Federal Times Blogs

Postal Service seeking to raise stamp prices

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However you buy your stamps, you'll probably be paying more this January, under proposed U.S. Postal Service rate increases unveiled today.

Better start stocking up on your first-class “Forever” stamps because they will likely cost a penny more in January, under a U.S. Postal Service regulatory filing today. The proposed increase to 45 cents is part of a package that would boost the price of a postcard from 29 cents to 32 cents and also raise the cost of sending international letters, standard mail and periodicals, the agency said in a news release. (For a fuller rundown, check out this fact sheet.)

Under a 2006 law, the Postal Service can raise rates relatively easily as long as the cumulative increase doesn’t exceed the inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Price Index, which in this case is 2.1 percent, according to the Postal Service.  The proposed increases were filed today with the Postal Regulatory Commission, a five-member oversight body. The PRC now has 45 days to review them to make sure they don’t violate the inflation cap, USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer said.

Assuming the commission gives its OK, the increases would take effect Jan. 22 and would be the first for a first-class stamp since May 2009. All told, the rate changes will generate about $888 million in new annual revenue, Partenheimer said.

“The overall average price increase is small and is needed to help address our current financial crisis,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in a statement. “We continue to take actions within our control to increase revenue in other ways and to aggressively cut costs. To return to sound financial footing, we urgently need enactment of comprehensive, long-term legislation to provide the Postal Service with a more flexible business model.”

If anyone’s wondering, by the way, the Postal Service’s appeal of a PRC smackdown in last year’s “exigent” rate increase case is still technically alive.

In that case–completely separate from what was proposed today–the Postal Service sought to raise rates beyond the inflation cap on the grounds that the recession had dealt an extraordinary blow to mail volumes. After the commission unanimously rejected that argument in September 2010, the Postal Service appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which sent the case back to the PRC this May.

There it remains; earlier this month, however, the Postal Service asked for a stay of all proceedings until Dec. 15.  Proposals by the Obama administration and members of Congress could change the ratemaking landscape, USPS lawyers wrote.

“Obviously, it would  be grossly premature to attempt to anticipate what, if anything, might come out of these initiatives,” they said. “Yet by the same token, neither would it seem prudent to ignore these developments entirely.”



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OPM ‘will not rest’ until USAJobs is fixed

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One week after the Office of Personnel Management launched the latest version of USAJobs.gov, frustrated users are still having troubles with it. OPM last night issued a statement that said it is still working on the problems plaguing the new site.

“As with any project of this size, there are still technical issues that we are working to resolve,” OPM said. “We will not rest until full service is restored and all applicants are able to fully benefit from all the new features of USAJobs 3.0.”

OPM is now working on trying to increase the number of applicants who can be logged on at one time, reducing the number of errors in search results, and reducing problems stemming from the massive number of visitors to the new site. OPM last week said an unprecedented volume of traffic — three times more than the busiest day in 2010 — overwhelmed the site, and several users complained about its lackluster search engine.

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Indian activist challenged the government–and is lauded for it

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It’s not every day that national leaders pay tribute to someone who spearheaded a cause that will cost the government several billion dollars.

That distinction goes, however, to the late Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Interior and Treasury departments that prompted a $3.4 billion settlement to make up for their mismanagement of an Indian trust fund. Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe from Montana, died late Sunday from cancer.

Elouise Cobell was the lead plaintiff on a lawsuit against the government that led to a $3.4 billion settlement.

In a statement today, President Obama said he and First Lady Michelle Obama were “saddened” to learn of Cobell’s passing.

“Elouise spoke out when she saw that the Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect on behalf of more than 300,000 of her fellow Native Americans,” said Obama, who last year signed the law that put the settlement in place.

Also praising Cobell was current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who called her “a hero in every sense of the word.”

“She sought justice to address historical wrongs that had weighed on our nation’s conscience and was a significant force for change.”

Recognition was a long time coming.

In 1996, Cobell and four other Indians filed suit to force the government to account for billions of dollars received for oil and gas leases and other uses of Indian lands held in trust by the United States, according to an obituary released by her family. The suit eventually became a class-action case; the ensuing legal odyssey revealed government record-keeping so slipshod that a judge determined that Indians could never get a full reckoning.

