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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.

Before we begin…

Throughout  January, all eyes and ears were focused on the 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history. If this article covered all the ways the shutdown affected government workers and agency management, there wouldn’t be room for anything else.

Here’s a brief summary of where things stand regarding the shutdown:

Congress and the president reached a short-term agreement to end the shutdown for three weeks, until Feb. 15, so there could be another shutdown if a long term agreement isn’t reached. Furloughed federal workers returned to their jobs on Monday, Jan. 28. Federal employees who were not paid during the shutdown are expecting back pay, but may need to wait until the middle or even the end of February to get what they’re owed. Federal contractors currently will not receive any back pay after the shutdown.

An analysis by the Congressional Budget office found the shutdown cost the U.S. economy $11 billion, and that $3 billion in economic activity has been permanently lost because of the shutdown. The other lingering and long-term consequences of the shutdown are still being assessed.

Now, here’s some of the other federal news you may have missed in January.

1. Staffing issues

The new year brought a swath of news articles examining the four industry lobbyists in Trump’s Cabinet, and the large number of acting Cabinet secretaries. According to Reuters, Trump said he was “in no hurry to find permanent replacements for one-quarter of his Cabinet currently serving in an acting capacity because it gives him ‘more flexibility’.”

The Trump administration downgraded the diplomatic status of the European Union’s delegation to the U.S. without notifying the EU diplomats themselves, which German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) characterized as an “unusual” and “rare” move that is being perceived as “anti-EU.”

The U.S. slowly began what has been described as a “chaotic” withdrawal of equipment and military troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Trump’s withdrawal decision was criticized by intelligence chiefs and the Republican-controlled SenateCNN reported that Trump is “fueling unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety inside the Pentagon.” Meanwhile, an analysis by the bipartisan nonprofit HillVets showed that less than 2 percent of the more than 13,000 Congressional staff members are military veterans.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Trump administration has spent “tens of millions of dollars” to recruit 15,000 new border patrol agents, yet has “thousands more vacancies than when it began.”

NBC News reported that Carl Kline, director of the personnel security office in the Executive Office of the President, overruled at least 30 rejections of top secret clearance applications of incoming Trump officials, including Jared Kushner’s.

A Freedom of Information Act request by The Young Turks revealed the FBI’s counterintelligence division created a unit to counter “media leak threats” by federal employees and others.

2. Departures and replacements

Soon after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ dramatic departure at the end of 2018, several prominent defense staff departed government service. Dana White, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for public affairs, a.k.a. the Pentagon press secretary, “abruptly resigned…after a sometimes-tumultuous year and a half on the job.” Charles E. Summers Jr., who had been principal deputy assistant to White, became acting Pentagon press secretary. Rear Adm. Kevin M. Sweeney resigned as chief of staff to the secretary of defense. Eric Chewning, who had been the head of the Pentagon’s industrial policy office, moved into the role of chief of staff to acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan.

Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine Corps general serving as an envoy for the Trump administration, resigned because he “couldn’t complete his mission” to resolve the current dispute in Quatar. No replacement has been announced. A. Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department, announced he will resign on Feb. 15, citing personal reasons. Mitchell will be replaced by his principal deputy Elisabeth Millard in an acting capacity.

Over at the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced he would resign once the Senate confirms the next attorney general. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the nomination of William Barr for attorney general on Feb. 7.

Pam Patenaude, deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), resigned for personal reasons. The Washington Post reported her decision came after “disagreements with other members of the Trump administration over housing policy and the White House’s attempt to block disaster-recovery money for Puerto Rico.” Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Commissioner Brian Montgomery became acting deputy secretary, and will also continue his FHA role.

The White House appointed the Education Department’s Deputy General Counsel, Phil Rosenfelt, as the agency’s acting inspector general—then reversed the decision after objections by Congress an watchdog groups.

3. Investigations

Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump, was arrested by the FBI after being indicted on seven counts, including lying to Congress, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. Stone pleaded not guilty. Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, is expected to testify before House and Senate committees in February. Two reports by the New York Times and The Washington Post revealed that the FBI had investigated whether President Trump “had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests,” which Trump has denied. Meanwhile, the Trump administration “lifted sanctions against the business empire of Oleg V. Deripaska, one of Russia’s most influential oligarchs.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s federal grand jury was extended for up to six more months, meaning the investigation into Russian election interference is expected to continue, although acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said the Mueller investigation is close to being completed.

