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News Briefs: Dec. 17

Dec. 16, 2012 - 02:01PM   |  
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Federal employee groups fear that a change in the way the government sets cost-of-living adjustments is growing increasingly likely to be part of a deal to avoid sequestration.

The new method of determining the Consumer Price Index, called the chained CPI, would lower the COLAs for federal retirees’ pensions, as well as Social Security benefits, military pensions and other indexed portions of the government’s budget. The change would at first mean only a few hundred dollars less per year for federal retirees. But it would compound over the years and decades until eventually, retirees would likely earn tens of thousands of dollars less than they would under the current method of setting COLAs.

The chained CPI is usually 0.25 to 0.30 percentage points lower each year, on average, than the standard CPI measurements.

However, the switch could save the government more than $290 billion over the next decade, according to a paper released last week by the Moment of Truth Project, which is co-chaired by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson.

Simpson and Bowles also pushed for a transition to the chained CPI in 2010, when they headed the White House’s deficit-reduction commission.

Jessica Klement, legislative representative for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, told reporters during a conference call that there is more talk on Capitol Hill recently about adopting the chained CPI method of calculating inflation.

“This is getting a lot of traction in deficit-reduction talks just because of the amount of money it saves,” Klement said.

But Klement and other representatives of federal employees also noted that the chained CPI is somewhat confusing and hard to explain, which may mute protests from the public if the government adopts it.

“This is an arcane way to raise taxes and cut benefits and raise a lot of revenue,” said Bruce Moyer, chair of the Federal-Postal Coalition, an organization of more than two dozen federal union, management and retiree groups. The chained CPI would also mean tax bracket thresholds would increase more slowly, which the Moment of Truth Project said would alone generate an extra $62 billion nationwide over a decade.

Federal employee groups object to the chained CPI and note that federal employees have already contributed $103 billion to deficit reduction over the next decade. The current pay freeze has already cost feds $60 billion, the coalition said, and a reduced and delayed raise next year will cost them $28 billion more.

Congress approves bill to reduce GAO audits

The Government Accountability Office will get a little workload relief under a bill given final congressional approval last week.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., relaxes or ends requirements for eight major audits that “are overly burdensome but do not produce much useful information,” according to a House Oversight and Government Committee news release after lawmakers sent the measure to President Obama for his signature.

Instead of auditing the Capitol Preservation Commission annually, for example, GAO will now only have to do so every three years.

GAO spokesman Chuck Young said the changes would help the agency prioritize its work “in ways that best meet the Congress’ current needs.”

Supreme Court grants broader appeal rights

The Supreme Court last week ruled that federal employees can appeal Merit Systems Protection Board decisions on discrimination in certain personnel actions to federal district courts.

The National Treasury Employees Union applauded the Dec. 10 decision and said sending the cases to district courts will give employees broader appeal rights than sending them to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The court ruled in favor of a former Labor Department employee, Carolyn Kloeckner, who said she was fired in 2006 after complaining about age and sex discrimination.

Kloeckner had a case pending with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when she was fired and decided to bring a so-called mixed case to MSPB. She later added her discrimination claim to her EEOC case, and MSPB granted her request to dismiss her case without prejudice, so there would not be duplicative cases.

However, the EEOC judge terminated Kloeckner’s proceeding in April 2007 to punish her for “bad-faith discovery conduct,” according to the Supreme Court, and returned the case to Labor, which ruled against her on all claims. Kloeckner tried to appeal to MSPB in November 2007, but her deadline to refile had passed and MSPB dismissed her appeal as untimely.

Kloeckner sued Labor in federal district court, which dismissed her case and said she should have filed it in a federal circuit court, because MSPB dismissed the case on procedural grounds.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the law states such mixed cases should be filed in district court, as Kloeckner did. In an opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the court rejected the government’s claims that the law splits jurisdiction on mixed cases — sending cases on MSPB merit decisions to district court and procedural rulings to the circuit court — as implausible and “mazelike.”

IG investigating Army DynCorp settlement

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has opened an investigation into the Army Corps of Engineers’ nearly $73 million settlement with construction contractor DynCorp International, according to a Dec. 13 letter from IG John Sopko.

At issue is an Oct. 25 IG finding that an Afghan National Army garrison had structural issues and sinkholes and that despite unsatisfactory performance by DynCorp, the Army Corps released DynCorp from its settlement and paid the company nearly the full contract amount, according to Sopko.

