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…

February began with federal employees and contractors (and many other people) anxiously waiting to find out if the government would shutdown again. Congress passed a bipartisan spending bill that funded the government, avoiding another shutdown.

Because the spending bill only included $1.375 billion of the $5.7 billion Trump initially requested to build a barrier on U.S.–Mexico border, he declared a national emergency. Trump’s emergency declaration intends to secure a significantly higher $8 billion for a border wall. USA Today reported that “The White House expects to pull the funds from a few places, including military construction cash, asset forfeiture funds at Department of Treasury and drug interdiction money at the Department of Defense.”

Multiple groups quickly filed lawsuits against Trump’s use of emergency powers, including Texas landowners and a wildlife group, environmental advocacy groups, and a coalition of 16 states. Several states withdrew National Guard troops from the Mexico border. The House has voted to block Trump’s use of national emergency status. The Senate is expected to vote on the resolution in the coming weeks.

The U.S. national debt now exceeds $22 trillion, an all-time high. The U.S. also hit the debt ceiling, which is the limit on how much the government can borrow. Congress has until sometime this fall to raise the debt ceiling.

1. Staffing issues

According to NBC News, “more than 130 political appointees working in the Executive Office of the President did not have permanent security clearances as of November 2017, including the president’s daughter, son-in-law and his top legal counsel” and officials who work in sensitive national security positions. The Daily Beast reported that White House interns have been compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements, and threatened with legal action and financial consequences if they breach the NDA.

A White House source leaked months of Trump’s schedule to Axios, which reported he “has spent around 60% of his scheduled time over the past 3 months in unstructured ‘Executive Time.'”

As one injunction keeps Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military from going into effect, transgender service members testified before Congress. They spoke about how “the presence of transgender service members has had no effect on unit cohesion, discipline or morale.” Meanwhile, the California National Guard said it will not discharge its transgender members. In another case, a judge blocked the Trump administration from discharging two members of the military because of their HIV-positive status.

A court ruled that the U.S.’s male-only military draft is unconstitutional but did not specify how the government should change the Selective Service System.

Trump has appointed at least eight current and former members of his private clubs to posts in the administration. At least 33 former Trump officials have “found ways to sidestep the administration’s ethics pledge” and are working as lobbyists or in jobs “that closely resemble federal lobbying.”

2. Departures and replacements

John Dingell, the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history, passed away.

FEMA administrator Brock Long resigned after he was accused of using government vehicles and personnel for personal use. Deputy Administrator Pete Gaynor is serving as acting administrator.

Roger L. Stone, who had been deputy senior director of resilience policy at the National Security Council, is now the White House director of information technology. Over at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Clare Martorana became chief information officer, replacing David Garcia, and David Nesting the deputy CIO, replacing Rob Leahy. Henry “Jamie” Holcombe is taking over for John Owens as CIO at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Keith Vaughn stepped up as CIO at the U.S. International Trade Commission, replacing Kirit Amin. Herb Jackson Jr., the Government Publishing Office’s acting deputy director, announced he will resign in March.

Heather Nauert abruptly withdrew from consideration for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations because a nanny she hired did not have the proper work visa.

Andrew Maunz “was pushed to withdraw” after federal employee reunions raised concerns about his nomination as member of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the agency that rules on federal employee grievances. Mark Robbins, chairman and the only remaining board member on the MSPB, left when his term expired at the end of February. With one position waiting re-nomination and two nominees approved by Senate committee but not confirmed, The Washington Post reported that “federal workers will have to wait indefinitely for their claims of mistreatment to be heard.”

3. Investigations

A judge ruled that federal prosecutors, including Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, broke federal law in a case against financier Jeffrey Epstein when they concealed a plea deal from his underage victims of sexual abuse. The Office of Government Ethics refused to certify U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ 2018 personal financial disclosure report because it “was not accurate,” and that Ross is “not in compliance with his ethics agreement.”

According to The Washington Post, a report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee contends that key Trump appointees promoted selling nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia over the objections of national security and White House officials.

A judge found Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, lied multiple times to the FBI, the grand jury, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators, voiding his plea deal with the government. Michael Cohen, Trumps’ former longtime lawyer, is testifying before Congress in a series of hearings. He has alleged that Trump engaged in criminal conduct while in office.

There are now several investigations into how Trump’s inaugural committee spent and raised its money, who profited, and who may have used the inauguration to buy access to the president. The House Intelligence Committee announced it launching an investigation into the influence of Trump’s financial interests on his decisionmaking.

The New York Times examined “Trump’s two-year war on the investigations encircling him.”

4. Agency issues

More than 90 health insurers have won court cases stating that the companies are entitled to unpaid cost sharing reduction (CSR) funds promised by the Affordable Care Act but withheld by the Trump administration. The Los Angeles Times said these legal decisions could cost the government $12 billion a year, and result in money flowing to consumers.

Reuters reported that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has so far paid out $7.7 billion of the $12 billion in aid Trump pledged for farmers affected by “losses for crops hit by retaliatory Chinese tariffs imposed in response to Washington’s tariffs on Chinese goods.”

Poltico investigation revealed that power companies “paid a top lobbying firm millions of dollars to fight a wide range of Obama-era environmental rules” just before Bill Wehrum, one of the firm’s partners, became assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to Stars and Stripes, a United Nations report said “more civilians were killed in the war in Afghanistan last year than any other year since records began, with child deaths alone also reaching an all-time high, partly due to a spike in U.S. airstrikes.” There were 3,800 civilian deaths, including about 930 children.

ICE is sending hundreds of people making legal claims for asylum to a private prison in Mississippi, according to an investigation by Mother Jones. Thousands of unaccompanied migrant minors allegedly suffered sexual abuse while being held in the custody of the U.S. government.

The Daily Beast reported that two task forces in the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) protecting elections from foreign interference are “being dramatically downsized” by the Trump administration, and there are concerns the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “won’t prepare adequately for election threats in 2020.”

Former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe published “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump,” a new memoir detailing events from his time working for the Trump administration. One of McCabe’s assertions that captured attention was that the Justice Department considered invoking the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from office.

According to The Washington Post, “the White House plans to create an ad hoc group of select federal scientists to reassess the government’s analysis of climate science and counter conclusions that the continued burning of fossil fuels is harming the planet.”

Declaring space a “war-fighting domain,” Trump issued an executive order to create Space Force within the Air Force instead of as an independent armed service.

5. New hires

The Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler as administrator of the EPA. A former energy lobbyist, Wheeler has been acting EPA administrator since July 2018 and led the reversal of “dozens of significant” environmental regulations. An examination of the EPA’s annual report of its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) showed “fiscal year 2018 was one of the weakest, perhaps the weakest, enforcement year in decades.”

Eric Miller was confirmed as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. As The National Law Journal explained, “Miller is the first appeals court nominee to be confirmed without the ‘blue slip’ consent of either of the two home state senators.” The senators characterized the confirmation “a dangerous first” and “a damaging precedent.”

The Senate also confirmed William Barr as attorney general, the head of the Justice Department. Barr had previously served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. Before his confirmation, Barr’s daughter and son-in-law transferred out of their jobs in the Justice Department.

Michael Desmond was confirmed as chief counsel for the IRS and an assistant general counsel in the Department of the Treasury.

And finally…

After 15 years of Martian discovery and exploration, NASA ended its Opportunity mission following a last attempt to restore communication with the celebrated Mars rover. The last moments of the mission were bittersweet.

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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