Federal Times Blogs

CBO pay gap study draws unions’ fire, conservatives’ praise

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Yesterday’s Congressional Budget Office report on federal employee compensation is already renewing the debate over the federal-vs.-private sector pay gap. The report — which concluded federal employees are compensated 16 percent higher than private sector workers — prompted the conservative Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute and the libertarian Cato Institute to take victory laps.

Heritage’s Jason Richwine and James Sherk quibbled with CBO’s methodology (CBO’s findings generally tracked with Heritage’s conclusions that feds receive higher pay and benefits than the private sector, though CBO said the difference was much slimmer). But overall, they view the report as vindication and used it to swipe at Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, federal unions, and other left-leaning organizations who criticized Heritage’s assertions. Said Richwine and Sherk:

Heritage’s prior critics, however, must now either redirect their same harsh invective at the CBO or — much better — acknowledge the validity of our conclusions.

The American Federation of Government Employees is choosing the former. In a statement released last night, AFGE National President John Gage blasted the study as “pointless,” “absurd,” “academic and irrelevant.” Gage said:

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Air Force buyout, early out applications close Friday

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Are you at the Air Force, and thinking you might want to take the buyout or early out offered earlier this month? Better get moving. Friday is the last day for eligible employees to apply.

The Air Force hopes 4,500 civilians will apply for this second round of buyouts and early outs. Those who are accepted have to retire by April 30.

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OMB asks Congress to cut contractor compensation … again

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The Office of Management and Budget wants Congress to reconsider a proposal to reduce how much contractors can charge the government for their executives’ compensation, an amount that is currently “unjustified and unnecessary,” the federal procurement chief said in a blog post this morning.

Under federal cost reimbursement contracts, agencies pay contractors for incurred costs, including salaries for executives and other employees. These costs usually show up in the overhead rates that contractors set. OMB caps how much contractors can charge the government for executive compensation based on what top private sector executives earn.

Contractors can currently ask the government to reimburse up to $693,951 for each of its top five executives. OMB will soon have to update that figure and the cap is expected to increase to $750,000.

The administration asked Congress last year to scrap the formula that sets the reimbursement cap and instead tie it to what the government pays its own top executives, about $200,000.

“Unfortunately, Congress failed to reform the current reimbursement formula for contractor executives and, until it does, taxpayers will continue to foot a bill that is both unjustified and unnecessary,” Lesley Field, acting administrator of OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said in the post.

The administration has asked Congress to take another look at the formula and lower the compensation cap this year.


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IRS decision costs the Postal Service millions

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Seldom does one federal agency save money at another’s expense.  But that’s how it’s looking more than a year after the Internal Revenue Service opted to stop delivering millions of income tax forms by mail.

The IRS announced the  decision in September 2010 as part of a push to economize on its annual printing and postage budget.  As of this past August, the savings on postage costs just from not mailing Form 1040 packages amounted to about $4.1 million, according to a  recent report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. That was money lost to the U.S. Postal Service, which is in financial crisis driven partly by the shift to e-mail and electronic commerce.

The Postal Service recouped about half of that amount because the IRS used postcards to notify taxpayers of the change. But as the report notes, that was a one-time expense. And the report doesn’t attempt to quantify what the Postal Service will lose from the additional taxpayers who go with the IRS’ advice to “e-file” their annual returns.




Federal chief technology officer to step down

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The nation’s first federal chief technology officer is leaving his post, the White House announced Friday.

“As the federal government’s first Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra did groundbreaking work to bring our government into the 21st century,” President Obama said in a statement. “Aneesh found countless ways to engage the American people using technology, from electronic health records for veterans, to expanding access to broadband for rural communities, to modernizing government records.”

Chopra is considering running for lieutenant governor of Virginia, and he has been in conversations with influential political figures and donors, said a democratic official familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named.  

“The move he made today sends a pretty clear message,” the official said about Chopra’s decision to run as lieutenant governor.

Chopra was named federal CTO in May 2009 and also served as an assistant to the president and associate director for technology in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  He worked closely with private and public sector officials, such as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and HHS CTO Todd Park to make data open and accessible to information consumers and application developers.

The White House has not said who will fill his position.

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More opposition to adding U.S. Trade Representative to new department

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The U.S. Trade Representative’s office is a relatively small operation, with just 220 or so employees, according to the most recent statistics. But it’s looming very large in the debate over President Obama’s proposed consolidation of agencies dealing with business and trade policy.

Key lawmakers objected almost as soon as Obama announced Jan. 13 that he wanted the Trade Representative’s office in that new department. Now, dozens of business groups are also voicing “immediate concerns” about eliminating USTR as a stand-alone agency in the Executive Office of the President.  In a joint letter this week to Obama, they said the agency plays “an invaluable role in coordinating the many different entities within the U.S. government that have specialized trade functions.” Not to mention that its position within the executive office lends the agency “enormous credibility,” they added.

