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News Digest: Sept. 24

Sep. 23, 2012 - 02:31PM   |  
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Senators optimistic about budget deal

Simpson-Bowles is back.

Several small groups of senators from both political parties are quietly trying to piece together legislation that would avoid twin $500 billion cuts to national defense and domestic programs.

While those lawmakers and their aides are tight-lipped about the ideas being bandied about, there appears to be a common starting point: a set of proposals first put forward in 2010 by a presidentially created commission.

“It’s definitely in play — at least parts of it are,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

That commission’s work is commonly referred to as the Simpson-Bowles report, named after its co-chairmen: former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Erskine Bowles, President Clinton’s former chief of staff.

If lawmakers later this year or early next year are able to set aside partisan conflict long enough to pass a $1.2 trillion deficit-paring plan, lawmakers and sources say they doubt it will mirror the Simpson-Bowles panel’s work. But, much like negotiating to buy an automobile, the commission’s report has served as a starting point for talks between Democrats and Republicans.

“Many of the concepts of Bowles-Simpson have always been in play,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., flipping the co-chairs’ names. “[Simpson-Bowles] has been an outline. Its details are very important.

“There are a number of discussions going on [among senators] around a balanced look at how we deal with sequestration,” Corker said. “They’re not necessarily just [Simpson-Bowles], but [that panel] has paved the way for those discussions to start from some place.”

Sequestration threatens AF tanker purchase

The Air Force might have to cancel its contract with Boeing to buy refueling tankers if Congress fails to modify a law mandating federal spending cuts before January, according to a senior service official.

The announcement that the Pentagon might have to cancel the KC-46 contract and renegotiate a multibillion-dollar deal with Boeing is one of the most direct examples of how those budget reductions, known as sequestration, would affect the military.

“I don’t want to break my contract, and I’m fearful sequestration may force me to do that,” Maj. Gen. John Thompson, tanker program executive officer and KC-46 program director, told reporters last week at an Air Force Association-sponsored conference near Washington.

33 firms win spots on EAGLE contract

The Army has issued the first round of awards for its $23.5 billion logistics support service contract to 33 companies.

The basic ordering agreements will allow the companies, including BAE Systems, DynCorp International, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, to compete for task orders through the Enhanced Army Global Logistics Enterprise (EAGLE) program.

The task orders will be for supply, maintenance and transportation services, as well as other logistics services, at 73 Army Logistics Centers, according to the Army’s EAGLE website.

A second round of awards will be made before Oct. 15, which is when agencies can begin issuing task orders. The Army also plans to release a solicitation for Step 2 of its EAGLE program on Oct. 1 and the final Step 3 in January.

DoD falls short in tracking senior employees’ skills

The Defense Department is failing to keep track of the skills it has in the senior ranks of nonmanagerial engineers, scientists, medical researchers and intelligence officials, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

“Without conducting such assessments and reporting on them, it is difficult to identify those areas that will require increased focus on recruiting, retention and training,” GAO said.

Defense agreed with GAO, and promised to study those gaps in the future.

Defense has 2,911 senior employees in all, and one-third of them — or 949 — are classified as senior level, senior technical or intelligence senior level officials. Those employees perform high-level work and exceed the top ranks of the General Schedule, but spend little or no time supervising other employees.

House bill: Cut GSA staff, freeze executive bonuses

The General Services Administration would be required to cut about 645 staff and freeze Senior Executive Service bonuses under a bill passed last week by the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee that oversees public buildings.

GSA would be required to reduce the number of full-time employees at its Public Buildings Service to fiscal 2008 levels — from about 6,689 to 6,044.

The bill would also prohibit SES bonuses through fiscal 2014 and require GSA to share detailed reports of its administrative spending with congressional committees.

GSA would also have to reduce its building inventory by 1 million square feet annually through 2016 and offset any new space with an equal reduction in existing space.

The legislation is part of the continuing fallout from an April 2 inspector general report that detailed lavish spending at a 2010 Las Vegas conference.

Group faults DoD implementation of law

The Defense Department has started to cap its contractors’ labor and overhead rates as required under a 2011 law. However, the department seems to have forgotten that higher rates are allowed in some cases, an industry association said last week.

Congress directed DoD to cap contractors’ labor and overhead rates on 2012 and 2013 service contracts or orders of $10 million or more at 2010 levels.

But the law was written as a “negotiation objective,” and DoD’s July guidance lacks detail about allowable exemptions, such as commercial items, firm-fixed price contracts, and instances where contractors have pre-negotiated rate agreements, Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, said in a Sept. 18 letter to Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Senator suggests splitting up NASA

In her last scheduled space hearing with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Sept. 13, retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, asked whether NASA might be better off paring back its diverse portfolio of programs and focusing exclusively on human exploration and science missions.

“Is NASA’s mission too broad to be able to fully fund the priorities and should we, in the next NASA authorization, look at splitting NASA?” Hutchison asked witnesses.

Hutchison, a longtime NASA champion whose 19 years in the Senate will end come January, asked “as an example” whether NASA’s aeronautics program might be better off in the Defense Department. NASA devoted $570 million of its $17.8 billion budget to aeronautics research in 2012.

None of three witnesses would play favorites with NASA’s portfolio, and all argued against splitting up the agency.

Air Force base opposes wind turbines

A plan to put 49 wind turbines on 11,000 acres near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., has triggered opposition from F-15E Strike Eagle training squadrons.

The proposed wind farm would stand within 15 nautical miles of military training routes, the base said in a news release, placing “dozens of 498-foot obstacles within a route where thousands of low-altitude, high speed military training sorties are flown every year.”

The fighter jets fly at altitudes as low as 500 feet, the release said. The wind turbines, which could rise to nearly 500 feet, pose a safety risk to pilots, especially at night, it said. Further, the wind farm could interfere with military radar used to track F-15E practice runs.

The proposed wind farm, called the Pantego Wind Energy project, requires both military and environmental approval, according to the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association.

Union loses bid to block mail plant consolidations

The Postal Regulatory Commission has scuttled a union’s attempt to block U.S. Postal Service plans to shut down mail processing plants.

The American Postal Workers Union in June told the commission that no downsizing plans should proceed until the PRC issues an advisory opinion on proposed changes to first-class mail delivery standards that accompany the downsizing. While that approach is “preferred,” it’s not mandatory, the five-member commission ruled in its 16-page order.

In all, the Postal Service plans to close or consolidate roughly half of its 433 plants during the next two years.

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