Briefing

Papered Over

Every four years, a new crop of political appointees experiences a special form of torture: the federal hiring process. Candidates must submit a lengthy paper trail proving their credentials and integrity. But those angling for a slot in the Obama administration will undergo the most intense scrutiny in recent memory. While the Senate usually shoulders the blame for dragging its feet during the confirmation process, several executive offices and agencies can gum up the works along the way.

  • The first stop is the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, the clearinghouse for appointments.
  • The White House Office of General Counsel then gathers information on the candidates and sniffs out any dirty laundry. Applicants must sign forms allowing the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service to run criminal and credit checks and begin a full background investigation. Senate-confirmed positions require three forms: the newly expanded White House Personal Data Questionnaire; Standard Form 86, the Office of Personnel Management's Questionnaire for National Security Positions; and Standard Form 278, the Public Financial Disclosure Report.
  • The independent Office of Government Ethics reviews and certifies financial disclosures and usually requires candidates to sign an agreement promising to take remedial measures to resolve any conflicts of interest that might crop up within 90 days of being sworn in.
  • The Office of Presidential Personnel decides whether to nominate candidates.
  • The Office of the Executive Clerk submits nominations to the Senate for consideration. And that's a whole other process.

- Kellie Lunney

To the Letter

Times might be tough at the U.S. Postal Service. But they're not as tough as one employee led a television station in Shreveport, La., to believe. In late October, KSLA News 12 reported that USPS planned to lay off 40,000 employees nationwide. It seems the station's source might have mistaken voluntary early retirements for layoffs. The agency is offering early outs to 156,000 employees in three waves. Officials are hoping for a 3 percent to 5 percent acceptance rate. The first two rounds delivered, with more than 5 percent of eligible employees taking the offer.

That's good news for younger workers. "When people are voluntarily moving on, that's less pressure [on the jobs of] some of the more junior people," says USPS spokesman Greg Frey. The final round of early retirement offers still is pending, and the economic situation remains uncertain. But for the time being, career employees need not worry about pink slips. The agency has "quite a bit of flexibility to cut back before we would have to do something more radical," Frey says.

-Amelia Gruber

Global English Lesson

The State Department has launched various initiatives during the past few years to improve America's image abroad. The latest effort-and likely the Bush administration's last-aims to teach the world English for free.

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is seeking a partner in the private sector to provide the necessary technology to create an online English language learning and literacy series for "economically disadvantaged youth" outside the United States. The target audience for English Access Online is foreign secondary school students.

State will provide the program's content, including stories that highlight American culture and values. "That is a massive project and requires a tremendous amount of drive and perseverance," said Goli Ameri, State's outgoing assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs, in November.

Ameri, an Iranian-American, developed many connections to the high-tech world during her former career as head of her own consulting and market research firm specializing in the tele-communications industry. "English is a huge economic development obstacle for countries like Brazil, Indonesia, India," she said. "It is something that's on everyone's mind."

Ameri said State will not award a contract per se; the hope is that companies will partner with the department out of "global good will" or be-cause the alliance would help them find new customers. She estimated it will cost the department about $1.5 million to develop the program. "There's a certain cachet in working with State on this," Ameri noted.

-Kellie Lunney

Explosive Fear Factor

Financial chaos reigned in the latter half of 2008, briefly eclipsing national security as the country's greatest fear. But as one Washington think tank points out in an upcoming film, things can always get worse. The conservative Heritage Foundation will release a documentary in February warning the American public that only 33 minutes stands between the country and a nuclear holocaust.

The film 33 Minutes features lawmakers, academics and administration officials sounding the alarm on hostile nations with weapons of mass destruction, and making the case for a more robust missile defense. The premise of the documentary is that it takes 33 minutes or less for a missile launched anywhere in the world to strike any location in the United States. Based on an eight-minute You-Tube clip, the documentary is a high quality-and high anxiety-production. Interviews spliced in among a shifting landscape of American flags, missiles and a who's who of the world's dictators, are set to a dramatic musical score.

Even the late President Ronald Reagan, one of history's staunchest Cold Warriors, makes an appearance. During the film, the former head of the Missile Defense Agency, Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III, breaks it down in stark terms: "So when all else fails, when all the negotiations have broken down, when there is a missile in the air, you have to have the ability to destroy it, because the only other ability you would have is to apologize to those who died." Still worried about your retirement savings?

-Kellie Lunney

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