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News Briefs: March 25, 2013

Mar. 24, 2013 - 01:23PM   |  
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With CR passed, Pentagon mulls fewer furloughs

The Pentagon is delaying furlough notices to nearly 800,000 employees for two weeks while it considers how the newly passed continuing resolution will affect its planned sequester budget cuts.

The CR could allow the Defense Department to trim a few of the 22 planned furlough days.

In an e-mail Thursday, Jessica Wright, the acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, said “this delay [in issuing furlough notices] will allow the department to carefully analyze the impact of pending continuing resolution legislation on the department’s resources.”

The CR, which passed Congress Thursday morning and will fund the government for the rest of fiscal 2013, will give the Defense Department more flexibility to manage the sequester cuts by moving $10.4 billion into its operations and maintenance accounts.

The e-mail does not refer to any specific flexibilities in the CR, but said the bill “could have some impact on the overall number of furlough days.” However, Wright said no decision on cutting furlough days has so far been reached.

“We believe the delay is a responsible step to take in order to assure our civilian employees that we do not take lightly the prospect of furloughs and the resulting decrease in employee pay,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said in a statement.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon had been planning to issue proposed furlough notices between March 22 and 26. Wright said those notices will now be issued April 5, and that managers should not issue notices earlier without permission from herself or Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale.

The Pentagon had previously planned to begin furloughing employees April 25. But agencies are required to give employees 30 days’ notice before they can be furloughed. By delaying notification until April 5, the Pentagon will not be able to furlough employees until May 6 at the earliest. That would leave 21 weeks before the end of the fiscal year, making it impossible to furlough employees for the full 22 days without requiring employees to take two furlough days in at least one week.

In her e-mail, Wright also said she and Hale have finished reviewing Defense components’ requests to exempt some civilian employees from furloughs. She said the final list of furlough exemptions will be released after Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter reviews it.

Air Force scuttles energy-efficiency upgrades due to sequester

The Air Force has cut its budget for energy-efficiency upgrades by 90 percent because of the sequester.

Jamie Morin, acting undersecretary of the Air Force, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday that the automatic sequester budget cuts that took effect March 1 have cut deeply into the Air Force’s ability to do things like replace old windows and weatherproof facilities.

“We are literally only dealing with the emergency requirements in that area,” Morin said.

The energy-efficiency cuts were necessary to help boost spending in more critical areas and deal with what he called “mindless” sequester cuts.

The Air Force avoided about $1.5 billion in increased fuel costs by reducing its energy use, Morin said. It has reduced its use of aviation fuel by 12 percent over 2006 levels and cut its facility energy usage by 21 percent compared with 2003 levels.

“This is real money that we did not have to expend on fuel,” Morin said.

He also said the Air Force is looking increasingly to partner with the private sector to arrange alternative financing for facility upgrades and renewable energy investments in exchange for the use of Air Force land.

Coast Guard headquarters is only sure part of DHS consolidation

The Coast Guard headquarters will be the only part of the Department of Homeland Security’s planned consolidation to be completed, as of now, the General Services Administration’s top official said Tuesday.

“There is only so much we can do given that there aren’t additional resources for construction,” acting administrator Dan Tangherlini told reporters after a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government.

GSA will continue working with DHS on preliminary designs for a more ambitious headquarters consolidation, but there is not enough funding this year to do much besides the Coast Guard headquarters project, he said.

The Coast Guard headquarters is to be completed in the next few months for nearly 4,000 employees. The initial DHS consolidation plan had called for more than 14,000 DHS employees to be housed in dozens of buildings at the St. Elizabeths hospital site in Southeast Washington site by 2016.

Low funding also has forced GSA to cut back on maintenance for federal buildings it manages and could result in boilers breaking down or roofs failing, Tangherlini said.

“The lack of investment is going to come back in the form of dramatic concerns,” he said.

GSA cancels two summer conferences

The General Services Administration is canceling two more major conferences.

It will not hold FedForum, formerly FedFleet, slated for July 16 in New Orleans, nor the SmartPay Training Forum, scheduled for Aug. 6 in Chicago, because travel budget cuts have reduced expected attendance.

“After carefully reviewing the projected spending and attendance for this year’s conferences, GSA will suspend both in an effort to use our resources more responsibly and to deliver better value and savings for our government partners, our vendors and the American people,” GSA press secretary Mafara Hobson said.

