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News Digest: July 2

Jul. 1, 2012 - 01:19PM   |  
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Senate panel OKs new Hatch Act punishments, excess property bill

A Senate committee on Friday passed a bill that would provide a wider range of possible punishments for Hatch Act violators.

Federal employees who violate the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity in the federal workplace, can now only be fired or suspended for 30 days. This bill would give the Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates Hatch Act complaints, more flexibility to hand out punishments that in some cases are lighter.

The bill would allow MSPB to instead issue violators formal reprimands, reduce their pay grade, debar them from federal employment for up to five years, or fine them up to $1,000.

The Office of Special Counsel, which investigates Hatch Act violations, has called for adding those new punishment options.

S 2170, the Hatch Act Modernization Act, passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and will now head to the full Senate for a vote. It is sponsored by committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

Reps. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., have introduced an identical bill in the House.

Committee members also approved S 2178, the Federal Real Property Asset Management Reform Act, which would aim to reduce the government’s unused or underused properties.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who introduced the bill, said that the government has at least 45,000 underused buildings and 14,000 buildings that are not being used at all.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the government spends $1.6 billion each year in maintenance, utilities, securities and other operating costs for those buildings.

“That’s an astonishing amount of money,” Collins said. “It is … evident that the current system is broken. The number of disposals over the last decade is really pathetic.”

Collins’ office said S 2178 aims to save $15 billion over 10 years by reducing the amount of excess property held by the government.

The bill would create a Federal Real Property Council to better set property management policies across the government, and require each agency to have a senior real property management officer to continually monitor property assets and make sure they are being used efficiently. It would also require agencies to dispose of surplus property within two years of the bill’s enactment.

Carper said 80 percent of the money raised by selling unneeded property would go to reduce the deficit. Another 18 percent would go to agencies for their property management and disposal efforts, and the remaining 2 percent would fund homeless assistance grants.

House committee approves 30% cut to federal travel

A House committee approved a bill Wednesday that would cut federal travel spending by 30 percent from 2010 levels.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted on a revised version of the Government Spending Accountability Act by Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill. The bill would require each agency to file quarterly itemized reports on conferences costing more than $100,000 and limit spending on a single conference to $500,000.

The substitute version of the bill that the committee passed includes a provision to cut travel spending in 2013 at each agency by 30 percent from 2010 levels and to keep those cuts in place through 2017, according to Ali Ahmad, spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Each agency would be required to justify the cost and location of each conference, including a cost-benefit analysis for why the agency did not conduct a teleconference.

The bill would also:

• Limit the number of federal employees from one agency allowed to attend an international conference to 50 or fewer.

• Require agencies to post online any text or any visual aid delivered by a federal employee during the conference.

• Require agencies to describe any financial support from any private entity that helped pay for the conference and an explanation for why the conference helped advance the agency’s mission.

GSA offers second round of buyouts, early retirement

The General Services Administration on Thursday offered employees a second round of buyouts and early retirements.

The agency said the offers went to 1,022 employees, and it expects about 200 to accept them. Employees must apply for the buyouts and early outs by July 20, and must be off the rolls by between Aug. 3 and Sept. 30, depending on their organization.

Eligible employees received an e-mail informing them of the offer, Chief People Officer Tony Costa said in a memo to GSA employees. Employees who did not get the e-mail are not eligible for the buyout or early out.

Costa said GSA is planning a third round of buyouts, but has not yet submitted its request to the Office of Personnel Management.

The bulk of the organizations receiving buyout and early out offers are in GSA’s headquarters, though a few regional offices are affected. The following organizations will be included in the offer:

• Federal Acquisition Service’s ITS Network Services Program (Central office only), Region 7 fleet management, Schedule 70 IT Market Development Division, and Region 9 assisted acquisition services.

• Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

• Nonsupervisory GS-13 and -14 accountants in the 0510 series in the Office of Financial Policy and Operations’ Federal Integrated Solutions Center, Financial Policy and Analysis, Internal Control Division, and Financial Reporting Division.

• Office of Budget, nonsupervisory GS-14 staff in the financial management analyst and budget analyst series in the Staff Office Accounts Division, and supervisory budget analysts in the Prep Review and Control Division.

• Office of the Chief Information Officer’s Center for IT Customer Services and Program Management Division.

