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Committee passes bill to limit Oil paintings for government officials to $20,000 each

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The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted May 21 to limit the federal dollars spent on oil paintings of government officials – and restrict who gets to have themselves painted.

The aptly named Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Senators Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would permanently cap the amount of each painting to $20,000 and would limit those eligible to those in line for presidential succession.

While the government is currently prohibited from spending money on oil paintings of government officials the ban lasts only through this fiscal year, while the current legislation would be permanent. Federal officials could still use non-federal sources of money for any cost overruns.

Reports from the New York Times and other organizations have said the government spends upwards of $800,000 on oil paintings of officials and each one could cost $50,000.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., voted against the bill saying during the vote amount is still excessive, and will instead work to renew the ban through the annual spending bills.

Coburn said while he doesn’t believe the government should spend any money on oil paintings, the legislation is a compromise that has a chance of passing before the ban expires at the end of September.

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OPM pension processing hamstrung by outdated IT

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John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry’s plan to fix its longstanding pension processing problem got a relatively warm reception on Capitol Hill today. But there were some red flags raised, not least of which is the incredibly sprawling and antiquated set of IT systems and paper-based processes that the government relies upon to calculate new retirees’ pensions. OPM doesn’t have a real plan for straightening it out, the Government Accountability Office said, and needs to do more.

For example: OPM has 80 legacy systems that have to talk to roughly 400 other systems across the rest of the government, IG Patrick McFarland said. And those systems rely on roughly 3 million lines of custom code. If OPM decides to change or repair something in those systems, McFarland said, that is difficult to modify because the agency has to sift through all 3 million lines to find the one line in particular that needs tweaking.

Berry said some systems still even use COBOL, believe it or not, a dinosaur of a programming language that was first introduced 50 years ago.

As a result of all the IT problems, calculating pension payments is still largely a paper-and-pencil process — one that is made much more difficult when agencies don’t submit all the necessary documents. Which is what usually happens.

GAO’s Valerie Melvin also said that OPM’s plan “does not describe whether or how the agency intends to modify or decommission the over 80 legacy systems that support retirement processing.” She wants OPM to take a broader look at its overall IT system structure, and formulate a concrete plan for how it will straighten things out. ”There’s a lot more OPM can do,” Melvin said.

Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee praised Berry for putting the plan forward, and IG McFarland said OPM is now on the right track.

But consultant George Nesterczuk, a former OPM official, blasted Berry for abandoning a full-scale, IT-based modernization of the retirement process and instead relying heavily on adding people. Although the previous administration’s Retirement Systems Modernization strategy that relied on commercial technologies crashed and burned in 2008, Nesterczuk said it “was a sound strategy and it should receive renewed consideration.”

In the meantime, pressure is mounting on OPM. Berry said OPM received 21,000 new retirement applications in January — traditionally the busiest month — which swelled the backlog to 62,000. But there was a bright spot last month — Berry said OPM processed 20 percent more cases this January than in January 2011, which he sees as proof the reforms are already taking hold.

He also pledged to report the size of the backlog to Congress on the fifth day of each month.

[Updated blog post to clarify that OPM's processing problems are a result of all of its IT difficulties.]

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Obama mum on further pay freeze — will he support extension?

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The White House just released a Statement of Administration Policy opposing Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s bill, S 1931, to extend the payroll tax holiday, which would also extend the current two-year pay freeze to five total years. But what I found most interesting is what’s not in this SAP: An clear statement from Obama outright opposing the pay freeze extension.

Sure, the White House bashes Heller’s bill for not asking millionaires to “pay their fair share” (IE, raise taxes on them, as Democrats support), not expanding the payroll tax cut from $1,000 to $1,500, and adding new budget cuts that would “reduc[e] core government functions ranging from services for this nation’s veterans to border security, and further cutting back spending on the nation’s defense.”

But the pay freeze is not explicitly mentioned anywhere. Eeeenteresting. By refusing to bash Republicans for considering a three-year freeze extension, is Obama leaving himself wiggle room to back one or two more years of frozen pay?

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley just told me the bill could come up for a vote tomorrow. This thing’s moving fast. Stay tuned for further developments — and hold onto your wallet.

UPDATE: Heller’s office says the bill could be voted on tonight.

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Senate confirms SSA deputy commissioner

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The Social Security Administration has a new deputy commissioner.

Carolyn Colvin was confirmed before the Senate Wednesday, after being nominated by President Barack Obama in Oct. 2009, according to an agency news release.

Colvin, a former chief executive officer at AMERIGROUP, DC, has held various positions within SSA including deputy commissioner for policy and external affairs and deputy commissioner for programs and policy.

“Carolyn brings a wealth of expertise that will be extremely valuable as we face the dual challenges of ever increasing workloads and reducing current backlogs in an environment of fiscal austerity,” SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said in the release. “I look forward to working closely with Carolyn as we strive to meet these challenges.”

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Senate wants plan on NSPS conversions

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The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to know in detail how the Pentagon plans to convert about 226,000 employees from the National Security Personnel System back to the General Schedule or other pay system. The request for an action plan on conversions is part of the Senate 2011 Defense Authorization Act, which the committee finished marking up today.

The bill also:

  • Clarifies that the repeal of NSPS has no effect on the direct hiring authority of defense laboratories, and increases the number of positions for which that authority can be used,
  • Temporarily authorizes overtime pay for Navy civilian employees working on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier,
  • Extends for one year the authority to waive limitations on the aggregate basic and premium pay available to civilian employees working within the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility,
  • And authorizes enhanced appointment and compensation authority for certain Defense health care occupations.

