Monday federal headlines – March 31, 2014

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

  • Democrats in Congress are making a federal case out of employee morale. They ask the Government Accountability Office to look into why surveys show federal employees’ job satisfaction has dropped. The request comes from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He’s joined by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member of the committee on government operations. They want GAO to break down survey numbers by grade, position and other factors. They want to find the causes of the job satisfaction trends, and to learn what help the Office of Personnel Management is offering. (Federal News Radio)
  • Four senators accuse the Office of Personnel Management of being stuck in the past when it comes to processing federal retirement claims. Specifically, the era of Charlie’s Angels, disco and Han Solo. It takes OPM two months to finalize most new retirees’ applications. That’s the same amount of time it took in 1977, according to Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). The four say they are monitoring OPM’s march towards a more modern system. They want details and progress reports from agency director Katherine Archuleta. (Senate)
  • The union representing transportation security officers hasn’t given up on the idea of gun-toting TSA agents. The American Federation of Government Employees still wants the agency to set up a new, armed law-enforcement unit. The labor union also calls for checkpoints with bulletproof glass and raised platforms for greater visibility. TSA leaders have rejected the idea of setting up a special law enforcement unit, saying it presents logistical and financial issues. TSA released a report on airport security nationwide following the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport. TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez died in that attack. He was the first TSA officer to fall in the line of duty. (American Federation of Government Employees)
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration faces a week of tough Congressional hearings. The agency joins General Motors on the hot seat as Chevy Cobalt hearings take place. Millions of the cars have dangerously defective ignition switches. Congress wants to know why a recall didn’t occur years earlier. A House subcommittee takes up the issue Tuesday, a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday. The main witnesses will be GM CEO Mary Barra and agency acting administrator David Friedman. NHTSA had complaints about the cars as early as 2005. In 2007, an agency panel decided there wasn’t enough evidence of a trend to force a recall. Thirteen people have died in crashes when the switches suddenly shut off the cars and airbags failed to open. (Associated Press)
  • The Homeland Security Department is making a fresh try at automating the processing of immigration forms. Back in October, it awarded InfoZen an $11.9 million contract to integrate software from other vendors and then test it. NextGov reports, the InfoZen deal only now came to light. It’s the first of several the department will award. IBM is the incumbent since 2008. It will help with the transition until May. DHS has already spent $1 billion on the the so- called transformation project. It was on track to cost $3.6 billion, but the agency decided to try new vendors. One module is working. The Electronic Immigration System lets people pay for visa processing and apply for investor green cards using online forms. (NextGov)
  • The federal government does not track landslide hazards, despite a decade-old plan to do so. Attention is focusing on the U.S. Geological Survey as Washington state deals with the deadliest mudslide in its history. Experts say the technology exists to build a nationwide monitoring system like the kinds that tracks floods and hurricanes. But monitoring slides takes money, and so far there’s been little public demand for it. The agency’s Landslide Hazards Program has a staff of 20 and an annual budget of $3.5 million. A landslide inventory pilot project ran out of money. Residents of Oso, Wash., had virtually no warning of the landslide that has killed 18 so far. (Associated Press)
  • The Pentagon will triple its cyber staff to defend against attacks that threaten national security. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says 6,000 cyber warriors will be on the payroll by 2016. There are fewer than 2,000 now. Hagel spoke at a ceremony for Gen. Keith Alexander. He retired Friday as head of both Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. The President has nominated Vice Adm. Mike Rogers to take over. He awaits Senate confirmation. In the meantime, two deputies are in charge of the agencies. (Associated Press)
  • The Air Force is finding billion-dollar savings hard to come by. In its 2015 budget proposal, the Air Force says retiring the U-2 spy plane will save $2.2 billion. But Defense News reports, the real savings will be closer to $0.5 billion. That’s because the Air Force has to invest heavily in the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft so it can take over from the U-2. The drone needs all sorts of new fittings to accommodate sensors removed from the U-2. Still, the resulting savings are enough to pay for a new combat rescue helicopter. Analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group wonders if retiring the fabled U-2 will ultimately save any money. And he warns there is some risk to the spy mission. (Defense News)
  • The parade of departing chief information officers continues with the Interior Department’s Bernie Mazer. He announces his retirement after 25 years of federal service. He’s already moved out of his day to day responsibilities. But he’ll stay in the department until July to help find a successor. Sylvia Burns was named acting CIO. She has been the acting associate deputy CIO for service planning and management. Earlier, Rob Carey, the Defense Department’s principal deputy CIO, said he would retire after 31 years. Eight CIOs with at least three years tenure in the job have left or announced their retirements in the last few months. (Federal News Radio)