• Office of the Chief People Officer’s Office of Program Performance and Pacific Rim Division Staffing Team Leaders.

• Public Buildings Service realty specialists, building managers and building management specialists, account managers, Office of Design and Construction employees, and wage grade operations and maintenance employees in regions 3, 4 and 5.

VA plans to cut staffing at regional management offices

The Veterans Affairs Department plans to cut staffing at its sprawling regional management offices, as officials seek to head off legislation that would slash the number of those offices from 21 to 12.

The proposed cuts will be part of a broader realignment set to go to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for approval in a few weeks, VA’s William Schoenhard told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The regional management offices have a combined workforce of more than 1,700 employees, according to VA. The department hopes to avoid layoffs and instead handle the reductions through attrition and relocations, Schoenhard, who oversees health operations and management at the department, said after the hearing. The number of job cuts “will vary by location,” he said.

When VA executives created the regional offices, known as veterans integrated service networks (VISNs), in 1995 in hopes of improving patient care and lowering costs, they predicted they would run on a staff of 220 with an annual budget of $27 million. Along with a much larger workforce, the 21 offices cumulatively spend more than $203 million a year, the department’s inspector general recently concluded in audits that found lax management and an array of other problems.

Besides cutting the number of networks to 12, a bill by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would cap staff at each remaining management office at 65 employees. Together, the proposed changes should improve efficiency and channel more resources “to direct patient care,” said Burr, the committee’s top Republican, at the hearing.

But Dr. Madhulika Agarwal, deputy VA undersecretary for health policy and services, objected that the bill was “too prescriptive.” In her prepared testimony, Agarwal also questioned Burr’s plans to create four new regional support centers to assess the VISNs’ effectiveness. Those centers could end up employing more than 100 people each, she said, undercutting the goal of reducing the workforce.

Last year, Disabled American Veterans and four other veteran advocacy groups singled out the VISNs as a potential source of savings for VA. DAV is taking no position on Burr’s bill, lobbyist Joy Ilem said at the hearing. Instead, she said, Congress should commission an independent study before setting a cap on the number of networks or employees.

The committee will vote on Burr’s measure next month, said the chairman, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

House panel acts to avert Weather Service furloughs

The threat of furloughs for National Weather Service employees appears over.

The House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Weather’s Service’s budget has approved the agency’s request to shift almost $36 million in its current budget to shore up funding for local forecast offices and other purposes, a spokesman for the panel’s chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said an email late Wednesday. The comparable Senate panel had signed off on the transfer last week.

Earlier this month, the Weather Service warned that employees could be sent home as early as next month if lawmakers did not approve the reprogramming request. While the House action ends the prospect of furloughs, according to Wolf’s office, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which the Weather Service is a part, could not be reached for confirmation.

Approval of the reprogramming request had been slowed by lawmakers’ anger over the revelation that Weather Service managers moved money among different accounts in fiscal 2010 and 2011 without congressional approval.

Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have asked the Justice Department to investigate whether criminal violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act occurred. That law bars agencies from spending money not appropriated by Congress.

House bill would require raises for ‘fully successful’ SES members

Senior Executive Service members and other senior-level employees who receive at least a fully successful rating would be guaranteed pay raises under a bill introduced in the House Wednesday.

The Senior Executive Service Reform Act, introduced by Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would require agencies to give senior executives and senior employees at least the total average General Schedule pay raise — including the average locality payment — when they are rated fully successful or higher.

SES members operate under a pay-for-performance system that does not include locality pay, and their pay raises can sometimes lag behind those of GS employees they oversee. The Senior Executives Association says that, over time, GS-15 employees’ pay approaches the salaries earned by some SES members. SEA says such pay compression makes GS-15 employees less likely to consider careers in the SES.

“We need to make sure that the Senior Executive Service will continue to attract the best and the brightest from inside and outside the federal government,” Connolly said. “With nearly 40 percent of those at the SES level reaching retirement age, we must make sure that federal service remains competitive with the private sector.”

The bill would also:

• Increase SES members’ pensions by including their performance awards and recruitment, retention and relocation bonuses in their high-three calculations when determining their pensions.

