Federal Times Blogs

Cobert’s confirmation for OMB job applauded

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Beth Cobert’s arrival at the Office of Management and Budget is getting a particularly warm welcome from Steve VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer. In a Twitter message this afternoon, VanRoekel hailed Cobert ‘s confirmation as OMB’s deputy director for management, noting that he can now go back to being “full-time US CIO!”

Cobert, who comes from consulting firm McKinsey & Co., was sworn in today, five days after winning Senate confirmation. She replaces Jeff Zients, who stepped down at the end of April; on top of his day job, VanRoekel had been filling in as deputy management director since May. Also applauding Cobert’s confirmation was Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Throughout the executive branch, the deputy management director plays a “critical leadership role” in  “helping to guide agencies through these challenging financial times and promoting long-term management reforms that will deliver both better results and savings for taxpayers,” Carper said in a statement today. Cobert’s “private sector experience has prepared her well for this role,” he said, “and I look forward to working with her as she helps promote better management throughout our government.”

For anyone who’s keeping score, incidentally, this is the first time since January 2012 that the three top posts (director, deputy director for budget and deputy director for management) at OMB have all been filled by Senate-confirmed appointees.

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Werfel missed at Senate hearing

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Danny Werfel is just starting his new gig as acting IRS chief, but leaders of a Senate oversight committee are already wishing he were back in his old post as controller of the Office of Management and Budget.

Werfel “has demonstrated integrity in everything he’s done in the federal government,” Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said at a hearing today. “My hope is that he’s  there for a short period of time and back where we can use him in a better way.”

“He really has a base of knowledge that very few people have.”

The committee’s chairman, Tom Carper, D-Del., quickly seconded, joking that “I approve this message.”

Werfel had been scheduled to testify at the hearing on program duplication and overlap, but instead assumed his new job today. As a result, Gene Dodaro, head of the Government Accountability Office, had the witness table to himself.

The bipartisan praise suggested one reason that Werfel–a career financial manager (albeit Senate-confirmed) who has worked closely with the committee on improper payment issues–was chosen to run the IRS despite never having overseen a large agency: A straight-shooter reputation with Congress in a job that will likely call for plenty of face time on Capitol Hill in the weeks to come.

But his exit from OMB adds to the exodus of senior leadership at the budget agency. Although Director Sylvia Burwell quickly won Senate confirmation last month, both the deputy director positions are vacant, as is the post of administrator at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and, of course, Werfel’s job.

Although Carper’s committee later in the day approved Brian Deese to be deputy budget director, a final vote by the Senate won’t happen until next month at the earliest. Ditto for the nomination of Howard Shelanski to head the regulatory affairs office. President Obama has so far not formally settled on any candidate for the posts of deputy management director or controller.

“Nobody’s home,” Carper said. “Sylvia’s terrific, but we’ve got to get a really great team around her.”


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Number of empty chairs on Postal Service board increasing

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As the U.S. Postal Service’s problems grow, its governing board is shrinking.

The board, which is supposed to have 11 members, currently has eight and will lose another next week when Chairman Thurgood Marshall Jr. steps down, leaving it with just one more body than the six needed for a quorum to conduct business.

As of today, however, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hasn’t scheduled  confirmation votes on three board nominations that have been awaiting action since summer. In an email, committee spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said she did not know the reason for the delay.

Although there have no recent meetings where the lack of a quorum has been an issue, “we look forward to having all the board vacancies filled and hope that happens as soon as possible,” USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer said, also by email.

The increasing number of empty seats on what is officially known as the Board of Governors comes as the Postal Service is grappling with record financial losses and questions about its long-term direction as the Internet continues to drain away business. Besides nine presidentially appointed part-time members, the board includes Postmaster General Pat Donahoe and Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman. Among other jobs, the board sets postal policy, directs agency spending and decides top officers’ salaries.

“Certainly the Postal Service could benefit from the advice and wisdom of more members who bring a wide range of expertise,” Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway said in an interview. The mail carrier also needs “people of status” to take its concerns to Congress, she added.

The commission, which oversees the Postal Service, is facing its own personnel issues. The terms of two of its five members recently expired; while they can serve another year, the Obama administration has yet to either renominate them or name replacements, Goldway said. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Neither Marshall, a Washington lawyer, nor the incoming board chairman, Mickey Barnett, a former state legislator and lawyer from New Mexico, could be reached for comment. Because the panel usually meets in private, its influence is hard to assess.

