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News Briefs: Feb. 25, 2013

Feb. 24, 2013 - 04:23PM   |  
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Obama again calls on Congress to avoid sequestration

President Obama pressed Congress again Tuesday to head off $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts set to start taking effect March 1.

Lawmakers instead should approve “a balanced approach” that combines a smaller package of targeted spending reductions with new revenue raised by closing tax loopholes, Obama said in a 13-minute presentation from the White House.

“I am willing to work with anybody to get the job done,” Obama said. “None of us will get 100 percent of what we want, but nobody should want these cuts to go through.”

Behind him stood about 16 uniformed firefighters and other first responders. If the cuts take effect, Obama said, FBI agents will be furloughed, Border Patrol agents will work fewer hours and “hundreds of thousands of jobs will be at risk.”

“These cuts are not smart, they are not fair, they will hurt our economy,” Obama said. He did not take questions from reporters afterwards.

Both the House and Senate are out of session this week, meaning that only four days will remain to avert sequestration, as the cuts are formally known, when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill.

Last week, Senate Democrats unveiled a $110 billion deficit reduction plan that would combine a tax increase on millionaires with long-term cuts to defense spending and farm subsidies.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has shown no interest in pursuing the plan. In a Tuesday statement, McConnell dismissed Obama’s appearance as evidence that, three months after the November election, the president “still prefers campaign events to common sense, bipartisan action.”

800,000 DoD civilians face furloughs in April

The Defense Department said Wednesday it will furlough almost 800,000 employees — essentially its entire civilian workforce — beginning in late April.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress and Defense employees that the department will be forced to furlough almost all of its civilian employees if the budget cuts known as sequestration take effect March 1 and are not quickly averted.

In a Pentagon briefing with reporters, undersecretary of Defense and comptroller Robert Hale said the department will not issue layoffs, known as reductions in force (RIFs), this year. Hale said that, this late in the fiscal year, paying RIFed employees for their unused leave and severance pay would actually cost the Pentagon money. But Hale did not rule out the possibility of RIFs next year.

Hale said the Pentagon will notify employees in mid-March that they are likely to be furloughed. Because employees must have 30 days advance notice before they are furloughed, the Pentagon will officially tell employees they are furloughed in mid-April. Employees will then have one week to appeal their furlough to the Merit Systems Protection Board, and if their appeal is unsuccessful, they will then be furloughed.

“The bottom line is furloughs would not actually start for DoD employees until late April,” Hale said. “And we certainly hope that in the interim, Congress will act to detrigger sequestration or … to take some short-term action while they’re dealing with the broader issue. Meanwhile, unfortunately, we’ll have to continue our planning for furloughs. Frankly, this is one of the most distasteful tasks I have faced in my four years in this job.”

EPA may shut down three days due to sequester cuts

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to shut down for three days in response to automatic budget cuts set to begin late next week, according to union officials involved in discussions with agency management.

Under the plan, almost all of EPA’s approximately 18,000 employees would take mandatory furlough days on May 24, July 5 and Aug. 30, according to a summary provided by the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents the bulk of the agency’s workforce.

EPA workers would also have to schedule another three furlough days between April 21 and June 15, according to the summary. The only exceptions would be presidential appointees whose jobs require Senate confirmation, said Chuck Orzehoskie, president of the council.

Agency managers would also encourage a “liberal leave without pay” policy, according to the union, and cut back on spending for travel and supplies.

AFGE, along with other unions representing EPA workers, has been in “pre-decisional” discussions with agency management Wednesday and Thursday, Orzehoskie said. No final decisions will be made until after March 1, when the across-the-board cuts are slated to take effect unless Congress and the Obama administration reach a deal to head them off.

“We’re not going to furlough anybody until Congress says we have to,” Orzehoskie said.

In an email, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson did not dispute the accuracy of the union’s claims, but also said that no final decisions have been made.

Sequestration would mean a roughly 5 percent budget cut for EPA and other non-defense agencies through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The EPA cuts would translate into fewer compliance inspections, less money for water quality projects, and cutbacks in research to help communities adapt to climate change, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote in a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., earlier this month.

Air traffic controllers face furloughs under sequestration

The Federal Aviation Administration may furlough “the vast majority” of air traffic controllers and other employees if across-the-board budget cuts take effect as scheduled next Friday, top officials told aviation trade groups in a letter Friday.

The agency, whose workforce totals about 47,000, is also considering closing more than 100 air traffic control towers around the country, eliminating midnight shifts at some 60 others, and cutting back on preventive maintenance and supplies, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in the letter.

If needed under sequestration, the cutbacks would begin in April, they said. Employee furloughs would average one day per pay period through the end of the fiscal year in September.

“All of these changes will be finalized as to scope and detail through collaborative discussions with our users and our unions,” LaHood and Huerta said.

The scheduled cuts, required by the 2011 Budget Control Act, will cost non-defense agencies about 5 percent of their budgets unless Congress and the Obama administration agree to head them off. While almost 4,000 FAA employees were furloughed for about two weeks in 2011 after Congress failed to pass a stopgap spending bill on time, those temporary layoffs did not affect air traffic controllers. In this case, “travelers should expect delays” because fewer controllers will be on duty, LaHood and Huerta said.

Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco could be slowed by up to 90 minutes during peak hours, according to their letter.

The cutbacks could also reduce the number of flights that can be in the air at any particular time, Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a statement. As a result, he said, the public could face fewer options and higher ticket prices.

“Air traffic controllers are accustomed to performing under pressure and they will rise to this challenge if confronted with it,” Church added. “But these kinds of indiscriminate cuts will not help improve the efficiency of the world’s safest air space.”

