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An historic day in Washington — Discovery’s final flight

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Here are a few pics to enjoy of Discovery’s amazing flight into Washington today …

NASA Space Shuttle Discovery arrives at Dulles International Airport. Photo by John Bretschneider/Staff

The space shuttle Discovery flies her last mission over Washington DC. before landing a Dulles International Airport where the shuttle will then go on dispay at the Smithsonian April 17, 2012 in Washington DC. Thomas Brown/Staff

 

Spectators at the Washington Monument watch as space shuttle Discovery flies her last mission over Washington DC. before landing a Dulles International Airport where the shuttle will then go on dispay at the Smithsonian April 17, 2012 in Washington DC Thomas Brown/Staff

Congratulations, Eileen!

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We offer a big congratulations and best wishes to our friend and former colleague Eileen Sullivan at the Associated Press who yesterday won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Many of you may  remember Eileen’s great work for Federal Times back in 2003-2005 when she covered our homeland security beat. She broke a number of stories for us, including stories in late 2004 and early 2005 about how the Homeland Security Department imposed — and then later rescinded — a highly controversial policy that required employees to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to gain access to unclassified information marked “for official use only” and “sensitive but unclassified”.

Eileen won the Pulitzer yesterday (as well as, in March, the coveted Goldsmith Award for Investigative Reporting) for her work as part of a team of four AP reporters who broke an important series of stories on  how the New York Police Department, assisted by the CIA, developed a sprawling covert human intelligence operation targeted at New York City’s Muslim community.

We’re very happy for you, Eileen!

Phased retirements — Good idea?

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You may soon have an additional option to consider as you approach retirement age: retiring part-time and working part-time at your current federal job.

Retirement Sign Courtesy Goodyear, Ariz.

The Senate approved an amendment that would authorize the use of phased retirements for retirement-eligible feds. Under a phased retirement, a fed can work part-time — say, one, two, three or four days a week — and collect a partial retirement annuity for the time he or she is not working. And, throughout that time, the fed continues to earn partial retirement benefits.

These proposed phased retirements, which President Obama proposed in his 2013 budget request, could be available to as many as a half-million feds who are eligible to retire. The  Obama administration  estimates it could save $750 million over a decade. The CBO estimates a more conservative $465 million in savings over that time.

What do you think? Is this a good idea? Would you favor this option for yourself when you become retirement eligible (or if you already are)? Will this be a good thing for the government to do?

Challenging times

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I had the great pleasure Monday of hosting a public conversation with esteemed federal government expert Dr. Paul Light, NYU professor, former Brookings Institution fellow, author of numerous books, and Washington Post blogger. Our conversation was sponsored by the Coalition for Effective Change and took place at the offices of one of my favorite organizations, the Partnership For Public Service.

The discussion was titled “Changes to the Civil Service: Hollow Government or Necessary Reforms?” and it posed the following questions: Is the federal workforce too large? Should Congress cut agency resources across-the-board? Does the civil service need to be reformed? How?

Light, author of “The True Size of Government” and  ”A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It,” made many interesting points and predictions, including these:

1) Don’t expect government reorganization or civil service reform anytime soon.  President Obama’s request for fast-track government reorganization authority is basically dead in the water.  Congress has no actionable appetite to reorganize government or reform the civil service. And it is unclear when Congress might take on some long-needed reforms.  What is needed even more than government reform is congressional reform (e.g. realigning congressional jurisdictions, improving oversight, etc.) and this also is not going to happen anytime soon. Moreover, even if Congress had interest in reforming the federal personnel system or reorganizing government, there would be precious few people in the Executive Branch and in Congress who possess the expertise and wherewithal to do the heavy lifting needed to make that happen. The Senate governmental affairs committee, for example, is too burdened with its other mission of overseeing homeland security programs and policies to handle such a job. And so is the thinly staffed management wing of OMB.

2) When it comes to reforming government, the best thing agencies (and Congress in overseeing them) can do is shed their excessive middle management layers and dedicate more staff to the lower-level positions responsible for carrying out government services that serve the public good, such as overseeing the safety of deep oil wells, ensuring food safety, and processing veteran disability claims.

3) The so-called retirement tsunami is a good thing. It’s time for the baby boomers to start making way for the younger generations, who bring energy, new ideas and a welcome impatience to carrying out the missions of government. There are opportunities that will come with this transition, such as the ability to redesign how agencies staff themselves.

4) A big national debate over the proper roles and responsibilities of government should be welcome. With any luck, it will help settle some decisions that are sorely needed to help re-position government for the future.  Light said Alexander Hamilton argued that the federal government exists to promote the general welfare of the national citizenry. One place to start such a debate is to examine what government functions meet that test and which do not.

5) Federal recruiting is going to be in trouble so long as Americans lack faith in the government’s ability to effectively carry out its missions and enforce laws. In terms of attracting new recruits, the government should strive to replicate the model used by non-profits in which employees are highly mission-driven and enthusiastic and yet they understand and accept that their compensation will lag behind that of their private sector peers. To do this, government must do better at meeting their public service missions.

