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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.
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Vanity Portraits: Not Much of a Drain on the Budget

The stunning story made national network news: Agency heads were squandering taxpayer money by commissioning painters to produce vanity portraits of themselves, suitable for framing.

But buried in a recent Congressional Budget Office report scoring Senate legislation to address the situation is the slightly snarkily expressed verdict that the problem is actually minuscule.

The bill, S. 1820, reported by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on May 21, was introduced in December by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; and Deb Fisher, R-Neb. It would limit to $20,000 the federal funds that may be used for portraits of officials in the line of succession to the presidency, and prohibit funding for agency heads outside the line of succession. Under the bill, funds may be used to display such portraits, which may also be paid for privately.  

But CBO estimates that implementing S. 1820 “would have no significant effect on the federal budget.” Current appropriations law prohibits the use of federal funds for portraits in fiscal 2014, the nonpartisan scorekeepers wrote. Likely, the cost “would be less than $500,000 annually because we expect fewer than 20 portraits are purchased for federal officials not in the line ...

Firing Feds, Private Sector-Style

How and when federal employees get fired is a theme in several current Washington stories, from long patient waiting lists at the Veterans Affairs Department to an Environmental Protection Agency employee’s day-long porn viewing habit.

“What does it take to get fired from the EPA?” asked House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at a May hearing. The session was one of many at which lawmakers have expressed frustration at bureaucratic obstacles to quick removal of bad actors while praising private sector companies for their more decisive wielding of the ax.

But there’s at least one recent episode at which abruptness backfired in the due-process world of the federal sector. It occurred at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, from which Government Executive was able to tease out some fresh details of the situation.

In September 2012, Steven Korn, then-executive director of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, implemented a plan to modernize, upgrade and perhaps soften U.S. broadcasting operations beaming into Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  The attorney and veteran of Ted Turner’s broadcast empire informed some 40 employees -- 80 percent of the Russian-language reporting staff -- that they were out.

Korn’s message—“Welcome to ...

Accomplishments: Amazing. Bonuses: $0

With all the talk these days of inappropriate bonuses for executives at the Veterans Affairs Department, last night provided a look at the other end of the spectrum. The Senior Executives Association honored dozens of high-ranking career federal officials for highly impressive accomplishments that have received scant attention from the public -- or the nation’s political leaders, for that matter. And this year, those achievements come with bonuses totaling $0.

SEA held a reception at the State Department honoring the finalists for the Presidential Rank Awards, which recognize the highest-achieving senior federal leaders. Only 1 percent of the Senior Executive Service can achieve the rank of Distinguished Executive and 5 percent can be designated Meritorious Executives.

Ordinarily, Distinguished Executives get bonuses equal to 35 percent of their salaries, and Meritorious Executives get 20 percent. But last year, in the midst of the fight over sequestration and with a government shutdown looming, the White House canceled the awards for 2013. Under the law, though, the nomination and selection process for the  awards went on, and last month OPM published the names of the finalists who agreed to be publicly recognized.

Those finalists included:

  • Shay D. Assad, director of defense pricing in ...

At Least Eric Shinseki Didn’t Get Choked by the President

Eric Shinseki’s visit to the White House Friday that culminated in President Obama accepting his resignation could’ve been worse. After all, he only lost his job. The first head of the federal agency created to serve veterans suffered a more ignominious fate.

In a report on the “culture of coverups” at the VA Friday, the Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold included the following anecdote:

Charles Forbes was chosen to head the Veterans Bureau by his poker buddy, President Warren G. Harding, in 1921. He was a poor choice. Forbes took kickbacks. He sold off federal supplies. He wildly misspent taxpayer money -- once buying a 100-year supply of floor wax, enough to polish a floor the size of Indiana, for 25 times the regular price (apparently as a favor to a floor wax company).

Eventually, Forbes was caught. The president was unhappy. In 1923, a White House visitor opened the wrong door and found Harding choking Forbes with his bare hands.

“You yellow rat! You double-crossing bastard!” Harding was saying, according to historians. When he noticed the visitor, he let go of Forbes’s neck.

Forbes was later convicted of bribery and conspiracy, setting off the first wave ...

It's Getting Easier to Reach IRS Employees

Some agency employees are reluctant to publish their phone numbers for fear, perhaps, of harassment. That appeared to be the case at the Internal Revenue Service’s Exempt Organizations Division, which for months resisted efforts to obtain a phone list by tax attorney and newsletter editor Paul Streckfus.

After pleas and even a Freedom of Information Act request last September (which IRS denied on privacy grounds), Streckfus finally wrote in March directly to Commissioner John Koskinen.

As reported in his newsletter E.O. Tax Journal Friday, the IRS gave ground in a May 23 letter from John H. Davis Jr., deputy associate director at the agency’s Disclosure Headquarters. Attached were the “names, titles, posts of duty, office telephone numbers, email addresses, and business units of the current non-clerical IRS employees assigned to the Exempt Organization function of the TE/GE Division of the Internal Revenue Service who have been previously publicly identified.”

A grateful Streckfus plans to seek additional contact information for his readers once the E.O. division completes a reorganization.