Federal Times Blogs

Government shutdown begins

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The closing of a vast swath of government operations is now under way as this Office of Management and Budget memo makes clear. The U.S. Agriculture Department, meanwhile, has wasted no time taking down its website. The Office of Personnel Management’s site, however, is still live, with a page with guidance on everything you probably never wanted to know about employee furloughs.


Agriculture Department headquarters buildings to reopen Tuesday

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Several U.S. Agriculture Department headquarters buildings closed by a fire Monday will reopen Tuesday, according to information posted on the agency’s web site.  The buildings include the Jamie L. Whitten Building, the Reporters Building, and the South Building, the department said. While the web posting does not mention the Cotton Annex, also closed today, that facility will be reopening as well, USDA spokesman Justin DeJong indicated in an email.

“All employees are to report in accordance with their established tour of duty.” according to the web post. Some 6,300 USDA workers are on administrative leave today, DeJong said earlier.




Fire closes USDA headquarters today

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The U.S. Agriculture Department’s headquarters off the National Mall is closed today because of a fire in an adjoining structure, a spokesman said this morning.  Some 6,300 employees are on administrative leave.

A small electric in the complex’s South Building occurred during routine maintenance early this morning, Justin DeJong said in an email. Firefighters responded, he said, and Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) shut off electricity. Besides the South Building, the Jamie L. Whitten Building, which houses USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s office, and the Cotton Annex are closed, DeJong said, adding later that employees at the Reporters Building have also been dismissed because the electrical shutdown and an email outage are affecting that facility.

A decision on whether to reopen the buildings Tuesday will be made later today, he said. Employees can call 1-877-873-2720 for updates, he said.

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Agriculture CIO heads to consulting firm Accenture

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Chris Smith will resign from his position as chief information officer at the Agriculture Department next month for an executive role at technology consulting firm Accenture Federal Services, the company announced Tuesday.

Smith will begin his new role as the company’s chief technology and innovation officer on April 9, according to Accenture. He will be responsible for developing the technology agenda for Accenture’s federal business and managing the company’s federal service offerings in the areas of cloud computing, big data, logistics and supply chain and cost reduction.  

Smith has served as Agriculture’s CIO since 2009. Under his leadership the department migrated 120,000 email boxes to Microsoft’s cloud solution, which the department estimates will save $6 million annually.

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White House touting reduction in improper payments

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There’s some apparent good news coming from the White House this afternoon on the improper payment front, according to a news advisory.

At 2:30 p.m., Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew and three other top administration figures are holding a conference call “to discuss the administration’s progress cutting wasteful improper payments by nearly $18 billion’’ the advisory says. FedLine had asked about this last week and was told the data was being finalized. Presumably these are figures for fiscal 2011 versus fiscal 2010.

Not clear is whether the nearly $18 billion figure is a cut in absolute terms or represents something more nebulous. In fiscal 2010, you may recall, improper payments jumped to about $125 billion from $110 billion in fiscal 2009 because of higher spending levels overall, according to OMB. But because the overall improper payment rate dipped from 5.65 percent to 5.49 percent, the administration could say its efforts saved $3.8 billion that would have otherwise mistakenly gone out the door.

Also participating in this afternoon’s call are Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Department Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Why them? The reductions are fueled by decreases in payment errors in Medicare, Medicaid, college Pell Grants and food stamps, according to the advisory.

We’ll keep you posted.

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Agencies subpoenaed to testify on small business leadership

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House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves today issued subpoenas to four federal agencies seeking answers for why they refuse to put senior leadership in charge of small business contracting activities, a committee spokesman said.

The Treasury, State, Justice and Agriculture departments have said they believe they are in compliance with the spirit of  a law that requires agencies to put their Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization in direct contact with the agency’s secretary or deputy secretary.

Each agency is required to have an Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) under the Small Business Act to ensure contracts are written with small business participation in mind.

