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Shutdown Watch-Day 16: Could agencies reopen soon?

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Good morning! For federal employees, it might be hard to imagine an upside to a wild day on Capitol Hill that began with House Republicans singing “Amazing Grace” and ended with warnings from Fitch credit rating agency that it was looking closely at downgrading the United States’ creditworthiness.

But yesterday’s chaos could also presage an end to the partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1. The reason is simple: Any deal to reopen agencies is tied to raising the nation’s debt ceiling and lawmakers could make real headway on the latter front today.

After the House GOP leadership was unable to corral enough votes to pass its own bill by last night, the action has shifted back to the Senate where lawmakers have resumed work on a bipartisan deal that would include a continuing resolution running until mid-January (anyone remember when Congress used to pass full-year appropriations bills?) and raise the debt ceiling until February.  The full Senate could vote as early as today on the package, according to The New York Times. Expectations are that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will have to follow suit and allow a vote.

“It’s all over; we’ll take the Senate deal,” an anonymous House aide told National Review, a conservative news outlet. Under a best-case scenario, that probably means feds could be back on the job as early as Friday.

Of course, given the events of the last few days, FedLine has to caution that lawmakers could shred this script as well.

The heat is on, however, as the Obama administration continues to warn that the nation will exhaust its last dribs of borrowing authority by tomorrow. If that happens, the federal government will soon be unable to pay all of its bills, among which are salaries and other compensation for 2.1 million federal employees. What happens then is unclear; while officials with the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management held a conference call with federal labor unions and other employee groups yesterday, they punted the question to the Treasury Department, participants said.

“I think we’re in uncharted territory,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told reporters in a separate conference call when asked how federal employees could be affected by a debt ceiling breach.  “We still have to get the federal workforce back [to work] and paid.” Also unclear is whether all contractors will be fully paid, he added.

In other news, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell sees at least one possible silver lining to the shutdown: “The increased awareness of the American people to the importance of the work you do and the value that all Americans receive from their investment in you,” Jewell told Interior employees in a message posted online by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com.


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Shutdown Watch-Day 15. It’s white-knuckle time.

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Good morning! Let’s start the day with a cheery observation often attributed to the 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson: “Nothing concentrates a man’s mind more than the prospect of being hanged in the morning.”

Figuratively speaking, the same seems to be true of Congress. The specter of impending economic calamity, combined with rising public disapproval, (particularly for Republicans), over the partial government shutdown, appears to have prodded senators to close in on yet another stop-gap budget deal that could have just as easily been reached a month ago.

As reported by Defense News, a sister publication of Federal Times, Senate leaders could unveil a tentative agreement as early as this morning that would reopen agencies at current spending levels until Jan. 15, while raising the nation’s borrowing limit to last until February. On the budget front, the idea is to give lawmakers and the Obama administration three months to dicker over broader concerns, such as easing or canceling the next round of sequester-related cuts that will likely take effect in January. At this point, it’s unclear whether the package will include a provision ensuring back pay for hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers.

A Senate vote on the agreement could come Thursday. That’s also the day that the government will exhaust its borrowing authority, threatening a potentially ruinous debt default, according to the administration. And assuming the deal is approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate, it faces a rough ride in the GOP-run House, where some lawmakers have not given up on hopes of forcing the White House to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The overarching question is whether House Speaker John  Boehner, R-Ohio, would be willing to pass the compromise package with Democratic votes if he can’t bring enough members of his own party along. So far, Boehner’s not saying.

A key off-stage player will be the stock market. If major market indices take a dive in the next day or two, that could ramp up pressure on lawmakers to give the agreement final approval sooner rather than later. (And even Tea Party loyalists have investment portfolios, after all.)

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com.



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Obama pushes for Senate transportation bill with phased retirement

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President Obama today urged the House to pass the transportation bill the Senate approved last week. That bill, S 1813, contains a provision to allow older feds to phase into retirement — that is, work part-time while earning a partial pension — at the end of their careers.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on March 8 said he planned to bring the Senate’s bill up for a vote, instead of the troubled House transportation bill. But he may change course on that. Boehner is facing resistance to the Senate bill from members of his own party, and The Hill reports that he won’t decide how to move forward until he speaks to members of his caucus. He could announce this week how he plans to handle the transportation bill, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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Back pay legislation introduced for furloughed FAA workers

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Some encouraging news today for Federal Aviation Administration employees who spent the last two weeks on forced furloughs: A bipartisan group of House members has introduced a bill to pay them for the time off.