6) In times of austere budgets, such as these, it is increasingly difficult for agency managers and policy makers to justify spending money on needed management reforms and other “good government” initiatives, such as improving staff training, productivity, oversight, accountability, performance management, career development, streamlining management layers, etc. That is because policy makers and the CBO lack the capability to calculate (“score” in federal parlance) real benefits that stem from such initiatives. CBO must figure out how to do this since many of these types of initiatives are certain to have positive benefits.

Watch this video from his website in which he discusses the question he poses in his recent book of  ’what is a government ill-executed?”

Why lawmakers won’t likely approve Obama’s govt reorganization plan

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Here is why President Obama’s plan to reorganize and streamline government doesn’t stand much of a chance in Congress: rice bowls. In this case: USTR.

Just about every state in the Union has a deep vested interest in international trade and in the outcome of trade disputes.

That’s why, as a legislator, it is about as plum as it gets if you sit on one of the committees that calls the shots at the obscure little agency across the street from the White House called the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). That little office sets and promotes U.S. international trade policy.

And businesses across the country salivate at the thought of having influence over USTR.

Certain businesses in Montana, for example, have no greater concern than for the decades-old lumber trade dispute with Canada, or the beef hormone dispute with Europe, or beef trade with South Korea.

Another state with a sizable interest in international trade issues is Michigan. And guess what industry Michigan companies and people care about? Right you are:  autos and auto parts, which happen to be high on our trade agendas with countries like China and South Korea and Japan.

And who happens to chair the House and Senate committees that oversee USTR? A Republican from Michigan (Rep. Dave Camp), chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, and a Democrat from Montana (Sen. Max Baucus), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. As heads of those committees, they have inordinate leverage over U.S. trade policies that directly affect their states and constituencies.

(Coincidentally, when Asia-Pacific trade ministers met last year for a summit, guess where they chose to meet?  Asia? No.  Somewhere near the Pacific? No.  Big Sky, Montana, silly.)

So if Baucus and Camp seem reluctant to see Obama follow through on his proposal to transfer USTR to the Commerce Department (which is overseen by different committees and not theirs), this might have something to do with it.

Let’s do that again!

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Because we enjoyed it so much last year . . . . AP is reporting: Obama asks Congress for $1.2 trillion increase in the nation’s debt limit

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.

Contracting cuts are coming

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Jeff Zients, the government’s chief performance officer, and Dan Gordon, the top contracting policy official at the Office of Management and Budget, just announced

Jeff Zients

they are directing agencies to cut their services contracting by 15 percent, from a total of $40 billion now to $34 billion by 2012, according to our reporter Sarah Chacko, who is at OMB now covering the event.  Stay tuned for more coverage . . . .

Yes, the Postal Service intends to cut 30,000 positions this year

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Apparently, there is much spin going on in the wake of our story on Wednesday that the Postal Service is cutting its workforce by 30,000 positions this year.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe said he was told by postal officials that this is not correct.

Let’s be clear: There was nothing incorrect about our coverage and I stand by it. Not only that, you can see for yourself exactly what was said.

Federal Times reported this story directly from an editorial board meeting we held with Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe on March 9. Donahoe said his goal is to downsize the Postal Service by 30,000 people this year, mostly through attrition.  He added that if further reductions-in-force or buyouts are required to reach that number, the Postal Service will use them.

You may watch a video excerpt of Donahoe’s discussion or read the relevant unedited transcript (which follows).

To set up the transcript, Donahoe had just outlined his plans to announce a reduction-in-force on March 25 that will result in the cut of 7,500 administrative, supervisory, managerial and postmaster positions.  (Also, by way of set-up, Steve Losey, Tobias Naegele, and Sean Reilly, who are mentioned in the transcript that follows, are members of the Federal Times editorial board.) Here is where the discussion went next:

MR. LOSEY:  So as far as risks go, you’re saying there’s nothing beyond the 7,500 that you just detailed; right?  Nothing beyond that in the works?

MR. DONAHOE:  Well, there’s always something.  I mean you have to–as we lose volume, you got to take a look at what you have to do.

MR. NAEGELE:  So I mean my question was, as you take out supervisors, one assumes that you’re also looking at all these other things.

MR. DONAHOE:  Oh, yeah.

MR. NAEGELE:  And you confirmed you’re also looking at all these other things?

MR. DONAHOE:  Yeah, absolutely.

MR. NAEGELE:  But the end of 2011, how many fewer carriers do you expect to have?

MR. DONAHOE:  By the end of 2011, our goal for 2011 is a headcount reduction of 30,000 people.

MR. NAEGELE:  Which includes the 7,500?

MR. DONAHOE:  Yeah, yeah.

MR. REILLY:  And that’s FY11?

MR. DONAHOE:  Yeah.  We’ll make that.

MR. LOSEY:  And how are you going to do that?  Is it, are you planning buyouts or early retirements or further RIFs or just attrition?

