By Tom Shoop
December 31, 2013
In many ways, 2013 was a year to forget, with a shutdown of government, scandals aplenty, budget cuts and furloughs, a botched rollout of the Healthcare.gov website and the tragic deaths of several federal employees at the hands of a shooter at the Washington Navy Yard. But before we put the year behind us, let’s take one last look at the big federal stories of the year.
7. IRS Snooping Scandal
In early May, the IRS quietly dropped a bombshell, when it apologized to Tea Party groups for subjecting their applications for nonprofit tax status to increased scrutiny, an action detailed in an inspector general’s report days later. That quickly cost the acting IRS commissioner his job, and led to a series of congressional probes. Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of the scandal, retired in September, and John Koskinen was brought in to rebuild the troubled agency.
6. Sequestration and Furloughs
When it comes to the federal budget process, this year could be characterized as the one where the unthinkable actually happened. It started with the dreaded sequester actually going into effect, when Congress couldn’t agree on a plan to avert tens of billions of dollars in across-the-board budget cuts. As a result, agencies across government implemented employee furloughs. While the furloughs turned out to be less devastating than initially feared, they struck yet another blow to morale. And the long-term consequences of the sweeping budget cuts remained largely unknown.
5. An Actual Budget Deal
After years of partisan wrangling over federal spending, lawmakers managed to come together in December and craft an actual budget deal that passed both houses of Congress. The deal provided $63 billion in sequester relief, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs. And it did so while sparing current federal employees from further cuts in pay and benefits (although it increased the amount new employees will have to contribute to their pensions). Of course, the agreement set the stage for yet another debate about increasing the debt limit.
4. The Snowden Files
In June, an anonymous leaker who quickly outed himself as Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor, unleashed a worldwide firestorm when he revealed highly classified information about the agency’s surveillance programs. With more and more details trickling out over the summer and fall, observes quickly took up sides in labeling Snowden everything from a traitor to a hero. The ongoing story raised myriad questions, including several about the government’s security clearance process. In the end, while some former NSA employees praised Snowden’s actions, many at the agency were left feeling beaten down by the whole affair.
3. Navy Yard Attack
In mid-September, tragedy once again struck a federal facility, with a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. That such an attack could take place at a military installation stunned both civilians and uniformed service members, and other federal buildings were quickly locked down in the aftermath. The incident swiftly led to a wide-ranging review of military base security, and President Obama ordered an investigation into security clearance procedures for both federal employees and contractors. Meanwhile, members of Congress pondered new ways to beef up security at federal buildings across the country.
2. Healthcare.gov Disaster
The most eagerly anticipated federal project of the year arrived on Oct. 1, and it turned out to be a major bust. When Healthcare.gov made its debut in connection with the rollout of Obamacare, glitches abounded -- so much so that less than 1 percent of users were able to actually enroll in a health care plan during its first week online. Chief White House fixer Jeffrey Zients was brought in to rescue the development effort, while Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urged lawmakers to hold her accountable for the mess. It took until the end of December before the number of registrants enrolled through Healthcare.gov finally cleared the 1 million mark. About the only silver lining to the whole situation? It sparked a national discussion about such arcane issues as federal procurement regulations.
Since 1995, politicians have flirted with fiscal disaster time and time again, but managed to avoid a shutdown of government. That ended Oct. 1, when the clock ran out on efforts to secure even short-term fiscal 2014 funding for federal agencies, and much of government ground to a halt. The morale-sapping mess only deepened over the next few weeks, as the Defense Department found a way to bring back many of its civilians while President Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill refused to budge on demands to tie funding for agencies to changes in the Affordable Care Act. In the end, it all ended with a whimper. And furloughed employees at least got back pay – and a 1 percent raise in 2014 -- out of the deal.
By Tom Shoop
December 31, 2013