The $3.4 billion negotiated settlement includes $1.5 billion to compensate land owners, along with $1.9 billion for a voluntary buyback program to consolidate land interests, according to the Interior Department. Because legal challenges to the settlement are continuing, however, no money has actually been disbursed at this point, said Bill McAllister, a spokesman for Cobell’s family.

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Letter carriers union looks to Wall Street for help with “pro-growth” postal plan

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The National Association of Letter Carriers announced today that it is hiring the Lazard Group investment bank, along with former presidential adviser Ron Bloom, to help develop “a viable long-term,  pro-growth business plan for the Postal
Service,” according to a news release.

Bloom, who also comes out of the financial sector, is no stranger to troubled enterprises, having worked as President Obama’s “car czar” during the bailout of the auto industry. He went on to serve as assistant to the president for manufacturing policy, but recently left his White House post for family reasons, according to news reports.

Bloom also has long-standing ties to the United Steelworkers. While Lazard and organized labor might look like an odder fit, NALC President Fredric Rolando said that the union has had some prior dealings with Lazard and liked what it had done.

In a conference call with reporters, Rolando made clear that the overall goal is to come up with a bullish alternative to the cost-cutting agenda–such as eliminating most Saturday delivery–that the Postal Service is pursuing to deal with a plunge in revenue.  Not clear, however, is precisely what Lazard and Bloom are supposed to produce (a report, legislative proposals?), how quickly they might produce it and how much it will cost the union.

“I really couldn’t tell you exactly how this is going to unfold yet,” Rolando said.  The move was announced during a national NALC conference on the Postal Service’s financial crisis. The mail carrier’s other three unions are not involved.

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Lieberman, Collins: Freeze pay for third year

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Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, today called for extending federal employees’ pay freeze — currently scheduled to last two years — into a third year.

In a letter to the so-called super committee tasked with reducing the deficit, Lieberman and Collins said “federal employees, including members of Congress and our staffs, must sacrifice as part of an urgent need to curtail the cost of the federal government and reduce the national debt.”

As a strong supporter of our federal workforce, we say this with regret, because we are asking many dedicated, hard-working and patriotic public servants to pay a price for fiscal and economic conditions for which they are not responsible. But people across the country are struggling, most especially those who are suffering from historic levels of unemployment, and all Americans, including those of us in the public sector, must help get our country out of the hole we are in.

A third year in which pay scales are frozen would save $32 billion, they said. They did not propose halting step increases, but they did say the freeze should be extended to legislative branch employees.

They also endorsed President Obama’s plan to phase in a 1.2 percent increase to the amount federal employees contribute to their pension plans. But they said the proposal should also cover legislative and judicial branch employees, not just executive branch employees. And they said the super committee should consider repealing a 2009 change allowing Federal Employees Retirement System employees to count their unused sick leave towards their retirement, which will cost an estimated $561 million over 10 years.

Collins and Lieberman said moving to a high-5 system for calculating pensions makes sense, but it should be structured to limit the effect on feds who are already near retirement. If that isn’t done, it could result in a wave of early retirements as feds try to get out before the high-5 takes effect.

From the fed perspective, however, their approach looks positively mild in comparison with the package of recommendations offered–also today–by Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Among them: Go to the five-5; extend the pay freeze through 2015 and eliminate step increases;  increase employee contribution rates both for participants in the Federal Employees Retirement System and the Civil Service Retirement System; eliminate FERS for new hires and limit the FERS minimum supplement to employees subject to mandatory retirement. Oh yes, and reduce the federal work force by 10 percent by hiring only one new worker for every three who leave.

Total 10-year savings would be a minimum of $375 billion, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a letter.


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GSA virtual meeting centers open to agencies

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The General Services Administration’s 15 virtual meetings centers are finally open for business after months of delays.

In the face of shrinking travel budgets, GSA is encouraging agencies to reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions by meeting virtually.

The telepresence centers, which opened earlier this month, cost $399 per hour per location, comparable to the price of public telepresence rooms. Public meeting rooms usually cost between $400 and $450 an hour, said Mark Barounos, CEO for Colorado-based Telepresence World.

GSA contracted with AT&T to create the centers at its 11 regional headquarters offices – in Boston; New York City; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; Fort Worth, Texas; Denver; San Francisco; Auburn, Wash.; and Washington, D.C. – including four Washington-area offices.

