It’s now been more than a month-and-a-half since sequestration took effect and Federal Times remains committed to following the story as closely as we can.
We’re again looking for your help and want to hear from you about what the impact has been thus far. If you have something to share, please email Sean Reilly at firstname.lastname@example.org or Steve Losey at email@example.com.
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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.”
The head of the Defense Department’s closely watched audit-readiness effort has left for the private sector.
Joe Quinn is now a senior manager at Ernst and Young’s federal practice, where he will advise clients on strategies “to improve financial, accounting and cost management capabilities,” the firm said in a news release last week.
As director of the Pentagon’s financial improvement and audit readiness (FIAR) program for the last three years, Quinn was point man for the mammoth undertaking of getting DoD’s books in order. Under a timetable that Congress has now written into law, the department is supposed to have an auditable statement of budgetary sources by September 2014, with the rest of its financial statements in similar shape by 2017.
But that timetable is in jeopardy on several fronts, ranging from the sequester-related budget cut to problems with fielding the “enterprise resource planning” systems that are critical for meeting the auditability deadlines.
“I think it’s increasing the risk that we won’t meet our goal,” DoD Comptroller Robert Hale said last month of the sequester, citing both the funding reduction and the drain on senior officials’ time. In a report released around the same time, the Defense Department’s inspector general said that the Defense Logistics Agency had committed more than $2 billion to deploy an ERP “incapable of providing standardized data for an auditable DoD statement of budgetary resources” by next year’s deadline.
Quinn could not be reached for comment today; the Pentagon is working on a solicitation for a permanent replacement, a spokeswoman said via email.
“I’m personally grateful for his many efforts,” DoD Deputy Chief Financial Officer Mark Easton said in a statement to FedLine. Quinn, he added, leaves behind a program that is making possible “the necessary changes in the key elements of our business–our people, processes and systems. The commitment of the department’s leadership to achieve audit readiness remains very strong, and we are well-positioned to reach our audit readiness goals in 2014 and 2017.”
Put all government security clearance holders together and you’d have the second-largest city in the United States, according to the latest annual numbers from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
As of October, the number of federal employees and contractors allowed coveted access to secret information totaled almost 4.92 million, an increase of about 1 percent over the preceding year. Of that total, about 3.5 million were feds, augmented by almost 1.1 million contract employees, the ODNI report said. There were also about 300,000 cleared individuals who fell in the category of “other,” meaning that records didn’t make clear whether they were government or contract workers.
The continued growth in the number of clearance-holders is “surprising,” given that the intelligence community’s budget has been on the decline, said Steve Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
“The size of the clearance system seems to lag behind drops in the budget,” Aftergood said.
This is the third year for which ODNI has produced the congressionally required report, which–when first published in 2011–showed that the number of cleared individuals was far higher than earlier estimates. As Aftergood noted on his blog, the agency unsuccessfully asked lawmakers to drop the requirement last year.
And, for the record, New York City is the nation’s largest city, with a population of more than 8.2 million, according to a 2011 estimate. Los Angeles is runner-up, with about 3.8 million people.
The U.S. Postal Service’s board of governors is set to meet tomorrow, according to a spokesman, and a thorny choice will likely dominate the agenda: Let Postmaster General Pat Donahoe proceed with a previously announced plan to end Saturday mail delivery this August, with a projected savings of $2 billion annually. Or back off—at least for now—to avoid a probable lawsuit, not to mention antagonizing members of Congress whose help is needed to pass any long-haul fix for the Postal Service’s finances.
Among some observers, the betting is that the board will opt for door number two.
“That’s the strong rumor—that they’ve gone wobbly,” said Tony Conway, a former USPS executive who now runs the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers and supports the reduced mail delivery schedule. At the Association for Postal Commerce, another private group that represents business mail users, President Gene Del Polito also expected a “back off” decision by the five-member board.
But George Gould, a consultant who formerly worked for the National Association of Letter Carriers, said the panel is divided on which way to go. When Donahoe announced the five-day delivery plan back in February, Gould said, part of the strategy was to draw lawmakers’ attention to the need for postal overhaul legislation.
