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Eye Opener: March 5, 2009

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

Happy Thursday! The Eye will spend his day on Capitol Hill attending House and Senate hearings about the future and past of the U.S. Census Bureau. Look for updates here on the blog and follow The Eye on Twitter for real-time updates.

During the presidential campaign, The Eye had the rare privilege to travel and work with The Washington Post's David Broder, who has covered politics and Washington since the 1960s. Today "The Dean" expresses concern about the Obama administration's staffing levels as the new president launches "hugely expensive and ambitious programs."

"It has done this with a mere corporal's guard of key appointees in place. The White House itself is rather fully staffed, but the departments and agencies, where broad policies must be converted into real operations, have numerous openings. Decisions are being made by career bureaucrats, Bush administration carryovers -- or not at all."

And as the president slowly names administration appointees, "some lawmakers and Washington interest groups are raising concerns that he may be subverting the authority of Congress and concentrating too much power in the presidency," reports Tom Hamburger and Christi Parsons of the LA Times.

"The idea of these 'super aides,' who will work across agency lines to push the president's agenda, is not a new one. President Nixon may have named the first 'czar' with his appointment of William E. Simon to handle the 1970s energy crisis. Other presidents have followed suit. But none has embraced the concept, presidential scholars say, to the extent that Obama has."

On top of those concerns, The Post's Joe Davidson opines that "The thought of Uncle Sam going on a hiring binge is frightening -- but not because of a philosophy that says small government is better than big government. It's scary because the hiring process is messed up. It's so ineffective that some applicants get fed up and seek work elsewhere. It's so incompetent that those who do get hired often are not matched with the jobs that best fit their talents or the needs of agencies. It's so bad that a cottage industry has sprung up to help people navigate the hiring maze."

Regardless, there's encouraging news for civilian federal workers: Congress will likely consider giving them a higher pay raise, possibly as high as 3.9 percent in fiscal 2010.

"During the National Treasury Employees Union legislative conference in Washington, Rep. Stephen Lynch called the size of the 2010 civilian pay raise 'fluid,' but 'fluid in the right direction,'" reports Government Executive's Alyssa Rosenberg. "The Massachusetts Democrat is the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee. 'When I raised a concern, they said, 'Don't beat us up yet, that's not a final number.' We're pushing on our end for parity, but we want even the military number to move up.'"

In other news...

President Orders Review of Federal Contracting System: "Obama's announcement, joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), served as a philosophical break with the Bush administration, which vastly expanded the role of contractors in running the government and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," reports The Post's Scott Wilson and Robert O'Harrow.

D.C. Tech Chief Headed For White House Slot: The Post's Kim Hart reports that "Vivek Kundra, chief technology officer for [Washington, D.C.], will be the federal chief information officer, according to two administration officials. It's a job that did not exist in previous administrations; Obama, who leveraged social networks, text messages and other Internet tools on the campaign trail, promised to create a technology czar with the aim of helping the government operate more efficiently. The newly created federal position will operate under the auspices of the White House. Kundra, 34, is expected to oversee how government agencies purchase and use information technology and will be in charge of all federal technology spending."

Fla. Official Chosen to Run FEMA: What is it about the FEMA director's name starting with a single letter? Remember R. David Paulison? Well now Obama will nominate Florida's emergency manager W. Craig Fugate, one of the nation's most experienced hurricane hands. "If confirmed by the Senate, Fugate, 49, would assume the politically sensitive job of heading a 4,400-worker bureaucracy that was widely blamed for the Bush administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The agency has been reorganized repeatedly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks," notes The Post's Spencer S. Hsu.

Stimulus to Help Retool Education, Duncan Says: Federal funds will be used "to encourage states to expand school days, reward good teachers, fire bad ones and measure how students perform compared with peers in India and China," the Ed Sec told The Post's Bill Turque and Maria Glod. "History has shown that money alone does not drive school improvement, Duncan said, pointing to the District of Columbia, where public school students consistently score near the bottom on national reading and math tests even though the school system spends more per pupil than its suburban counterparts do."

Task Force Urges Broader Role for Nuclear Labs: "The nation's nuclear weapons laboratories would be spun out of the Energy Department and become the center of an independent Agency for National Security Applications under a proposal to be released today by a bipartisan task force formed by the Stimson Center, a research organization devoted to security issues," reports The Post's Walter Pincus.

A Ferment Among Calif. Vintners: Steve Vogel has a full-bodied story on today's Fed Page: "As the American wine industry began its march to becoming the $1 billion-a-year export industry it is today, the federal government established a system in 1978 to recognize the country's distinct grape-growing areas. The appellation system creating American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, is popular in the wine industry, which uses it as a marketing tool. Now the tiny federal agency that oversees the program has triggered an uproar within the industry because it wants to make it tougher to win an AVA designation -- a move highly unpopular with many vineyards. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an obscure agency of the Treasury Department, thinks that the changes are needed to protect existing brands that use a region's name in their labels even if their grapes do not come from that region. But opponents say that by protecting those brands, the government would be misleading consumers as to the origins of the grapes."

In His Own Words: Secretary Ken Salazar: Meant to post this earlier this week, but the Interior Secretary speaks with Federal News Radio and said he's focused on moving forward on an economic recovery, including an increase in staffing; dealing with energy resources on federal lands; the build-out of a national grid; offshore oil rights; and dealing with the high-profile minerals management service.

NTSB Official Questions National Rail Safety Supervision: "Repeated, reckless rule violations emerging from the investigation of last year’s deadly Metrolink crash are exposing systemic problems in the nation's rail safety enforcement and sharpening differences over how to prevent accidents in the years until high-tech collision avoidance systems can be deployed," the LA Times reports. "Kathryn O'Leary Higgins noted that at least four serious violations of safety regulations have been exposed in the examination of the Sept. 12 head-on collision between a commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train: on-duty cellphone use, a failure to confirm signal colors, unauthorized ride-alongs and marijuana use by a train crew member."

Today's Big Event:

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 5, 2009; 7:43 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener  
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Next: Census Reaches New Heights in Cost, Staffing


You left out the worst problem with the dysfunctional government hiring process: once hired, huge numbers of new hires sit in a cubical, drawing a salary, with NO work to do. I'm retired now, but while working in a government position I attended workshops called to 'make our department the best it could be'. The most common complaint in those workshops was that new hires literally had nothing to do. No one managed them, no one gave them assignments, no one gave them training, and no one cared that they spent 8 hours a day collecting a salary for doing nothing.

Posted by: daune | March 5, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

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