• Limit the number of non-career SES members in the government. Currently, up to 10 percent of all authorized SES positions may be filled by non-career political appointees. This bill would limit non-career appointments to 10 percent of all filled SES positions. And it would reduce the number of non-career SES in an agency from the current cap of 25 percent of each agency’s total SES positions to 15 percent.

• Reduce the number of non-career SES who hold the most senior positions. Assistant secretary for administration positions, or the equivalent position, would need to be filled by career SES members. All assistant secretaries’ principal deputies must be career SES, if the assistant secretary is not a career SES. And the top acquisition, information technology and human resources officers at each agency must be career SES members.

• Increase the transparency of SES rating systems, improve diversity within the SES, and require the Office of Personnel Management to set up an SES Resource Office to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, productivity and professionalism of the SES corps.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, introduced a similar bill in April.

The Partnership for Public Service applauded the bill’s introduction.

“We need a governmentwide leadership corps that works together to solve our nation’s most pressing challenges,” said Partnership President and CEO Max Stier. “The reforms outlined in this legislation will ensure that agencies and departments develop the very best talent from within government and attract external talent to hold the top career managerial and policy positions.”

TSP director seeks big budget increase

The Thrift Savings Plan’s executive director Monday said the plan needs to increase its budget 77 percent by fiscal 2017 to make sorely needed infrastructure changes and hire new staff.

Gregory Long told the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board that its budget needs to increase from $143.1 million today to $253.4 million in 2017.

The bulk of Long’s proposed increases would come in fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2014. Long wants to increase the budget 33 percent next year — primarily to pay for a staffing increase — and 17 percent more in 2014. About $10 million of 2014’s proposed $33 million budget increase would pay for a new mainframe. TSP bought its current mainframe in 2007, and it will become outdated after 2013.

Staffing at the TSP would nearly double over the next year, from roughly 100 employees to nearly 200, according to a chart presented to the board. Staffing would increase slightly in 2014 to just over 200, and stay about constant through 2017. Long did not say exactly who the board plans to hire over the next year.

And TSP expects participation to explode over the next five years as many current employees retire, new employees are hired to replace them, and military service members increasingly enroll in the plan. There are currently 4.5 million TSP participants, and Long said participation could top 7.5 million in 2017.

TSP also expects the total fund balance to roughly double over the next five years, from about $300 billion today to $600 billion in 2017.

“In the past, I think we’ve made some decisions to seek lower costs at the expense of developing capabilities,” Long said. “And that is unwise. We’re trying to strike a better balance in that regard.”

Long last summer clashed with former board chairman Andrew Saul over a proposed 12 percent budget increase for fiscal 2012. The board balked at Long’s desired $147.2 million, but eventually passed an 8.5 percent increase for 2012.

Last year Long said that several new TSP enhancements — such as automatic enrollment of new federal employees and a new, highly complex Roth option — are stretching TSP’s resources thin.

Long on Monday urged current chairman Michael Kennedy and the other board members to increase spending over the next few years. If spending stays flat or only slightly increases, Long said, TSP will be forced to rely on outdated technology, face delays in meeting its strategic goals, and will not be able to create innovative programs.

“If we don’t pursue this, there are risks,” Long said. “We have an opportunity to get smarter about the plan, and help us make better decisions.”

TSP officials also disclosed that the plan’s stock-based funds took a significant hit in May, as the European financial crisis dragged down stocks around the world. The I Fund’s international stocks were hardest-hit last month, and dropped 11.4 percent. But the domestic C and S funds also declined about 6 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively.

Tracey Ray, the board’s chief investment officer, said May ended with “horrible numbers.” She said stock funds have bounced back slightly this month so far, with the C Fund regaining 2 percent of its value, the S Fund up 0.5 percent, and the I Fund increasing 3.7 percent.

The declines prompted participants to move nearly $1.6 billion out of the stock and L, or lifecycle, funds and into the safer G and F funds. The G Fund is backed by government securities and never declines in value, and the F Fund is backed by bonds.

DHS outlines $200 million plan to beef up cybersecurity

The Department of Homeland Security outlined a $202 million program to arm federal agencies with new tools to continuously monitor their computer networks for security threats. Contracts for monitoring services will be awarded as early as next year.

The new tools will enable agencies to monitor their systems every 24 to 72 hours and to diagnose and prioritize the biggest security weaknesses. Such programs are already in operation at two agencies, the State and Justice departments.