The Government Accountability Office reported in June that the seven departments did not comply with the requirements. Some agencies name top level officials as OSDBU directors but have less senior administrators do day-to-day activities. Others have the OSDBU director report to officials other than the secretary or deputy secretary.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, chairman of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce, sent letters to the noncompliant agencies in August asking them to reorganize their OSDBU offices so that the offices reported to senior leadership. The Interior Department and Social Security Administration responded by reorganizing their small business offices.

But the Treasury, State, Justice and Agriculture departments told Mulvaney they believe they are in compliance with the spirit of the law and will not change.

The subpoenas issued today require the deputy secretaries of those four unchanged agencies to explain their reasons at a full House Small Business Committee hearing on Nov. 1.

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Fiddlin’ Foresters axed from federal web domain

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The Fiddlin’ Foresters may live on, but their web site’s apparently defunct.

Monday morning, the U.S. Forest Service string band found itself in the unenviable position of being panned by President Obama. Not for its music, but for a web site that Obama held up as an example of a taxpayer-funded Internet presence in urgent need of pruning.

“Did you know that the federal government pays for a web site devoted to a folk music ensemble made up of forest rangers?” Obama asked in a video posted on the White House’s own site. The video then features a screen shot of the group’s site, accompanied by what is presumably a sample of the band’s playing.

“I’ll put their music on my iPod, but I’m not paying for their web site,” Obama continued. “And there are hundreds of similar sites that we should consolidate or just get rid of.”


A Google search quickly turned up fiddlinforesters.gov, but the url had vanished from a government server.  A cached version described the four-member ensemble as “the official ‘old-time string band’” of the Forest Service, adding that “we are proud to bring conservation and stewardship messages alive through story and song to all who value natural and cultural resource conservation on America’s public lands.”

The site was up as recently as Friday, the cached version indicated. Asked today whether it has since been shut down because of Obama’s criticism, the Forest Service bounced the question to its parent agency, the U.S. Agriculture Department, where Press Secretary Matt Herrick had no answer Monday afternoon.

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Shirley Sherrod turns down USDA job offer

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Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department employee who got caught in a ginned-up racial controversy last month, just said she will not accept another position at her old department.

Sherrod lost her job after conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart posted a heavily edited video that appeared to show her bragging about turning down a white farmer because of his race. But once the full video surfaced — showing she was actually talking about the importance of moving beyond race when dealing with others — almost everyone from the White House to the NAACP realized they had gone off half-cocked. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offered her a civil rights job at the agency, hoping to smooth things over and ease some of the administration’s embarrassment.

The AP reports Sherrod and Vilsack said she may work with USDA in the future as a consultant on improving minority outreach.

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Shirley Sherrod responsible for global warming too?

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The Daily Show returned from vacation last night and weighed in on the Shirley Sherrod foofaraw. Jon Stewart, as always, gave the whole absurd episode the gravitas it required by editing the video of her speech to make it look like she was admitting to ruining the environment (the gold-plated Air Force One and alpaca fighting ring were also particularly nice touches).

Stephen Colbert then took it one step further by splicing Mel Gibson’s latest racist and very NSFW rant into a quote from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. But why should Stewart, Colbert and Andrew Breitbart have all the fun of twisting government officials’ words? With some simple editing software, you too can make it seem like Sherrod is admitting to almost anything.

FedLine readers, what do you say we create our first Internet meme? The full video of Sherrod’s speech can be found at this link.  Make your own Shirley Sherrod mashup, and post the link to your video in the comment section below! (The more ridiculous, the better. But please, try to keep some semblance of taste. This is a family blog, after all.)

(Sherrod, by the way, told CBS today she is still considering Secretary Tom Vilsack’s olive branch-slash-job offer. But given how quickly and drastically her fortunes turned last week, if she holds out, she could probably have Vilsack’s job by mid-August.)

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Sherrod offered job back at USDA

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sorrycatUSDA Secretary Tom Vilsack just said that he has apologized to Shirley Sherrod and offered her a civil rights job at the agency. CNN reports Sherrod has not yet decided whether she will accept.

Vilsack will also meet with the Congressional Black Caucus later today in his effort to rein in this rapidly spiraling snafu.

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