The cancellations follow on the heels of GSA’s cancellation of its annual Training and Expo, which had been scheduled for May 14 in Orlando, Fla.

Conference and travel spending has fallen since an April inspector general report detailed a GSA conference that cost $823,000 for 300 staffers and prompted the resignation and firing of top agency leadership.

In May, the Office of Management and Budget directed agencies to cut travel spending by 30 percent in 2013 compared with a 2010 baseline.

House panel passes bill to curb travel spending

A House panel voted Wednesday to curb federal travel spending by capping agency spending on conferences — at $500,000 per event — and require quarterly reports itemizing travel, lodging, meals and other conference costs.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s approval of the measure — called the Government Spending Accountability Act, HR 313 — is the latest step by lawmakers to crack down on travel spending in the wake of conference scandals at the General Services Administration and Veterans Affairs Department.

“The intent of the bill is obviously to make sure that we know what the conference was about, what it was justified for, and of course the expenditures, including expenditures such as the ones we’ve seen for clowns and movies and so one,” said committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., referencing GSA’s 2010 Las Vegas conference that featured clowns and mind readers.

Under the measure, agencies would be prohibited from sending more than 50 employees to international conferences unless it is of national interest or the agency determines sending additional people is critical to its mission. The bill would also require agencies to obtain a waiver that justifies spending more than $500,000 for a conference and codify Office of Management and Budget policies instructing agencies to reduce federal travel spending 30 percent below 2010 levels.

Some lawmakers, however, are concerned the bill will create a chilling effect and hamper employees’ ability to collaborate and do their jobs.

“This is a bill that’s well intentioned and designed to try to reform a mess that occurred with one agency and to make sure it does not reoccur,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va, who voted against the bill. “I am worried about the chilling effects.”

Officials sound the alarm over retention, recruitment

The furloughs, pay freezes, possible retirement benefit cuts and other dire news for federal employees threaten to shatter the government’s recruitment and retention efforts, Obama administration officials and union leaders said Wednesday.

“I don’t know what straw breaks the camel’s back, but I can tell you this: We are close to the edge of the cliff,” Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said at a Wednesday meeting of senior administration and labor leaders.

“We cannot recruit and retain a qualified workforce by freezing their pay forever. We cannot do it by changing their retirement plan on an annual basis. We cannot do it by denigrating public service,” Berry said.

Berry pointed out that the Government Accountability Office “dragged me over the coals” in a Feb. 14 report for not being able to recruit employees to fill vital cybersecurity skills gaps, and the next day, the House passed a bill freezing pay for a third straight year.

“Only in this town can … no one see a connection between those two points,” said Berry, who is co-chair of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, which meets bimonthly.

More than 200 at Lockheed Martin take buyouts

More than 200 midlevel managers at Lockheed Martin are leaving the company this week with buyouts.

The company announced the voluntary program last month for 4,000 eligible employees in its information systems and global solutions unit. A total of 260 employees applied, and 243 were approved for buyouts, a spokesperson told Federal Times. Those employees will receive severance benefits and must leave the company by March 22.

“We are not planning additional layoffs at this time, though we will continue to evaluate our workforce needs given today’s budget environment,” the spokesperson said.

The voluntary layoffs were not prompted by automatic budget cuts, but Lockheed’s information systems and global solutions unit is assessing the impacts of the sequester cuts to its business, programs and customers, spokesman Keith Mordoff said last month.

Lockheed is looking to reduce its workforce by 300 to 350 employees, Mordoff said. It isn’t clear over what period.

“The reduction in force is designed to best position the business to remain competitive and operationally efficient, providing the most affordable solutions to our customers,” he said.

Budget director Zients staying until nominee confirmed

With the Obama administration expected to release a budget proposal the week of April 8, Jeffrey Zients will stay on for a little while as acting budget director, officials say.

President Obama has nominated Sylvia Mathews Burwell to take over the Office of Management and Budget, but she must be confirmed by the Senate.

Zients’ extra duty may also knock him out of consideration to be Ron Kirk’s replacement as U.S. trade representative.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said officials expect Burwell to be confirmed as budget director, “but it is the case that confirmations take a certain amount of time, even when they’re smooth.”

“And this is an enormously important agency, especially at this time,” Carney added.

Zients “brings a unique set of talents and wisdom to this job, and the president appreciates his service and his willingness to continue as acting director very much indeed,” Carney said.