When it comes to continuous monitoring capabilities, “we are a little bit uneven across [the] dot-gov” domain, said John Streufert, director of DHS’ National Cybersecurity Division.

The new tools will help agencies be aware of all hardware and software that has access to their networks and ensure they meet security standards. They also will continuously scan their networks for vulnerabilities so they can be quickly addressed when they appear. The new tools will include dashboards that present to IT officials snapshots of their networks’ security status to enable quick response in the event a vulnerability.

Agencies will have the option of providing their own monitoring using DHS-provided tools; purchasing a monitoring service from another agency or contractor; or obtaining a monitoring service for cloud-based systems from their cloud service providers.

Shield acquisition workforce from budget cuts, procurement chief says

Agencies should avoid cutting their acquisition workforces to meet budget cuts in the coming year, said Joseph Jordan, the federal procurement policy chief.

The administration intends to keep growing the acquisition workforce in order to more effectively manage the government’s $500 billion annual contracting operation, said Jordan.

“[During] the eight years of the Bush administration, contract spending went from $200 million to $500 million,” he told the Professional Services Council trade association on Thursday. “The acquisition workforce did not grow anything like that. We’ve spent the last couple years bending the cost curve, reducing contract spending for the first time while increasing the acquisition workforce, trying to narrow that gap.”

Jordan did not discuss how the acquisition workforce would be affected by automatic budget cuts, called sequestration, set to take effect Jan. 2. “Our belief is Congress will act to avoid the sequestration and they certainly have time to do so and I hope they do,” Jordan said.

Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of PSC, said there are no specific rules or guidance that would protect the acquisition workforce from budget cuts. If agencies are asked to reduce their budgets across the board because of sequestration, the acquisition workforce may be subject to furloughs and other cost-cutting measures like the rest of the workforce, Chvotkin said.

“That’s where some of the challenge and the ambiguity of sequestration comes into play,” he said.

Jordan also said he has no plans to issue guidance to agencies on how to use a contracting method known as lowest price, technically acceptable. Using this method, agencies only look at vendors that meet specific technical requirements and then award the contract to the vendor that offers the lowest price.

Many vendors prefer an alternative method, called best value, in which vendors can offer more than what is technically required and the agency can decide if it is willing to pay more for that capability.

Jordan said he has been told by some vendors that the lowest-price, technically acceptable method is used inappropriately for complex purchases in which technical requirements are difficult to define. Conversely, many auditors and officials who oversee federal contracting say agencies should be making more awards based on lowest price.

Jordan said the fact that he is hearing concerns from both sides likely indicates that agencies’ are striking a good balance in deciding when and how to use lowest-price, technically acceptable source selection, Jordan said.

“I would doubt you’ll see any guidance from me that would say use one, not the other, because I don’t see how that makes sense,” he said.

But he encouraged industry to inform him of any problems they see with how agencies choose vendors.

DLA chief expects stable staffing as war and sales wind down

The Defense Logistics Agency is anticipating a steep drop in business as the war in Afghanistan winds down, but it is not planning for any drawdown, according to the agency’s director.

“I don’t have any plans to do a whole lot with the DLA workforce,” Vice Admiral Mark Harnitchek told reporters Wednesday, adding that he expects the workforce to remain stable at about 27,000.

After booking a record $46 billion in business last year, DLA could see its sales to the military drop by a quarter or more as U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, said Harnitchek, who became the agency’s director in November.

As part of an efficiency drive, DLA also aims to cut operating and materiel costs by 10 percent — or about $10 billion — by 2018. But because the bulk of the agency’s spending goes toward supply purchases, that area — not operations — represents the biggest potential for savings, he said. Apart from closing a distribution warehouse in Kuwait early next year, the agency has not decided to shutter facilities.

Harnitchek also said he hopes the Defense Department can fix chronic problems plaguing its supply chain management and remove that from the Government Accountability Office’s list of federal programs at high risk of waste fraud and abuse. That area has been on the high-risk roster since 1990; the latest update to the list is due out early next year.

“I would like to get off it,” Harnitchek said. But that will take “breakthrough progress,” he said. Among other measures, the agency is stepping up its use of reverse auctions, in which bidders compete to give the government the lowest price. In fiscal 2012, DLA has run 653 such auctions, saving almost $27 million, a spokeswoman said later.

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