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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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The Postal Service (yawn) defaults again

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If a smidgen of suspense lingered earlier today about whether much of the government would shut down tomorrow, there was never the slightest doubt that the U.S. Postal Service would skip a legally required retiree health care payment for the third straight year.

Pretty much ever since the Postal Service defaulted on the 2012 payment, USPS leaders have been warning they would miss the $5.6 billion obligation due by midnight tonight; in another 15 minutes or so, the agency will officially be in default. Unlike past years, however, when an anxious Congress either cut the amount of the annual installment or pushed back the deadline, this year’s no-show routine now seems . . . routine.

But Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sponsors of a Senate bill that would give the Postal Service some relief on the “prepayment” requirement, put out a joint statement calling the default a reminder of the agency’s broader financial woes. After holding two hearings on the bill earlier this month, Carper said, “I hope to move our bipartisan legislation swiftly through our committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible.”

The current pre-funding schedule is laid out in the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. According to numbers included in a Government Accountability Office report, the agency has made $17.9 billion in required payments and-as of tomorrow–will have defaulted on $16.7 billion worth.

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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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Postal board faces tough decision on five-day mail delivery

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The U.S. Postal Service’s board of governors is set to meet tomorrow, according to a spokesman, and a thorny choice will likely dominate the agenda: Let Postmaster General Pat Donahoe proceed with a previously announced plan to end Saturday mail delivery this August, with a projected savings of $2 billion annually. Or back off—at least for now—to avoid a probable lawsuit, not to mention antagonizing members of Congress whose help is needed to pass any long-haul fix for the Postal Service’s finances.

Among some observers, the betting is that the board will opt for door number two.

“That’s the strong rumor—that they’ve gone wobbly,” said Tony Conway, a former USPS executive who now runs the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers and supports the reduced mail delivery schedule. At the Association for Postal Commerce, another private group that represents business mail users, President Gene Del Polito also expected a “back off” decision by the five-member board.

But George Gould, a consultant who formerly worked for the National Association of Letter Carriers, said the panel is divided on which way to go. When Donahoe announced the five-day delivery plan back in February, Gould said, part of the strategy was to draw lawmakers’ attention to the need for postal overhaul legislation.

The plan got their attention, Gould said, but not in a positive way. Thus far, no comprehensive postal bill has been introduced. But by another line of thinking, he said, sticking with the five-day plan would be a way to “keep the pressure” on lawmakers.

For what it’s worth, the Postal Service’s web site (as of this afternoon) still includes a section on the proposed changes. Although Saturday mail delivery would end in early August, package delivery would continue six days a week.  Like most board meetings, tomorrow’s will be closed to the public,  according to the USPS spokesman, Mark Saunders.

On one front, the episode underscores—yet again—how hard it can be for the Postal Service to wriggle around congressional fence lines. Since the 1980s, lawmakers have included a provision in annual spending legislation that prohibits the agency from ending six-day delivery. When Donahoe unveiled the plan in February, he entreated lawmakers to do nothing to stop it. Because the spending bill signed this month is mostly a continuation of last year’s legislation, however, it maintains the ban on delivery cutbacks even though the Postal Service is nowhere mentioned, according to staffers on both the House and Senate appropriations committees.

But as Conway noted, the Postal Service continues to pursue other cost-cutting measures. In a surprise move late last month, it decided to speed up dozens of mail processing plant closings and consolidations originally scheduled for next year.  A separate undertaking to cut hours at some 13,000 postal offices appears to be on track. And although a requirement to annually funnel about $5.5 billion into a fund for future retiree health care remains on the books, the Postal Service has twice defaulted with no outcry from Congress over violating the law. And in a symbolic milestone, the career postal workforce dropped below a half-million earlier this year.

As for that long awaited postal bill, Del Polito said he’s been told that it’s coming in about two weeks. Earlier this year, optimism officially abounded that a deal was within reach.
“I believe that we are very close,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said at a February congressional hearing, adding that a final agreement could come by the end of March. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., struck a similarly upbeat note. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he hoped to introduce a bill by the end of last month.

Not surprisingly, the job is taking a little longer.

“The need to enact comprehensive, bipartisan postal reform legislation is more urgent than ever,” Cummings said in a statement last week. “Although I am disappointed that more progress has not been made, I am hopeful that legislation can be enacted swiftly with concerted effort from all sides.” Issa spokesman Ali Ahmad declined comment on when a bill might be coming.

In the Senate, Carper will do what he can to bring Congress and the Obama administration together around “a set of meaningful reforms in the coming weeks to help the Postal Service survive and thrive,” spokeswoman Jennie Westbrook said in an email. To that end, she added, Carper “intends to have legislative language ready in the near future and remains hopeful that he will be able to move a bill in committee soon after.”

