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News Briefs: April 22, 2013

Apr. 21, 2013 - 04:11PM   |  
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Courts seek more than $51 million to counter sequester cuts

Federal judiciary leaders plan to seek more than $51 million in extra fiscal 2013 funding to offset the impact of sequester-related budget cuts on defender services, court security and other areas.

The judiciary will ask the Office of Management and Budget later this month to send the request to Congress, Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said Thursday.

The defender services program alone is losing $51 million to the sequester. The program provides legal representation to defendants who can’t afford lawyers on their own. Already, criminal prosecutions have been delayed because local offices lack the staff to continue representing clients or can’t afford experts and other costs, Chief Judge William Traxler, chairman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, said in a statement.

Besides seeking to replace the lost $51 million for defender services, the judiciary will ask for additional money for probation and pre-trial services, security and court staffing, according to Traxler’s statement.

Overall, the courts are losing almost $350 million, or about 5 percent, of this year’s funding to the sequester. While the judiciary is committed to doing its part for deficit reduction, Traxler said, the impact “is particularly harsh because the courts have no control over their workload. They must respond to all cases that are filed, whether they are by individuals, businesses or the government.”

On Wednesday, the executive committee approved a spending plan for the defender services program that will require employee furloughs of up to 15 days, Traxler said, and defer payments to private attorneys for the last 15 business days of the fiscal year in September. But that plan also means that million of dollars in expenses will be shifted to fiscal 2014, even though those costs weren’t part of the courts’ budget request. “This level of funding is unsustainable without relief from Congress,” Traxler said.

The House Appropriations Committee has received no supplemental funding requests from other agencies, spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said via email,

Lawmaker: Postal reform bill coming ‘very soon’

A key lawmaker plans to introduce comprehensive postal legislation soon, with hopes for final passage by October.

“I think we’re close,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said at a Wednesday hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Asked afterward when he would proceed with a bill, Issa, the committee’s chairman, said only “very soon.”

While lawmakers’ previous predictions of progress on a comprehensive bill have not panned out, one mail industry representative said the four-hour hearing left him optimistic.

“I got a clear sense that [Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s top Democrat] and Issa were more than willing to work together, that they both have come to the point in time where they realize something needs to be done,” said Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, a trade group of businesses that rely heavily on the mail.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also hopes to proceed soon with a bill, a spokeswoman said later via email.

The hearing on the U.S. Postal Service’s financial plight came a week after Congress forced the agency to halt plans to end Saturday mail delivery starting in August. Cutting back Saturday mail delivery would have saved an estimated $2 billion a year, USPS has said.

Postmaster General Pat Donahoe said cutting back Saturday delivery is only one of nine steps that Congress must approve for the Postal Service to return to financial viability.

“We’ve made some big, big changes, but there are still some things we need to do to get costs down,” Donahoe said. Also high on the USPS wish list is creation of its own health plan that would end a legal requirement to funnel about $5.5 billion annually into a fund for future retiree health care benefits; the plan would also require retirees to move to Medicare.

While postal officials have previously said that creation of a USPS plan would entail pulling more than 1 million workers and retirees out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, Donahoe said he could “work within” FEHBP if given the latitude to tailor a plan to the agency’s needs.

Issa and Cummings agreed that the Postal Service cannot stay on its current path.

“If we can’t get this done,” Cummings said, “we might as well go home.”

GAO recommends a halt to 11 courthouse projects

The General Services Administration should halt all 11 courthouse construction and renovation projects planned for the next five years to better review costs and space needs, the Government Accountability Office recommends.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, which proposed the projects, estimates the 11 projects would cost $1.1 billion, but the actual cost could be closer to $3.2 billion, Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at GAO, said Wednesday at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The projects should be subjected to more rigorous cost analysis, he said. Otherwise, “congressional funding decisions could be made with incomplete or inaccurate information,” he said.

The courthouse projects the Judicial Conference recommended for 2014 include Mobile, Ala., Nashville, Tenn., Savannah, Ga., and Norfolk, Va. Only the Mobile project is in GSA’s fiscal 2014 budget request released last week., with the agency requesting $41 million for the large-scale renovation.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said existing courthouses have excess space because the Judicial Conference has overestimated the number of judges. Judges should share courtrooms and GSA should build new courthouses with smaller space requirements, he said.

“We must save taxpayer dollars, and we must ensure new projects are truly needed and fully justified,” Shuster said.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said she would not approve another courthouse project unless it meets strict standards for smaller space requirements and is truly needed.

Dorothy Robyn, public buildings commissioner at GSA, said the agency has already shifted its focus to renovating old courthouses instead of building new ones, which saves money.

“I feel passionately about the need to preserve our historic courthouses and not just build shiny new ones,” Robyn said.

GSA said it approaches every project with rigorous oversight so the agency can build the appropriate facility. She said GSA has focused on courtroom-sharing, which she said will help reduce courthouse space in future projects.

RIFs authorized at 60 AF installations; layoffs possible

The Air Force may have to lay off some employees to help meet its fiscal 2012 budget cut targets.

About 60 Air Force installations have implemented reduction-in-force authority, the Air Force said Wednesday.

The 2012 budget required the Air Force to cut more than 16,000 civilian positions, but it so far has only cut about 15,000.

