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News Briefs: Dec. 3, 2012

Dec. 2, 2012 - 01:31PM   |  
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Senator proposes pay freeze through 2015

Federal employee unions are blasting Sen. Bob Corker’s proposal to extend the federal pay scale freeze through 2015 and revamp pension benefits for new hires.

“If the government is to remain a competitive employer, it makes absolutely no sense to freeze [workers’] pay for what would be a five-year period,” National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said in a release.

The pay freeze, which began in January 2011, is now in effect through at least March.

Corker, a Tennessee Republican, made the proposals as part of a $4.5 trillion, 10-year deficit reduction package. The plan would mandate “common sense reforms to the federal workforce, which will help bring its compensation in line with private-sector benefits,” Corker wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week.

While Corker did not detail the pension changes he had in mind, NTEU said his plan would eliminate defined benefit annuities for new employees. Corker’s plan would also cut the federal workforce through attrition.

Obama threatens to veto DoD authorization

The Obama administration is threatening to veto the Senate version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, in part because of a provision that would require funding cuts for the Defense Department’s civilian and contractor workforce on par with reductions for military personnel.

The provision would entail more than $5 billion in cuts through 2017, the White House said in a statement Nov. 29, adding that the civilian workforce’s size should be based “on workload and funding, not on arbitrary comparisons to the military.”

A day later, however, the Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., to kill the provision.

The House-passed version of the defense bill does not have comparable language for civilian and contractor cuts.

Lawmakers want ‘official time’ report

Two House Republicans are calling on the Office of Personnel Management to release a report on the costs of federal employees conducting union business while on the job.

So-called “official time” grew by nearly 11 percent and its costs by roughly 13 percent from 2010 to 2011, Angela Bailey, OPM associate director of employee services, said at a meeting of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council last month.

That would mean federal employees spent roughly 3.4 million hours — at a cost of $155 million — conducting union business while on duty in 2011.

Federal Times reported the data in a Nov. 26 story, for which OPM declined to provide more information, pending the release of an official report.

Citing the Federal Times story in a Nov. 30 letter to OPM Director John Berry, Reps. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., and Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., wrote: “These statistics serve only to increase the need to access the fiscal 2011 report.”

The lawmakers — who have sponsored legislation that would prohibit the government from paying employees while they are conducting union business — said that OPM should release its annual report now. “Continued and timely preparation of these reports is necessary to provide transparency of the use of official time and to provide oversight of taxpayer dollars,” they wrote.

Senate OKs amendments to DoD authorization bill

Among amendments the Senate approved last week in its version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act:

• A provision offered by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to put in place certain wartime contracting practices. The provision comes after a blue-ribbon panel found deficiencies in the ways the Defense Department and other federal agencies awarded contracts and money for work in Afghanistan and Iraq.

• A provision from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to authorize a 1,000-person increase in the size of the Marine Corps to provide additional protections for U.S. embassies and consulates, a response to the September attack on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Only 186 USPS managers take early retirement

Only 186 U.S. Postal Service supervisors and administrators signed up for the agency’s early retirement offer.

Nearly 3,600 Executive and Administrative Schedule employees were eligible for the package, which allows employees to retire early if they are at least 50 years old with a minimum of 20 years’ service, or any age with at least 25 years’ service. Unlike recent early retirement offers to postmasters, mail handlers and clerks, however, this one was not coupled with a buyout.

“If there was an incentive, you could have gotten a lot more,” Louis Atkins, president of the National Association of Postal Supervisors, said in an interview.

Those who have accepted the offer must leave by year’s end.

IG faults oversight of health IT incentives

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services lacks proper oversight of a multibillion-dollar incentive program that rewards doctors and hospitals for successfully using health information technology, according to a federal audit.

CMS anticipates it will pay out $6.6 billion in incentives between 2011 and 2016 to health care professionals and hospitals that have certified electronic health record technology and use it in a meaningful way, according to a Health and Human Services inspector general report released last week.

CMS is not required to verify the accuracy of information that recipients of incentives self-report. Verification “would strengthen [CMS] oversight of the anticipated $6.6 billion in incentive payments, [and] verifying self-reported information prior to payment could also reduce the need to identify and recover erroneous payments after they are made.”

CMS plans to audit select providers and hospitals after payment, but has not yet completed an audit, the report said.

Talents underused, some management fellows say

While most Presidential Management Fellows are satisfied with their initial work experience in the prestigious program, a survey of the 2011 class reveals “warning signals that deserve attention,” the Partnership for Public Service said in a report released last week.

The survey, which got the views of about two-thirds of 420 fellows, shows that they generally like and respect their immediate supervisors, are motivated for public service and have realistic expectations for the program, the report said.

But 35 percent felt their first assignments were not always making good use of their talents and 43 percent thought their supervisors did not fully understand how the PMF program works, according to the report, which recommended placing fellows in jobs well-suited “for their experience and professional interests.”

Case explores judges’ role in classification

Federal judges may review whether agencies properly decide to classify information, government lawyers acknowledged in a court brief last week.

The issue arose in connection with a lawsuit, filed by the Center for International Environmental Law, challenging the U.S. Trade Representative’s decision to withhold a one-page document on the grounds that it is classified.

Judge Richard Roberts, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in March called the agency’s decision “not logical” and ordered the document’s release, according to the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News.

The government is appealing but has stopped short of claiming the court had no authority to order release of the document. “We agree that district courts (and courts of appeals) play an important role in evaluating the government’s compliance with its obligations” under the Freedom of Information Act, according to last week’s brief.

Obama signs law adding whistle-blower protections

President Obama last week signed into law the first major upgrade of whistle-blower protections for federal employees in almost two decades.

“This is a game-changer for whistleblowers. It closes many of the loopholes that supervisors exploited so they could retaliate against employees who exposed wrongs,” said John Mahoney at law firm Tully Rinckey.

What the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act does:

• Explicitly spells out protections for Transportation Security Administration employees.

• Protects government scientists who challenge censorship.

• Suspends the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals’ sole jurisdiction for hearing appeals of whistle-blower complaints. Whistle-blower advocates say that court almost always sides with the government. Under a two-year experiment, such appeals will instead be handled by circuit courts around the country.

• Makes it easier for the Office of Special Counsel to discipline officials who retaliate against whistle-blowers.

Indian trust settlement finally pays out

The Interior Department is proceeding with disbursement of a $3.4 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit over alleged government mismanagement of Indian trust funds, the department’s secretary, Ken Salazar, announced last week.

The settlement, which became final Nov. 24, creates a $1.5 billion fund to be distributed among almost 500,000 class members and a $1.9 billion fund to buy and consolidate up to 2.9 million land parcels that have been split among some 260,000 owners since the 1800s, according to a department news release. The consolidated holdings will be used for tribal communities’ benefit, the release said.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1996 alleging the government mismanaged more than 300,000 American Indian trust accounts, shortchanging account holders.

Navy seeks proposals for new presidential helo

A new effort to find a replacement for the aging presidential helicopters has begun with the release Nov. 23 of a draft solicitation aimed at potential competitors.

The request for proposals is the first step in the Navy’s acquisition process to develop the new helicopters under the VXX program.

The aim, according to the request, is to acquire up to 23 operational helicopters, the first of which is to enter service in 2020.

The current presidential fleet is made up of VH-60N Night Hawks and VH-3D Sea Kings, both produced by Sikorsky.

The new program replaces an earlier effort, also known as VXX, which was canceled in 2009 after dramatic cost and schedule overruns.

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