But George Gould, a consultant and former lobbyist for the National Association of Letter Carriers, called the board’s makeup “a serious concern.” The Postal Service’s challenges are so great that the board “has become more directly involved in policy than it has in the past,” Gould said. “I think you need people who really understand the Postal Service, understand government, understand the employees.”

Under the law, board members are supposed to be chosen for their experience in public service, law, accounting or demonstrated management ability. They collect a base annual salary of $30,000, along with as much as $12,600 depending on the number of meetings each year. Their seven-year terms can be extended for another year in the absence of a replacement.

Of the three nominees whose appointments are awaiting Senate action, two are no strangers to the Postal Service. James Miller, who headed the Office of Management and Budget during part of the Reagan administration, was on the board from 2003 until last year; Katherine Tobin, a senior Education Department official earlier in the Obama administration, served from 2006 to 2009.

The new member, if confirmed, would be Stephen Crawford, a public policy professor at George Washington University who has written on postal issues. In an interview, Crawford attributed the nomination holdup to the press of other business and the fact that Congress has mostly been out of session since the Senate committee held a hearing on his nomination in July.

But with lawmakers now consumed with tax and spending conundrums, Crawford wasn’t counting on a final confirmation vote before the 112th Congress effectively goes out of business next month.

“There may just be too many other things competing with the limited time left.”

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Compromise postal bill coming in the Senate

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Some noteworthy news on the postal front: A bipartisan group of senators is unveiling compromise legislation tomorrow that—by one lawmaker’s description—is intended to pull the U.S. Postal Service back “from the brink of financial failure.’

The official release is set for an 11:30 a.m. news conference, featuring four top members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which could vote on the bill as early as next week.

According to various folks on and off Capitol Hill, one key provision would give the Postal Service some major relief on the “pre-payment” schedule for its retiree health care fund that is currently costing the battered mail carrier about $5.5 billion a year. If those proposed breaks are likely to make USPS leaders very happy, they’ll probably be less pleased by a separate stricture that would block them from ending most Saturday delivery for at least another two years. And even then, they would have to satisfy such requirements as showing that other cost-saving options have been exhausted.

The bill includes changes to the federal workers’ compensation system that would affect employees at other agencies; it would also allow the Postal Service to channel surplus Federal Employees Retirement System funds into incentives to encourage workers to retire.

Set to appear at tomorrow’s press conference are the committee’s chairman, Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.;  the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine; and the chairman and top Republican for the subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service: Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., respectively.

The measure comes as USPS officials are preparing to release final fiscal 2011 financial results  (and, no, they won’t be pretty) on Nov. 15. Of course, even if this new bill makes it through the full Senate, it will still have to be meshed with a radically different House counterpart, meaning that the Postal Service is likely to remain on the financial brink for some time to come.


Senate panel sets postal hearing for next week

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Game on! The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee just officially announced what is certain to a highly charged hearing next Tuesday afternoon, titled “U.S. Postal Service in Crisis: Proposals to Prevent a Postal Shutdown.”

The focus is expected to be the Postal Service’s recently unveiled bid for the freedom to lay off some 120,000 unionized employees, along with creating its own retirement and health insurance programs. No witnesses have been announced yet, but they will presumably include U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe or a stand-in, as well as labor and mailing industry representatives.

Unsurprisingly, all three proposals have not exactly been embraced by the Postal Service’s four unions. This, however, will be the first formal gauge of congressional sentiment. The hearing is set for 2 p.m.,  Sept. 6. For those who can’t attend in person, the committee usually webcasts its hearings live; the panel’s homepage is http://hsgac.senate.gov/public.

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Divided panel sends Higginbottom nomination to full Senate

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More than most agency chiefs, Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew could probably use a trusted number two just now.

He may have to wait a while.

Although the Senate Budget Committee approved Heather Higginbottom’s nomination for OMB deputy director today, the 11-10 party-line tally bodes poorly for a short and sweet confirmation vote by the full Senate. The panel’s top Republican, Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has questioned Higginbottom’s bean-counting credentials and, although Sessions hasn’t said that he’ll put a hold on her nomination, he does want “adequate time” for debate, according to CQ.  Not a good sign.

