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Postal board faces tough decision on five-day mail delivery

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The U.S. Postal Service’s board of governors is set to meet tomorrow, according to a spokesman, and a thorny choice will likely dominate the agenda: Let Postmaster General Pat Donahoe proceed with a previously announced plan to end Saturday mail delivery this August, with a projected savings of $2 billion annually. Or back off—at least for now—to avoid a probable lawsuit, not to mention antagonizing members of Congress whose help is needed to pass any long-haul fix for the Postal Service’s finances.

Among some observers, the betting is that the board will opt for door number two.

“That’s the strong rumor—that they’ve gone wobbly,” said Tony Conway, a former USPS executive who now runs the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers and supports the reduced mail delivery schedule. At the Association for Postal Commerce, another private group that represents business mail users, President Gene Del Polito also expected a “back off” decision by the five-member board.

But George Gould, a consultant who formerly worked for the National Association of Letter Carriers, said the panel is divided on which way to go. When Donahoe announced the five-day delivery plan back in February, Gould said, part of the strategy was to draw lawmakers’ attention to the need for postal overhaul legislation.

The plan got their attention, Gould said, but not in a positive way. Thus far, no comprehensive postal bill has been introduced. But by another line of thinking, he said, sticking with the five-day plan would be a way to “keep the pressure” on lawmakers.

For what it’s worth, the Postal Service’s web site (as of this afternoon) still includes a section on the proposed changes. Although Saturday mail delivery would end in early August, package delivery would continue six days a week.  Like most board meetings, tomorrow’s will be closed to the public,  according to the USPS spokesman, Mark Saunders.

On one front, the episode underscores—yet again—how hard it can be for the Postal Service to wriggle around congressional fence lines. Since the 1980s, lawmakers have included a provision in annual spending legislation that prohibits the agency from ending six-day delivery. When Donahoe unveiled the plan in February, he entreated lawmakers to do nothing to stop it. Because the spending bill signed this month is mostly a continuation of last year’s legislation, however, it maintains the ban on delivery cutbacks even though the Postal Service is nowhere mentioned, according to staffers on both the House and Senate appropriations committees.

But as Conway noted, the Postal Service continues to pursue other cost-cutting measures. In a surprise move late last month, it decided to speed up dozens of mail processing plant closings and consolidations originally scheduled for next year.  A separate undertaking to cut hours at some 13,000 postal offices appears to be on track. And although a requirement to annually funnel about $5.5 billion into a fund for future retiree health care remains on the books, the Postal Service has twice defaulted with no outcry from Congress over violating the law. And in a symbolic milestone, the career postal workforce dropped below a half-million earlier this year.

As for that long awaited postal bill, Del Polito said he’s been told that it’s coming in about two weeks. Earlier this year, optimism officially abounded that a deal was within reach.
“I believe that we are very close,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said at a February congressional hearing, adding that a final agreement could come by the end of March. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., struck a similarly upbeat note. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he hoped to introduce a bill by the end of last month.

Not surprisingly, the job is taking a little longer.

“The need to enact comprehensive, bipartisan postal reform legislation is more urgent than ever,” Cummings said in a statement last week. “Although I am disappointed that more progress has not been made, I am hopeful that legislation can be enacted swiftly with concerted effort from all sides.” Issa spokesman Ali Ahmad declined comment on when a bill might be coming.

In the Senate, Carper will do what he can to bring Congress and the Obama administration together around “a set of meaningful reforms in the coming weeks to help the Postal Service survive and thrive,” spokeswoman Jennie Westbrook said in an email. To that end, she added, Carper “intends to have legislative language ready in the near future and remains hopeful that he will be able to move a bill in committee soon after.”

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Yet another sequester-related headache for agencies

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One of the great unknowns of sequestration is how many hours of federal agency staff time have been consumed by drafting, discussing and implementing the steps needed to handle the across-the-board spending cuts.

And it’s not over yet.

Under an April 1 deadline stemming from the continuing resolution approved last fall, more than three dozen agencies are supposed to give Congress updated operating plans that reflect the impact of the reductions for fiscal 2013. Inconveniently, however, lawmakers are still tinkering with a final version of  the FY13 budget, meaning that some agencies—the Defense Department in particular—may have to rewrite those plans.

“We’re going to have a real problem because you’re about to change the whole framework for us,” DoD Comptroller Robert Hale said yesterday at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.  Because the baseline for the sequester cuts will change, Hale said, “we will need to go back and make sure we still have the right plans.”

Last fall’s CR expires March 27, meaning that lawmakers have to approve a replacement by next Wednesday or a trigger a partial government shutdown. The consensus that is that something will pass by then that will substantially rework the Pentagon’s budget to provide more flexibility.

Under a bill now grinding its way through the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA and a handful of other agencies could also see significant changes in the allocation of their FY13 budgets.  Under questioning from Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat, Hale conceded that DoD will probably not be able to make the April 1 deadline with “meaningful information.”

“We will respond to the law,” Rafael Borras, DHS undersecretary for management, said at the same hearing. “If there are any changes between now and April 1, we will adjust accordingly.”

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Legislation tweaking Hatch Act goes to White House

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The Merit Systems Protection Board would be able to mete out a wider range of punishments for Hatch Act violators under a bill that won final congressional approval today and now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Instead of firing violators–the only authorized penalty up to now unless the board unanimously opts for a different route–the MSPB  could issue formal reprimands; reduce violators’ pay grades; bar them from federal employment for up to five years; or fine them up to $1,000.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, sponsored the bill in the Senate; Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., handled it in the House. “These reforms will make the Hatch Act more fair and more effective,” Cummings said in a news release this afternoon.