Customs, Border Patrol will see furloughs

Customs and Border Protection is planning to furlough all 60,000 employees for up to 14 days if sequestration goes into effect, the National Treasury Employees Union said Wednesday.

CBP told NTEU that the furloughs will be necessary to help it cut $754 million from its budget between March 1 — when sequestration is scheduled to begin — and Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends. NTEU said that CBP will issue furlough notices in mid-March.

NTEU said CBP is also planning to slash travel, training and overtime and freeze all hiring. CBP will have fewer law enforcement personnel at the border, NTEU said, which will greatly increase wait times at border crossings, and the reduced travel and slowed commercial traffic will substantially cut revenue collected.

NTEU National President Colleen Kelley urged Congress to avert sequestration.

“These cuts will have devastating impacts on CBP’s dual missions of securing our borders and facilitating trade and travel,” Kelley said. “With the great consequences so clear to so many people, organizations and vital government programs, it is hard to believe Congress will choose to pursue this wrong-headed course.”

CBP told NTEU in a letter Tuesday that furloughs will be a last resort, and said it will try to spread furlough days throughout the rest of the fiscal year. Kelley said that would cost CBP officers more than two days of pay each month for the rest of the year.

CBP also said it will halt the hiring of new frontline officers beginning in April, and it will continue offering basic training for all new officers hired through the end of March. But CBP said all other training will be cancelled for the rest of the year — except for canine, special operations, and intermediate force and firearms training — which it expects will save $25 million.

CBP has also cancelled all recruitment, retention and relocation incentive payments as of December 2012.

Overtime in CBP’s Office of Field Operations will be cut by $37.5 million.

And CBP outlined several maintenance and repair contracts that might be reduced. For example, the Integrated Fixed Tower procurements — a series of fixed sensor towers along the border meant to detect illegal crossings — may be delayed. Maintenance on the Remote Video Surveillance System program of border cameras could also be reduced, saving $15 million.

CBP will cut information technology contract support staff to save $19 million.

CBP is also planning to cut its Air and Marine Interdiction operations and maintenance to save costs. Flight hours for the P-3 patrol aircraft would be cut by 1,900 hours. All other aircraft flight hours would be cut by 18,800 hours.

Education Secretary decries sequestration

Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out swinging Thursday, directing his harshest words at congressional lawmakers before what he calls “increasingly likely” mandatory spending cuts for “real kids, real teachers and real classrooms” from sequestration this March.

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast roundtable, Duncan said teachers are beginning to receive pink slips based on school districts’ fears of sequestration, the mandated, across-the-board 5 percent cuts created by Congress to push lawmakers into a budget deal. “This stuff is real,” he said.

A former Chicago schools CEO, Duncan blamed what he called “the height of dysfunction” in Congress: “There’s no one in their right mind who would say this is good for kids and good for the country, yet somehow it becomes tenable in Washington. I just think people don’t spend enough time in the real world. And if we spent more time in the real world, we wouldn’t have this kind of intransigence here.”

The Obama administration estimates that the automatic spending cuts would slice $725 million from federal Title I programs for poor children, affecting 1.2 million students in 2,700 schools and putting the jobs of about 10,000 teachers at risk.

Also on the chopping block, according to Duncan: $598 million for federal aid to disabled students, affecting an additional 7,200 teachers. Public schools on Indian land, as well as Department of Defense schools on military bases, which rely more directly than most on federal aid, could see the fallout more quickly — as soon as this spring, said Carmel Martin, a top Duncan aide. A few schools could even be forced to shorten their school day or school year, she said.

Duncan called the situation “very, very worrying,” saying schools already operate with too few resources and personnel.

“The (school) day is too short. The year’s too short. We don’t have enough after-school. And now to say, ‘OK, because we can’t sit at a table and compromise and find some middle ground, we’re just going to let a bunch of kids start to suffer and a bunch of teachers start to get pink slips?’ How’s that rational? How’s that leadership? Is that why you ran for office and got elected and did all these things? Do you feel proud about that? I don’t get it.”

FEMA slashes work hours for Sandy recovery

MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — Even though an estimated 40,000 New Jersey families remain displaced and thousands of businesses are closed because of superstorm Sandy, work hours have been slashed for federal employees assigned to the recovery effort in New Jersey.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency put its state staff of 1,600 on a standard 40-hour schedule this week after allowing nearly unlimited overtime after the storm struck Oct. 29.

The rollback of hours doesn’t affect New York, where FEMA staffers can still log 55 “core hours” each week, an agency spokesman said Wednesday.

New Jersey isn’t being shortchanged, said the FEMA spokesman, Darrel Habisch.

“As FEMA programs in any disaster operation matures, the need for long hours decreases. This is a natural progression of each program’s cycle. Some programs require more intensive labor and others decrease in labor requirements as the disaster recovery process continues,” Habisch said. “Each disaster is different in relation to geographic area, population needs and speed of recovery.”

Habisch said overtime will be allowed “when warranted.”

“We want to be smart with the deployment of labor and expenditure of taxpayer dollars,” he said.

FEMA closed several of its disaster recovery centers in both New Jersey and New York in the past month as it said demand decreased. The centers are open six days a week in both states, but New Jersey offices are open an hour longer each day for a total of 57 hours a week.

The staffing change was made amid complaints about a backlog of flood insurance claims. Members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation wrote to FEMA last week to express a “growing concern” with how long it’s taking to process claims filed with the National Flood Insurance Program. Officials said staffing for that program isn’t being reduced.

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