Thursday morning federal headlines – Jan. 19, 2012

The Morning Federal Newscast is a daily compilation of the stories you hear Federal Drive host Tom Temin discuss throughout the show each day. The Newscast is designed to give users more information about the stories you hear on the air.

  • A billionaire history buff has stepped forward to help finance repairs to the Washington Monument. Businessman David Rubenstein made a $7.5 million matching gift needed to start repairing cracks near the top of the Monument. He says he was inspired to help by how severely the monument was damaged by a 5.8-magnitude quake last summer. Congress allocated $7.5 million in December on the condition that private donations would match that amount. The National Park Service is expected to announce the gift this afternoon. Park Service says it hopes to have a contractor begin work by the end of August. The repairs are expected to take a year to complete, likely keeping the monument closed for up to two years. (WTOP)
  • The Veterans Affairs Department is mourning the loss of its first ever secretary. Edward Derwinski was appointed to head the fledgling agency by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. He served until 1992. Derwinski was a World War II Army Veteran and a former congressman who served 24 years as a member of House of Representatives. His tenure as secretary was marked by preparing the VA for its new role as a federal department and for future calls to action. (Federal News Radio)
  • The Broadcasting Board of Governors says it wants to restructure its agency. The government’s international broadcasting arm will seek legislation to create a chief executive officer to manage the enterprise. The Board is also calling for a plan to consolidate the agency’s three non-federal broadcast networks: Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. The Board’s chairman says the agency wants to free up resources locked up in inefficient and duplicative administrative structures and reinvesting in programming. The agency reaches more that 187-million listeners and viewers, in 58 languages world-wide every week. (Broadcasting Board of Governors)
  • The Defense Department is targeting sexual assault with new initiatives. Secretary Leon Panetta called the crime “a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and their families” at a press conference yesterday. A new DoD sexual assault advocate certification program will bring military counselors and first responders in line with national training standards, and DoD will extend that type of help to military family members who are victims of sexual assault. While 3,200 sexual assaults were reported in the military last year, Panetta says the true number is more like 19,000 because most are never reported. He says this is just the beginning; there are more changes to come. (Federal News Radio)
  • The Transportation Security Administration is adopting the Coast Guard’s emergency alert system. The system provides alerts over landline, mobile and satellite phones, email, text messages and faxes. TSA will be able to manage it through a virtual private cloud system. Alerts can be controlled from a central location but each port or airport could have its own local account and secure internal network. The Coast Guard says the shared approach saves money and increases efficiency, according to the company that powers the software: At-Hoc. (At-Hoc)
  • One congressman thinks federal regulations are so badly written, most people can’t understand them. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) wants to extend the Plain Language Act to cover regulations. The act was signed into law in October. It requires agencies to sharpen their written communication skills. But it stops with publications and websites. Braley says poorly written regulations can be expensive for small business. He says that unlike big businesses, the little guys don’t have teams of accountants and lawyers to help them figure out what new regulations mean. (Federal News Radio)
  • Federal employee health insurance plans will soon offer you information at the touch of a button — a blue button. The Office of Personnel Management has asked insurance providers to add technology called blue button to their websites. Clicking on the button sends users copies of their personal health care records. The VA, Medicare and Medicaid already offer blue button downloads to benefits recipients. The most basic version of health care records contain information patients enter themselves. OPM is asking companies to consider adding data provided by doctors, such as prescriptions or lab results. (Federal News Radio)
  • The Office of Personnel Management gives lawmakers details about plans to speed up retirement benefits processing. OPM plans to hire 76 new legal and customer service specialists. They’ll go to work immediately on a backlog of nearly 50,000 retirees. That backlog is growing by 2,000 applications a month. OPM will also offer productivity bonuses to employees who can process retirement claims quicker, and the agency will make another run at upgrading the technology it uses for claims. OPM director John Berry says the plan will take a year and a half to clean up the backlog. (Federal News Radio)
  • The Education Department is overhauling its Race to the Top program. The program pits states against one another to come up with the most improvement in public education performance. The winning states receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants. Now the program will be open to local school districts, not just states. Education Secretary Arne Duncan tells the U.S. Conference of Mayors, details are still being hammered out. Duncan already has the go-ahead from Congress. Education will dole out $550 billion this year. (Federal News Radio)
  • The Library of Congress has launched a new mobile app. This one is for iPad tablets. It gives users mobile access to the daily Congressional Record. The House Committee on Administration asked the Library to develop the app. The Library was aided by staff from the Government Printing Office. The two agencies have already collaborated on digitizing the Statues at Large back to 1951. They’re also working to digitize congressional debates recorded back to 1873. (Library of Congress)
  • The IRS is spending $320 million on website improvements. But the Government Accountability Office warns that some of the basics are missing from the agency’s Internet strategy. For example, the IRS could encourage customers to use online tools rather than call the agency for information. GAO says pushing customers online will cut costs and give them the help they need sooner. The upgrade is for more secure portals for taxpayers to access information. IRS will debut the site next year. (GAO)
  • NASA has launched a new website to encourage more open-source software development. The agency says it uses open source code to address project and mission needs, speed up development and increase public awareness of its research. Deputy chief information officer Deborah Diaz says citizen involvement is a critical component of our success. This is part of the agency’s open-government plan, following a White House order that agencies should become more transparent. (NASA)