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Job security in uncertain budget times

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Are you a federal or contractor IT professional who’s concerned about job security and workplace morale during these uncertain budget times? Are you considering work elsewhere, or are you hoping for the best and staying put in your current position?

Federal Times would like to hear from you. Contact Nicole Johnson at 703-750-8145 or njohnson@federaltimes.com.

G-Fund and postal benefits fund made whole, GAO says

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It’s official: The Thrift Savings Plan’s G-Fund is back to full strength after losing almost $400 million courtesy of last year’s debt ceiling showdown.

The confirmation comes from a Government Accountability Office review of the Treasury Department’s maneuvering to head off an unprecedented U.S. default after Congress initially deadlocked over raising the nation’s borrowing limit. The standoff was resolved (at least temporarily) last August with approval of the Budget Control Act, which traded a debt-ceiling increase for spending cuts.

But in the months before the act’s passage, Treasury resorted to a number of “extraordinary actions” to buy time. One involved the G-Fund (officially known as the Government Securities Investment Fund), which is invested in short-term bonds. Because those bonds count against the debt ceiling, the government in May 2011 halted new investments as a temporary means of holding down borrowing. But, of course, if that money’s not invested, it’s not earning interest. Some $137.5 billion in G-Fund principal lay fallow during the 3-1/2 month hiatus. By GAO’ s reckoning, the lost interest amounted to $378.5 million.

By law, however, the government has to make up the difference once the crisis is over. That’s since been done, the review says, as the Treasury Department has “fully restored” the lost interest.

“It’s exactly as if they had never had to use the extraordinary actions,” Susan Irving, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview.

The G-Fund was not the only account touched in this way. The Treasury Department performed similar maneuvers–albeit in smaller amounts–with the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund and the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund. Both have also been made whole, according to the report.

So relax, already. At least until next time.

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The SAVE award competition is back

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Attention, feds: It’s once again your chance to change the government, or at least one small piece of it, as the Obama administration this week launched the fourth annual SAVE Award competition.

If not quite on par with the summer Olympics (another competition getting under way  shortly), the contest does provide a useful outlet for federal employees with tips for cutting costs or improving efficiency. And there are plenty of them; according to the White House, the previous three competitions have drawn more than 75,000 ideas.

You have to get your suggestions in before July 24, but can encourage your co-workers to vote for them on-line.  After the top ideas are whittled to a final four, the public has the last word. The winner gets the chance to present the idea to President Obama.

 

Following budget cut, inspector general slashes staff by half

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After their agency took an almost 50 percent budget hit, officials with the inspector general that monitors AmeriCorps and other community service programs warned that big reductions in staffing and oversight weren’t far behind.

They weren’t bluffing. From 33 employees in mid-January, the IG’s workforce has since shrunk to 17—in part because of a reduction-in-force–and another four employees are expected to leave soon for other jobs, Counsel Vincent Mulloy said in an email last week.

The office’s acting chief, deputy IG Ken Bach, was “heartened” that many employees were able to find work elsewhere, Mulloy said, “and regretted that he had to RIF those who had not.”

The workload has been downsized accordingly.  Five planned audits have been postponed, for example, including a review of conference spending by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a look at space utilization at the corporation’s headquarters, and an evaluation of administrative costs incurred by AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps.

Also on hold are audits of five state commissions that receive corporation grant money, along with reviews of several Senior Corps grant recipients, Mulloy added. Although the IG will consider specific audit requests, the focus for now is on mundane but legally required work such as an audit of the corporation’s financial statement and a Federal Information Security and Management Act evaluation.

The cutbacks ensued after lawmakers whacked the inspector general’s budget from $7.7 million last year to $4 million now.  The rationale remains mysterious. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs a subcommittee that helps write the IG’s budget, blamed House Republicans for the cut. A spokesman for Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who heads the comparable panel in the House, has not responded to requests for comment.

Next year looks only marginally better: Under the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget request, the inspector general’s office will receive $5 million.

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Senate scuttles measure that would have required billions in program cuts this year

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Federal program managers may be breathing a little easier this afternoon after the Senate killed an amendment that would have ordered the Obama administration to zap at least $10 billion from this year’s budget.