In its announcement, the Air Force stressed that RIF authorities will give the installations more flexibilities to move employees whose positions will be eliminated into other jobs at their current location, and still retain their grade and pay. The RIF procedures also allow employees who cannot immediately be placed in local vacancies to be placed in a Priority Placement Program.

But the Air Force did not rule out the possibility of layoffs for employees who cannot be placed in other jobs.

“Usually a reduction in force has [a] negative perception, but the use of RIF procedures will allow many employees to be retained and continue employment with the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force’s director of force management policy. “We want to assure everyone involved with this process that we remain committed to minimizing the impacts during these times of transition.”

These workforce cuts are separate from the sequester budget cuts at the Defense Department and other agencies, the Air Force said.

Lawmaker presses agencies to abide by small biz law

The chairman of the House Small Business Committee on Tuesday called on 35 federal agencies to provide details on their compliance with new federal provisions aimed to help small businesses compete for federal contracts.

The request by Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., comes less than a month after a congressional hearing found problems in the Veterans Affairs’ Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU).

Graves said the Small Business Act prohibits agencies’ OSDBU directors from holding other positions, but the VA’s OSDBU director, Tom Leney, acknowledged holding another agency job, too.

Graves said in a statement Tuesday that he’s now learned other agencies either are not aware of the provision or are not complying with it.

The provision was enacted through an amendment to the Small Business Act contained in the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by President Obama in January.

In his letter, Graves gave agencies until May 13 to provide information on how they plan to comply with the Small Business Act, including provisions concerning the prioritization of OSDBU work, reporting requirements and prohibitions on OSDBU directors from holding other positions.

At a congressional hearing last month, Leney acknowledged that he was overseeing VA’s Center for Veterans Enterprise at the same time he served as VA’s OSDBU director.

“I personally don’t have any issue with a conflict of interest because we’re helping vets,” Leney said, adding that he’d provide lawmakers with more information after the hearing.

NOAA plans to shut down agency for 4 days

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to shut down most agency operations for four mandatory furlough days in July and August in response to sequester-related budget cuts, according to the agency’s acting chief.

“In the constrained budget environment in which we find ourselves, there are no easy or painless options available,” Kathryn Sullivan told employees in a Monday email. “We are working to ensure that mission-critical or life-saving products and services are still provided.”

NOAA, part of the Commerce Department, has about 12,600 civilian employees, according to the Obama’s administration fiscal 2014 budget request. For workers at National Weather Service forecasting offices and other around-the-clock operations, the scheduling of unpaid time off “will be carefully determined to ensure continuity of mission,” Sullivan said.

NOAA imposed a hiring freeze late last month.

The planned furloughs would fall on July 5, July 19, Aug. 5 and Aug. 30. The first and last of those days are intended to piggyback on the July 4 and Labor Day federal holidays, “which provides additional utilities and other facility cost savings,” Sullivan said.

NOAA expects to lose about $270 million of its $5.1 billion fiscal 2013 budget because of the across-the-board sequester cuts that began taking effect March 1.

But Richard Hirn, the top lawyer for the union representing weather service employees said the furloughs would save only about $15 million, or a “rounding error” in comparison to NOAA’s total budget.

“The impact to the employees and harm to agency operations so outweigh that,” Hirn, general counsel for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said in a Tuesday interview.

The planned furloughs will be far more widespread than predicted two months ago by Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. In a Feb. 8 letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., on the possible impact of the sequester, Blank said that up to 2,600 NOAA employees would have to be furloughed, and the contractor workforce cut by about 1,400.

Blank also foresaw damage to NOAA operations, including delays in launching next-generation weather satellites, cutbacks in fisheries management and fewer flight hours for aircraft that provide hurricane reconnaissance and costal surveying.

“It is unclear that future years of investment will be able to undo some of the damage,” Blank added, “especially to the economies of America’s fisheries and to our weather preparedness.”

Obama signs law to halt online posting of executives’ financial forms

President Obama signed legislation Monday that blocks the online posting of personal financial-disclosure statements of thousands of federal executives.

The bill, which unanimously sailed through the Senate on Thursday with no opportunity for debate, won House approval Friday. Obama signed the measure the same day that the online posting requirement was to have taken effect.

Under a law passed last year to strengthen defenses against insider trading, Congress had required online posting of the annual disclosure statements filed by as many as 28,000 federal employees and senior military officers. But in a report released last month by the National Academy of Public Administration, an independent panel warned of possible national security and law enforcement repercussions. Among the panel’s fears: that employees assigned overseas or engaged in law enforcement work could be put at risk by making information on their assets and holdings so readily available. The statements, known as Office of Government Ethics Forms 278, are already public, but are typically available only in paper form in response to a written request. The online disclosure requirement now applies only to elected officials, congressional candidates and top political appointees.

In a blog post, the Center for Responsive Politics said the revision signed Monday renders last year’s law “toothless.”

Paper filing is “an unacceptably outdated practice that limits the public’s access,” the nonprofit watchdog organization said.

Among those opposing online disclosure is the Senior Executives Association, which represents career Senior Executive Service members and is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the requirement on Privacy Act grounds.

“In the interest of ensuring that government works effectively, which includes safeguarding employees’ sensitive information, this was the right decision,” SEA President Carol Bonosaro said in a news release after Friday’s House vote.

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