The 1939 Hatch Act, (officially known, in case you were wondering, as “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”), generally bars feds from partisan political activity. It was seen both by Republicans and Democrats as needing a refresh, although the two sides differed 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 pressing for change was 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. The newly passed bill would explicitly allow local and states candidate to run for partisan political office. Obama is expected to sign the bill.

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Lawmakers eyeing Hatch Act changes

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Well, this could get interesting. Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is contemplating major changes to the Hatch Act, the law that generally bars federal employees from on-the-job partisan politicking.

At a hearing this afternoon, Issa didn’t say what kind of alterations he believes are needed, but labeled the status quo “clear as mud.” In a brief interview afterward, he drew distinctions in how the law affects the president and vice president; Cabinet officers and political appointees; and the career federal workforce. All three layers, Issa said, could need “multiple rounds” of legislation drafting.  Today’s hearing may be the first in a series.

If career feds are well aware of the Hatch Act—and the fact that they can be fired for violating it—the 1939 statute usually get more media attention when questions arise over presidential activities. Recently, the Obama administration has come under fire for hosting a meeting of Wall Street executives at the White House. While the administration says that the March gathering—first reported by The New York Times—was to discuss policy matters, invitations came from the Democratic National Committee.

And several lawmakers at today’s hearing complained that federal workers can innocently stumble over the law’s restrictions.  Among them was the oversight committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. “Increased training is always helpful to help prevent these problems,” Cummings said, “but it also may be helpful to revisit some of these issues legislatively.”

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Lawmakers to White House: About that reorganization . . .

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Well, chalk one up for congressional bipartisanship: Democrats and Republicans alike agree that lawmakers should have a say in the Obama administration’s government streamlining agenda.

“Reorganization of the executive branch is a shared responsibility,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., the respective chairs of the main House and Senate government oversight committees, said in a Friday letter to Jeffrey Zients, one of the White House management officials leading the effort.

Issa and Lieberman go on to ask for “a tentative timeline for development and implementation of the reorganization proposal, as well as regular updates during the review.” The two also recommend that they be included early on, the better to “contribute collaboratively” to the proposal’s development. Also signing the letter were the two committees’ ranking members, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

More than a month has passed since Obama announced plans to remodel the government in the interests of American economic competitiveness.  While the White House has thus far revealed little else about the project, more information will be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks, Zients said a few days ago.

Although Lisa Brown, the reorganization’s co-director, had been scheduled to speak tomorrow at a National Academy of Public Administration forum, she will not be appearing because of a scheduling conflict, Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Moira Mack said via email this afternoon.

Asked for comment on the letter, Mack said that Zients and Brown are starting to seek advice and suggestions from Congress, program administrators and relevant stakeholder groups.

FWIW, it may make sense for the White House to give the Hill a stake in the reorganization, given that Obama plans to ask Congress to approve the final product. But it’s also worth remembering—as former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., noted at a hearing last week– that lawmakers can be a hindrance as much as a help.

“Duplicate and overlapping programs frequently exist because of the way we in Congress legislate,” Davis told Issa’s committee. Jurisdiction, he added, “trumps all.”

[Updated Monday at 12:25 p.m. to reflect OMB comment and at 1:45 to note that Brown will not be appearing at National Academy of Public Administration forum.]

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Issa announces Oversight subcommittee leaders

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Darrell Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the new Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, today announced the leaders of its seven subcommittees — some of which are new or were reorganized.

Freshman Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., will be chairman of the federal work force, Postal Service and labor policy subcommittee. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah was the ranking Republican on that subcommittee’s predecessor last session, but he will now chair the national security, homeland defense and foreign operations subcommittee.

Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., will head the government organization, efficiency and financial management subcommittee, and Rep. Try Gowdy, R-S.C., will oversee the health care, District of Columbia, Census and the National Archives subcommittee.

Two new subcommittees will dig into two of Issa’s major concerns. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., will look into the Troubled Assets Relief Program and other bailouts, and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, will oversee stimulus oversight.

Rounding out the list is the technology, information policy, intergovernmental relations and procurement reform subcommittee, which will be chaired by Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla.

In the release, Issa said:

The American people deserve and have a right to expect that the money Washington has taken from them is well spent and well accounted for. These subcommittees are a reflection of the substantive agenda House Republicans have promised to pursue [--] one that is focused on identifying and reforming waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement within the federal bureaucracy.

The American people have a right to an efficient and effective government. They have a right to a Congress and White House that is held accountable and acts transparently. This is our committee’s mission and this is what Oversight Republicans will work tirelessly to deliver to the American people.

But Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, is concerned about Issa’s plans. In a letter sent to Issa today, Cummings said he wants to work together to eliminate wasteful spending and improve government efficiency. But Cummings smells a partisan agenda in some of Issa’s statements — such as calling President Obama’s administration corrupt — and questions the maturity of some videos created by his office.

I want the Committee to engage in oversight that is regarded as serious rather than dismissed as silly or absurd; to establish strong predicates for investigations rather than making unsubstantiated allegations that waste taxpayer funds; to use Committee resources to inform and educate the American people rather than attacking opponents; and to conduct comprehensive, balanced investigations that seek out the truth rather than launching one-sided inquiries designed to fulfill predetermined outcomes.

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