With the Defense Department set to lay out a final furlough policy today, the Merit Systems Protection Board has rejected a union’s request for a heads-up on how it could decide appeals from employees who challenge the decision to force them to take unpaid time off.
“Under federal law, the Board is prohibited from issuing advisory opinions,” the agency’s clerk, William Spencer, said in a letter yesterday to Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers that cites the relevant provision of federal law. This afternoon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to officially tell DoD employees that most will be furloughed for up to 11 days by the end of September because of sequester-related budget cuts.
On May 1, Junemann had asked the board to issue “a pre-emptive statement of opinion” on whether furloughed DoD workers could win appeals. Such a step would save the board “from deciding thousands of cases that would likely come,” Junemann said in the letter MSPB chairman Susan Grundmann.
The board’s decision is “disappointing,” Matt Biggs, IFPTE’s legislative and policy director, in a phone interview today. By issuing the pre-emptive ruling, he said, board members “would have saved themselves a lot of time and effort and work because there are going to be thousands of cases going through.”
President Obama’s choice for deputy budget director spent a fair amount of time discussing the need for tighter management during a confirmation hearing today.
During a period of fiscal challenges, a key focus “has got to be making our government more efficient and more effective,” Brian Deese told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. President Obama nominated Deese, previously a top White House economic aide, last month for the post of deputy budget director at the Office of Management and Budget. The person holding that job “plays an important role in setting those (management side) priorities and also in making sure that we as a team at OMB would be well-positioned to execute on those,” he said.
In replies to written questions released at the hearing, Deese added that “greater focus on evidence in budgeting” will ensure effective government spending. If confirmed, Deese said he would work closely with OMB’s deputy director for management. That post has been vacant since Jeff Zients left last month; Obama has not yet named a replacement.
Deese served as deputy director of the National Economic Council from January 2011 until March; since then, he has been at OMB as a counselor to the director. If confirmed, he would replace Heather Higginbottom, who left in February for a job at the State Department.
No significant opposition has emerged so far to his nomination. At today’s hearing, committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., praised Deese as someone who understands the importance of innovation, both in saving money and in delivering better public services. Besides Carper, only Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., attended. A spokesman for the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, did not reply to voicemails asking the reason for his boss’s absence.
The Senate Budget Committee, which also has jurisdiction over Deese’s nomination, plans its own confirmation hearing later this month, a spokeswoman said.
Members of the U.S. Postal Service’s board of governors risked losing their jobs if the agency persevered with ending Saturday mail delivery following passage of a final fiscal 2013 spending bill.
That was the warning delivered by an outside law firm April 5–four days before the board pulled the plug on the plan.
Proceeding with five-day mail delivery “would entail a number of risks,” Jeffrey Bucholtz, a partner with King & Spalding, wrote in a 17-page opinion prepared for the Postal Service’s legal department. “First, violating a federal law would likely supply cause for the President to remove the Governors.”
While the Supreme Court has never precisely defined the grounds for removal, Bucholtz continued, “it has said that the good-cause standard enables the President to ensure that an independent officer ‘is competently performing his or her statutory responsibilities in a manner that comports with’ applicable legislation.”
The odds of successfully moving ahead with five-day delivery faced other possible roadblocks, he added, including a legal challenge from the comptroller general and other lawsuits that could spring up around the country. Although judges could rule either way on such cases, he said, “the Postal Service would have to run the table and win every case in every court.”
The memo, marked “PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL,” casts new context on the board’s about-face on five-day delivery. In last month’s statement announcing that it was halting implementation of the new schedule, the panel, chaired by Mickey Barnett, a lawyer and former New Mexico state senator, didn’t reference the removal threat. Whether that factored into its decision is unclear.
A seat on the board carries real power over the operations of an enterprise that affects virtually every American. But the pay is $30,000 annually plus expenses, a relatively modest amount by Washington standards for what in recent years has become an increasingly time-consuming job.
