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White House mum on how many presidential staffers will be furloughed

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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.

Q: Yes.

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.”

This means war

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Buildup over a draft executive order that would require contractors to disclose their political contributions has led one voice for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to mimic the President’s charge in Libya.

“We will fight it through all available means,” the Chamber of Commerce’s top lobbyist R. Bruce Josten told the New York Times Tuesday. In a reference to the White House’s battle to depose Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, he said, “To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.”

The proposal, leaked last week by a former Federal Election Commission official, would require companies bidding for government work to disclose in their proposals all political contributions made by the company, its Political Action Committee and its senior executives over the prior two years.

Companies would also have to include contributions made to third-party organizations that could use those donations for political advertising.

The order says it seeks to “increase transparency and accountability” by addressing the perception that political campaign spending provides special access to or favoritism in the contracting process.

So what exactly are those options that the Chamber and other critics could use?

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said there are two pressure points — the courts or Congress.

Several Republican leaders seem ready to draft a bill overturning the order (if it’s ever issued). Twenty five Republican senators signed off on a letter that raised concerns about politicizing the contracting process and silencing political activity among contracting corporations.

And if this battle was waged at the Supreme Court level, it would be interesting to see if judges maintain their support of campaign finance disclosure or if this particular type of disclosure would fall under other areas that they have deemed protected.

Some of the questions being raised have very little to do with the details of disclosure rules but on the President’s intent. Opponents ask if he seriously considers pay-to-play as large a problem in Washington as we’ve seen in states or does he want to know who is financing his political opponents?

If he’s seeking transparency, President Obama would have to show how this disclosure won’t give Democratic supporters extra pull with awards. It probably wouldn’t hurt to also call out some of the serious contracting favoritism that his order would fix.

Just as last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court case, which protected corporate donations to political organizations, drove millions of dollars into the 2010 elections, this order may set off a different kind of firestorm, said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and a former Federal Election Commission chairman. Obama’s effort could backfire, he said, and instead of silencing his opponents, he may incite them to fight back with their wallets.

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Shutdown plans now available

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Remember the contingency plans that agencies have to prepare for the event of a government shutdown?

Those documents have never been more accessible–now that the immediate threat of a halt to agency operations has passed.

Under a “What’s New” section of its web site dated April 14, the Office of Management and Budget has posted links to more than 50 agency plans. Had the government closed, for example, more than three-quarters of employees in the Executive Office of the President would have been furloughed. At least for now, the prospect of a shutdown has receded since Congress last week approved a government-wide budget for the rest of fiscal 2011.

The new-found availability of the shutdown plans is a shift from only a few weeks ago, when the Obama administration rebuffed pleas from federal employee unions to release them. Late last month, the American Federation of Government Employees sued for access under the Freedom of Information Act.

But while the OMB site suggests that the administration began posting links to the records in one place only last Thursday, budget office spokeswoman Moira Mack said the site actually went up April 8.  On Monday, April 4,  agencies began “reaching out” to federal managers to discuss plans for an orderly shutdown, Mack said in an email, and began fielding employee questions later in the week.

And even if many agency shutdown plans are now only a mouse click away, AFGE will pursue its lawsuit, a spokesman said, to set some “parameters’ for how to handle the information in the future.

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Fed rights at risk in WikiLeaks backlash, groups say

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Just as agencies are wrapping up security reviews launched after the latest WikiLeaks breach, a coalition of open government groups is warning of possible consequences for federal employee rights.

Although improving safeguards for classified information is laudable, “we urge you not to craft policies that encourage agencies to unduly restrict free speech, or otherwise distract agencies from actually improving information security,” representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and eight other organizations wrote Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew in a letter dated Friday.

Ordered by Lew early this month and due to be finished Jan. 28, the “initial assessments” are supposed to address more than 100 different points, according to a memo posted on OMB’s web site.  While no one’s quarreling with the overall purpose, the ACLU and other letter signers say they are particularly concerned about a suggestion that agencies monitor employees’ “pre- and post-employment activities” or their participation in on-line sites like WikiLeaks or Open Leaks.

“It’s not at all clear how agencies could accomplish this, and, more importantly, such monitoring sweeps so broadly as to threaten constitutional rights,” the letter says.

Federal Times reached out Friday to an OMB spokesperson for a response to the letter. Radio silence so far, but we’ll add anything that comes in.

For the record, the assessments are being overseen by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office.

The intelligence folks aren’t commenting, but Jay Bosanko, director of the oversight office, said recently that all of the requirements listed in the memo don’t apply to all agencies. The open government coalition, however, would like to see that spelled out for the record, said Amy Bennett of OpenTheGovernment.org, which also signed the letter.

“A lot of these requirements aren’t standards-based and they aren’t rules-based,” she said.

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Executive order creates new CUI system

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Open government groups are hailing a new executive order requiring federal agencies to review and justify markings used to designate numerous types of “controlled unclassified information. “

Under the reviews, agency officials must define each “category and subcategory” of CUI and link it to a specific law, regulation or government-wide policy. The National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office will have to sign off on the results.

