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News Digest: Aug. 6

Aug. 5, 2012 - 01:42PM   |  
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Fewer nominees need Senate confirmation

The House last week approved legislation to drop requirements for Senate confirmation of about 170 presidential nominees.

The bill, which passed the Senate last year, was sent to the White House Aug. 2 for President Obama’s signature.

No longer requiring Senate confirmation are such positions as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the alternate federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The legislation originated in an agreement last year between Senate leaders to make the chamber work more smoothly. Still, more than 1,000 presidential appointments will remain subject to Senate confirmation, or roughly four times the number under President Kennedy a half-century ago.

The measure also sets a five-year term for the Census Bureau director’s job to insulate it from political factors.

FBI launches long-delayed Sentinel

The FBI has finally stood up its new automated case management system after numerous delays and cost overruns.

Sentinel replaces FBI’s paper-based system and provides users with new search capabilities to better link similar cases, according to an FBI news release.

Sentinel will also improve workflow by making electronic case information and intelligence data readily available to agents and analysts.

FBI employees began using Sentinel on July 1, but the agency will continue developing system capabilities based on employee feedback and evolving needs.

The project has cost $451 million and took six years to build, the FBI said. The FBI had originally planned to spend about $425 million on Sentinel and complete the project by December 2009.

Veterans bill would help speed claims process

An omnibus veterans bill awaiting President Obama’s signature takes steps to speed the veterans claims process.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said enabling electronic communication between veterans and the Veterans Affairs Department could cut weeks off the average time required to process claims, which could reduce a backlog that has grown “exponentially” over the past three years.

VA had 906,899 pending claims as of July 30, including 831,719 related to disabilities. Almost 68 percent were older than VA’s 125-day processing goal.

ID thieves collect $5.2B in IRS refunds

The Internal Revenue Service may have handed out more than $5.2 billion in income tax refunds last year to filers using stolen identities, an analysis by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration has found.

In one instance, the agency issued more than $3.3 million in potentially fraudulent refunds to a single address in Lansing, Mich., that was used to file 2,137 returns.

The most refunds, in dollar terms, were sent to Tampa, Fla., where the IRS issued an estimated $468 million in potentially fraudulent refunds on almost 89,000 returns.

The inspector general recommended legislation to give IRS access to the National Directory of New Hires database to improve its ability to identify tax returns with phony income documentation.

Deal reached to avert shutdown this fall

President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have struck a deal to avert a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year.

Boehner and Reid said last week that the six-month continuing resolution — through March — will fund the government at $1.047 trillion. “This agreement ... provides stability for the coming months, when we will have to resolve critical issues that directly affect middle-class families,” Reid said. “I hope that we can face the challenges ahead in the same spirit of compromise.”

The leaders expect lawmakers will write the continuing resolution over the August recess and have it ready for Congress to vote on in September.

Reid said the CR will give lawmakers breathing room to negotiate this fall over the so-called “fiscal cliff” — the steep budget cuts known as sequestration and the planned expiration of the Bush tax cuts — that is expected to deal a steep blow to the economy.

The CR will also reduce the chances of a government shutdown a month before the November election.

Cybersecurity bill fails to pass Senate

The Senate last week failed to pass cybersecurity legislation that would set voluntary security standards for owners of critical infrastructure, such as dams, energy and water systems.

Senators voted 52-46 in favor of the bill, S 3414, but fell short of the 60 votes needed to move forward with final passage.

When the bill will be reconsidered is unclear, considering Congress’ month-long recess that started last week.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and his co-sponsors spent weeks in negotiations with Republicans and even revised an original bill, which would have mandated security requirements.

Under the revised bill, critical infrastructure owners would become eligible for certain benefits if they voluntarily certify through a third party that they meet cybersecurity standards. Those benefits would include liability protections in the event of a cyber attack on their systems.

Lieberman said the breakdown was Republicans’ failure to compromise and “failure to control one’s impulse to see every bill that comes before the Senate, no matter how important, as nothing more than a vehicle to put on one’s favorite political issues.”

Nearly 200 amendments were introduced, including amendments to repeal the health care law.

GSA launches consolidated procurement system

The General Services Administration’s System for Award Management (SAM), a website that will eventually be a single access point for nine federal procurement systems, launched last week.

Three systems that list contractors’ business information, their certifications necessary to receive federal contracts and grants, and which contractors have been suspended and debarred are">now publicly available online.

Some information, such as contractors’ past performance reports, only are available to agencies, which use the system to verify that companies are eligible for contracts and grants.

Regulatory chief Sunstein returns to Harvard

Cass Sunstein is stepping down as the Obama administration’s regulatory chief to return to academia, acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients said last week.

Sunstein has served as administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs since September 2009. He leaves this month to rejoin Harvard Law School as a professor and head of a new program on behavioral economics and public policy.

OMB general counsel Boris Bershteyn will fill in as acting administrator.

TSA, union reach deal on labor agreement

The Transportation Security Administration and its union struck a deal last week for the agency’s first collective-bargaining agreement.

The American Federation of Government Employees did not release details on the contract. AFGE said it will submit the agreement to TSA’s 45,000 bargaining-unit employees for ratification in the next few weeks.

TSA screeners narrowly chose AFGE over its rival, the National Treasury Employees Union, by 456 votes in an election last June.

TSA Administrator John Pistole granted limited collective-bargaining rights to screeners in February 2011 but said he would not allow unions to bargain over security issues.

TSP gets active in collecting child support

The Thrift Savings Plan is increasing its cooperation with a Health and Human Services Department office to garnish TSP savings of employees who are behind in child support payments.

TSP has always been able to garnish funds to pay for child support, but until 2010, it almost never used that power. That year, TSP signed a memorandum of understanding to share data and help HHS’ Office of Child Support Enforcement collect unpaid child support.

TSP has processed an average 1,138 child support court orders per month so far this year, according to Tom Emswiler, general counsel for the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which manages the plan. That is up from a monthly average of less than 500 in 2011, four in 2010, and “basically zero” in previous years.

At the board’s monthly meeting last month, Emswiler said 35,000 TSP participants are behind on their child support payments. In all, he said, 78,544 federal employees who have TSP accounts owe child support.

Social Security to close five field offices

The Social Security Administration will close five field offices by the end of September, according to the union representing agency employees.

Those five, among almost 1,300 nationwide, are in Biloxi, Miss.; Ketchikan, Alaska; Louisville, Ky.; Washington; and Clinton, Iowa, the American Federation of Government Employees said in a news release.

In an email, SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle said the five offices are being consolidated with others and no workers will lose their jobs. The single employee in the Ketchikan office is retiring, Hinkle said.

The closings will leave thousands of citizens without access to benefits information and service representatives, AFGE charged.

DoD sends quadrennial review to Hill

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have sent the Pentagon’s latest Quadrennial Roles and Missions Review (QRMR) to the Senate and House Armed Services committees for review.

A copy of the 14-page document, obtained by Federal Times, closely follows the January strategic guidance released by DoD, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” and reiterates the 10 primary missions that document spelled out for fiscal 2013 through 2017.

It specifically focuses on four: “countering terrorism; deterring and defeating aggression; maintaining a safe, secure nuclear deterrent; and defending the homeland and providing support to civil authorities.”

The document does not mention sequestration and does not delve into specifics on budget cuts.

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