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OMB posts shutdown guidance

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More evidence–as if more were needed–that this government spending standoff is getting serious: the Office of Management and Budget has just posted a 16-page memo for shutdown planning on its web site. Lots of technical advice for agencies on topics like travel, IT operations and contracting.

The latest stopgap spending resolution expires at midnight Friday. If Congress appears unlikely to enact a new one Saturday, OMB will issue instructions the same day “for agencies to proceed with their shutdown implementation,” Director Jack Lew wrote in the memo. On one burning question, OMB leaves it up to agencies to decide whether furloughed employees will have to turn in their BlackBerries.

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OMB keeps its distance

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Whether the event is a dinner party or a rock concert, everyone knows that seating arrangements can be a touchy subject.

But at a congressional witness table?

That, though, was a not insignificant issue at a House oversight subcommittee hearing Friday. The session, dedicated to open government efforts, featured two panels. The first was made up of transparency advocates and federal departmental officials; the second featured just one person, Office of Management and Budget Controller Danny Werfel.

The reason–as an agency spokeswoman later confirmed–is that OMB will not allow its staff to testify alongside people from outside the government. While OMB claims that it is following long-standing policy, “it is not that long a policy,”  said committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.  If Issa seemed bemused, Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., appeared downright peeved by what he described as a disconnect with the Obama administration’s accountable government rhetoric.

“I’m trying to understand why we talk one way and act an entirely different way,” Kelly said after Werfel took his seat to testify.

Werfel, it should be noted, ranks among the more accessible members of OMB’s senior staff. “The bottom line is I’m here and willing to answer any questions you have,” he told Kelly, while deflecting questions on the broader policy.

In a later email, the OMB spokeswoman, Moira Mack, said that policy has spanned both Republican and Democratic administrations and stems from OMB’s role in the Executive Office of the President. She did not elaborate.

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Shutdown planning, then and now

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With much of the government at risk of a forced vacation next month, there are some obvious parallels with the last such showdown, which resulted in back-to-back closures in late 1995 and early 1996. A bitter battle over spending; a Democratic president pitted against Republican lawmakers, many of them freshmen itching to shrink the federal footprint.

The last time around, though, executive branch preparations appear to have started a lot sooner.

Consider some evidence gleaned from congressional testimony: On August 22, 1995—almost three full months before the first shutdown occurred that November–then-Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin told all department heads to update their shutdown contingency plans within two weeks, according to a memo that was accompanied by a legal opinion outlining what government functions could continue during a “funding hiatus.” The congressional hearing record also shows that at least one agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, had worked out a deal by September 1995 with the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees on how to handle shutdown-related furloughs.

Now, barely a week before the March 4 expiration of a continuing resolution could trigger a new shutdown, union leaders say they’re still trying to pry basic information out of agencies on how workers would be affected.

The overall status of shutdown preparations is anyone’s guess. Most agencies won’t discuss the subject or release copies of their contingency plans. Asked earlier this week when six major departments, included Defense, Justice, and Agriculture, had most recently updated those plans, the Office of Management and Budget instead provided a statement from chief spokesman Ken Baer that said in part: “OMB is prepared for any contingency as a matter of course — and so are all the agencies.”

A more forthright assessment came from Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue. In a Wednesday email to SSA employees, Astrue wrote:

“The truth is that we do not know what Congress will do. We are working hard to deliver the best possible result from Congress and to carefully manage the money we do receive.

“As we await congressional action, we are doing what we can to minimize the budget uncertainties from interfering with your lives and work. You should know that we are considering a variety of scenarios but we have not made any final decisions. We will do what we can to prevent furloughs caused by not having enough money to pay you. That strategy may mean tough choices like cutting back on or eliminating overtime and expanding the hiring freeze.

“I regret that I cannot give you precise information about what will happen, but I am uncomfortable not letting you know some of the possible outcomes so that you can begin to plan accordingly. Given all of the uncertainty, I encourage you to be careful about believing everything you hear. I will continue to share what we know as more information becomes available.”

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Obama threatens veto of GOP spending bill

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This probably comes as no shock, but President Obama is threatening to veto a Republican-backed bill that would slash a net total of $61 billion in agency discretionary spending for this fiscal year.

Although the administration is committed to cutting spending, it “does not support deep cuts that will undermine our ability to out-educate, out-build and out-innovate the rest of the world,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement this afternoon. The administration also charges that the GOP legislation—which was introduced last Friday and is now being debated on the House floor–would reduce Defense Department spending to the point that vital military requirements could not be met.

Although the bill could pass the House this week, it’s not expected to get very far in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

“The administration looks forward to working with the Congress to refine the legislation to allow critical government functions to operate without interruption for the remainder of the fiscal year underway,” the statement concludes.

(And yes, that sound you heard was the clink of sabers rattling.)