In a brief interview Friday, Barnett said the removal risk had no effect on his stance. “My term’s up at the end of December,” Barnett said following the board’s public meeting on release of the Postal Service’s second quarter financial results. Speaking on behalf of the board, Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer had previously pointed back to last month’s statement. There, the board said that Congress left it no choice but to drop the plan for now and that it didn’t want to unduly burden postal customers with “ongoing uncertainties.”
The memo was one of two that Bucholtz prepared on the five-day delivery question at a cost to the Postal Service of about $51,000. The central issue was whether a decades-old congressional ban on curtailing mail delivery days still applied under the stop-gap spending measures known as continuing resolutions.
Under the CR that was in place in February when the Postal Service announced plans to end Saturday mail service with projected savings of $2 billion per year, Bucholtz had opined in a Feb. 28 memo that the agency could legally proceed. It was a whole different story under the full-year CR signed in late March. That measure did incorporate the ban, he said in the April 5 memo. As an independent agency, Bucholtz said, “the Postal Service should tread carefully in the highly controversial area of potential open disobedience of a federal statute.”
“Without support from Congress or the President, efforts to avoid compliance with enacted law are not likely to succeed.”
Of course, the Postal Service, citing a lack of money, has twice flouted a separate legal requirement that it pay about $5.5 billion annually into a fund for future retiree health care. Those defaults have generated little concern from politicians. At an April 17 congressional hearing, they also helped prompt the following frank exchange between Barnett and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to a transcript.
Issa: “You obey a law that costs you $2 billion and you ignore a law that says you owe us $5.5 billion a year and you’ve done it for two years. Why would you pick one law to obey, that cost — you know, that you choose to obey, that actually costs you $2 billion? Where’s the fiduciary balance there? If you’re going to break a law, why is that the law that you broke? Or didn’t break?”
Barnett: “Mr. Chairman, thanks for that question, because I, we do have a reason. The board has discussed it extensively. The real problem with the going from six to five-day, knowing it will be challenged in court and not knowing what the result would be, is the tens of thousand dollars that many, many businesses would have to implement in software updates and changes in their procedures. It also involves approximately 23,000 employees that would be directly affected . . .”
[Post updated Friday, May 10, with Barnett comments]
With the Defense Department expected to announce a final furlough policy as early as this week, a union has asked the Merit Systems Protection Board for a heads-up on how it would rule on behalf of DoD employees who appeal decisions to make them take unpaid time off.
Issuing “a pre-emptive statement of opinion” on whether those employees could win appeals would save the board “from deciding thousands of cases that would likely come,” Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said in last week’s letter to MSPB chairman Susan Grundmann. A board spokesman declined comment Friday, but said a response will be coming soon.
As of today, DoD officially plans to furlough most of its almost 800,000-strong civilian workforce for up to 14 days by the end of September. But in an April 26 letter to members of Congress, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated that the Pentagon is still searching for ways to trim or eliminate the number of furlough days. In a sign that something’s brewing, the Navy on Friday postponed sending furlough notices that were supposed to go out today.
In seeking an advance ruling, IFPTE is also hoping to prod Hagel into taking furloughs off the table altogether or else relax the department’s current policy requiring military services and other components to stick to the 14-day benchmark even if their finances allow for a lesser amount of unpaid time off. While that goal is a long-shot, the letter is a reminder that the board–as Federal Times has previously reported–could be swamped with appeals if mass furloughs do take place.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the congressionally chartered non-profit that helps keep TV and radio programming like “Sesame Street,” “Downton Abbey” and “All Things Considered” on the air, has laid off a dozen employees and is requiring week-long furloughs for senior staff, the web site, Current.org, is reporting.
The organization is also eliminating three vacant positions; all told, the downsizing cuts its workforce by 11 percent. The reductions are largely due to the sequester, according to what a spokesman told the site. Like most federal agencies, the corporation is having to absorb about a 5 percent budget cut. Between that and the continuing resolution approved in March, its funding was cut $23 million to around $422 million. The layoffs are the first since 1997-98.
Scott Gould, the number two official at the Veterans Affairs Department for the last four years, is stepping down May 17, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a news release today.
