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 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. Also, 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. Staffing issues

Here’s news government employees won’t have missed: the U.S. federal government ended December mired in a partial government shutdown. According to GovExec, “More than 340,000 federal employees are currently on furlough without a guarantee of back pay, while an additional 500,000 are working but facing delayed paychecks.” Vox explained how Trump’s demand for $5 billion to fund the border wall is at the center of the shutdown. This was the third government shutdown in 2018. Politico has a rundown of how the shutdown is affecting various federal agencies.

After the shutdown began, Trump issued an executive order freezing federal workers’ pay for 2019 and cancelling a scheduled “locality pay increase.” The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) was criticized for suggesting that furloughed government workers who can’t afford to pay rent should offer to perform chores for their landlords.

Trump announced the U.S. will quickly withdraw all troops from Syria, claiming that “we have defeated ISIS” in that country, which many experts said is untrue. All State Department personnel were immediately evacuated from Syria. The Pentagon has set a 120-day military force withdrawal timeline.

After facing mounting criticism for not making a single trip to visit troops in a conflict zone since taking office 23 months before, Trump met with about 100 troops in Iraq on Christmas Day. When promoting the trip on social media, the Trump administration revealed the identities and location of U.S. special operation personnel.

Union membership has “remained steady or is actually increasing,” despite predictions that membership would drop following the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision that banned the collection of fees from government workers who choose not to join a union.

The U.S. Census Bureau has started recruiting thousands of temporary workers for the 2020 Census. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone reported on what it characterized as “the Census scam” happening under the leadership of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

2. Departures, replacements, and new hires

John Kelly is no longer the White House chief of staff, having being fired or forced out by Trump. The Los Angeles Times interviewed Kelly about his “rocky tenure.” Soon after, Vice President Pence’s Chief of Staff Nick Ayers quit after turning down an offer to replace Kelly.

The Senate narrowly confirmed Kathleen Kraninger as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Mick Mulvaney—who is the director of OMB and, until Kraninger’s confirmation, had also simultaneously been serving as the acting director of the CFPB—is now acting White House chief of staff and stays on at OMB. No replacement for Ayers has been named.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and because of other differences in view. Mattis’ described in his resignation letter. Mattis said he would leave the administration in February. A few days later Trump moved up Mattis’ departure date to January 1. Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, also quit because of Trump’s withdrawal from Syria. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is now serving as acting secretary of the Defense Department.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned, as Bloomberg put it, “amid a swirl of federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest.” Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is serving as acting secretary of the agency. Before Zinke resigned, he appointed new members to the National Park System Advisory Board. The appointees are primarily business executives.

The Senate also confirmed Justin Muzinich as deputy secretary of the Treasury Department, and Joseph “Joe” Maguire as director of the National Counterterrorism Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Mark Robbins was hired as general counsel at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The 116th U.S. Congress will be sworn in to office on January 3, meaning a lot of outgoing members and many new faces.

3. Investigations

Court documents filed by prosecutors implicated a person called “Individual 1” in violating federal campaign finance laws. It is believed “Individual 1” is President Donald Trump. Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in federal prison for his crimes. A lot more happened related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation involving Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and others. The Hill summed up the long timeline of events and Wired provided a guide to the 17 known investigations. The Washington Post explained the connections between 14 Russian citizens and Trump’s campaign and businesses.

The Trump Organization was served with subpoenas in a lawsuit over Trump’s “ongoing business ties while in office.” Trump’s Inaugural Committee spending is also under federal criminal investigation. According to The Washington PostSaudi-funded lobbyists paid for more than $272,000 in rooms at Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel soon after the 2016 election.

4. Agency issues

A federal court permanently struck down most of the Trump administration’s changes to the country’s asylum system. The U.S. and Mexican governments agreed to a deal that forces asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for American immigration courts to hear their cases.

Two young children died during December in separate incidents while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CB). Felipe Gómez Alonzo was eight years old. Jakelin Caal was seven. ProPublica reported on allegations of several incidents of sexual assault of children held in CBP custody.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that, since July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 170 people who voluntarily offered to sponsor unaccompanied minors in government custody. Starting before Christmas and continuing for days, ICE dropped off at least 800 asylum-seekers in a parking lot in El Paso, Texas “without warning local shelters” and without other support.

The Violence Against Women Act expired because of the ongoing federal budget disagreement, which cuts off future payments for programs that assist victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

In a bit of good news, the federal government’s anti-HIV/AIDS foreign aid program, known as President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), was reauthorized through 2023.

5. More agency issues

The Veterans Administration (VA) is “arbitrarily cutting caregivers from its program” designed to support family members who provide care for veterans even while Congress has set deadlines for the program to grow. The VA also “failed to spend” $6.2 million available for suicide prevention outreach and has delayed or not completed key messaging campaigns.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked school discipline guidance intended “to ensure that students of color aren’t disciplined more harshly than their peers.” A federal ruling compelled the Department of Education to immediately cancel about $150 million in student loan debt for 15,000 borrowers who were misled by for-profit colleges. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to lower nutrition standards in “school meals that qualify for at least some federal reimbursement.”

The Washington Post reported that “Trump continues to reject the judgments of U.S. spy agencies on major foreign policy fronts, creating a dynamic in which intelligence analysts frequently see troubling gaps between the president’s public statements and the facts laid out for him in daily briefings on world events.”

The U.S. joined Kuwait, Russia, and Saudi Arabia in opposing language in a landmark report about the catastrophic extent of global warming “aimed at gaining [international] consensus over how to combat rising temperatures.” After the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deleted information from its website about the benefits of the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards (MATS), it released a proposal to weaken the standards that regulate dangerous air pollutants.

Note: This article is 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.

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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