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Carper urges curbs on Postal Regulatory Commission travel

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Some seven months after inquiring about overseas travel by Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway, Sen. Tom Carper is pressing some recommended changes for the commission as a whole. So far, it’s not clear whether the five-member oversight panel will go along.

In a Sept. 6 letter to Goldway, Carper questioned “the amount of time and resources devoted to international travel in recent years, particularly as the commission has struggled at times to fulfill its higher-priority statutory responsibilities in a timely manner.” He urged the PRC to limit such trips to what is “truly necessary” to fulfill its legal role in setting international postal policy. He also pressed the PRC to do more to document that it has explored other options—such as phone, fax and email—to conduct business before putting someone on a plane. Carper, D-Del., chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the commission and the U.S. Postal Service.

In a Sept. 11 reply, Goldway said she appreciated the “thoughtful review” and accompanying recommendations, but committed only to giving “serious consideration to those recommendations, which are in the spirit of improvements we have already made to our policies.” She added that the commission has come in “more than 30 percent” under its 2012 travel budget.

A PRC spokeswoman confirmed Friday that Goldway and two commission staff members are attending the Universal Postal Union’s quadrennial congress, which got under way Monday in Doha, Qatar, according to an official web site. Goldway is serving as deputy head of the U.S. delegation, the spokeswoman, Gail Adams, said.

Goldway, however, will be leaving for the event Oct. 3 and returning to Washington on Oct. 12, Adams added in an email. One staffer is already in Doha, while the other leaves today.

As Federal Times reported in February, Goldway at that point had taken 34 trips –11 of them overseas–costing almost $71,000 since becoming PRC chair in August 2009. Her predecessor, Dan Blair, had taken 25 trips worth some $59,000 during a slightly longer tenure. Since then, Goldway has attended a UPU meeting in Switzerland, as well as a weeklong “Postal Regulatory Dialogue” in Rio de Janeiro, where she was a speaker, according to commission records obtained by Federal Times. As of late last month, Goldway was the only commissioner to go abroad this calendar year, although some PRC staff have also attended overseas events.

Goldway has staunchly defended travel as relevant to her work and the commission’s role in helping to set international postal policy. “I know that travel raises questions,” she said in an interview earlier this year, “but I really feel that I’m doing an honest job and the right thing for the Postal Regulatory Commission and the country.”

 

 

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Postal bill stalls in the Senate

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The Senate took a surprise first vote on postal legislation today. The result: Lawmakers probably won’t be trying again before mid-April.

The bill is the 21st Century Postal Reform Act (S.1789); the vote, which came this afternoon, was on a procedural “cloture” motion to see if supporters could muster the 60 votes needed to move forward with debate. As it turned out, they couldn’t. The motion picked up only 51 votes, with most Democrats voting in favor and most Republicans opposed.

The Senate hadn’t been expected to take up the bi-partisan bill until tomorrow at the earliest. Why lawmakers proceeded today was the subject of two schools of thought. By one reading, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Ct., and the measure’s co-sponsors wanted to gauge the level of support as they keep negotiating with other lawmakers on crucial details. By another, majority Democrats simply wanted to get off debate on a separate measure to repeal oil and gas industry tax breaks because it was giving Republicans an opportunity to highlight high prices at the pump. Whatever the motive, the postal bill’s backers may have some work to do.

In a statement afterwards, Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and co-sponsor, said he looked forward to the Senate considering the legislation after lawmakers return from an Easter/Passover break the week of April 16.

“I don’t think this vote accurately reflects senators’ feelings on the legislation, though,” Carper said. “In fact, it’s clear that the bill enjoys support from senators on both sides of the aisle who recognize that we must act quickly if we hope to save this American institution.”

If signed into law, the bill would let the U.S. Postal Service tap surplus pension fund contributions to offer buyouts and early retirement incentives to up to 100,000 USPS employes. Here’s a link to an official synopsis that lists the measure’s other highlights.

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Senate could take up postal bill next week

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The wind-up has taken a while, but the full Senate might–just might–pitch into a major debate on postal issues next week.

Earlier today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced a motion that would allow senators to take up the bill, known as the 21st Century Postal Service Act, as early as Monday. Although everything in the Senate (and we mean everything) is subject to change, Reid presumably wouldn’t have proceeded without some chance of having the votes to kick off debate.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., isn’t commenting. Lawmakers could also have to placate Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who announced today that she’ll seek to block consideration of the bill over concerns about how the U.S. Postal Service is handling the proposed closure of a mail processing plant in her state.

For FedLine readers who need a refresher, the measure was introduced last fall by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Tom Carper, D-Del., and Scott Brown, R-Mass.  A major draw is the provision that would permit the Postal Service to spend part of a refund on excess contributions into the Federal Employees Retirement System on incentives to encourage up to 100,000 workers to retire or quit. The bill would also give the financially strapped mail carrier a big break on the current requirement to pay about $5.5 billion per year into a retiree health care fund.

