Federal Times Blogs

Daily Caller’s epic EPA fail

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I can’t remember the last time I saw a publication get a story as blatantly wrong as the Daily Caller’s dubious “scoop” this week, claiming the Environmental Protection Agency is going to hire 230,000 new workers.

Here’s the background. The EPA is trying to enact a new, controversial “tailoring” rule allowing it to focus enforcement of greenhouse gas emissions on just the biggest polluters, “shielding small polluters from rigid Clean Air Act permitting requirements.” The New York Times quoted EPA as saying without the tailoring rule, about 6 million facilities could need permits for greenhouse gas standards.

Industry groups are suing EPA to strike down the tailoring rule and pare back EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act. On Sept. 16, the Justice Department filed a brief on behalf of EPA arguing the tailoring rule is legit, and if it were lifted, the cost of enforcing the Clean Air Act on everyone would be crushing — both to government and industry. Justice said:

[...] immediately applying the literal PSD statutory threshold [...] would result in annual PSD permit applications submitted to State and local permitting agencies to increase nationwide from 280 to over 81,000 per year, a 300-fold increase. [...] Hiring the 230,000 full-time employees necessary to produce the 1.4 billion work hours required to address the actual increase in permitting functions would result in an increase in Title V administration costs of $21 billion per year. [Emphasis added]

That’s a worst-case scenario, and pretty clear that they’re arguing against enforcing the regulations on everyone. But how did Daily Caller play it?

The EPA is asking taxpayers to fund up to 230,000 new government workers to process all the extra paperwork, at an estimated cost of $21 billion.

Really? At a time when agencies across the government are facing massive budget crunches, buying out employees left and right, and in some cases considering layoffs, the EPA’s work force of 19,000 is going to suddenly grow by a factor of 13? Increasing the size of the overall government by more than 10 percent? Not to mention the fact that EPA has not submitted any requests for $21 billion budget increases, and would get laughed out of Congress if they did. (For the record, EPA asked for almost $9 billion total in fiscal 2012, a 13 percent decline from 2010.) The whole idea doesn’t pass the smell test.

Politico jumped all over it Tuesday. And Erik Wemple of the Post reports that Daily Caller didn’t give EPA a call to allow them to respond, or even check to see if they were … um … actually planning to hire nearly a quarter-million new employees.

Daily Caller doubled down Wednesday and said they’re standing by their story (in an editor’s note that contained several swipes at liberal groups). They shouldn’t. It’s a piece of lousy journalism, and betrays a clear lack of understanding of the current realities of the federal work force and budget environment.


Love is eternal… as long as the postal service stays in business

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In the Cheesman Park neighborhood of Denver,  two mailboxes are in love. It’s thanks to the work on an anonymous artist, but we can’t say for sure since the mailboxes are not saying much.

As you’ll see in the video, the post office keeps painting over the boxes, as it’s considered graffiti, but the artist continues to repaint them afterwards.

Neither rain, sleet nor snow will keep them apart.

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Don’t call us, we’ll call you: Tales of a DHS FOIA

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Let’s have a talk about government transparency.

It all began earlier this year when I was having trouble reaching various spokespersons and public affairs staff at the Department of Homeland Security. I was repeatedly referred to mediainquiry@dhs.gov for any and all information but had no idea who was in charge of what. When I asked point blank who I should talk to about specific subjects, I was told to just use the email.

So I decided file a Freedom of Information Act request for the following information:

1. The names of all public affairs people and spokespersons at DHS.

2. Their work numbers and work email.

Eventually I got my response.

It was 58 pages of redacted work phone numbers, work email addresses and cell phone numbers.

Their reason? Well according to Sabrina Burroughs Acting Associate Director, Disclosure and FOIA Operations:

As a result of discussion between agency personnel and a member of my staff, as a matter of administrative discretion, I am releasing the DHS Public Affairs Directorate. I have determined that 58 pages of the records are partially releasable pursuant to Title 5 U.S.C. § 552 (b)(6), FOIA Exemption 6.

