Casual observers might be forgiven for thinking that things are a bit slow over at the Government Accountability and Transparency Board. This is the 11-member panel, you may recall, created last summer by President Obama as “a critical next step” in White House efforts to cut costs, crack down on fraud and open up the government’s books to the public.
Almost five months after the board’s chairman, Earl Devaney, retired, Obama hasn’t named a replacement. During the same time, the panel, made up mostly of inspectors general and financial management folk, has met just once, in April. But work on recommendations offered by the board in a December report is proceeding “diligently and collaboratively” between agencies, the Office of Management and Budget and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an email.
The April session offered a chance to discuss implementation, Mack said, adding that a progress report is in the works. The board has another meeting scheduled for June 19.
In those December recommendations, the board urged adoption of a comprehensive, government-wide framework to track and oversee spending. The recommendations also incorporated a pet cause of Devaney: A universal award identification system for government grants, contracts and loans to replace the existing agency-centric approach. This week, however, Devaney endorsed the rival DATA Act, a bill introduced last year that basically shares the same goals, but would also create an independent commission to oversee implementation.
That tipped it for Devaney, according to his column published in The Hill newspaper. Nothing spurs bureaucratic change faster than an act of Congress, he said. Without legislation, “the government’s response will be a never-ending round of unobtainable consensus building and an onslaught of new pilot projects, all designed to show some action, but really only masking their bureaucratic fears of losing control to a truly independent commission.”
In its current form, however, the DATA Act faces opposition from state officials who label its proposed reporting requirements an unfunded mandate. Here, for example, is what the National Conference of State Legislatures said after the bill won House approval last month:
“While NCSL agrees transparency and accountability should go hand-in-hand with federal spending, states should not be expected to provide the funds to make this possible. Another unfunded federal mandate as states slowly recover from the recession is the wrong way to go.”
The Senate has not yet taken up the DATA Act.
Perhaps to their relief, federal employees didn’t hear much that would directly affect them in tonight’s State of the Union speech.
Last year, after all, President Obama used the prime-time address to call for a government reorganization and a five-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending, besides reminding Congress that he had already imposed a two-year freeze on base federal salaries.
This year? Hardly a mention of overarching management and budget initiatives. The closest that Obama came was almost an hour into the speech when he brought up his recent bid to get “fast-track” authority from Congress to restructure and consolidate federal agencies.
“The executive branch also needs to change,” Obama said. “Too often, it’s inefficient, outdated and remote. That’s why I’ve asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our Government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people.”
So far, however, the White House has not said when it will send any such legislation to the Hill.
President Obama last night delivered an unexpected surprise during a fundraiser at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater: A short rendition of the soul classic “Let’s Stay Together.” The Rev. Al Green, who originally recorded the song in 1971, was in the crowd, and Obama clearly relished the chance to tease him. “Don’t worry, Rev.,” he said. “I cannot sing like you. I just wanted to show my appreciation.”
Obama also noted that “The Sandman did not come out” and sweep him off the stage, the way the late Howard “Sandman” Sims disposed of Apollo acts that bombed. But even if the Sandman were still alive, I doubt he’d want to cross the Secret Service agents to give Obama the hook.
That one line he sang wasn’t bad, and the crowd of 1,400 clearly loved it. But if Obama really wanted to bring the house down, he’d have pulled out James Brown’s cape routine during “Please, Please, Please,” the way the Godfather of Soul did while recording 1968′s “Live at the Apollo: Vol. II.”
President Obama’s proposal to hike the amount federal employees pay into their pensions by 1.2 percent struck a nerve. In the latest reaction, National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley today sent a letter to the super committee on deficit reduction calling those changes “ill-advised and inequitable,” and said they would lead to “an exodus of our most highly-trained and experienced workers.”
What do you think about the proposals? Sound off below, or e-mail me at email@example.com. We’d like to hear your thoughts on this potential major change to federal employees’ benefits.
The Supercommittee’s work is about to get a lot tougher. It was already supposed to find about $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, which is no easy task. But last night, President Obama asked the Supercommittee to find another $447 billion to pay for the jobs bill he proposed to a joint session of Congress:
The agreement we passed in July will cut government spending by about $1 trillion over the next ten years. It also charges this Congress to come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas. Tonight, I’m asking you to increase that amount so that it covers the full cost of the American Jobs Act. And a week from Monday, I’ll be releasing a more ambitious deficit plan — a plan that will not only cover the jobs bill, but stabilize our debt in the long run.
If the bill gets passed — and with ironclad Republican opposition to anything that smacks of more stimulus, that’s a gargantuan “if” — that means the Supercommittee will have to cut the deficit by nearly $2 trillion. And upping the ante makes it even more likely that federal pensions, pay and other benefits will be on the chopping block.
President Obama earlier this year put federal pensions on the table as part of the so-called “grand bargain” he was pursuing with House Speaker John Boehner, including a high-five, increased contributions, and a change to pensions’ future cost-of-living adjustments. That deal collapsed, but I would not be surprised if some or all of those proposals come back in that deficit plan Obama promised to release Sept. 19.
President Obama went into full-on “stern dad” mode during today’s press conference on debt ceiling negotiations. Not only did he flatly reject a stopgap increase in the debt ceiling, but he did so with language that Sasha and Malia have surely heard from time to time:
This is the United States of America, and we don’t manage our affairs in three-month increments. … I will not sign a 30-day, or a 60-day, or a 90-day extension. That is just not an acceptable approach. And if we think it’s hard now, imagine how these guys are going to be thinking six months from now, in the middle of the election season when they’re all up.
