National Weather Service employees got some heartening news today as two key senators signaled approval of the agency’s request to redirect money in this year’s budget to cover a funding shortfall for local forecasting offices. A similar signoff is still needed from House members to head off the threat of furloughs. Richard Hirn, a lobbyist for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, reiterated that he expects a happy ending, but not before a hearing tomorrow morning by the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency.
Subcommittee members “have very serious questions and they are going to get some explanation first before they say anything,” Hirn said. A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Commerce Department agency that includes the weather service, did not reply to an email seeking comment.
The lead witness at tomorrow’s hearing will be NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. Dan Scandling, a spokesman for the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., wouldn’t venture a prediction on when his boss will make a decision on the weather service’s request, but said the panel will “walk through” it tomorrow.
In a June 1 notification to the employees organization, the weather service warned of possible furloughs if lawmakers didn’t approve the request to “reprogram” almost $36 million in this year’s budget, the bulk of it for the forecasting offices. That request has been stymied by lawmakers’ anger over the recent findings of a NOAA internal investigation that weather service managers improperly moved money between different accounts in fiscal 2010 and 2011 without getting the necessary congressional approval.
Apart from scrutinizing the reprogramming request, tomorrow’s hearing is “going to be about what happened, why it happened and what they are going to do to fix it,” Scandling said.
Leaders of the comparable Senate appropriations subcommittee said today that this year’s request appears valid. The panel “remains committed to supporting NWS’s critical mission of forecasting and warning about severe weather, and supporting the men and women who work every day to fulfill that mission,” Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said in a letter to Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. “Therefore, we approve the reprogramming proposal to ensure that NWS forecasting operations are not disrupted.”
Mikulski chairs the subcommittee; Hutchison is its top Republican. In their letter, however, they complained of long-standing budget problems at both NOAA and the weather service. Accordingly, the panel is conducting an independent review and has also been in touch with the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department “to help resolve these outstanding issues.”
[This post has been updated]
In April, several senate Democrats, led by Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, introduced a bill to convert some contracted work to federal performance and otherwise prevent the government from competing federal jobs with the private sector.
Mikulski’s “CLEAN UP Act” – short for “Correction of Longstanding Errors in Agencies Unsustainable Procurements Act” – drew applause from unions andÂ criticism from industry groups. But now Senate Republicans are getting in on the act with their own bill designed to do the opposite.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced the “Freedom From Government Competition Act” yesterday. The billÂ mandates federal agencies rely on the private sector for commercially available goods and services.
The bill would codify what Thune calls the “yellow pages test,” meaning if government employeesÂ perform tasks found in the phonebook, then agencies should compete those jobs with the private sector.
Thune said in a statement:
This bill would ensure the government isn’t involving itself in areas that duplicate products and services that are available in the private sector and in doing so protecting taxpayer interests. This legislation would give private companies the chance to do the work which has been shown to save taxpayer money.
However, Thune’s news releaseÂ also claims the bill will “not mandate the privatization of any federal service and would protect those activities which are inherently governmental, such as certain national defense and homeland security functions, prosecutions, foreign policy and activities to bind the United States to take or not to take some action by contract, policy, regulation, authorization, or order.”
Thune’s co-sponsors on the legislation are Senators James Inhofe, R-Okla., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Sam Brownback, R-Kan. and David Vitter, R-La.
Industry is “deeply concerned” about a bill meant to bring work performed by contractors in house, Professional Services Council President Stan Soloway said in a May 5 letterÂ to bill sponsor Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Mikulski introduced the Correction of Longstanding Errors in Agencies Unsustainable Procurements (CLEAN UP) Act last week. The bill would ban the use of public-private competitions until agencies ensure inherently governmental work and work closely associated with inherently governmental functions is performed by federal employees. Agencies would also have to inventory contracts and give feds the opportunity to compete for outsourced work, even if the work can be done by contractors.
Mikukski said last week that this bill would correct “the contracting abuses of the last eight years and bringing jobs that were wrongly awarded to private contractors back to where they belong – with our first-rate federal employees.”
But Soloway counters the legislation works at cross purposes with Mikulski’s goals of supporting the federal worker:
The ban on competitive sourcing studies across government has eliminated the only process that gives employees the opportunity to compete the commercial activities work. Absent the A-76 process, what competitive process should be implemented to ensure that any decision to insource work will result in meaningful cost and performance improvements?
Soloway also noted that work “closely associated with inherently governmental” jobs is not defined and there is “no logical reason” that such jobs must be done by feds.
The key is for agencies to carefully and strategically assess their missions and work to ensure that they have adequate internal capability in critical positions to provide the guidance, expertise and management necessary to achieve cost, schedule and performance goals. Your legislation would strip agencies of their ability to act strategically by replacing it with arbitrary workforce planning that may not be consistent with the agency’s or the taxpayers best interests.
Soloway has asked Mikulski to discuss PSC’s concerns surrounding the bill, noting that several federal contractors have offices and employees in Maryland.
Update, May 8, 1:20 p.m.: Sen. MilkulskiÂ has sent us this statement:
I appreciate that the PSC agrees that the contracting process should be Â fair and use taxpayer’s money efficiently. However, what’s not taken into account is the already substantial success of efforts to identify wrongly outsourced jobs and bring them back to performance by Federal Employees. The Army has announced savings of $300 million through the in-sourcing of 1,400 contractor jobs. Secretary of Defense Gates plans to expand this program to bring 30,000 jobs back to performance by federal employees over the next five years. Secretary Gates is committed to this effort for the same reason I am — it saves money for the taxpayers and allows the Department he leads to better fulfill its critical mission. My legislation builds on Secretary Gates’ success and Â takes it government wide.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is expected to introduce a bill tomorrow that will suspend government’s use of public-private competitions for federal work.
If Mikulski’s Correction of Longstanding Errors in Agencies Unsustainable Procurements (CLEAN UP) Act becomes law, agencies will be barred from using competition rules set under Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 until they implement the following provisions:
- Amend the A-76 process to include the full cost of conducting a competition, to charge in-house bidders only for actual overhead costs, to abolish automatic re-competition of work won by federal employees, and to impose a firm time limit on studies.
- Ensure that work considered inherently governmental functions and functions closely related to inherently governmental work is only performed by federal employees. Where such work is outsourced, agencies must develop plans to bring the work back in house.
- Encourage agencies to give feds the opportunity to compete for new work, work outsourced without competition or outsourced work that is poorly performed, even if the work was properly outsourced.
- Require that agencies inventory contracts to find contracts for inherently governmental work, contracts awarded without competition, and contracts that are being poorly performed.
- Require agencies to develop plans for handling predicted staffing shortages in federal career fields.
The proposed, temporary suspension of A-76 competitions– frequently referred to as outsourcing, privatization or competitive sourcing– would be lifted once the OMB director and the inspectors general of the five largest departments determine these provisions have been “substantially implemented.”
In a statement, Mikulski said:
The Bush Administration made a mess of federal personnel contracting – pushing contracting out even when it wasted taxpayer dollars and undermined the mission of our federal agencies. … This bill will be a major step towards cleaning up the contracting abuses of the last eight years and bringing jobs that were wrongly awarded to private contractors back to where they belong – with our first-rate federal employees.
The bill will be co-sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Roland Burris, D-Ill.; Robert Casey, D-Pa.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Edward Kennedy D-Mass.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.