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…

A couple of key numbers on the U.S. economy were released: The U.S. posted a $234 billion monthly budget deficit, the largest ever, “amid a 20 percent drop in corporate tax revenue and a boost in spending.” According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. trade deficit “soared” to $621 billion in 2019, its highest level since 2008.

1. Staffing issues

The Trump White House released its $4.75 trillion budget proposal for fiscal year 2020. It is the largest budget proposal in U.S. history. According to Fortune, “While Trump proposes significant budget cuts to a number of domestic programs, his budget would not balance for 15 years.” While the budget proposal is a non-binding request the president makes to Congress, it outlines many of the administration’s priorities for the coming year as well as for Trump’s re-election campaign.

In the budget proposal, Trump recommends another pay freeze for civilian federal employees as well as a range of cuts to retirement benefits. The budget also includes a military pay raise of 3.1%, “the largest such increase since 2010” per GovExec, and $100 billion in pay and benefit cuts for U.S. Postal Service employees. An article by Vox explains other details in the budget proposal.

Meanwhile, six weeks after a pay raise for civilian federal employees was signed into law, Trump signed an executive order finally making the fiscal year 2019 raise “official.” Civilian employees will receive an average 1.9 percent raise retroactive to the first pay period in 2019. It could take several more weeks before agency payroll providers begin to distribute the retroactive pay.

A new federal ethics report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that there is no single government-maintained source of “publicly available, comprehensive, and timely data” on political appointees serving in the executive branch,” information that “would facilitate congressional oversight and hold leaders accountable.”

An investigation by HuffPo identified seven current members of the U.S. military belong to an extremist white nationalist group. Meanwhile, the Pentagon issued a memo ordering the military to implement Trump’s ban on transgender service members by April 12, and a federal appeals court lifted the last injunction that was stopping the ban from taking effect.

2. Departures and replacements

Matthew Whitaker, who briefly and controversially served as acting attorney general, left the Justice Department and government service. Bill Shine, White House deputy chief of staff and Trump’s communications strategist “abruptly” resigned to work on Trump’s re-election campaign.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb unexpectedly announced he would resign to spend time with his family. Ned Sharpless, the director of the National Cancer Institute, will become acting FDA commissioner for the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) when Gottlieb leaves in early April.

Several people involved in the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election have left or will soon leave their positions. Special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann left Robert Mueller’s team, and several others are rumored to be returning to jobs at the law firm WilmerHale. Special Agent in Charge David Archey left his role as what NPR described as “the senior-most FBI agent working on the Mueller probe” to head the FBI’s office in Richmond, Virginia.

John G. Edwards, the chief information officer at the CIA, has become the CIA’s deputy chief operating officer and been replaced as CIO by Juliane GallinaHeather Wilson, the secretary of the Air Force announced she would resigned in late May to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

Serena McIlwain, director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Continuous Improvement (OCI)—often described as the EPA’s “lean office”—left federal service to take a job as undersecretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. No replacement has been announced.

Meg Kabat, director of the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) Caregiver Support Program, is leaving the position for the private sector effective April 3. Military Times noted that Kabat’s departure comes “as concerns mount about delays to a planned expansion of the benefit later this year.”

3. Investigations

Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Mueller sent his full report to Attorney General Bill Barr, who delivered a four-page letter to Congress outlining the main conclusions of the investigation.

According to a quote from Mueller’s report in Barr’s summary, the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Barr also wrote that the Special Counsel stated that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” of obstruction of justice. Congress has been told it will get a redacted version of the report “by mid-April, if not sooner.” It is not known if the report will be released to the public.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sentenced in two separate federal cases brought by Robert Mueller. Manafort received 47 months in prison for tax and bank fraud, which The Associated Press noted is “much less than what was called for under sentencing guidelines,” and an additional 43 months for secret foreign lobbying and witness tampering. Minutes after the second federal sentencing, New York State charged Manafort with 16 other crimes, including mortgage fraud, conspiracy, and falsifying business records.

4. Agency issues

According to The Washington Post, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided the personal and bank information of 2.5 million disaster victims to a contractor, putting the people “at increased risk of identity theft and fraud” and violating the Privacy Act of 1974 and Homeland Security Department (DHS) policy.

A federal judge ruled that Trump’s order revoking a ban on offshore drilling in in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans is illegal. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees destroyed records they knew were part of an ongoing audit. According to Reuters, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry “approved six secret authorizations by companies to sell nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia.”

An investigation by The Nation revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “was keeping tabs on a series of ‘anti-Trump protests,'” as well as the sponsoring groups and people who attended the events. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) made a list of mostly American reporters, lawyers, and activists for agents to question at the border. A Reveal investigation found that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “is relying on secret shelters to hold unaccompanied minors, in possible violation of the long-standing rules for the care of immigrant children.”

The State Department held a press briefing call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo limited to “faith-based media only.”

The Justice Department announced it will not defend any part of the Affordable Care Act law “despite the opposition of two key Cabinet secretaries: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Attorney General William Barr” per Politico.

The Space Development Agency (SDA) was officially established on March 12 as a new office in the U.S. military. According to Defense News, the office is directed by Fred Kennedy, who has been the director of the Tactical Technology Office. Meanwhile, NASA canceled the first all-woman spacewalk because it didn’t have enough spacesuits in the correct size on the International Space Station (ISS).

5. New hires

The Senate made several headline-grabbing confirmations of federal judges:

William Althen, Marco Rajkovich Jr., and Arthur Traynor III were confirmed as commissioners on the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC), bringing it up to quorum. The National Law Review observed there are “a majority of former management-side mine industry attorneys on the Commission,” but noted that “having such a majority does not guarantee that…decisions will be favorable to mine operator positions on the law.” Rajkovich’s nomination in particular was opposed by advocates for the environment, including the Sierra Club.

Also confirmed: Todd Harper and Rodney Hood as board members of the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), filling the three-person panel to capacity for the first time since April 2016; Nicole Nason as administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which has not had a head for more than two yearsDonald Washington as director of the U.S. Marshals Service; William Beach as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the Labor Department; John Fleming as assistant secretary overseeing the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) in the Commerce Department; and Miriam Hellreich and Robert Mandell as new board members and Bruce Ramer to a third term on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

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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