Two years into the Trump administration, a report by the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) found that “the total number of known conflicts of interest involving the Trump Organization [is] more than 1,400.” A General Services Administration (GSA) inspector general report determined the agency improperly “ignored the constitutional ban on extra government benefits to the president when it allowed Donald Trump to continue leasing federal property for his luxury hotel in Washington.”

The Justice Department is investigating whether former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to the agency’s inspector general investigators.

4. Agency issues

Trump repeatedly criticized and insulted the U.S. intelligence community after senior intelligence officials “contradicted him during on-camera testimony.” The Wall Street Journal reported Trump’s remarks “spark[ed] warnings from national security experts and lawmakers that such public comments expose the U.S. to greater risks.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general’s office found that “more children over a longer period of time” were separated from their families at the border by the U.S. government “because of failures to track families as they were being separated.” NBC News obtained a draft plan by the Trump administration to “[speed] up the deportation of migrant children by denying them their legal right to asylum hearings” and to “target parents in migrant families for increased prosecutions.” The Justice Department admitted its report implying a link between terrorism and immigration had “errors and deficiencies,” but said it won’t correct the report. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave fake court dates to hundreds of immigrants hoping to avoid deportation.

Rolling Stone examined the potential impact of new guidance by the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB) that “permits government agencies to ‘modify’ public financial statements and move expenditures from one line item to another” without notifying the public, which an expert said “diminishes the credibility of all public budget documents.”

Civil fines of polluters by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dropped by 85 percent under the Trump administration. Meanwhile, one report found that greenhouse gas emissions by the U.S. “didn’t drop in 2018 but instead skyrocketed,” and another found that the world’s oceans are “heating up 40 percent faster on average than…estimated five years ago.” A Defense Department report found that “flooding, drought and wildfires driven by climate change pose threats to two-thirds of the U.S. military’s installations.”

According to the Guardian, “the Trump administration has stopped cooperating with UN investigators over potential human rights violations occurring inside America.” The U.S. Supreme Court allowed Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military to go into effect while litigation about the ban continues. A new Gallup survey found the number of Americans who don’t have health insurance has risen to a four-year high under the Trump administration.

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia, a nuclear arms control agreement in place since 1987. In response, President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would withdraw from the INF treaty and develop “new land-based intermediate-range weapons.”

5. New hires

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone recently hired 17 lawyers and three deputies in preparation to “strongly assert the president’s executive privilege,” and is expected to further expand the White House’s legal team. Eliot Abrams, who had been convicted over his role in the Iran-Contra affair and was later pardoned, was named as the State Department’s new special envoy for Venezuela.

In the last few hours before the end of the 115th Congress on Jan. 3, the Senate confirmed 77 nominees.

In environment- and energy-related positions, the Senate confirmed William “Chad” Charles McIntosh as assistant administrator of the EPA Office of International and Tribal Affairs (OITA); Alexandra Dunn as assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP); Mary Bridget Neumayr as a member of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ); Daniel Simmons, “a former fossil fuel lobbyist who questioned climate science,” as assistant secretary of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; Teri Donaldson as inspector general of the Energy Department; and Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OTSP).

In security and military roles, the Senate confirmed James “Jim” Carroll, Jr. as the nation’s “drug czar,” a.k.a. director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; for Veterans Affairs, James Paul Gfrerer as CIO and assistant secretary of information and technology, and Tamara Bonzanto as assistant secretary of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection; for the Army, Casey Wardynski as assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, and Alex Beehler as assistant secretary for for installations, energy and environment; for the Department of Defense (DoD), Alan Shaffer as deputy undersecretary of for acquisition and sustainment; and for the State Department, Ellen McCarthy as assistant secretary for Intelligence and Research (INR), and Carol Perez as director general of the Foreign Service.

The Senate also confirmed Steven Dillingham as director of the Census Bureau; Donald Palmer and Benjamin Hovland as members of the Election Assistance Commission; Bonnie Glick as U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) deputy administrator and Michael Harvey as assistant administrator of its Middle East Bureau; Rae Oliver Davis as inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); and Gail Ennis as inspector general at the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Also confirmed: Thomas Gilman as assistant secretary and chief financial officer at the Department of Commerce; Joel Szabat as an assistant secretary of the Office of Aviation and International Affairs at the Department of Transportation; Michael Kubayanda as commissioner of the Postal Regulatory Commission; Brendan Carr and Geoffrey Starks as members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); members of the Railroad Retirement Board, the Surface Transportation Board (STB), and the Federal Maritime Commission; and a host of district attorneys, marshals, judges, representatives to the UN, and ambassadors.

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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