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EEOC nominees on secret hold

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A senator has placed a secret hold on the confirmation of a gay woman and other nominees to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, apparently in violation of a 2007 law that cracked down on such anonymous holds, Keen News Service reports.

Many conservative groups have oppposed the nomination of Georgetown University law professor Chai Feldblum as an EEOC commissioner because she is gay. Nevertheless, Feldblum’s nomination was reported out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in December along with three other EEOC nominations, clearing the way for a vote by the full Senate.

Since then, however, an unnamed senator has blocked all of the EEOC nominations from going forward. The Keen News Service reports that there is no mention of the hold in the Congressional Record, nor has any senator made a public statement about the hold. Those actions are required for any holds under a 2007 law that was intended to make it harder for lawmakers to put anonymous holds on presidential nominees.

Three of the EEOC’s five commissioner positions, including the chairman, and the general counsel post are being held up by the anonymous action.

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WaPo: Why Obama can’t fire anyone

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The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein had an interesting column yesterday about Senate gridlock and how it could be forcing President Obama and agency heads to stick with people they’d like to fire. Money quote:

The problem gets worse as it goes deeper. It’s not just that [Treasury Secretary Timothy] Geithner can’t be fired. It’s that he, in turn, can’t fire anybody. Treasury is understaffed, and there’s little reason to believe that the Senate will consider its nominees anytime soon. If Geithner is displeased with the performance of an appointed subordinate, he can’t ponder whether America would be better off with another individual in that office. Instead, he must decide whether America would be better off if that office were empty.

This has a couple of effects. For one thing, it makes the bureaucracy less accountable, and over the long run, it makes it less effective. Plenty of Senate Republicans complain that schools can’t fire bad teachers, but they’ve made it so that department heads can’t fire bad undersecretaries. For another, it pushes the White House and the agencies to rely on positions that don’t require Senate confirmation, leading to a proliferation of advisers and counselors who don’t have the power of appointees and aren’t subject to any congressional scrutiny. It’s the worst of both worlds.

We’d like to hear your take on this issue. How has your office been hampered by the Senate’s inability to approve even routine nominations? Sound off in the comments section below, and if you’d like us to keep your thoughts private, just say so and we won’t publish them. Or you could e-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com.

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Senate approves dozens of nominees

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The Senate approved dozens of President Barack Obama’s nominees this morning before departing for the holidays. The Senate will return on Jan. 21.

Approved nominations include:

  • Adele Logan Alexander as a member of the National Council on the Humanities;
  • Paul T. Anastas as an assistant Environmental Protection Agency administrator;
  • Anne Slaughter Andrew as ambassador to Costa Rica;
  • Alberto Fernandez as ambassador to Equatorial Guinea;
  • Michael Khouri as a Federal Maritime Commissioner;
  • Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis as ambassador to Hungary;
  • David Daniel Nelson as ambassador to Uruguay;
  • John Norris as a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission;
  • Robert Perciasepe as deputy EPA administrator;
  • Scott Boyer Quehl as the Commerce Department’s chief financial officer and an assistant secretary;
  • Leslie Rowe as ambassador to Mozambique;
  • Lynnae Ruttledge as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Education Department;
  • Miriam Sapiro as a deputy U.S. trade representative;
  • Rajiv Shah as an U.S. Agency for International Development administrator;
  • Thomas Alfred Shannon, Jr., as ambassador to Brazil;
  • Alan Solomont as ambassador to Spain and Andorra;
  • David Strickland as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration;
  • Mary Burce Warlick as ambassador to Serbia;
  • James Warlick, Jr., as ambassador to Bulgaria;
  • Grayling Grant Williams as director of the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement, Homeland Security Department;
  • Mary Jo Wills as ambassador to Mauritius.

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UPDATE: Senate approves Sunstein nomination

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The Senate voted 57-40 Thursday to approve the nomination of Cass Sunstein to be administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, ending a months-long debate over Sunstein’s writings as a professor and his ideological views.

At least two senators had placed holds on Sunstein’s nomination, due to concerns about his opinions on gun control and animal rights. Sunstein, a Harvard University professor, met with the senators, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and John Cornyn of Texas, and assured them he respected the Second Amendment and would not limit hunting or impose stricter gun control. The holds were then lifted.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., filed cloture on Sunstein’s nomination, limiting time for debate. His nomination was discussed Thursday in between tributes to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., praised Sunstein’s selection on the Senate floor before the Wednesday cloture vote. Lieberman chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which cleared Sunstein’s nomination months ago.

I’m convinced that Professor Sunstein has superior qualifications for this office and a strong commitment, if confirmed, to guide OIRA in conformity with the law and public interest above all.”

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Senate approves VA advance appropriations

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Before departing for its August recess, the Senate approved advance appropriations for the Veterans Affairs’ health programs Thursday, clearing the way for advanced funding of VA hospitals.

Advocates said advance appropriations would ensure consistent, quality health care for veterans in case in case Congress does not pass the annual VA appropriation bill by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. VA is currently funded yearly, which has has resulted in late funding for VA programs in 19 of the past 22 years.

The House-passed 2010 spending bill for VA and military construction includes fiscal 2011 health care funding, and the House passed its version, HR 1016, June 23. The Senate passed HR 1016 by unanimous consent after substituting the text of the Senate version of the bill, S 423, for the House’s language in HR 1016.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, introduced the Senate bill and championed the bill’s passage. He praised the Senate for providing timely funding for veterans’ care.

Congress has worked in recent years to reverse VA’s chronic underfunding, but we still need to address the broken way that we fund the nation’s largest health care system. With advance funding we will make sure that veterans’ health care receives timely and predictable funding, allowing VA health care dollars to go further for veterans and taxpayers.”

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