Now that those workers are back on the job, “my focus is to get them back pay and to ensure this avoidable situation never happens again,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-.N.J., whose district includes an FAA technical center, said in a news release. Also signing on to the legislation are House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., and several other lawmakers.

In a fracas that probably didn’t enhance Congress’ rock bottom public approval ratings, almost 4,000 FAA workers were left temporarily jobless July 23 after lawmakers got hung up on a stopgap renewal of funding legislation. They returned to work Monday after a short-term deal was reached to end the impasse, but it’s Congress’ decision on whether to reimburse them for the time in between. Senate Democrats  also plan to pursue back-pay legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week.

But nothing else is likely to happen until lawmakers return early next month from their August recess. And still to be seen is whether House GOP leaders line up behind the legislation, which would likely cost an FAA trust fund millions of dollars.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did not reply to several emails in recent days inquiring about Boehner’s position on the issue. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is out of pocket today, according to a spokeswoman who could not say where he stands on LoBiondo’s bill.

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Debt ceiling follies growing worse by the day

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(William Thomas Cain / Getty Images)

With four days to go (roughly) until the federal government runs out of cash, the effort to raise the debt ceiling is growing more and more chaotic. Last night, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, couldn’t muster enough GOP votes to pass his plan to raise the debt ceiling in two stages while cutting some $917 billion in discretionary spending (give or take a few hundred billion).

The strain is evident. Earlier in the week, Boehner told House Republicans to “get your ass in line” and back his plan, with no success. House GOP leadership is now scrambling to revise the bill and salvage a vote. But that’s bound to be a futile exercise anyway. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., already pledged to sink Boehner’s bill, Obama just denounced it as having “no chance of becoming law,” and making it more conservative just makes it even less likely to pass the Senate.

Meanwhile, millions of federal employees and retirees are growing increasingly nervous with no official word on how a potential default would affect them. The National Federation of Federal Employees today announced their “Each One, Reach One” campaign to pressure lawmakers to get their act together. NFFE President Bill Dougan wants all federal employees to call one or more of their representatives and tell them to raise the debt ceiling by the Aug. 2 deadline.

Because we’ve got to laugh so we don’t cry, here’s Stephen Colbert’s inspired — and incredibly dorky — riff on John McCain’s dismissal of Tea Partiers as “hobbits.”

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Democrats pounce on Boehner’s ‘so be it’ line

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Democrats smell blood in the water after House Speaker John Boehner said “so be it” in response to federal job losses this morning. Here’s a roundup of quotes, starting with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

So be it? Democrats do not subscribe to Speaker Boehner’s verdict that if jobs are lost in this continuing resolution, so be it. Maybe so be it for him, but not so be it for the people who are losing their jobs.

From Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., whose Arlington district contains thousands of federal employees:

The Speaker is ignoring the fact that putting more federal employees out of work will be a significant drag on our economy. If you don’t have a job, you won’t take your family out to dinner, buy a car when your old one breaks down, or engage in the various activities that aid in our nation’s economic recovery. This will negatively impact our small businesses and the economy at larger, ultimately impeding private sector job growth.

And Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J.:

What I wonder is, so what if it’s aircraft controllers that make the skies safe? … So what if it’s USDA meat inspectors that make sure the food supply is safe? … I think there’s a lot of concern about that and this blithe assumption that anyone who works for the federal government must be part of waste, fraud and abuse, maybe that should extend to the Congress as well as the federal workforce. I think that’s a very flip attitude about a very serious problem.

UPDATE: Joe Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, just put out a statement of his own:

I’m surprised by Speaker Boehner’s indifference to the future of federal employees who go to work every day in every state to keep America safe and moving forward. These are the Americans who protect us from infectious diseases, warn us if a bad winter storm is coming, and care for our veterans. Can we afford to not fully support these critical efforts? Even in the harshest fiscal climate, these hard-working Americans, who are already doing their part by undergoing a two-year pay freeze, deserve our respect for the jobs they do.