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Missing from budget request: Agency performance info

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Last February, the Obama administration used its fiscal 2011 budget request to roll out more than 120 “high-priority performance goals” for federal agencies to meet.

Twelve months later, how are all those agencies doing?

You won’t find out from the White House’s FY12 request.

“Significant progress has been made on some priority goals, while weaknesses have been identified and are being addressed in others,” the document says. It then cites a couple of the cheerier examples—such as the Energy Department’s weatherizing 295,000 homes—but with no context and few details. The agency-by-agency list of goals posted on the White House web site doesn’t reflect the fact that some objectives—such as those for NASA–have changed since last year.

The updated performance info was left out of the latest budget request because the information will be posted online, Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an email.

That point could be another couple of months away, however.

Although OMB has been tracking agencies’ progress on performance.gov since last summer, access to that password-protected web site is generally restricted to federal employees. In September, federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients predicted that it would open to the public later that fall. That step is now expected by this summer, Mack said.  The administration plans to make only “portions” of the site available to Congress and the public, according to the budget request.

That’s because performance.gov contains “sensitive information”  Mack said. OMB is also making changes based on feedback from stakeholders and to meet the requirements of recently passed Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, she said.

Meanwhile,  for a White House that promised unprecedented transparency, its performance management system continues to look exceedingly opaque.

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Watch the White House’s budget briefing here

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Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew will give a budget briefing today at 12:15 p.m. FedLine will be streaming the video below, so check back here around lunchtime to get the news on expected spending cuts in 2012.

But first, President Obama will speak at 10:20 a.m. about his key budget priorities next fiscal year.

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White House coy Sunday in response to GOP budget cut plan

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The Obama administration responded Sunday to House Republicans’ plan for slashing more than $60 billion in federal  discretionary spending during the remainder of this fiscal year.

Sort of.

“We look forward to working with Congress,” Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew said on CNN’s “State of the Union” talk show. That was all that host Candy Crowley could get out of Lew, despite prodding him several times for a substantive answer.

In the bill released Friday night, the House GOP proposed whacking hundreds of agencies and programs to the tune of $69 billion in comparison to last year’s budgets; the one big exception would be the Defense Department, which would receive an $8.1 billion increase, meaning that the net cut in discretionary spending would come in around $61 billion. For anyone who’s counting, the Republican plan would mean an approximately 10 percent in overall non-defense discretionary spending compared to last year.

The House legislation would replace a stop-gap continuing resolution in effect until March 4 that generally leaves agency spending levels frozen at last year’s levels.

Expect a barn-burner of a lobbying battle to begin this week as interest groups and stakeholders rally in defense of cherished programs. Don’t expect lockstep support for all of the proposed cuts even from House Republicans; as Federal Times reported last month, GOP lawmakers are balking at some modest long-term military reductions proposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Democratic pushback to the Republican plan has already begun. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, called the GOP approach “ineffective,”; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., labeled it “irresponsible.”

On Sunday, Lew was more eager to roll out the talking points on the administration’s fiscal 2012 budget request, set for release tomorrow. Obama, of course, has already signaled that he will seek a five-year freeze on non-defense discretionary spending. Lew put the 10-year savings from the administration’s draft at $1.1 trillion, adding that scores of programs would be cut.

“This is a very difficult budget,” Lew said. While the federal government has to start living within its means “it’s not possible to do it painlessly,” he added.

“We’re going to make tough choices.”

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White House previews more cuts in FY12 budget request

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The White House Office of Management and Budget is usually tight-lipped with details about forthcoming money matters—except when it elects not to be.

In a New York Times op-ed piece Sunday, OMB Director Jack Lew dropped a couple of tidbits from the Obama administration’s fiscal 2012 budget request due out next week.

As the White House had already revealed, it wants to cut the Community Service Block Grant program in half, but Lew attached a number–$350 million—to the amount of that proposed reduction. Cuts to the Community Development Block Grant program are also in the cards,  he said, and the administration will recommend carving $125 million out of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

It’s presumably all part of a strategy to show that the White House is willing to gore some favored Democratic oxen on the road to fiscal responsibility. House Republicans are expected to reveal their own plan for making more than $32 billion in fiscal 2011 program cuts later this week.

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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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Spending stalemate hobbles evaluation initiative

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Back in July, the Office of Management and Budget announced that roughly $100 million had been allocated to 35 program evaluations and “evaluation capacity-building proposals” across the government.

But allocated isn’t the same thing as appropriated. It turns out that agencies have yet to see a dime because Congress has yet to pass a fiscal 2011 budget. Instead, agencies are operating off a continuing resolution out that generally keeps spending frozen at 2010 levels.

“We are very committed to evaluating what works and what doesn’t to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent effectively, but these evaluations have not been funded yet due to the CR situation on the Hill,” OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said today in an email.  Not clear today–a federal holiday–how much agencies have been able to accomplish without those funds.

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