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. Resignations and expunged committee members

Dana Boente made a surprising announcement that he will be resigning as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and acting head of the Justice Department's national security division after being asked to step down by Trump. Boente will serve until his successor is confirmed. Boente made his announcement the day before CNN broke the news of special counsel Robert Mueller's indictments, sparking questions about the possible connection between Boente's resignation and the investigations.

Joel Clement, a scientist and policy expert at the Interior Department resigned. The Washington Post described Clement as an "executive-turned-whistleblower who said the Trump administration retaliated against him for publicly disclosing how climate change affects Alaska Native communities...Clement was among dozens of Senior Executive Service personnel who were quickly, and perhaps unlawfully, reassigned in June, but he was the only person who spoke out." After resigning, Clement shared his resignation letter and then published a opinion piece on CNN calling for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to resign.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is replacing the outside experts who serve on key Federal Advisory Committees that advise Pruitt and the EPA on science and public health issues. Pruitt's new policy blocks people from serving on the advisory boards while they receive EPA research funding, but does not bar industry and other special interest groups whose businesses are affected by EPA regulations. Science reported that Pruitt appointed new chairs for the main committees, who all have ties to industries the EPA regulates. E&E News shared a list that was leaked to the press of other possible new committee members, including representatives from oil, gas, and chemical companies and related business groups.

2. Controversial nominees

As Trump's nominations continue to slowly come in, so does the controversy. Michael Dourson, nominated to head the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Protection, has been criticized because he has already been working as an unpaid EPA adviser, possibly violating the law, and because of his close ties to the industry he would oversee. Another nominee, William "Bill" Wehrum, nominated to head the EPA's Air and Radiation Office, has raised conflict of interest concerns because he has long worked as an attorney for the industry he'd oversee.

The American Bar Association unanimously rated Trump's nominee, Steve Grasz, as "not qualified" to serve as a federal judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The ABA also questioned Grasz's ability to set aside bias and judge fairly. Scott Garrett, Trump's nominee to head the Export-Import Bank, is facing opposition from the business groups, corporations, and Senators from both parties. Kathleen Hartnett White, Trump's nominee for the head of the Council on Environmental Quality, has raised concerns for many reasons, including for denying climate science and for promoting fracking.

Congressman Tom Marino withdrew his nomination to be Trump's "drug czar," or the director of National Drug Control Policy, after a Washington Post/60 Minutes investigation revealed he'd "helped steer legislation through Congress that weakened the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after drug distributors, even as opioid-related deaths continue to rise."

3. Confirmations roll in

Ajit Pai was confirmed as Federal Communications Commission chairman despite criticisms by consumer advocacy groups and net neutrality watchdogs. The Senate confirmed Randal Quarles as vice chairman for supervision of the Federal Reserve and a governor on the Fed's board.

Eric Hargan was confirmed as deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and just a few days later was named acting HHS secretary after Tom Price resigned over his private air travel controversy. Lee Francis Cissna was confirmed as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security even though his appointment was opposed by 300 immigration groups.

The Senate also confirmed David Trachtenberg as principal deputy undersecretary of defense at the Department of Defense after a fascinating hearingHenry Kerner as special counsel at the Office of Special Counsel; Steve Censky as deputy secretary, Ted McKinney as undersecretary for trade, and Greg Ibach as undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA; Timothy Gallaudet as assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Also confirmed: Bruce Walker as assistant secretary of electricity delivery and energy reliability) at the Department of Energy; Howard Elliott as administrator of the pipeline and hazardous materials safety administration at the Department of Transportation; Walter Copan as undersecretary for standards and technology at the Department of Commerce and NIST director; the U.S. director for the African Development Bank; several U.S. attorneys at the Department of Justice; Callista Gingrich, wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as Vatican ambassador; and the ambassadors to the Czech Republic and Vietnam.

4. Agency issues

After the Trump administration was weeks late in starting new sanctions against Russia enacted by Congress, Foreign Policy reported that Secretary of Defense Rex Tillerson had closed the office that would have handled the sanction policy implementation. The State Department eventually issued the guidance 25 days late. Earlier in the month, Nik Steinberg wrote for Politico about how Tillerson is "running the State Department into the ground" as career employees and foreign policy experts quietly resign from the agency. A New York Times Magazine feature described the State Department as "unraveling."

The EPA stopped three government scientists from speaking at a conference on the status of the Narragansett Bay and watershed in New England. As a result of the last-minute decision, academics, lawmakers, and people working on the estuary program protested the EPA's "political interference" and "scientific censorship" of information important to public and environmental health. EPA officials' only explanation for the decision was that "it was not an EPA conference." The EPA has also "removed dozens of online resources dedicated to helping local governments address climate change."

In a Senate committee hearing about its involvement in the now canceled Whitefish Energy Holdings contract to rebuild Puerto Rico's grid, FEMA Administrator Brock Long revealed the agency is "spending about $200 million a day on the ongoing emergency response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as a recent spate of devastating wildfires" and that "about 25 million Americans had been affected by natural disasters in the last 50 days." FEMA faced other outrage over its Puerto Rico response, including for removing important statistics from its website about the number of Americans in Puerto Rico who still lack access to water and electricity.

5. Staffing issues

federal court blocked Trump's ban on transgender people from serving in the military. The ruling said the ban "is a form is discrimination based on gender and is already causing harm to personnel." The government is expected to appeal the decision.

HuffPost interviewed four federal employees who felt compelled to quit the Trump administration: Sharon McGowan, a former principal deputy chief in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department; Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics; Mike Cox, veteran climate change adviser for the EPA; and Ned Price, former CIA agent and National Security Council spokesman.

Politico reported that White House chief of staff John Kelly is giving Cabinet secretaries more autonomy to pick top political appointees in an effort to fill some of the hundreds of vacant top positions in the administration.

It’s important to note that 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, writer, and speaker 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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