Beaudoin also cites stats from the 2012 budget proposal released yesterday that shows the federal workforce has shrunk considerably, when compared to the overall U.S. population. The budget said that in 1953, there was one federal worker for every 78 people who lived in the United States. In 1989, that ratio had dropped to one fed for every 110 residents, and in 2009, it was down to one fed for every 147 residents. (The stats can be found on page 103 in this document.)

Video of Boehner’s comment is below:

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Boehner: If federal jobs are lost, ‘so be it’

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Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Whip Eric Cantor blasted the White House’s budget in a press conference this morning, saying it “spends too much, borrows too much, and taxes too much” and “will continue to hurt job creation.”

But Boehner’s not too wild about some of the jobs that have been created lately:

Over the last two years since President Obama has taken office, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs. And if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it. We’re broke. It’s time for us to get serious about how we’re spending the nation’s money.

Boehner told reporters he did not know how many federal jobs might be lost as spending is trimmed. But recent aggressive deficit reduction proposals would put 10 percent to 15 percent of the federal workforce on the chopping block.

As for fact-checking Boehner’s numbers, it’s a little tricky, since the numbers on the Office of Personnel Management’s FedScope site are slightly stale. In December 2008 — about a month before Obama was inaugurated — the federal government had 1,945,256 employees. In September 2010 — the latest quarter for which OPM data is available — the government had 2,113,980. That’s an increase of 168,724 employees — lower than the 200,000 figure Boehner cited, but not completely out of the ballpark, especially since we don’t yet have stats for the last four months.

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HP ranks Pelosi top Twitter influencer in Congress

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If you’re an advanced Tweeter, you’ve probably started the purging process and are now updating your account(s) to reflect changes in the House and Senate.

If not, maybe this will help you get started. Or there’s always the unofficial list for the 112th Congress to make sure you don’t leave anyone out.

Researchers at HP Labs have narrowed the list down to the 100 most influential members of Congress on Twitter based on an analysis of 22 million tweets. They developed an algorithm to identify “influential users,” who “not only catch the attention of their followers” but “also overcome their followers’ predisposition to remain passive,” Ethan Bauley, digital lead for HP Corporate Communications team, wrote in a blog post.

Basically, having a cadre of followers wasn’t enough to make the cut.

Here’s the top 10:

1. Nancy Pelosi (@nancypelosi); D-Calif.; 15,964 followers (Here is the official account @SpeakerPelosi)

2. Paul Ryan (@reppaulryan); R-Wis.; 21,378 followers

3. Michele Bachmann (@michelebachmann); R-Minn.; 22,967 followers

4. Thomas Allen Coburn (@tomcoburn); R-Okla.; 17,631 followers

5. Bill Nelson (@senbillnelson); D-Fla.; 12,503 followers

6. John Boehner (@gopleader); R-Ohio; 48,604 followers

7. John McCain (@senjohnmccain); R-Ariz.; 1,718,288 followers

8. Joe Barton (@repjoebarton); R-Texas; 4,091 followers

9. Sherrod Brown (@sensherrodbrown); D-Ohio; 4,947 followers

10. Mike Pence (@repmikepence); R-Ind.; 13,631 followers

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Postal Service: Whipping boy of the health care debate

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Postmaster General John Potter

Postmaster General John Potter

As the debate over health care reform boils over, both sides are now using the U.S. Postal Service to score points. House Minority Leader John Boehner, June 11:

If you like going to the DMV and think they do a great job, or you like going to the post office and think it’s the most efficient thing you’ve run into, then you’ll love the government-run health care system.

And President Barack Obama at this afternoon’s health care town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., as reported by the Associated Press:

[Obama] also disputed the notion that adding a government-run insurance plan into a menu of options from which people could pick would drive private insurers out of business, in effect making the system single-payer by default.

As long as they have a good product and the government plan has to sustain itself through premiums and other non-tax revenue, private insurers should be able to compete with the government plan, Obama said.

“They do it all the time,” he said. “UPS and FedEx are doing just fine. … It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems.”

That sound you just heard was Postmaster General John Potter’s head hitting his desk.

There’s one man, however, who will stick up for the embattled Postal Service: Jon Stewart. Video after the jump:

Read the rest of this entry »

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