That is the FOIA exemption typically used to withhold medical records, personnel files and other items that are personal and not in the public interest to release. See below.

FOIA Exemption 6 exempts from disclosure personnel or medical files and similar files the release of which would cause a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. This requires a balancing of the public’s right to disclosure against the individual’s right privacy. The privacy interests of the individuals in the records you have requested outweigh any minimal public interest in disclosure of the information. Any private interest you may have in that information does not factor into the aforementioned balancing test.

Now remember, these are public affairs people and spokespersons, all of whom are supposed to engage with the public.

Is that a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy? I will leave that for all of you to decide.

Growth in health premiums slows dramatically

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The Office of Personnel Management today announced that health care premiums for federal employees and retirees will increase by 3.8 percent for non-postal employees, a sharp reduction from the 7.3 percent average increase that hit premiums last year.

Enrollees with self-only coverage will pay $2.32 more on average per bi-weekly pay period. Those with family coverage will pay $6.18 more on average.

And premiums for the most popular plan in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) — the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Standard Option — will actually drop slightly: Enrollees with self-only coverage will pay 81 cents less per biweekly pay period while enrollees having family coverage will pay 72 cents less than they do currently.

There are no significant benefit changes for 2012.

Look here for more details on the rate changes for 2012.

Health care premiums coming tomorrow

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Here’s a heads up for all of our readers: Tomorrow morning, the Office of Personnel Management is planning to unveil next year’s premiums for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Check back in at FederalTimes.com sometime after 11 a.m. Tuesday for the news on how your health care costs will change in 2012.

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Living people to be pictured on postage stamps and other USPS news

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Once again, there’s so much happening with the U.S. Postal Service that it seems simplest to package (no pun intended) the latest developments together. Here goes:

1) In that rare bit of news that doesn’t revolve around the mail carrier’s cratering finances, the Postal Service today announced that it’s changed a long-standing policy so living people can be depicted on postage stamps. Under the previous guidelines, an individual had to be dead for at least five years to be so honored; starting next year, Americans “will see acclaimed musicians, sports stars, writers, artists and nationally-known figures” on stamps while they’re still with us, according to a USPS news release.

Postal officials are inviting members of the public to submit the top five living individuals they would like to see on stamps via Facebook and Twitter. People can also actually use a stamp to write the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, c/o Stamp Development, Room 3300, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20260-3501. And before anyone rushes to nominate their grandkids (or even a favorite mail carrier), keep in mind that the advisory committee is looking for folks “who have made extraordinary contributions to American society and culture,” according to the official guidelines.

2) Back to grim realities: The Postal Service’s four unions are wrapping up preparations for tomorrow’s nationwide “Save America’s Postal Service” day, which will feature rallies in all 435 congressional districts from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. local times.  The chief goal is to build public and political support for legislation by Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., that could open the door for the Postal Service to take advantage of tens of billions of dollars in pension overpayments identified by an outside actuary and the agency’s inspector general. The bill already has 215 co-sponsors, including some Republicans, but has so far gone nowhere in the House, where other GOP lawmakers dispute whether any such overpayments occurred.

3) On Friday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., jumped into the scrum on the other side by introducing a Senate version of a postal overhaul sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., that was just approved last week by a House oversight subcommittee.  McCain has a history of—at least every now and then—working successfully across party lines, but the debate preceding that subcommittee vote showed just how deep partisan divisions run on postal issues.

4) And, as federal agencies undergo another bout of shutdown jitters, let’s not forget that the Postal Service has a stake in the latest Capitol Hill showdown. Under the continuing resolution that would keep agencies operating past the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, the deadline for the Postal Service to make a $5.5 billion retiree health care prepayment would also be pushed back from Sept. 30 to Nov. 18. If lawmakers don’t pass the CR by Friday, the Postal Service is headed for an embarrassing default, according to repeated warnings from Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.