The order–published Tuesday, Nov. 9 in the Federal Register–labels the current system of markings—such as “For Official Use Only”—an “inefficient, confusing patchwork” that “has resulted in inconsistent marking and safeguarding of documents, led to unclear or unnecessarily restrictive dissemination policies and created impediments to authorized information-sharing.”

“The fact that these agency-specific policies are often hidden from public view has only aggravated these issues,”  the order says. A presidential task force had recommended a consolidated CUI system last year.

In news releases, several open government groups praised another provision that makes clear that CUI markings will have no bearing on whether records are releasable under the Freedom of Information Act.

The order “is a victory for openness, for both our community and the administration,” said Patrice McDermott, director of the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition.

“We are very pleased that the Obama administration took the opportunity to reform a confusing and inconsistent system that unnecessarily prevented information from being shared with the public and within the government,” Mike German, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a separate release.

At OMB Watch, Executive Director Gary Bass said the order “creates a fair and public process,” but added: “As always, implementation will determine if this policy succeeds or fails.”

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OMG! Prez bans txting while drving

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Feds, put down those BlackBerries. At least while you’re behind the wheel.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order today that bans federal employees from using their cell phones, BlackBerries or other electronic devices to send or receive text messages, read e-mails or perform other electronic tasks while driving .

The order applies to employees behind the wheel of government owned or leased vehicles or those driving their own vehicles while on government business. Agencies also were instructed to encourage federal contractors to enforce similar polices on their own workforces.

Obama issued the order to coincide with a Washington summit organized by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on the dangers of text messaging and other distractions while driving.

The number of crashes attributed to distracted drivers nationally has risen during the past five years, even though the number of crashes overall has dropped, and accounted for 16 percent of crashes and fatalities in 2008, Transportation statistics show.

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10,000 + ways to SAVE

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Federal employees have submitted more than 10,000 money-saving tips to the Office of Management and Budget’s SAVE Award contest in the last week, OMB director Peter Orszag announced today.

OMB launched the SAVE Award contest on Sept. 23 to gather cost-cutting and performance-improving ideas from the people who know government best: the employees.

So far, you have responded with 10,266 entries. And that number is growing as we speak.

If you haven’t submitted an idea yet, don’t delay. The contest ends on Oct. 14. You can enter at www.SaveAward.gov.

Once submissions close, an OMB panel will review the ideas and select a handful of finalists for President Barack Obama to choose from. The winning idea, which will be announced in November, will be included in the 2011 budget. The idea’s author will also get to meet Obama, the man with whom the buck stops.

Photo: Wikipedia.

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OMB director to staff: Step to it.

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As a runner and general fitness nut, I was pleasantly surprised to find a press release in my inbox from the Office of Management and Budget this morning announcing a new mandate for OMB staff: wear a pedometer.

OMB Director Peter Orszag launched the “OMB Pedometer Challenge” today to improve employee health by having everyone wear a pedometer to track their physical activity throughout the day.

Employees will enter their daily steps on an internal Web site and compare their activity levels to Orszag’s activity levels and their division’s levels. They’ll also be able to enter health statistics like body mass index, blood pressure and heart rate to help track improvements in their health.

The employee with the highest activity level each month wins lunch with Orszag and the highest performing team wins a “health happy hour.” Free lunch and/or a free happy hour? That’s inspiration enough for me.

Orszag said:

This challenge will make all of us more aware of our current activity levels and help inspire us to increase our physical activity. Evidence shows that pedometers are one of the most cost-effective ways to increase physical activity. And in true OMB fashion, we like to walk down the path cleared by the best data.”

The challenge is part of a larger effort to improve the health and productivity of the federal workforce, while reducing health care and disability costs, OMB said in the news release.

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New green goals coming

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The White House is developing an executive order that will set new goals for greening federal agencies, the administration’s top environmental policy adviser said this afternoon.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality is working with several agencies to draft the new presidential directive, council chairwoman Nancy Sutley said during an Earth Day event at the State Department. Sutley did not say when the order will be issued.

Existing laws and executive orders already require agencies to cut their energy and water consumption, increase their use of renewable energy, purchase environmentally preferable products and buy alternative fuel vehicles. Sutley said the new order will go even further.

The order will closely integrate federal greening actions and set new goals for energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy, the purchase of fuel-efficient cars, water conservation and encourage overall sustainability.

For those of you who read your Federal Times closely each week, Sutley’s comments should come as no surprise. We reported this week that the administration was reviewing all existing goals to determine which ones should be updated, modified or otherwise revised to meet the Obama administration’s green government commitments.

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Senate approves five Obama officials

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Barack Obama’s Cabinet is filling up. Last night the Senate confirmed:

In other confirmation news:

  • Susan Rice, Obama’s choice for U.N. ambassador, was approved.
  • Nancy Sutley was confirmed as chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
  • And finally, Lisa Jackson was given the green light to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, after Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., lifted his objection to a vote by unanimous consent.

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