The plan got their attention, Gould said, but not in a positive way. Thus far, no comprehensive postal bill has been introduced. But by another line of thinking, he said, sticking with the five-day plan would be a way to “keep the pressure” on lawmakers.
For what it’s worth, the Postal Service’s web site (as of this afternoon) still includes a section on the proposed changes. Although Saturday mail delivery would end in early August, package delivery would continue six days a week. Like most board meetings, tomorrow’s will be closed to the public, according to the USPS spokesman, Mark Saunders.
On one front, the episode underscores—yet again—how hard it can be for the Postal Service to wriggle around congressional fence lines. Since the 1980s, lawmakers have included a provision in annual spending legislation that prohibits the agency from ending six-day delivery. When Donahoe unveiled the plan in February, he entreated lawmakers to do nothing to stop it. Because the spending bill signed this month is mostly a continuation of last year’s legislation, however, it maintains the ban on delivery cutbacks even though the Postal Service is nowhere mentioned, according to staffers on both the House and Senate appropriations committees.
But as Conway noted, the Postal Service continues to pursue other cost-cutting measures. In a surprise move late last month, it decided to speed up dozens of mail processing plant closings and consolidations originally scheduled for next year. A separate undertaking to cut hours at some 13,000 postal offices appears to be on track. And although a requirement to annually funnel about $5.5 billion into a fund for future retiree health care remains on the books, the Postal Service has twice defaulted with no outcry from Congress over violating the law. And in a symbolic milestone, the career postal workforce dropped below a half-million earlier this year.
As for that long awaited postal bill, Del Polito said he’s been told that it’s coming in about two weeks. Earlier this year, optimism officially abounded that a deal was within reach.
“I believe that we are very close,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said at a February congressional hearing, adding that a final agreement could come by the end of March. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., struck a similarly upbeat note. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he hoped to introduce a bill by the end of last month.
Not surprisingly, the job is taking a little longer.
“The need to enact comprehensive, bipartisan postal reform legislation is more urgent than ever,” Cummings said in a statement last week. “Although I am disappointed that more progress has not been made, I am hopeful that legislation can be enacted swiftly with concerted effort from all sides.” Issa spokesman Ali Ahmad declined comment on when a bill might be coming.
In the Senate, Carper will do what he can to bring Congress and the Obama administration together around “a set of meaningful reforms in the coming weeks to help the Postal Service survive and thrive,” spokeswoman Jennie Westbrook said in an email. To that end, she added, Carper “intends to have legislative language ready in the near future and remains hopeful that he will be able to move a bill in committee soon after.”
President Obama is getting lots of attention for his decision to return 5 percent of his $400,000 annual salary (or $20,000) to the Treasury in a show of solidarity with soon-to-be furloughed feds.
But the White House is not disclosing how many of the people–many of them political appointees–who work for the Executive Office of the President are themselves facing the pain of unpaid time off.
According to the Obama administration’s last budget request, the office includes more than 1,800 employees sprinkled around places like the Executive Residence at the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council. Although the administration has said that some 480 OMB staffers will have to take 10 furlough days, it hasn’t revealed whether or not other parts of the EOP workforce are getting similar treatment.
Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fended off prolonged questioning on the subject at his daily “gaggle” with reporters. What follows is a transcript–pasted from the White House web site–of the give-and-take. (For the record, presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed staffers are legally exempt from furloughs, as are Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.)
“Q: And to follow up, [the] sequestration impact in the Executive Office of the President — can you give us some data?
MR. CARNEY: Let me see what I have for you here. As you know, the White House is one of 11 components of the Executive Office of the President, which is, indeed, as we have said, subject to the sequester. Within the Executive Office of the President, several offices have sent furlough notices to their staff, including to 480 employees of the Office of Management and Budget. In addition, EOP leadership has managed our personnel costs in a variety of ways, including hiring slowdowns and delayed backfilling of open positions. And as the impact of the sequester progresses, furlough and pay cuts remain possibilities — or additional furloughs, as well as pay cuts, remain possibilities for additional White House employees. Additionally, in order to meet the effects of the sequester, many components of the EOP have significantly scaled back equipment purchases and supply purchases, curtailed staff travel, reduced the use of air cards. And they are reviewing contracts that they have on an ongoing basis to identify opportunities to reduce costs, improve efficiencies without undermining their core mission. It just means that all — everybody at the White House and the broader EOP is dealing with the consequences both — in many cases, in their own personal lives, but in how we work here at the White House, which is true across the federal government because of the impact of the sequester.