OMB sets no-growth policy on federal real estate footprint

Agencies are under orders to freeze or reduce the amount of real estate they own and lease at 2012 levels or less.

In March 14 guidance, the Office of Management and Budget told agencies to develop three-year real estate plans and to estimate prospective real estate savingsthrough fiscal 2015.

They also must work collaboratively with other agencies and the General Services Administration to identify co-location opportunities wherever possible.

GSA will evaluate agency real estate footprints every year and verify the reported information.

Danny Werfel, OMB controller, said in a blog post that agencies will incorporate best practices from previous efforts to shed unneeded property.

The guidance builds on an OMB directive last May requiring agencies to offset any new buildings or office space with a corresponding reduction somewhere else. And it builds on an earlier directive that required $3.5 billion savings in real estate costs from fiscal 2010 to 2012.

“Agencies have made tremendous progress in making their real estate inventories more efficient, however, we know there is still more work to be done,” Werfel said.

GAO: Contract program for vet-owned vendors vulnerable to fraud

The Veterans Affairs Department awarded nearly $4 billion in veteran set-aside contracts in 2012, but a congressional watchdog said Tuesday that officials aren’t doing enough to beef up how the department verifies contractor eligibility.

Despite hiring more than two dozen employees and 174 contractors to bolster contractor verification efforts, VA’s program for awarding contracts to veteran-owned and service-disabled vetweran-owned businesses remains vulnerable to fraud and abuse, William Shear, director of financial markets and community investment at the Government Accountability Office, told a House panel Tuesday.

Shear’s remarks came during a joint hearing of two subcommittees — one under the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the other under the Small Business Committee — that also saw veterans’ groups complain that VA rules were too confusing and sometimes at odds with Small Business Administration policies.

Davy Leghorn, assistant director in the American Legion’s economic division, testified that many veterans view the VA contract verification process as overly burdensome and overzealous.

“The bottom line here is that a legitimate firm may qualify under one program but not the other,” said Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., chairman of the subcommittee on contracting and workforce.

Service-disabled veteran-owned companies stand to lose out on more than 7,500 contracts worth more than $1 billion due to sequestration, said Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y.

“Given the recent sequester it is more important than ever to correct these flaws,” she said.

But Thomas Leney, executive director of the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, said the VA has made a host of improvements aimed at vetting businesses and ensuring only eligible firms get veteran contracts.

He also said there were only a few differences between the VA and SBA in the regulation and interpretation of rules governing verification programs at the agencies.

Still, Shear said congressional auditors were unable to test how well the VA’s new verification process works because of what he called a “lack of progress”. And while he credited the VA for improvements in fraud prevention, he added that “we know there are a lot of concerns out there.”

Commerce chief leaving for University of Wisconsin post

President Obama’s acting Commerce secretary is heading to the University of Wisconsin.

A special committee of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents picked Rebecca Blank, who has been serving as acting Commerce secretary for the last nine months, to be the school’s next chancellor from a field of four finalists, the university announced Monday.

“I am both delighted and honored to receive this offer and delighted and honored to accept it,” Blank said. “Wisconsin is a world-class university, and the opportunity to provide leadership with first-class groups of staff and faculty is exciting.”

Blank took the helm at Commerce on June 9 after then Commerce Secretary John Bryson took a medical leave after suffering a seizure while involved in a hit-and-run traffic incident. Bryson resigned from Commerce on June 21, and Blank has led the department since.

Blank joined the Obama administration in June 2009 as undersecretary of Commerce for economic affairs and was elevated to deputy secretary in November 2010.

The Board of Regents is scheduled to vote on the recommendation April 5. If confirmed, Blank said she wants to start in late July. In a statement, Obama said that Blank will remain at the department until summer, but it remains unclear when he will nominate his next Commerce secretary.

Blank, who grew up in Minnesota, was a visiting fellow at Wisconsin’s Department of Economics and Institute for Research on Poverty in 1985. She’s held teaching positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Northwestern University and the University of Michigan.

At Michigan, she served as dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy from 1999-2007.

Blank said during a recent a visit to the Wisconsin campus that she had tired of the political battles in Washington, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Obama described Blank as “a tireless advocate for American businesses.”

“Over the past four years I have asked Becky to take on several roles at the Department of Commerce, and in each one she has distinguished herself as a steady leader and a vital member of my economic team,” Obama said.

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