We might as well do it now. Pull off the Band-aid. Eat our peas. Now is the time to do it. If not now, when?
Obama reiterated his calls for both Democrats and Republicans to compromise in the deficit debate and accept spending cuts and revenue increases that each side will find distasteful. The “my way or the highway” attitude that has recently taken hold on Capitol Hill will lead to nothing getting done, he said: “I do not see a path to a deal if they don’t budge, period.”
He refuted Republican claims that his proposals to close the deficit in part by raising taxes on the wealthy would kill jobs in a recession by saying they wouldn’t take effect until 2013. If tax loopholes aren’t closed and all deficit reduction comes from spending cuts, that will devastate seniors and the poor, Obama said. “It’s not that I have this grand ambition to create a bigger government,” Obama said. “It’s because if we’re going to actually solve this problem, there are a finite number of ways to do it. If we don’t have revenues, we’re putting the burden on people who can least afford it.”
(That surely drew gales of laughter from the sizeable portion of the Republican party that hammers Obama day-in-day-out with just that big government charge.)
Obama press conferences are usually filled with long, stemwinding answers, and this one was no different. But when a reporter asked him whether the administration was preparing contingency plans in case the debt ceiling is not raised, he offered his shortest response of the day: “We are gonna get this done by August 2.”
A pregnant federal employee who recently found out she is going to lose her job at the National Zoo asked President Obama a hard question yesterday: “What would you do, if you were me?”
Karin Gallo, who will be laid off from her public affairs job June 4, said at a town hall meeting sponsored by CBS News that she took a federal job thinking it was secure, but is now “scared about what the future holds.”
Obama didn’t really answer Gallo’s question. He instead launched into a defense of public sector workers, noted the two-year pay freeze feds are already under, and said that cutting government jobs can have devastating effects on real people. “These are not abstract questions,” Obama said. “And I think Karin makes it really clear that there are real consequences when we make these decisions.”
Carol Fiertz, the Zoo’s associate director of finance and administration, told FedLine the Zoo had to resort to layoffs because of budget shortages. The Zoo’s budget increases in recent years haven’t been enough to keep up with rising animal feed costs and cost-of-living pay raises Congress approved for federal employees.
Besides Gallo, the Zoo is laying off two other public affairs employees, three exhibit employees who make signs, and one horticulturalist. Fiertz said the Zoo hasn’t laid anyone off in several years, though she couldn’t remember when the last layoffs were.
Attention, feds: Those cubicle photos, work computer screensavers and other shots of President Obama may have to go now that he’s formally seeking a second term.
Under the Hatch Act, federal employees are generally barred from displaying workplace pictures of partisan political candidates, the Office of Special Counsel says in an advisory opinion issued after Obama announced his re-election bid earlier this month.
There are just two exceptions.
The first involves the standard portrait photo and other official pictures of the President meeting heads of states or conducting other official business (no adding halos or horns, however, the OSC warns). And if the photo comes from the president’s campaign or a partisan political group, it’s still taboo even if it shows Obama carrying out his official duties.
The other exception involves personal photos, but the bar is high. Assuming that the photo shows you and Obama, was taken at a wedding or some other personal function and was on display before the election season, you can keep it up. The same standards apply to other candidate photos, incidentally.
Buildup over a draft executive order that would require contractors to disclose their political contributions has led one voice for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to mimic the President’s charge in Libya.
“We will fight it through all available means,” the Chamber of Commerce’s top lobbyist R. Bruce Josten told the New York Times Tuesday. In a reference to the White House’s battle to depose Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, he said, “To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.”
The proposal, leaked last week by a former Federal Election Commission official, would require companies bidding for government work to disclose in their proposals all political contributions made by the company, its Political Action Committee and its senior executives over the prior two years.
Companies would also have to include contributions made to third-party organizations that could use those donations for political advertising.
The order says it seeks to “increase transparency and accountability” by addressing the perception that political campaign spending provides special access to or favoritism in the contracting process.
So what exactly are those options that the Chamber and other critics could use?
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said there are two pressure points — the courts or Congress.
Several Republican leaders seem ready to draft a bill overturning the order (if it’s ever issued). Twenty five Republican senators signed off on a letter that raised concerns about politicizing the contracting process and silencing political activity among contracting corporations.
And if this battle was waged at the Supreme Court level, it would be interesting to see if judges maintain their support of campaign finance disclosure or if this particular type of disclosure would fall under other areas that they have deemed protected.
Some of the questions being raised have very little to do with the details of disclosure rules but on the President’s intent. Opponents ask if he seriously considers pay-to-play as large a problem in Washington as we’ve seen in states or does he want to know who is financing his political opponents?
If he’s seeking transparency, President Obama would have to show how this disclosure won’t give Democratic supporters extra pull with awards. It probably wouldn’t hurt to also call out some of the serious contracting favoritism that his order would fix.
Just as last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court case, which protected corporate donations to political organizations, drove millions of dollars into the 2010 elections, this order may set off a different kind of firestorm, said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and a former Federal Election Commission chairman. Obama’s effort could backfire, he said, and instead of silencing his opponents, he may incite them to fight back with their wallets.
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.)