Politically speaking, perhaps, so far, so good. The Postal Service can’t make the retiree health fund payments anyway and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle like the idea of using early retirements or buyouts to encourage folks to leave on their own.

But the bill contains some other provisions likely to spur—to put it nicely—spirited discussion. Under the legislation, for example, the Postal Service could end most Saturday delivery in two years if it proves to independent reviewers that there is no other way to achieve “sustainability.” Postal unions are opposed and—along with other federal labor groups—also object to proposed changes to the federal workers’ compensation system.

Last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and 26 Democratic senators urged Lieberman and the other sponsors to agree to a four-year ban on any shift to five-day delivery. They’re also seeking to stymie two other big USPS downsizing initiatives that are supposed to save billions of dollars: A change in first-class delivery standards that’s tied to the closing or consolidation of 223 mail processing plants and a round of post office closings that would shutter a lot of rural P.O.’s

It’s not clear exactly how Lieberman and company will proceed. But in a statement today, Sanders said he hopes for an agreement “that will go a long way toward saving jobs at the Postal Service, saving post offices and maintaining strong mail-delivery standards.”

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Sen. Carper presses the Postal Regulatory Commission for faster delivery

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Sen. Tom Carper is not happy with the Postal Regulatory Commission. More evidence of that fact emerged during yesterday’s confirmation hearing for Tony Hammond, nominated for another term on the five-member oversight body.

The session before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee lasted less than an hour; Hammond, a Missouri Republican who has served on the commission for most of the last decade, is likely to win easy Senate approval for another six-year stint.

But Carper, D-Del., took the occasion to ask again why the agency can’t move faster in issuing advisory opinions on proposed changes to national postal service. “Otherwise, I fear that the legitimacy and the role of the commission in these matters could be threatened,” he said.

It took the PRC almost a year to weigh in on the U.S. Postal Service’s bid to end most Saturday service.  And in many ways, Carper said, that March 2011 opinion “created more questions than it answered.” Now, the Postal Service wants to start closing mail processing plants as soon as a self-imposed moratorium expires in mid-May. But the PRC won’t be putting out its opinion on that planned downsizing—which is tied to a change in first-class mail delivery standards—until late July at the earliest.

“The Postal Service says it is acting on its plans in May because it urgently needs to begin making adjustments to its network before the fall, when mail volumes will ramp up due to the holiday season and the upcoming elections,” Carper said. “I want to see the same sense of urgency from the commission as it goes about its business in the coming weeks and months.”

Carper, of course, chairs the Senate homeland security subcommittee that oversees both the Postal Service and the commission. This isn’t the first time he has groused about the length of time needed for the Saturday delivery opinion; Hammond agreed that it was “unacceptable,” but added that he hadn’t set the schedule. More recently, Carper’s staff has been looking into travel by the commission’s chairman, Ruth Goldway, who is in Switzerland on a trip tied to a Universal Postal Union meeting and a conference sponsored by the State Department. In general, Goldway has defended her travel as justified by the commission’s expanded role under the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.

So, what’s this all about? In short, the PRC has turned out to be an unexpectedly influential player on postal restructuring efforts. True, its advisory opinions are legally non-binding, but they carry weight in the broader political debate. The commission’s conclusion last year that five-day delivery would save the Postal Service far less money than the mail carrier claimed was ready ammunition for congressional critics. Similarly, the Postal Service is itching to begin slashing the size of its processing plant network, with a goal of saving more than $2 billion annually. But given the number of witnesses and the volume of testimony, the commission can’t move any faster on the case than its current schedule, Goldway said in a recent interview.

Whether that’s good or bad depends on what you think is the best course for the Postal Service. Carper, the agency’s chief ally on Capitol Hill, frequently argues that USPS executives need more management flexibility to staunch huge losses and return the mail carrier to profitability. But for lawmakers and postal labor unions who warn that the Postal Service’s proposed cutbacks risk launching it into a “death spiral,” the commission is fully justified in taking a hard look at potentially irreversible service changes.

FedLine wouldn’t venture to say who’s right. Don’t, however, expect the tension over the commission’s role to dissipate any time soon.

 

 

 

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Amid scrutiny of her travel, Postal Regulatory Commission chief bound for Switzerland

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Barely two weeks after a prominent senator questioned her travel activities, Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway is unapologetically heading overseas.

“I know that travel raises questions,” Goldway said in a Friday interview two days before embarking on a 13-day trip to Switzerland,  “but I really feel that I’m doing an honest job and the right thing for the Postal Regulatory Commission and the country.”

