5 Things You Need to Know About Federal News From the Past Month

Changes in federal government keep coming fast. That’s why GovLoop gives you these monthly recaps of federal news that may affect agency management and employment. If you’ve fallen behind, check out the previous recaps.

By the time you read this, there will undoubtedly be new developments. And, this roundup can’t include everything. The focus is on federal news most relevant to government employees. Check out the linked sources for more information to stay on top of the latest news in government.

1. So much in one month

As HuffPost declared, “What a year this month has been.” News from the federal government and the Trump administration monopolized headlines throughout January. Here are several stories that government employees at the federal, state, and local levels should know:

Michael Wolff published Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House his tell-all book about “the feuds, the fights, and the alarming chaos” of Trump’s presidential campaign and administration.

After Trump repeatedly used the derogatory word “shithole” to describe Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries, he and his comments were denounced as racist, abhorrent, and xenophobic. U.S. ambassadors, diplomats, and agencies were called on to explain Trump’s comments and have since been trying to salvage international relationships. (Note: Like most media outlets, we’re showing the vulgar term, rather than obscuring it, since it is from a direct quote.)

The Trump administration and the State Department announced that the U.S. would not be imposing sanctions on Russia by the deadline established when Congress overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill that Trump signed into law in 2017.

The Congressional Budget Office said the United States will hit its debt limit one month earlier than expected because of the recent tax cuts. Congress will need to vote to raise, suspend, or even abolish the debt limit so the U.S. can borrow even more money and further increase the national debt, or reduce government spending.

As January was drawing to a close, Trump declassified a memo by House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, which alleges that FBI officials improperly used a secret surveillance program, known as FISA, to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Trump’s and the GOP’s move has been widely characterized as an unprecedented attack on the FBI, the Justice Department, and the government’s law enforcement employees. To say this story is complicated is an understatement. Vox, POLITICO, and the Chicago Tribune have useful summaries of what you need to know.

2. Departures

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe abruptly stepped down, which came as a surprise because of his planned March retirement. It remains unclear whether he was forced out or left by choice. FBI Assistant Deputy Director David Bowdich was appointed acting deputy director.

John Feeley, the U.S. Ambassador to Panama and career foreign service officer, resigned, saying he can no longer work with the current administration. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Brenda Fitzgerald resigned one day after POLITICO revealed she’d bought and sold tobacco stocks while leading the agency.

Taylor Weyeneth resigned as deputy chief of staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) after the Washington Post reported the 24-year-old Weyeneth had lied on his resume and that his work experience was mainly limited to working on Trump’s campaign.

Carl Higbi, Trump’s appointee as chief of external affairs for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which manages AmeriCorps and other volunteer programs, resigned after CNN reported Higbi’s racist, sexist, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBT remarks.

Brian Neale, deputy administrator and director for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, left the Department of Health and Human Services “after getting the ball rolling on moving Medicaid in a more conservative direction.”

Nearly all members of the U.S. National Park Service advisory board suddenly resigned en masse, saying the reason was that the board has been “frozen out” by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Other advisory bodies have been shut down or are unable to function because of inaction by Interior’s leadership.

3. New hires, withdrawn nominees, and faces that keep sticking around

Alex Azar, a former top executive at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, was confirmed as the secretary of Health and Human Services. During his nomination hearings, Azar had been criticized for being “too closely tied to the industry he needs to oversee.”

Jerome H. Powell was confirmed as chairman of the Federal Reserve System with a bipartisan-backed vote of 84 to 13. Powell will replace Janet Yellen as Fed chair. The Senate also confirmed Matthew Bassett as assistant secretary for legislation, Department of Health and Human Services; former Lockheed Martin vice president John Rood as undersecretary for policy and R.D. James as assistant secretary of the Army for civil works (the head of the Army Corps of Engineers) at the Department of Defense.

For the courts, the Senate confirmed David Stras to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, even though Stras faced “blue slip” protests because both Senators from the nominee’s home state of Minnesota did not submit favorable opinions of the nominee. The Senate also confirmed U.S. District court judges Walter David Counts III for the Western District of Texas, Michael Lawrence Brown for the Northern District of Georgia, Thomas Lee Robinson Parker for the Western District of Tennessee, and William L. Campbell Jr. for the Middle District of Tennessee.

David Jonas, Trump’s nominee for general counsel of the Energy Department, withdrew from nomination after controversy over his views objecting to LGBT people and women serving in the military came under scrutiny.

The Washington Post reported that many of Trump’s nominees who couldn’t get confirmed are still working for the government or are being considered for other roles that don’t require confirmation, including Sam Clovis, Brett Talley, Matthew Petersen, and Andy Puzder.

4. Federal gov vs states rights

Federal policies appear to be increasingly at odds with the rights of state and local governments.

Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said he wants the federal government to start arresting politicians who run “sanctuary cities,” which are jurisdictions including cities, counties, and states that have chosen to protect undocumented immigrant residents. Later in January, the Justice Department threatened to subpoena 23 sanctuary city jurisdictions if they did not provide the federal government with documents describing any directions given to local law enforcement about sharing information on undocumented immigrants with federal immigration authorities.

Just three days after marijuana became legal in California, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions upended the federal government’s approach to marijuana law enforcement. Sessions ended the policy that discouraged “federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade” and has encouraged federal prosecutors in states that have legalized marijuana to “use their discretion” whether to enforce the federal law.

5. Agency news

The Trump administration dissolved the troubled Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity—which found no evidence to support Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud—and instructed the Department of Homeland Security to continue the investigation. According to Reuters, “DHS officials scrambled…to inform stakeholders that Trump’s mandate would not interfere with efforts to help state and local election officials bolster their voting infrastructure against potential cyber attacks.”

According to the Washington Post, the National Security Agency (NSA) is “losing its top talent at a worrisome rate” because of “low pay, slumping morale and unpopular reorganization.” The Department of Veterans Affairs reported employee firings increased in 2017 as a result of the administration’s new accountability law, while critics countered the dismissals were not statistically higher and that “more firings don’t mean better results for veterans.”

Major reforms are underway at the Department of Defense, including three new offices, changes in the Pentagon’s acquisition system, and shifting duties for leadership. Secretary Ryan Zinke has launched the largest ever reorganization of the Interior Department and its 70,000 employees. The extensive and long process would relocate staff, restructure land management, eliminate departments, and divide and align the Interior’s functions into 13 geographic regions.

enended food and water shipments to Americans still struggling to recover and rebuild in Puerto Rico, even though 20% of the island’s resident’s still don’t have running water and a third are still without power.

The Trump administration announced a new division in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights to “protect healthcare workers” who refuse to provide legal medical care because of their personal moral or religious beliefs. The types of procedures covered include abortion, sterilization, assisted suicide, treating LGBT patients, and other activities. The move has been either hailed as freedom of conscience or denounced as a license to discriminate.

Finally, some good news. A Gallup Poll showed that the American public has an increasingly positive view of federal agencies.

Note: This article not an opinion about or endorsement of any policies, regulations, or orders, nor of the behaviors of elected officials, political appointees, government employees, other individuals, organizations, or agencies.

What other federal government developments have caught your attention? What stories are you and your colleagues talking about at the office? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, freelance writer, and trainer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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Kaitlin Moller

Hard to believe all of this took place in just one month. I can’t imagine what’s left to come in gov for the rest of the year, but this round-up was excellent and informative. Thanks for posting!

Lauren Girardin

It really was a dramatic month. I’m glad to hear that this article was useful for you, Kaitlin. So much is happening at the federal level of government that I could write an article like this every week!