Each center has high-definition television screens, advanced audio equipment and collaboration tools. Most centers have a capacity of 6 people, but a few can accommodate 14, according to gsa.gov.

AT&T projects that its technology will reduce carbon emissions by 112,000 metric tons this year and 155,000 metric tons in 2011, according to its website.

Agencies can register to use the meeting rooms by calling: 855- 437-9307.



USAJobs 3.0: What’s the verdict?

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The Office of Personnel Management yesterday launched its revamped USAJobs.gov website. But if users’ comments on its Facebook page are any indication, there’s still a few kinks to be worked out.

How is it working for you? Are you having problems with USAJobs 3.0? We’d like to hear from you. E-mail me with your experiences at slosey@federaltimes.com.

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Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny dies

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President Obama shakes Kameny's hand after signing a memorandum to extend some benefits to federal employees' same-sex domestic partners on June 17, 2009 (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Frank Kameny, a gay federal employee who successfully fought to overturn the government’s ban on homosexuality in its workforce, died yesterday at his home in Washington. He was 86.

Kameny was fired from his job as an Army astronomer in 1957, and subsequently launched a campaign of lawsuits and marches that would eventually go to the Supreme Court and end the government’s persecution of gay employees. Kameny and other activists forced the government in 1975 to strip language about “immoral conduct” and “sexual perversion” — language that was used to bar gays and lesbians from federal employment — from suitability rules. And in 1995, President Clinton signed an executive order that ended the ban on security clearances for gay people.

Federal GLOBE, an organization that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender federal employee, issued a statement last night that called him, “a hero,” “our inspiration and … our father.” And Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, who is also gay, said that Kameny was “known for being feisty and combative, but he was also big-hearted.” Berry said:

He helped make it possible for countless of patriotic Americans to hold security clearances and high government positions, including me. [...] He honored me personally by attending my swearing-in, and showed his ability to forgive by accepting my official apology on behalf of the government for the sad and discredited termination of his federal employment by the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the predecessor of the agency I now head.  We presented and he accepted OPM’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award, given to those who are courageous in defense of our nation’s Merit Principles.   I am grateful for his life, his service to his nation in WWII, and his passion and persistence in helping build a more perfect union.  He was a great man, and I will sorely miss him.

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Archives to display Patton, Hendrix, Elvis military records

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Pvt. Hendrix's records will be among those shown to the press this Thursday.

Here’s one way to get the press out to your new records storage facility: Promise them peeks at the military personnel files of Army Gen. George S. Patton, Elvis Presley, and Jimi Hendrix.

The National Archives and Records Administration on Oct. 15 will dedicate its new National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., which will house more than 100 million files on veterans and former civil servants. Two days before that, they’re inviting reporters to view the facilities, preservation labs where they restore documents — and celebrities’ service records.

Besides Old Blood and Guts, Elvis and Hendrix, the Archives plan to display files on Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac, Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, and Roots author Alex Haley.

Maybe something in Hendrix’s file will settle the debate over why he was quickly discharged from the Army. Did the paratrooper-in-training break his ankle — as Hendrix often claimed — was he a lousy soldier, or did he feign homosexuality to get booted and begin his musical career, as biographer Charles Cross maintains?

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Medical malpractice records removed from public view

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The ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee is pushing the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to reopen public access to information on malpractice settlements and discipline taken against poor  performing doctors.

HRSA took down its online public file of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPBD) Sept. 1, after a Kansas City Starreporter used the publicly available information to track down the identity of a doctor who had a long record of malpractice cases against him but was never disciplined by the state.

“Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system – particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter Friday to HRSA’s administrator Mary Wakefield.  “More transparency serves the public interest. Generally speaking, except in cases of national security, the public’s business ought to be public.”

Information from the data bank is intended to be public as long as it does not identify particular health care entities or practitioners, Grassley said in the letter. And yet HRSA threatened the reporter, Alan Bavley, with civil monetary penalties for “republication of information obtained from the NPDB.”

Grassley asked Wakefield to explain her agency’s response to Bavley, submit all communication between HRSA officials and the doctor that was identified in Bavley’s story, and outline what steps they are taking to restore public access to the data bank.

The data bank site says HRSA plans to restore public access as quickly as possible. HRSA has previously said the process of further removing identifiable information from the database could take up to six months, Grassley said.

In the meantime, reporters and researchers can submit requests for data, which are subject to review.

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