described deficit talks as going from bad to worse. Well, on Friday things went from worse to abysmal. President Obama says House Speaker John Boehner stopped returning his calls when they were supposedly wrapping up the final details on a deal, and then pulled out of negotiations. Boehner says Obama backtracked on a handshake deal on new revenue and demanded another $400 billion in taxes.

This photo, taken Saturday when top lawmakers were summoned to the White House for emergency talks, tells the whole story. The fatigue and frustration can be plainly seen on Obama and Boehner’s faces, and it seems the two men can’t even look at one another anymore.

There’s barely eight days left to agree on some way to raise the debt ceiling before … well, who knows what will really happen Aug. 3? Unions and employee groups haven’t been told anything. During a partnership council meeting in March, before the averted shutdown, they peppered administration officials with questions that went unanswered. But at last week’s partnership meeting, unions didn’t even bother asking Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry how a default would hurt feds. “Didn’t get us very far” last time, American Federation of Government Employees National President John Gage said.

Federal Times would like to hear from you on this subject. Are you hearing anything at all from your higher-ups on what a default would mean? Is there talk of furloughs, or other unfortunate consequences? What other questions do you have? E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com. If you don’t want to be quoted, that’s not a problem.

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Postal clerks bear the brunt of USPS downsizing

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It’s no secret that there are a lot fewer postal workers than there used to be; the size of the agency’s total career workforce plunged 26 percent between 2000 and 2010, from about 787,500 to 583,900. But which crafts took the biggest hit? The agency’s inspector general put together some figures recently and found that a steep drop in the number of clerks accounted for almost two-thirds of that shrinkage.

From 2000 to 2010, the ranks of clerks—a category that also includes nurses and motor vehicle operators–nosedived from 291,494 to 164,581. By itself, that’s a 44 percent tumble. Do a little more math and you’ll see that clerks absorbed about 62 percent of the total job cuts in the USPS career work force during that time.

The next two hardest-hit employee classes, though, may come as a surprise: The ranks of supervisors and managers fell 28 percent while a more nebulous category described as “headquarters/other” dropped 24 percent. The number of city carriers and mail handlers was down 20 percent, postmasters, 12 percent, and maintenance employees, 11 percent. The only craft to show an increase was that of rural carriers, which rose 17 percent. Anyone have any thoughts on why that was?

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The heat is on

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This is what it feels like outside. (from NASA.gov)

As the East Coast is slammed by a heat wave and temperatures soar into the triple digits, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry wants agencies to look out for their employees. Berry earlier this week issued a memo asking agencies to:

OK, I made that last one up, not Berry. But one day, when I rule the world…

Stay indoors, stay cool, and enjoy this song:

YouTube Preview Image

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