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Senate-passed bill would give Hatch Act some touching-up

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The Hatch Act would get some tweaking under a bill that won unanimous Senate approval last week.

The bill would allow state and local government employees to run for partisan political office, for example, and the Merit Systems Protection Board would get more options for dealing with violations of the act, which generally bars federal civil servants from partisan politicking. Currently, the board’s only option is to fire offending feds unless its members unanimously agree to some lesser penalty.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, now goes to the House, where Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has introduced similar legislation.

The 1939 Hatch Act, (officially known, in case you were wondering, as “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”), is seen both by Republicans and Democrats as needing a refresh, although the two sides differ on particulars. The status quo is “clear as mud,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., declared at a hearing last year of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he chairs. (Cummings is the top Democrat.) So far, however, Issa has not introduced any legislation.

Also urging change is Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, the agency charged with Hatch Act enforcement. At the law’s best, it keeps people in political power from abusing their positions, Lerner wrote in a New York Times op-ed. At its worst, she said, it prevents would-be candidates in state and local races from running for office because their jobs are in some trivial way tied to federal funding.

How trivial? Well, in one instance, a Pennsylvania policeman wanted to run for school board, but was told by Lerner’s office that the law wouldn’t allow it. His bomb-sniffing dog, after all, was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Friday Fun: #eastwooding at the RNC

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Clint Eastwood debates Invisible Obama (H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)

Last night, Clint Eastwood was The Man With No Speech. The legendary actor and former mayor of Carmel, Calif., took the stage at the Republican National Convention shortly after 10 p.m. EST to warm the crowd up for Mitt Romney. What followed was a seemingly improvised, 12-minute address to an empty chair he pretended had an invisible Barack Obama.

Apparently prompted by an enthusiastic crowd member, Eastwood finished his freewheeling speech by leading the crowd in his classic Dirty Harry line: “Go ahead, make my day.” (Which was the obvious Eastwood quote, of course. But I have to confess: I was sort of hoping he’d say, “Right turn, Clyde.” Every Which Way But Loose just doesn’t get enough love in my book.)

Eastwood’s antics lit up Twitter, and launched a new meme. Someone immediately started an “Invisible Obama” account. And within minutes, the hashtag #eastwooding was trending on Twitter as people posted photos of themselves (or their Corgi) haranguing empty chairs. Even an enterprising Photoshopper got Grampa Simpson in on the act.

The Obama campaign also had fun with the speech’s surreality. When asked for comment, Politico said, the Obama campaign referred questions to Salvador Dali. And the campaign tweeted this photo with the caption, “This seat’s taken.”

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Former Gov. Kaine: Attacks on federal employees ‘revolting’

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Kaine speaks to about 130 federal employees in the Fairlington Community Center in Arlington, Va., Aug. 1. (Stephen Losey)

Former Democratic Virginia Gov. and current Senate candidate Tim Kaine on Wednesday pledged his support for federal workers at a town hall in Arlington.

At the event — sponsored by the American Federation of Government Employees, National Treasury Employees Union, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and other groups from the Federal-Postal Coalition — Kaine said that waging war against public workers “is not a management model that works.”

“You and I both know that some — for one reason or another — want to make public employees the all-purpose punching bag in American political life,” Kaine said. “That, I find revolting. Those who would perpetuate the notion that public employees are somehow not willing to sacrifice, they haven’t been paying attention. Public employees have sacrificed a lot. Pay freezes happen at all levels. The right attitude is, thank you so much for hanging with us.”

Kaine also said that as the government tries to cut its costs and reduce the deficit, federal employees can help find savings and inefficiencies. And he reiterated his party’s position that deficit reduction must come from a combination of budget cuts and revenue increases, through increased taxes for the wealthy.

He also said he is “agnostic” on outsourcing some federal jobs to the private sector, although he said inherently governmental jobs should always be done by federal employees.

And Kaine feels the Defense Department needs to do more to operate more efficiently and restructure its bases. He said the Pentagon still has many European bases that reflect a 1950s force structure that today is far out of date.

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No, Newt, you can’t fire feds for being too liberal

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Newt Gingrich

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich unveiled a whopper of a workforce management strategy on Saturday: Fire the liberals. At a Fox News forum hosted by Mike Huckabee, Gingrich said:

I think an intelligent conservative wants the right federal employees delivering the right services in a highly efficient way and then wants to get rid of those folks who are in fact wasteful, or those folks who are ideologically so far to the left [emphasis mine], or those people who want to frankly dictate to the rest of us.

TPM points out that what Gingrich appears to be proposing is an illegal prohibited personnel practice — one that, if he were to follow through on such a threat, would merit an Office of Special Counsel investigation. According to OSC’s website:

[...] a federal employee who has authority over personnel decisions may not [emphasis original]:

(1) discriminate against an employee or applicant based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicapping condition, marital status, or political affiliation [emphasis mine].