Q: Just to follow up, because you can be so specific about the OMB impact, and we assume that federal employees get a 30-day notice if they are going to get a furlough notice, and the fact that you’re not identifying anybody who is working directly in the White House for the President as being identified to that, is that –
MR. CARNEY: The OMB works for the President. It is part of the Executive Office of the President.
Q: Yes, but we’re talking about — I’m talking about the West Wing folks who work directly for the President. Those folks –
MR. CARNEY: Again, I just — I completely take issue with the idea that the OMB doesn’t –
Q: There are many hundreds of people who work for the President of the United States — you know what I’m asking you. So my question is, because you haven’t identified those people who have received any furlough notices, you’re saying that cost-effective shifting of dollars and holding down on dollars is for the time being going to prevent anybody from being furloughed? That’s what you’re saying?
MR. CARNEY: I think I just said that within the Executive Office of the President, a component of that, OMB, there have been 480 employees who have been notified of furloughs.
Q: Right, but you don’t work for OMB. So –
MR. CARNEY: No, but they work for the President, and so do I.
MR. CARNEY: I’m not sure –
Q: You know exactly what I’m asking.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t. I don’t.
Q: I’m asking — okay, the White House –
Q: Are those the only furlough notices or are there others?
MR. CARNEY: I have no other notices to announce to you. I can tell you that –
Q: Why not?
MR. CARNEY: As I just said, as the impact of the sequester progresses, furlough and pay cuts remain possibilities for additional White House employees. I think you would find at agency after agency, as they make these assessments and make these budget decisions on a rolling basis, they’re having to make decisions about furlough notices and other measures that they have to take, and that is as true here as it is in other federal agencies. Q Well, why can OMB give us a number of 480 and none of the other components –
MR. CARNEY: I’m saying that that’s the number I have for EOP, and it’s 480 at OMB.
Q: So the other 10 components, there is no furlough notices at this point?
MR. CARNEY: Again, that’s what I have for you, Donovan. I don’t have any other furlough notices to announce to you.
Q: So there haven’t been any?
MR. CARNEY: That’s what I have, not beyond what I can tell you. That’s what I know.”
Some big breaking news, courtesy of the Associated Press: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has decided to cut the number of furlough days for hundreds of thousands of Defense Department civilian employees from 22 to 14 by the end of the fiscal year in September. According to unnamed officials cited by the AP, Hagel made the decision today.
But a DoD spokesman had no immediate confirmation this evening, telling FedLine that the number of furlough days remains at 22 as officials analyze the effect of newly passed spending legislation. “The legislation could have some impact on the overall number of furlough days, but no decisions have been reached,” the spokesman, Mark Wright, said in an email. Furlough notices are still scheduled to go out around April 5, he said.
[This post has been updated.]
This is probably not what many D.C.-area feds want to hear this morning, but agencies are open today despite the snow and employees “are expected to report to their worksite or begin telework on time,” according to the Office of Personnel Management.
About halfway through this American Forces Press Service story today, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall tosses out an observation likely to catch the attention of Defense Department civilian employees. Although furloughs will still take place even if a fiscal 2013 spending bill now in Congress wins approval, fewer furlough days could be needed, the story paraphrases Kendall as saying at a conference.
Currently, DoD plans to furlough most of its approximately 800,000 workers for 22 days between April 25 and the rest of the fiscal year as the result of the sequester-related spending cuts that began this month. But as Federal Times reported this week, the FY13 bill is likely to shift $10.4 billion into the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance account that covers most civilian salaries (and a lot of other things).
A Pentagon spokeswoman had no other details this afternoon, saying the legislation has to pass first.