Although the provision, sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., received a simple majority of 52 votes, that total fell short of the 60-vote supermajority needed to add it to a highway spending bill.  Under the amendment, the Office of Management and Budget would have had to use its administrative authority to “eliminate, consolidate and streamline” duplicative and overlapping programs singled out by the Government Accountability Office in two reports over the last year.  Within five months of the legislation’s enactment, OMB would have also had to join forces with affected agencies to rescind a minimum of $10 billion from such programs.

“Why would we not want to eliminate duplication?” Coburn asked in a speech on the Senate floor before the vote. “Why wouldn’t we want to become efficient and effective in terms of how we spend our children’s money?” But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, labeled the measure a backdoor attempt to lower discretionary spending caps approved as part of last August’s deal to raise the federal debt ceiling. The amendment was also redundant because “an existing rescission authority” is already in place, Inouye said.

In an after-the-vote statement, Coburn said the outcome shows “that the problem in Washington is not gridlock or partisanship, but incompetence.  Senators have agreed to borrow and spend far beyond our means yet refuse to eliminate wasteful spending, even when another agency has done the hard work of oversight for them.”

The White House had not taken an official position. In an email after the vote, OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said that President Obama is committed to ending wasteful duplication, as evidenced by GAO’s finding that the administration had made progress on many recommendations for Executive Branch action contained in its original report last year on duplicative and overlapping programs.  And if Congress wants to act on duplication, Mack added, it can do so “right now” by approving legislation introduced last month to give the White House fast-track government reorganization authority. That measure, sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Ct., and Mark Warner, D-Va., is awaiting action by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. A hearing is scheduled for March 21, according to the committee’s web site.

Updated to reflect March 21 hearing date for reorganization bill

 

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Carper seeks trip details from Postal Regulatory Commission chairman

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As expected, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., has formally asked Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway to explain all official travel since she assumed the position 2-1/2  years ago.

In a letter to Goldway sent today, Carper sought a detailed itinerary and justification for each official trip she’s taken–along with similar information for her two most recent predecessors—by Feb. 20. Carper, who chairs a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the U.S. Postal Service and the PRC, also requested details on the commission’s travel policy and any procedures in place to prevent wasteful or unneeded travel.

“Given the Postal Service’s ongoing financial challenges and the amount of work the commission has on its plate, a significant increase in official travel by you—or any member of the commission—raises questions,” Carper wrote.

The request follows Monday stories in Federal Times and The Washington Post that Goldway’s trip volume is up in comparison with her immediate predecessor, at a time when postal revenues—which fund the PRC’s $14.3 million budget—are down and the agency’s workload is increasing.  Goldway, however, has described travel as a normal part of the job and said she is confident that Carper will find that all trips were fully justified.

This is  not the first time the two have tangled.  Carper was not happy last year with the length of time it took the commission to issue a legally required advisory opinion on the Postal Service’s bid to end most Saturday delivery. In today’s letter, however, Carper tells Goldway that he is “appreciative of the steps that you, your fellow commissioners, and your staff have taken to improve commission operations and to keep my staff and me informed of your work and the commission’s progress.”

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Reduction-in-force looming at inspector general’s office

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The RIF clock is officially ticking for most of the staff at the inspector general’s office for the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Reduction-in-force packages went out Friday to 26 of the office’s 33 employees, said spokesman Bill Hillburg, who was among those receiving notification that he could be out of a job by March 17. “It can change for some if some folks find work elsewhere, but unless funding is found and restored,  [it's] irrevocable,” Hillburg said in an email.

The move comes after Congress whacked the IG’s funding by almost half to $4 million in a fiscal 2012 spending bill approved last month. The rationale for the cut remains mysterious. Democrats have blamed Republicans; a spokesman for Rep. Denny Rehberg, the Montana Republican whose House appropriations subcommittee helps draft the budget for the IG’s office, has not replied to several requests for comment.

Last week, three GOP senators wrote to Rehberg’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, asking him to restore the lost funding by taking the money from the corporation’s budget; Harkin has made no decision, a spokeswoman indicated Friday.

In his own letter to Congress last week, Kenneth Bach, acting chief of the IG’s office, said he was confident that some employees would get work with other inspectors general. But for those who are actually RIF’d, Bach said, he will have to pay a severance package that in a few cases could come close to the employee’s annual salary.

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Postal Service’s 2011 losses narrow (but only because of a gimmick)

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If only on paper, the U.S. Postal Service’s financial condition has just shown some stunning improvement. That’s because Congress pushed back a $5.5 billion retiree health care payment originally due last Friday (i.e., Sept. 30) until Nov. 18, according to short-term spending legislation approved in the last week.