As the department’s deputy secretary, Gould has served as chief operating officer since winning Senate confirmation to the job in April 2009. In that role, he “has been vital to the progress we’ve made on our top three priorities: increasing access to VA care and services, eliminating the compensation claims backlog and ending veterans’ homelessness,” Shinseki said in the release. “While we have more work to do, Scott’s contributions have been immense.”
The release is mum on why is leaving now or where he might be heading next, but in an email to FedLine, VA spokesman Josh Taylor said Gould “made this decision with his family, on his own terms.” While Gould has not made a final decision on next step, Taylor said, he is “ready for the next stage in his private-sector career.” Gould did not reply to phone and email messages seeking direct comment.
Gould is at least the third senior VA official to announce his departure in recent months; since February, both Chief Information Officer Roger Baker and Chief Technology Officer Peter Levin have stepped down.
Gould came to VA from IBM Global Business Services, where he was vice president for public sector strategy, according to his official bio. He has also been CEO of an investment services firm and worked at the Treasury Department, Commerce Department and Export-Import Bank.
[This post has been updated]
Under orders from his board, Postmaster General Pat Donahoe is gamely trying to reopen pay talks with employee organizations after the collapse of efforts to end Saturday mail delivery.
Good luck with that.
The U.S. Postal Service’s “untenable” financial position “demands urgent action to ensure the near-term viability of our great institution,” Donahoe said in a Tuesday letter to Louis Atkins, president of the National Association of Postal Supervisors. (NAPS provided the letter to FedLine with permission to post it online.)
“In light of these extraordinary circumstances, I request your cooperation in reopening consultations concerning the pay and benefits of the dedicated employees you represent,” Donahoe said in the letter. “I fully understand the significance of this request and would not make it; however, the financial challenges confronting the organization and all who depend upon its very survival make it necessary.”
The USPS board of governors told Donahoe last week to take that unprecedented step after dropping plans to go to five-day-a-week mail delivery this August. In a statement, the board said its goal is to lower total workforce costs and find other ways to make economies. Similar letters went out this week to the two postmaster groups and the Postal Service’s four unions.
“What I‘d like to do is sit down–before we do anything–as a group and have a session where we kick around some ideas,” Donahoe said at a Wednesday congressional hearing. “There may be some opportunities in there we should look at.”
But after years of cutbacks and downsizing, employee groups aren’t feeling very receptive. At least three of the four postal unions are so far objecting to a return to the bargaining table. And NAPS’ executive board has already decided that reopening pay consultations is not in members’ best interest, the association said yesterday in a politely worded news release. Last year’s round resulted in a third straight year without a salary increase for executive and administrative schedule (EAS) employees, the release said, adding that supervisors, managers and postmasters must pay more for health insurance.
Finally, hiring freezes stemming from the Postal Service’s financial crisis have left the mail carrier understaffed by as many as 5,000 supervisory and managerial positions, the release says. “Our members have performed admirably under these trying conditions, moving the mail every day throughout the country and have given back more than their fair share.”
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Sylvia Mathews Burwell appears assured of Senate confirmation after two panels today approved her nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget. Burwell’s nomination cleared both the Senate Budget Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on voice votes; a final vote by the full Senate could come within the next week.
Burwell is an OMB alum from the Clinton administration who most recently headed the Walmart Foundation. If confirmed, she would replace Jeff Zients, who has served as acting OMB chief since January 2012, when Jack Lew left to become White House chief of staff.
For U.S. Postal Service employees, the disclosure that an envelope addressed to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., may have contained a poison could revive unnerving memories of the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed two workers at the Brentwood mail processing plant in Washington, D.C. According to USA Today, the envelope is undergoing further analysis to confirm the presence of the toxin known as ricin. Here’s what the Postal Service is saying so far, in a statement provided by spokesman Dave Partenheimer this morning.
“The U.S. Postal Service is working diligently with authorities to determine if there was in fact a hazardous substance inside an envelope addressed to a U.S. senator, and, if so, what type of substance was present.
“The Postal Inspection Service is working with appropriate health and law enforcement agencies on this incident. We have no reports of other such letters in the mail.
“Our primary concern right now is the safety of our employees, the safety of our customers and the safety of the U.S. mail.
“More information will be shared when it comes available.”