“Subsuming USTR into a broader trade and business government department will severely harm that credibility and USTR’s ability to play its unique coordinating role within the U.S. government.”

The diverse coalition of more than 80 signers included the National Association of Manufacturers, TechAmerica, the American Chemistry Council and the Motion Picture Association of America. The letter was posted online by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

In an emailed response, Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Moira Mack touted the virtues of synergy.  The proposed consolidation would allow USTR “to retain its nimbleness, and also draw on expertise currently spread across the government . . . ,” she said. “By combining and augmenting the analytic and enforcement capabilities currently housed at [the Commerce Department] and USTR, we will be better able to enforce trade laws, combat unfair tariff and non-tariff barriers, and crack down on practices that unjustly harm U.S. companies.”

Besides USTR and a large chunk of Commerce, the new agency would encompass the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, and parts of several other agencies.




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Postal Regulatory Commission unveils new rules for handling post office closing appeals

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Closing post offices isn’t popular and the Postal Regulatory Commission has the workload to prove it. From July to the present, the number of pending appeals awaiting PRC action skyrocketed from 14 to 113. Small wonder, then, that the commission is reworking what Chairman Ruth Goldway calls a 35-year-old system.

Under newly unveiled rules, postal customers can submit petitions and supporting documentation in “plain language,” Goldway said in a news release today. Among other changes, the new procedures will ease requirements for petitioners who file appeals, but don’t use the Internet; allow people to file comments without formally intervening; and give participants more time to respond to U.S. Postal Service filings. The revamped procedures, which are also supposed to save the commission money, will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

As the PRC acknowledges, however, action on more controversial proposed changes is being postponed for now. And the commission could still face a fresh deluge of appeals later this year if the U.S. Postal Service delivers on plans to shutter up to several thousand post offices.  Following a congressional backlash, USPS leaders have halted all closings–but only until May 15.

[Revised Jan. 26 to reflect updated number of pending appeals.]

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Fed issues warrant little attention in State of the Union speech (phew!)

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Perhaps to their relief, federal employees didn’t hear much that would directly affect them in tonight’s State of the Union speech.

Last year, after all, President Obama used the prime-time address to call for a government reorganization and a five-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending, besides reminding Congress that he had already imposed a two-year freeze on base federal salaries.

This year? Hardly a mention of overarching management and budget initiatives.  The closest that Obama came was almost an hour into the speech when he brought up his recent bid to get “fast-track” authority from Congress to restructure and consolidate federal agencies.

“The executive branch also needs to change,” Obama said. “Too often, it’s inefficient, outdated and remote. That’s why I’ve asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our Government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people.”

So far, however, the White House has not said when it will send any such legislation to the Hill.

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For the first time, fed satisfaction survey will be open to (nearly) all

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The Office of Personnel Management this year plans to more than triple the amount of federal employees invited to take the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. More than 1.8 million permanent feds — both full-time and part-time — will be surveyed beginning in April, OPM said in a memo sent to agencies Jan. 20 and posted online today.

That’s a lot, but — and maybe I’m just picking nits here — it isn’t quite the full, governmentwide census OPM is touting, since there are roughly 2.1 million employees in the federal government (not counting U.S. Postal Service employees).

OPM said it doesn’t plan to hold such an expansive survey every year, but “having large numbers of respondents will allow agencies the opportunity to analyze results and develop action plans at lower levels in the organization this year.”

Last year’s survey, which was answered by about 266,000 feds, showed satisfaction dropped in key areas and suggested budget battles were starting to take a toll on morale. The 2012 survey could show whether that trend is continuing — and is a major cause for alarm — or whether it was just a fluke.

What do you think? Are you feeling more or less satisfied than you were last year?


Senate hearing to investigate OPM’s pension delays

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John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

The Senate is calling Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry to Capitol Hill next week to explain how he plans to fix OPM’s longstanding delayed pension problem. Berry will appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce on Feb. 1.

The hearing comes two weeks after Berry sent lawmakers an in-depth plan outlining his strategy. New federal retirees currently wait several months to get their full pension, and in the meantime, have to get by on interim payments that can be a quarter to a third less than what they are owed. OPM has spent two decades and more than $100 million trying to solve the problem, all for naught — and with the pace of retirements and buyouts speeding up, it’s only growing worse.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is likely to ask Berry more questions about his information technology strategy, how he plans to handle the accelerated pace of retirements, and how he’s managing staff and other resources to deal with the problem.

The hearing is also expected to look into improper payments OPM has made to retirees who were actually dead. In one particularly egregious case, OPM paid more than $515,000 to a federal retiree’s son for 37 years after the retiree died.

Besides Berry, OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland, Government Accountability Office human capital expert Valerie Melvin, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association National President Joseph Beaudoin, and former OPM senior adviser George Nesterczuk will also testify.