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News briefs: Week of July 1

Jun. 30, 2013 - 02:34PM   |  
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In turnaround, secrecy costs fell last year

The government’s estimated pricetag for keeping secrets fell 14 percent last year to about $9.8 billion, the first such drop since at least 1996, according to the latest annual report from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The security classification cost report pulls together data from 42 executive branch agencies, broken out over nine separate categories. The bulk of last year’s reduction came in the cost of protecting and maintaining classified information systems, which plunged 29 percent from $5.65 billion to about $4 billion. The report attributes most of the decrease to agencies’ doing a better job of distinguishing the cost of protecting classified systems from unclassified systems.

Although that suggests “improved accounting” underlay the drop, secrecy expert Steven Aftergood said, he added that costs also fell for personnel security and most of the other seven categories.

“The fact is that there is a downward trend and that’s welcome news,” said Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

One exception was the expense of security management, oversight and planning, which rose 13 percent last year to $1.7 billion. The extra money was needed for compliance surveys and other needs, the report said.

Since the mid-1990s, the yearly reported total has never before dropped, according to the report. The increases were particularly sharp in 2010 and 2011, when costs jumped almost 30 percent during the two-year period.

As in the past, the latest report’s figures do not include data from the CIA, National Security Agency and four other intelligence agencies. Those numbers are classified. If added in, they would add about 20 percent — or approximately $2 billion — to the governmentwide figure, according to the report.

Lawmakers question furloughing of depot employees

Thirty-one House members are challenging the Defense Department’s decision to furlough tens of thousands of civilian workers at military depots and other installations paid through “working capital” funds.

“It appears that there are substantial legal and economic questions surrounding the decision to impose furloughs on these employees,” the bipartisan group said in a Friday letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Besides seeking DoD’s legal rationale, they ask Hagel to explain how furloughing those workers would reduce operating expenses this fiscal year and how much DoD expects to save as result.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Hagel had not replied, according to a spokesman for the letter’s lead signer, Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.

Working capital agencies rely on revenue from the sale of goods and services to other parts of the government, instead of from direct congressional appropriations, to fund their budgets. As the Pentagon struggles to absorb a $37 billion sequester-related cut, most workers at those agencies are facing the same 11 days of unpaid time off as those elsewhere in DoD. The one-day-a-week furloughs are set to begin the week of July 8 and continue through the end of the fiscal year in September.

“In addition to the loss of pay these civilian employees now face and the subsequent impact this will have on our local communities, moving forward with these furloughs will reduce the ability of our civilian workforce to complete workload which is already funded,” the letter said.

At the Defense Logistics Agency, which sells parts and equipment to the military services, about 24,500 employees out of 26,000 face furloughs, a spokeswoman said last month.

Army and Air Force depots, as well as the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, also rely heavily on working capital; in an April letter to Hagel, members of the Virginia congressional delegation said they understood that DoD has about 180,000 civilians paid through such funds.

A Pentagon spokeswoman could not immediately confirm a figure Tuesday or say how many workers in that category will be furloughed. Overall, the department plans to furlough about 680,000 employees out of its total civilian workforce of almost 800,000.

Pritzker easily wins confirmation as Commerce secretary

The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Penny Pritzker to become the next Commerce secretary.

Pritzker easily won confirmation with a 97-to-1 vote. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was the lone no vote.

“Penny is a proven leader, a successful entrepreneur, and one of the most accomplished and highly respected women in business today,” President Obama said in a statement after the vote. “She knows what it takes to build companies from the ground up, and she shares my belief in doing everything we can to help businesses and workers succeed and make America a magnet for good jobs.”

Pritzker, whose family founded the Hyatt Hotel chain, had butted heads with Obama’s union supporters and initially understated her income by $80 million in a disclosure form required for her nomination.

Republicans also raised questions about her use of offshore tax havens — something the Obama campaign blasted GOP nominee Mitt Romney for during last year’s campaign. She also faced scrutiny at a Senate confirmation hearing for her ties to a subprime mortgage lender that failed in 2001.

Despite the issues, Pritzker sailed through confirmation.

Pritzker raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama’s two presidential campaigns. She served as national finance chair of his 2008 campaign and co-chair of his 2012 re-election bid. Her personal fortune is estimated at $1.85 billion, and she is listed among the 300 wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine.

The Commerce Department has been led by Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank since John Bryson resigned last summer amid health concerns. Blank is leaving the administration to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Senate confirms Foxx as transportation secretary

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx easily won Senate confirmation Thursday to become the next secretary of transportation.

The Senate vote was 100 to 0. In his nomination, President Obama praised Foxx for breaking ground on the Charlotte Streetcar Project, opening a third parallel runway at Charlotte-Douglass International Airport and working to extend the LYNX light-rail system to the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

“He is a superb and qualified person who is very much needed to overlook our enormous transportation system, which is in trouble,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va.

Foxx will immediately face a budget fight and several contentious airline rules for consumer protection and safety:

» Congress is debating spending cuts for the Federal Aviation Administration after a previous budget crunch forced a week of air-traffic controller furloughs in April.

» The Transportation Department is developing a consumer-protection rule dealing with how airlines market services, such as baggage fees and seat assignments.

» Two pending safety rules at FAA that stem from a fatal crash in February 2009 would require more training for airline co-pilots and more simulator training for how to recover from a stall.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in valedictory remarks at the National Press Club before the vote, said he had no regrets from his four and a half years in office. But as a Republican in President Obama’s Democratic cabinet, LaHood lamented that partisanship was preventing progress on priorities such as a highway bill that would enable more construction funding.

“Take a moment and think about what we could do right now if Washington wasn’t distracted by sideshows and name-calling,” LaHood said. “Compromise is not a bad word, it is a way to success.”

LaHood, 67, said he hasn’t decided what he’ll do next. He expected to serve on nonprofit boards and split his time between Washington and his native Peoria, Ill.

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