Higginbottom currently serves as deputy director of the White House domestic policy council; the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved her nomination—on a similarly close party-line vote—last month.  The OMB slot has been vacant since Rob Nabors became White House director of legislative affairs earlier this year.

“Given the tremendous fiscal and economic challenges facing the nation, it is critical that the President has his complete budget team in place,” Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said in a news release today. “I hope the full Senate moves quickly to schedule a vote on this nomination.”

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Homeland Security IG retiring

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Richard Skinner, inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, is calling it quits after a 42-year government career.

In a letter to President Obama released late this afternoon, Skinner said he will retire effective March 1. “I believe the time has come for me to give my full-time attention to my family and personal endeavors,” he wrote.

Skinner became the department’s inspector general in July 2005 after two years as its deputy IG. Since 1969, he has worked in IG positions across the government, including the Agriculture, Commerce and Justice Departments, according to a news release. His service at the Federal Emergency Management Agency was recognized by the President’s Meritorious Executive Rank Award for sustained superior accomplishment in management of programs of the United States government, the release said.

Skinner has been “a valuable asset” to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the panel’s top Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, said in a statement.

She singled out Skinner’s work in uncovering “outrageous fraud and improper payments” in FEMA aid programs after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.

“I am thankful for his aggressive approach to combating waste, fraud and abuse in the department,” Collins said.

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Senate panel approves Dodaro nomination

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Gene Dodaro’s nomination to become the next U.S. comptroller general got a green flag Tuesday from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which approved it on a unanimous voice vote.

The comptroller general runs the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress.  Dodaro, a 37-year GAO veteran, has held the job on an acting basis since March 2008; President Obama nominated him for a full 15-year term in September.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said recently that that he hopes to win final Senate confirmation for Dodaro’s nomination before lawmakers end their lame-duck session.

“We in Congress are grateful for his non-partisan leadership at an agency whose fact-based audits and investigations deeply inform our work,” Lieberman said in a news release after Tuesday’s vote. Both he and the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, were part of a ten-member commission that recommended Dodaro to the White House.

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Lew faces blockade after picking up second committee endorsement.

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Making it a twofer kind of week for Jacob “Jack” Lew, the Senate Budget Committee voted 22-1 today to confirm him for the job of director of the Office of Management and Budget.

But that’s where the good times ended, at least temporarily. Soon after, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she will block a final confirmation vote by the full Senate until the Obama administration drops or makes major changes to its six-month moratorium on deepwater oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

The moratorium, in effect since late May, could lead to thousand of job losses in the region, Landrieu said in a news release this afternoon.  “Although Mr. Lew clearly possesses the expertise to serve as one of the President’s most important economic advisors, I found that he lacks sufficient concern for the host of economic challenges confronting the Gulf Coast,” Landrieu wrote in  a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaling her intent to put a hold on Lew’s nomination.

In a statement issued ahead of Landrieu’s, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he was hopeful that the Senate would take up Lew’s nomination before adjourning in advance of the November elections. Lew, who previously served as OMB chief from 1998-2001,  “brings with him exactly the kind of experience, knowledge, bipartisan spirit and integrity we need at OMB right now,” Conrad said.

On Tuesday, Lew’s nomination was backed 9-0 by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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Obama picks Dodaro for GAO chief

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After more than two years as acting U.S.  Comptroller General–a job that entails leading the Government Accountability Office-Gene Dodaro got the nod today from President Obama for a long-term appointment to the post.

In a release, Obama said he intends to nominate Dodaro, a 37-year GAO veteran, for the position of Comptroller General. Dodaro has held the job on a provisional basis since March 2008; in a statement today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that she, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and a bipartisan congressional commission recommended Dodaro for the 15-year appointment.

“As the comptroller general, Gene Dodaro will continue to uphold the public trust as the leader of the GAO,” Pelosi said. Also praising the nomination was Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which will review Dodaro’s nomination as part of the Senate confirmation process.

Lieberman “has always thought Mr. Dodaro was an effective leader at GAO, and a valued adviser to Congress,” a spokeswoman said. “His nearly four decades of experience at GAO more than qualifies him for this key position.”

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