Agencies fail to justify sole-source awards

Most agencies do not justify large, sole-source contract awards to small businesses, as required by law, according to a review.

The 2010 National Defense Authorization Act called for agencies to justify sole-source awards to 8(a) firms that exceed $20 million. The regulation was supposed to bring more scrutiny to large, sole-source contracts awarded to 8(a) firms owned by Alaska Native corporations, Indian tribes and others.

But the council tasked with updating regulations to mandate the justifications took more than a year to do so, the Government Accountability Office report noted. During that period, agencies awarded 42 sole-source contracts worth more than $2.3 billion without justifying the awards, according to GAO.

Since the law was revised in March 2011 to reflect the new requirements, agencies have awarded 14 sole-source 8(a) contracts with values of more than $20 million, but only three included justifications.

GAO recommended that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy provide further guidance on when justifications are needed and that the Small Business Association ensure agencies complete justifications when required.

Allow electronic devices during flights: McCaskill

The Federal Aviation Administration needs to update its policies to allow use of electronic devices during flights, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a letter last week to acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta.

“The current rules are inconvenient to travelers, don’t make sense and lack a scientific basis,” McCaskill wrote.

If FAA doesn’t act soon, McCaskill, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said she will “pursue legislative solutions.”

43 small businesses win GSA contracts for IT

The General Services Administration awarded contracts to 43 small businesses to sell tablet computers, mobile devices and other common information technology products and services to agencies.

The blanket purchase agreements were awarded through GSA’s National Information Technology Commodity Program and are available to federal, state and local agencies. GSA’s Office of Integrated Technology Services launched the program last year in an effort to procure IT commodities and supplemental services for government. The contracts will provide agencies with deeper discounts than those offered on GSA’s Multiple Award Schedules, according to an agency news release.

Congress approves Coast Guard reauthorization

Congress last week gave final approval to a two-year Coast Guard reauthorization bill.

The bill also provides expedited hiring authority for new acquisition employees and requires the agency to produce a five-year capital investment plan.

The measure sets total discretionary spending at $8.62 billion in 2013 and $8.72 billion in 2014, enough to support military pay raises for Coast Guard service members, according to an official synopsis.

Performance.gov expands data on agency goals

The public can now get an online look at how agencies are progressing toward their priority performance goals under upgrades to a central website unveiled last week by the Office of Management and Budget.

The changes to Performance.gov provide a “progress update” on agency actions to pursue those goals, as well as an outline of the steps ahead.

Army awards contract for Microsoft agreements

The Army Contracting Command has awarded a $617 million contract to Insight Public Sector for Microsoft license agreements, the Defense Department announced last week.

The company will provide Microsoft enterprise license agreements for 1.5 million devices across the Army, Air Force and Defense Information Systems Agency through November 2015.

GSA awards $318M contract for LA courthouse

The General Services Administration awarded a $318 million contract to Clark Construction to design and build a new 550,000-square-foot courthouse in Los Angeles, according to a Dec. 10 announcement.

The new courthouse will house the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The agency also issued a request for information Dec. 10 for private-sector ideas to reuse the Edward R. Roybal Federal Courthouse and adjacent federal building at 300 N. Los Angeles St. or exchange the properties for a new building.

GSA has special authority to enter into leases or other special financing deals with the private sector to exchange, trade, lease or otherwise negotiate for new construction or renovation projects.

Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini said in a June 22 letter to Congress that he wanted to trade the courthouse for a new 175,000-square-foot facility.

Tangherlini said in a Dec. 10 release announcing the RFI that the agency is taking new approaches to work with the private sector to exchange outdated properties for new ones.

“This project would also consolidate other federal agencies in Los Angeles into one state-of-the-art facility, shrinking the federal real estate footprint and eliminating multiple leases, saving taxpayer dollars,” Tangherlini said.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees GSA, said in a statement that the latest RFI is one more step in getting rid of unneeded government property.

Unisys to move Archives to cloud-based email

The National Archives and Records Administration has awarded Unisys Corp. a $7.2 million contract to move thousands of its email accounts to a cloud-based system.

Under the five-year contract, 4,500 NARA email accounts will be moved to Google’s cloud-based email and collaboration system, Unisys announced last week.

The contract has a one-year base period and four one-year options.

NARA expects the change will cut operational costs and improve system uptime and availability, Unisys said in a news release.

In addition to NARA, Unisys has moved other agencies to the cloud, including 25,000 accounts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 17,000 at the General Services Administration and 5,000 at the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory.

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