Sept. 30 was the final day of fiscal 2011, for which the Postal Service had been predicting a total loss of about $10 billion, in part because of that legally required retiree health care obligation.  With that payment now delayed until November, the expected 2011 deficit plummets to $4.5 billion.

Of course, the mail carrier has a similar payment due next September, meaning that its 2012 retiree health care obligations just doubled to around $11 billion. Not to worry, though: USPS leaders say they can’t make the installment originally due Sept. 30 and chances are that they won’t be able to make next year’s, either–even though both still count on its books as expenses.

After all, it’s only money.

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Living people to be pictured on postage stamps and other USPS news

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Once again, there’s so much happening with the U.S. Postal Service that it seems simplest to package (no pun intended) the latest developments together. Here goes:

1) In that rare bit of news that doesn’t revolve around the mail carrier’s cratering finances, the Postal Service today announced that it’s changed a long-standing policy so living people can be depicted on postage stamps. Under the previous guidelines, an individual had to be dead for at least five years to be so honored; starting next year, Americans “will see acclaimed musicians, sports stars, writers, artists and nationally-known figures” on stamps while they’re still with us, according to a USPS news release.

Postal officials are inviting members of the public to submit the top five living individuals they would like to see on stamps via Facebook and Twitter. People can also actually use a stamp to write the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, c/o Stamp Development, Room 3300, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20260-3501. And before anyone rushes to nominate their grandkids (or even a favorite mail carrier), keep in mind that the advisory committee is looking for folks “who have made extraordinary contributions to American society and culture,” according to the official guidelines.

2) Back to grim realities: The Postal Service’s four unions are wrapping up preparations for tomorrow’s nationwide “Save America’s Postal Service” day, which will feature rallies in all 435 congressional districts from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. local times.  The chief goal is to build public and political support for legislation by Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., that could open the door for the Postal Service to take advantage of tens of billions of dollars in pension overpayments identified by an outside actuary and the agency’s inspector general. The bill already has 215 co-sponsors, including some Republicans, but has so far gone nowhere in the House, where other GOP lawmakers dispute whether any such overpayments occurred.

3) On Friday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., jumped into the scrum on the other side by introducing a Senate version of a postal overhaul sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., that was just approved last week by a House oversight subcommittee.  McCain has a history of—at least every now and then—working successfully across party lines, but the debate preceding that subcommittee vote showed just how deep partisan divisions run on postal issues.

4) And, as federal agencies undergo another bout of shutdown jitters, let’s not forget that the Postal Service has a stake in the latest Capitol Hill showdown. Under the continuing resolution that would keep agencies operating past the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, the deadline for the Postal Service to make a $5.5 billion retiree health care prepayment would also be pushed back from Sept. 30 to Nov. 18. If lawmakers don’t pass the CR by Friday, the Postal Service is headed for an embarrassing default, according to repeated warnings from Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.

 

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UPDATE: GAO OKs 42 buyouts

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CORRECTION: GAO said the union published incorrect numbers in its newsletter. The actual number of buyouts has so far been 42, and another three early retirements. GAO said the program closes Sept. 20, and those numbers could change between now and then.

ORIGINAL POST: The Government Accountability Office has approved buyouts for 41 employees, and early retirements for another 5 employees.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 1921, also known as the GAO Employees Organization, listed the buyout and early out numbers in an e-mail newsletter sent to members this afternoon.

In an Aug. 8 memo to employees, GAO listed 56 positions — mostly management-level and other upper-level analysts and criminal investigators in bands IIB and III — that it hoped would accept the buyouts. GAO did not say how many early retirements it expected. Employees who were approved for a buyout or early out must leave by Sept. 30.

Tight budgets prompted GAO’s staffing cutbacks. In his Aug. 8 memo, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said they “will help GAO adjust to our anticipated fiscal year 2012 budget while continuing to support our strategic plan and meet the needs of Congress.”

IFPTE’s newsletter also said GAO’s field office study team is scheduled to brief the agency’s executive committee on their initial findings Sept. 16. The team could recommend field office closures and layoffs as part of the first review of GAO’s field office structure in more than a decade. IFPTE said that before GAO management settles on any workforce restructuring because of the team’s findings, it is obligated to discuss alternatives with the union.

This continues government agencies’ ongoing trend of offering buyouts and early retirements to deal with tight budgets in the coming years.

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