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News Digest: June 4

Jun. 3, 2012 - 03:40PM   |  
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The White House is threatening to veto a House-passed spending bill to pay for military construction and veterans programs in part because it would extend the current two-year pay freeze on federal employees for another year.

The House passed the legislation 407 to 12 on May 31.

“A permanent pay freeze is neither sustainable nor desirable,” the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement of administration policy released the day before. It urged Congress to support President Obama’s proposed 0.5 percent pay raise for feds in 2013.

House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., objected to the pay freeze proposal, saying feds have sacrificed enough through other pay and benefits cuts and freezes. “Republicans have asked federal employees to contribute $60 billion in two pay freezes, $15 billion in pension cuts for new employees to offset an extension of unemployment insurance, and a further $78 billion in pension cuts for current employees to pay for their dismal budget reconciliation package. This represents a total cut to federal employees of $153 billion in pay and benefits. With this third pay freeze, they are now asking for $30 billion more.”

Also in the House, a resolution to prohibit further pay cuts or retirement contribution increases for federal employees has stalled in committee. H Res. 657 would also ban extension of the two-year pay freeze beyond this year.

The Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to same-sex couples, a federal appellate court panel ruled last week in a case that could go to the Supreme Court.

In the 3-0 ruling, the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court decision that the Office of Personnel Management erred in using the 1996 act to deny survivor benefits to Dean Hara, spouse of late Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass. The two had been legally married in Massachusetts, but OPM had cited the law — which defines marriage as between a man and a woman — as one reason Hara was ineligible for coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Congress’ denial of benefits to legally married same-sex couples “has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest,” the appellate panel said in its decision. The court stayed the ruling in anticipation of an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Enrollment in the Thrift Savings Plan’s new Roth option accelerated toward the end of May, with 3,860 participants allocating some of their contributions to the savings option.

The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which governs TSP, said May 21 that only four participants had made payments into the Roth option since it went live May 7. But by May 30, the board said, that had increased to 3,860.

The board also said that about $855,000 had been contributed to the Roth option by May 30.The FRTIB said May 21 that the initially small number of contributions was expected because of the government’s payroll schedule, and predicted those numbers would accelerate after Memorial Day.

The board said it experienced no major problems as the Roth option went live May 7. It found four minor post-deployment problems, three of which have been fixed.

The Defense Department needs to improve its oversight of long-term maintenance contracts for weapons systems, the Government Accountability Office said in a May 31 report.

In two cases reviewed, program offices set fixed prices for the entire potential length of nine- and 15-year contracts without the ability to renegotiate prices or obtain incurred cost data, the report said.

The department also should secure access to proprietary technical data in these contracts so it is less reliant on specific contractors over the life of the program, GAO said.

Of 10 contracts reviewed, seven lacked sufficient access to technical data to re-compete the contracts, the report said.

The General Services Administration has chosen the final plans for the new Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters, which, if funding is ever approved, would be built adjacent to the new Department of Homeland Security campus under construction in Southeast Washington.

GSA had approval from the National Capitol Planning Commission for several design alternatives, and the agency made its final decision May 30.

The 750,000-square-foot complex would connect three separate buildings by glass bridges, with two open-air courtyards in between.

But the FEMA headquarters might never be built. Congress has drastically cut funding for the Homeland Security headquarters project in the last two years, causing the department to delay the project’s completion by five years.

The latest setback is that President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget request also dramatically cuts planned spending.

The FEMA headquarters will be completed in fiscal 2017 at the earliest, according to DHS projections.

A new General Services Administration inspector general report is critical of a Region 9 office responsible for contracts providing phone lines and telecommunications services to other agencies.

GSA’s Network Services Division for Region 9 did not know what was in its inventory, according to the report.

Out of 43,200 telephone lines, 9,224 were out of service, according to the report. GSA employees also did not have written procedures for updating the inventory and for managing the contracts.

The IG recommended conducting a comprehensive inventory of services and having written policies for updating and managing contracts with agencies and vendors.

The White House announced last week new and expanded initiatives to help industry combat botnet cyberattacks.

Under a partnership called the Industry Botnet Group, the administration and nine trade organizations released a list of voluntary steps companies can take to mitigate botnets.

A botnet is a group of computers controlled by attackers, who can monitor information and communications and disrupt Internet access, or use infected computers to attack government and private servers.

Among other initiatives, the FBI and Secret Service have increased information sharing with the private sector to shut down botnets.

Pressed by White House mandates and budget cuts, agencies are looking at sharing more information technology services, such as email systems.

For example, two agencies within the Department of Homeland Security — the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Customs and Border Protection — are moving to the department’s cloud email system.

DHS’ CIO, Richard Spires, said one agency, which he did not name, is now spending about $25 per email box each month, compared with an average of $7 it will be spending by moving to DHS cloud email.

Agencies must start sharing at least two services by December, the Office of Management and Budget announced last month in its Federal IT Shared Services Strategy. OMB also instructed agencies to cut their planned 2014 IT spending by 10 percent below their average spending from 2010 to 2012.

“That’s putting a lot of pressure on us,” Spires said at a Government Information Technology Executive Council (GITEC) conference in Baltimore.

Jack Hayes, National Weather Service director since 2007, retired last week after an internal investigation found that NWS staff improperly moved money among accounts without congressional authorization.

While the probe found no evidence of fraud or personal financial gain, “this fact does not excuse, or reduce the seriousness of the employees’ actions,” Jane Lubchenco, who leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NWS’ parent agency, wrote in a memo.

In a message on the National Weather Service Employees Organization website, Hayes wrote, “I have done my best ... to manage the many challenges with the kind of honor and dedication you expected of me.”

Laura Furgione, previously deputy assistant administrator, is acting chief.

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