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Former White House official in prison for lying about ties to lobbyist

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David Safavian, the Bush-era White House official who accepted a lavish trip to Scotland from lobbyist and friend Jack Abramoff, has entered federal prison for lying to federal officials about his dealings with the lobbyist.

Safavian is serving a year sentence at Federal Medical Center Devens in Massachusetts for obstruction of justice and lying to federal ethics officers, investigators and Congress about his relationship with Abramoff and the 2002 excursion. He entered the prison’s custody on July 26, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. 

Safavian was first convicted in 2006.  That conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which said the Justice Department failed to show Safavian had a legal obligation to disclose such information to the ethics officer and found the trial court had improperly barred Safavian from calling expert witnesses who could have helped his defense.

Safavian was convicted  a second time in December 2008 and attempted to overturn his conviction. But Judge Paul Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Safavian was not entitled to have his conviction overturned or a new trial.

Safavian was General Services Administration chief of staff at the time of the golf trip. He was head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the time of his arrest.

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TPM: Issa suggests eliminating step increases

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TPM just scored a nice scoop today with a look at Republicans’ wish list for the deficit reduction super committee. What’s likely to be most alarming to federal employees is Rep. Darrell Issa’s idea to temporarily freeze step increases for federal employees:

[O]ne idea identifies “Chairman Issa” as the source . . . . Issa’s idea would eliminate “periodic step increases” for federal employees’ salaries and is estimated to save $1 billion.

“Federal employees receive periodic step increases driven largely by passage of time equivalent to three percent of basic pay,” the doc states.

Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is a vocal critic of the federal pay system, and earlier this year tried to freeze step increases to broaden the White House’s partial pay freeze.

TPM said another proposal, attributed to the House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders, would increase current employees’ contributions to the Federal Employees Retirement System by half a percentage point. (TPM doesn’t say how many times the contribution would be hiked, but all previous discussions about contribution hikes have revolved around increases for three years.) This would be 0.1 percentage points more than the White House proposed earlier this week.

And the GOP leadership is also reportedly looking at upping new employees’ contributions to 4 percent of pay, instead of the current FERS contribution rate of 0.8 percent.

TPM also lists other ideas, which have each been floated at one time or another over the last year:

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Agencies to answer for noncompliance in small biz leadership

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Agencies that refuse to put senior leadership in charge of their small business contracting activities, as required by law, will be asked to explain their noncompliance to a House small business subcommittee.

The Small Business Act requires each agency to have an Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) that ensures contracts are written with small business participation in mind. By law, the director of these offices should report directly to an agency’s secretary or deputy secretary.

The Government Accountability Office reported in June that the Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Justice, State and Treasury departments are not complying with the requirements.  Some agencies name top level officials as OSDBU directors but have less senior administrators do day-to-day activities.  Others have the OSDBU director report to officials other than the secretary or deputy secretary.

“The reporting relationship is not an issue of form over function,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, chairman of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce, said in a Politico op-ed Friday. “These small-business advocates are intended to be a peer of the chief acquisition officer and senior procurement executive.  They are meant to serve as an authoritative figure — not an afterthought — so they can serve as a constant advocate for small businesses and an aggressive check against abuse.”

Mulvaney sent letters to noncompliant agencies that asked them to change their OSDBU leadership.  The Treasury, State, Justice and Agriculture departments have told Mulvaney they believe they are in compliance with the law and will not change.

Mulvaney said the article that he plans to hold hearings on the topic.

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TSA checks for Afro explosives

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An Atlanta TV station recently reported a passenger going through Hartsfield- Jackson International Airport was subject to a TSA “hair pat-down”.

The woman had already gone through security when TSA agents tracked her down and asked to search her hair for explosives. She said no, but was then told she wouldn’t be able to board her flight without a “hair pat-down”. The woman has a massive fro and is quite a character, but a terrorist, I think not.  Watch the full report below.