After leaving on a flight from Washington this Sunday, Goldway will spend most of the next two weeks in the Swiss capital of Bern, according to an itinerary provided by the commission.  The first leg, running from Monday through Friday, will be for a gathering of the Universal Postal Union, an international coordinating body.  The second leg—which includes a side trip to Geneva—encompasses a meeting of women leaders titled “Sister Republics: Building Bridges—An Action Plan for Women’s Leadership,” according to the itinerary. That meeting is sponsored by the State Department, meaning that the PRC isn’t paying for it, a commission spokeswoman said today. Goldway is scheduled to speak during one session before returning to Washington on March 9, the itinerary indicates.

In the interview, Goldway described the Universal Postal Union meeting as directly related to the commission’s work.  On the agenda, for example, are possible changes worth tens of millions of dollars in added reimbursements to the financially ailing U.S. Postal Service for handling mail from other countries once it arrives in the United States, she said. Her participation in the “Sister Republics” meeting follows an invitation from the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, Donald Beyer, who wrote in November that “we would be honored to have you share your experiences with us.”

But the trip comes as Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is scrutinizing Goldway’s travel activities since she became chairman in August 2009. Carper, who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the PRC and the Postal Service, launched the review Feb. 8 after Federal Times and The Washington Post reported that the pace of Goldway’s travel was running above that of Dan Blair, who chaired the commission before her, even as the agency’s workload has grown amidst the Postal Service’s worsening financial crisis.

As of earlier this month, Goldway had taken 34 trips at a total cost of almost $71,000, including 11 overseas destinations, records showed. During a slightly longer tenure as chairman, Blair took 25 trips worth about $59,000.

Goldway, who publicly posted her travel records on the commission’s web site this week after giving them to Carper’s office, has defended her travel as relevant to her work and beneficial to the Postal Service and the mailing public.

In a Friday statement, however, Carper spokeswoman Emily Spain questioned Goldway’s priorities. The commission, which is funded through postal revenues, is currently reviewing the Postal Service’s plan to abandon overnight delivery of first-class mail as part of an aggressive cost-cutting agenda to close or consolidate more than 220 processing plants. While USPS officials say they want to proceed as soon as a self-imposed moratorium on plant closings expires in mid-May, the PRC won’t issue a legally required advisory opinion until late July at the earliest, according to public documents.

“Embarking on travel that does not appear to be closely related to the role the Postal Regulatory Commission has been given in addressing the Postal Service’s dire financial situation would appear ill-advised at this critical juncture,” Spain said.

Goldway responded that she and Carper would have to “respectfully disagree,” adding that she is continually engaged in PRC business while traveling. Before issuing the advisory opinion, the commission has to follow the Administrative Procedure Act, she said. Among other requirements, that means hearing from 13 witnesses and reviewing thousands of pages of documents. While it’s “unfortunate” that the timetable is longer than what the Postal Service wants, Goldway said, “in terms of the law, we’re not in a position to do anything different from what we’ve done.”

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Postal Regulatory Commission chairman responds (very publicly) to travel questions

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Postal Regulatory Commission Ruth Goldway has replied to a senator’s inquiry about her travel practices, publicly posting her response and a host of supporting documents on the agency’s web site.

In a letter last week to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., Goldway attached a summary of her trips since becoming PRC chair in August 2009, and for good measure included itineraries and agendas, a synopsis of the commission’s travel policies and a listing of travel by her two immediate predecessors as chairman.

“This information demonstrates that commission travel is in support of statutory obligations, performed in a cost-efficient manner and benefits the commission, the [U.S.] Postal Service and the mailing public,” Goldway wrote.

Carper, who heads the Senate panel with oversight responsibility for the Postal Service and the commission, had sought the information earlier this month after Federal Times and The Washington Post reported that the pace of Goldway’s travel was running above that of Dan Blair, who chaired the commission before her.

“Given the Postal Service’s ongoing financial challenges and the amount of work the commission has on its plate, a significant increase in official travel by you—or any member of the commission—raises questions,” Carper wrote.  After reviewing the documents, Carper said Wednesday (via a spokeswoman)  that he and his staff would decide “what steps, if any, would be appropriate for the subcommittee to take.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, however, I expect the Postal Regulatory Commission to be more mindful of the Postal Service’s current financial challenges and its role in addressing those challenges when planning extensive travel for its members.” Carper also thanked Goldway for her cooperation thus far.

Typically, agencies refuse to release–or at least require a Freedom of Information Act request before doing so–their answers to congressional inquiries. In this case, it was Goldway’s decision to make all the material public, PRC spokeswoman Ann Fisher said in an email.

Carper’s letter “raised several important questions related to the statutory role, and strategic goals, of the commission.” Fisher said. “Chairman Goldway felt the public would benefit from seeing her responses.”

Updated on Feb. 22 to reflect Carper reaction.

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