Gingrich made his comments after being asked by 20-year fed Kimberly Williams — who noted that her job isn’t very popular right now — how he would cut the federal deficit without cutting federal jobs. (Williams also told Gingrich that neither she nor anyone she works with makes the alleged $120,000 average federal salary that gets thrown around a lot these days.)

Gingrich responded by lauding feds such as Border Patrol and Customs agents, intelligence officers, and State Department employees in dangerous places overseas, and then segued into a call to replace the Environmental Protection Agency with a more “cooperative” agency. He also pledged to conduct Lean Six Sigma studies to find places to make the government more efficient.

You can watch the exchange below, and find a transcript after the jump. Gingrich’s segment begins at 33 minutes, and Williams’ question about feds comes at the 42 minute mark.

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Read the rest of this entry »

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Over and over again: The debt limit story

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The debt limit deal is in the Senate, and President Obama is expected to sign it. Which means all this debt limit craziness is over … right?

Here is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) on Fox News with Neil Cavuto.

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(My own emphasis has been added).

MCCONNELL: It set the template for the future. In the future, Neil, no president — in the near future, maybe in the distant future — is going to be able to get the debt ceiling increased without a re-ignition of the same discussion of how do we cut spending and get America headed in the right direction. I expect the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we’ll be doing it all over.

And of course, agency budgets are due before fiscal year 2012 begins Oct. 1, or the government will be facing another shutdown. And the new deficit reduction commission will be making their recommendation on cuts a few months after that.

Plus the FAA is still in shutdown.

So what are your thoughts on all of this? How will the rest of the year shake out?

FEC averts talk about corporate political spend

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While a discussion about corporate disclosure of campaign contributions seems to already have occurred among politicians and transparency groups, the Federal Election Commission deadlocked once again on a vote to re-open public discussion of disclosure rules for political advertisements.

These advertisements, called independent expenditures and electioneering communications, are used to support or oppose candidates, or publicize issues with the names or images of candidates.

FEC Chair Cynthia Bauerly offered up a “draft notice of proposed rulemaking” at the June 15 commission meeting to re-open public comment on existing rules that require donations to outside groups to be disclosed only when they are specifically earmarked for certain political advertisements.

In 2010, commissioners decided that only money earmarked for a specific advertisement had to be disclosed, rather than all money contributed toward political expenditures.

Open Secrets, which investigates political spend, reported that a similar request for public comment also failed in to get commission approval in January.

Advocacy groups that have supported a widely discussed presidential executive order that would require government contractors to disclose their political expenditures to third party groups, such as Public Citizen and the Campaign Legal Center, told Open Secrets that the FEC’s constant deadlock on issues is rendering the commission ineffective.

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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?

Poll: Most favor higher fuel efficiency standards

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Most Americans favor higher government-imposed fuel-efficiency standards, according to a poll released last week.

The survey of 1,000 likely voters showed 85 percent favor government requirements to increase fuel efficiency in cars and 78 percent favor government regulation reducing emissions from large trucks, SUVs and minivans.

Respondents also support increased fuel efficiency standards even if the price of the car goes up by $3,000, with 66 percent still favoring the proposal and 28 percent opposed.

The Environmental Protection Agency received a favorable response: 63 percent of respondents saw the agency favorably or very favorably.

Environment America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists sponsored the poll, which was conducted by the Mellman Group and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

“I work for the government and I am NOT the enemy”

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Federal Times this week examines the growing concern in the ranks of federal employees over the rising anti-government rancor among many Americans. Some people say agencies need to better educate Americans on the many seen and unseen services the government performs to generate a better appreciation for all it does. Others say the animosity is the result of an increasingly bitter and polarizing national debate fanned by politicians and extreme partisans in the media. Still others say federal employees deserve criticism for being incapable of managing many programs that make effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

What do you think? Do you think anti-fedism is on the rise? What if anything should be done about it?

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One man’s bird crusade

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Mike Quigley is for the birds — literally.

The first-term congressman introduced legislation Tuesday that would require bird-safe materials and design features be used to the maximum extent possible on all new and renovated buildings maintained by the General Services Administration. The bill is similar to legislation the Illinois Democrat championed in 2008 when he was on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

The clouds in the sky and the clouds reflected in this building's windows look the same to a bird.

The clouds in the sky and the clouds reflected in this building's windows look the same to a bird.

I am proud to build upon the work we did in Cook County to promote bird-safe building and spearhead an initiative at the national level that will make sure our tall buildings are not safety hazards. This bill will not only save millions of birds’ lives, but it is also completely cost neutral.

Collisions with buildings and other man-made objects is one of the leading causes of bird deaths, according the bill, HR 4797.  Several design guides have been published to promote bird-friendly construction, and there’s even a website dedicated to the issue.

GSA already has incorporated bird-friendly features such as non-reflective glass and awnings into many of its buidlings, including the San Francisco Federal Building, the Suitland, Md., Census Complex and the U.S. Courthouse in Eugene, Ore. Quigley’s legislation would require similar efforts for all of GSA’s federal facilities.

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