MR. DONAHOE:  Some with attrition.  The interesting thing is, and this is, this is why, one of the things that we’ve been trying–the point we’ve been trying to make on the six to five is critical because you have an opportunity now to resolve this without having a real negative effect on employees because we have–right now we have 215,000 people who can either retire through optional retirement or who are eligible for VERA so you’ve got chunk of people who are eligible to go.

It’s always been our approach to try do it through attrition.  We haven’t laid anybody off out of all that 234,000.  You know, we’ve done it in I think a responsible way.

If we have to have RIFs, we will do that. We have to do what we have to do.  I mean it’s, so–and if we need to have an incentive buyout, we may have to do that.  That’s not been decided yet, but it’s an option on the table.

I will say the one thing that we will not do is have an organization-wide buyout like a flat across the board.  That will not happen.

Government’s open (but don’t dare celebrate)

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Warning: Killjoy alert!

As you all know (because you’re probably reading this from your office instead of your home), Congress last week struck a deal to keep government operating for another two weeks. So here we are today, the first Monday into the new CR, and federal agencies are operating, citizens are getting their government services,  and feds are getting paid. What’s not to love about that?

According to today’s excellent-but-depressing blog post by former Capitol Hill staffer and Wall Street consultant Peter Davis, plenty. Davis dissects the predicament we find ourselves in and concludes that the big-picture budget outlook is bleak and reflects a complete dysfunction at the policy level…

Continuing resolutions: Are we there yet?

No! We’re not there yet. We’re not even sure where there is yet.  The NFL talks are going better.

So far, for the whopping price of $4.1 billion of easy pickings, $2.7 billion of Administration proposals that had no chance of enactment anyway plus $1.7 billion of earmarks, we funded two more weeks of FY11.  Wait a minute.  That’s last year’s budget.

Right.  We still don’t have a budget for FY11, which we are more than five months into.  No budget resolution passed Congress last year, and no regular appropriations did either.  The only FY11 appropriations have been continuing resolutions and a supplemental.

So what about the FY12 budget?  President Obama presented his FY12 Budget a week late, partly because Jack Lew’s confirmation as OMB Director was held hostage to speeding up Gulf drilling permits.  That pushed back CBO’s Analysis of the Presidents Budget, until the end of March or early April.  That usually produces the baseline the Budget Committees use, but there’s no way to produce a baseline anyway because no one can say what FY11 will be.  Therefore, the Budget Committees won’t produce budget resolutions until mid-April at the earliest or May.  That won’t matter too much because there’s little chance the House and Senate could agree to a joint resolution.  If each house passes its own budget resolution that would be enough to launch the appropriations process.  If not, each house will probably pass a “deeming resolution” to set the overall level of discretionary spending for the appropriations process.  In the end, without a joint budget resolution, it will be very difficult to enact any appropriations, because each bill will look very different than the one that passed the other house, if any bills pass.

Worse still, the options for getting out of this mess offer little cause for hope, as Davis sees it:

So with no FY11 appropriations beyond midnight, March 18, no budget baseline, no prospect for a budget resolution until May, and the only way to avoid a government shutdown or default on our debt is to do something, what is that something? “Kick the can down the road” is one option.  Just pass another 2-week CR.  Start passing 2-week debt limit increases.  Ah, but that may not be good enough for most of the 87 Republican House freshmen.  They may balk at playing that game. They’ll demand more spending cuts and budget process reforms and may a constitutional balanced budget amendment as their price for a long-term budget deal or debt limit increase.  Now we’re talking about a game of chicken because Senate Democrats and President Obama will balk at spending cuts that large or budget process reforms that can’t be enforced.

Senate Budget Chair Kent Conrad (D-ND) has called for a budget summit as in 1990 at Andrews Air Force Base.  Get all the principals in the room, including the President, and lock the door until they agree.  Republicans don’t look back too fondly on the 1990 result, which included substantial tax increases that got President George H.W. Bush unelected in 1992.  The whole point of failing to resolve today’s budget impasse is to avoid getting unelected.

What to do? The”Gang of Six” senators who served on the President’s Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission continue to meet behind the scenes, hoping to come up with a bipartisan compromise.  The Commission’s recommendations were forthright and full of politically dangerous ideas, like cutting Medicare, raising the Social Security retirement age and getting rid of tax expenditures, i.e. raising taxes.  By taking on entitlements and taxes, the largest sources of potential deficit reduction, they showed the way.  However, no one is following, at least so far.  Hopefully, the “Gang of Six” senators can reach agreement, but my sources aren’t encouraging yet.  Even if they do agree, it’s likely to be on broad principles, not on specifics that might kill reelection chances.

Davis concludes the way out is for leaders of both political stripes to — get this — show some leadership and take on the real problems underlying the deficit that no one wants to talk about. Unfortunately, that may take a while.

Hopefully, it won’t take longer than 11 days, 12 hours and 5 minutes from now (when the current continuing resolution expires) . . . .

By the way, my personal favorite option to all this is the Kent Conrad “budget summit” solution: lock up the president and congressional leaders in a room until they strike a deal. But what venue would offer the best hope of a quick solution?