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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.

Fright Night and Federal Dignity

May be just a lawyer trolling for clients, but Washington attorney John Mahoney chose Halloween to put out a warning to federal employees who might be tempted to overdrink or wear costumes that are in poor taste in this age of instant postings on Facebook.

"Federal employees must be especially careful because they can be and most often times are charged with conduct unbecoming of a federal employee," Mahoney writes in press release. "The charge is very broad and supervisors love to use it because it's easy to prove."

While termination is the extreme case of an innocent Halloween party gone bad, he adds, "another real possibility is that you wouldn't be viewed as a serious contender for advancement."

Perhaps the message is: Always choose a Halloween costume that makes you look like a serious contender for advancement.

Gingrich, Dust and the Typical EPA Employee

Farm dust.jpg

On the presidential campaign trail, Newt Gingrich made it clear this week that he's convinced of a couple of things:

  • That the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of issuing restrictions on farmers' ability to plow their fields in an effort to miminize dust.
  • That pampered EPA employees base their regulatory recommendations on personal whim rather than scientific data.

At a town hall meeting in Davenport, Iowa, Monday, Gingrich lobbed the accusation that EPA is seeking to regulate farm dust. But the Des Moines Register reports that EPA says it just isn't true. Agency administrator Lisa Jackson testified to Congress earlier this year that the agency has no plans to expand regulations on particulate matter to farm dust.

Still, at the meeting, Gingrich laid out a vivid image of who he thought would issue such rules. In his mind, the EPA regulator "leaves an air-conditioned condominium to get on the metro subway to ride to an air-conditioned federal office building to sit in an office with no windows where they sit back and they imagine dust and then they decide, 'You know, dust is bad.' "

(Hat tip: TPM)

(Photo: Agricultural Research Service)

Never Mind the Missing $6 Billion

Back in June, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction took pains to clarify an alarming report that some $6.6 billion in U.S. funds sent to help reconstruct Iraq in 2004 might have been stolen or lost. The money was certainly unaccounted for.

Concerned citizens can now heave a sigh of relief. With little fanfare on Wednesday, SIGIR released a new audit concluding that most of the Iraq Development Fund had long ago been transferred, as intended, to the Central Bank of Iraq. The uncertainty stemmed from the fact that the funds were in the form of stacks of cash and there was no "receipt documentation."

A final SIGIR report on the remaining dollars is due in January.

At TSA, 'Get Your Freak On,' Get Punished

You'd think with all the bad publicity that the Transportation Security Administration has received over the years, employees would be on their best behavior at all times. But in an agency as big as TSA, that's probably too much to hope for. So there are still employees who think that it would be a great idea to write "get your freak on girl" on an official notice and place it in a traveler's luggage after inspection.

TSA officials don't think that type of thing is at all amusing, however. The handwritten note was "was highly inappropriate and unprofessional," the agency says, and "TSA has zero tolerance for this type of behavior." So the employee in question has been removed from screening operations and "appropriate disciplinary action has been initiated." It's still not clear exactly what that might involve.

(Hat tip: TPM Livewire)

Hardly a Cubicle

The capital city's most spectacular offices include three occupied by federal executives, according to a photo-feature in the November Washingtonian magazine.

The stunning glimpses of offices with a view, with ornate décor or historical import include that of Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs Lael Brainard, whose blue-carpeted workspace was once occupied temporarily by President Andrew Johnson following the Lincoln assassination.

The tall wood paneling enjoyed daily by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller was previously used by George C. Marshall when he was Army chief of staff and by General Leslie Groves when he directed the Manhattan Project.

And the walls chockablock with samples from past major art exhibits provide workaday inspiration to Mark Leithauser, senior curator of the National Gallery of Art.

The feature isn't available online, so if you're interested in these feds' workspaces, you'll have to seek out a print copy of the magazine.

A New Low for Trust Numbers

How many Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing? About one in 10, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

The survey found that an almost unfathomable 89 percent of Americans say they distrust government to do the right thing. Almost three fourths say the country is on the wrong track and 84 percent disapprove of Congress. President Obama's approval rating stands at 46 percent.

Those are dangerously low numbers. First and foremost, they are a reflection of the country's lousy and stagnant economic condition. The distrust is aimed mostly in the direction of politicians on both sides of the aisle.

But the poll results have major implications for the people who work in government, too. Members of the political class will work overtime to make "bureaucrats" the scapegoats for much of what the public perceives as the failures of government. Career officials will have fewer defenders, and support for the work they do in the form of budget and personnel resources will become harder and harder to come by.

Unless something changes dramatically in the country's economic and political condition, very dark days are ahead.

Secretary Rice and Qaddafi's Creepy Scrapbook

So not only did ex-Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi keep a weird scrapbook on Condoleezza Rice, now we now he actually showed it to her.

The Hill's Blog Briefing Room reports that in an ABC interview scheduled to air next week on Good Morning America, Rice said Qaddafi made her sit through a viewing of the collection of photos of her the Libyan strongman he had collected during her visit to the country in 2008.

"I thought, 'Well this is a really, really strange, strange moment in my time as Secretary of State," Rice said.

In addition to the photos, Qadafi also presented Rice with an original song that he had specially composed for her, called "Black Flower in the White House."

I'm guessing this is the kind of thing that no amount of training in international relations could prepare one for.

Lawmakers Fight For Saturday Delivery

Even though legislation allowing the U.S. Postal Service to stop delivering mail on Saturdays has advanced for consideration on the House floor, lawmakers still are fighting for language to preserve six-day delivery.

Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Jo Ann Emerson, D-Mo., and Sam Graves, D-Mo., this week announced plans to offer an amendment to legislation sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., that would prevent USPS from dropping a delivery day. Issa's bill, which would adjust delivery schedules and the agency's pay and benefits structure, passed a full committee vote last week and could move to the House floor.

In a letter to House members, the lawmakers wrote that cutting Saturday delivery would affect Americans who rely on regular mail service as well as result in lost jobs for postal employees. Rural letter carriers alone would see up to 50,000 positions disappear, they said.

The Postal Service has been pushing the five-day delivery plan as part of their overall cost-saving strategy. Issa's bill is the first to receive serious consideration at the committee level, though senators invested in postal issues promise that comprehensive legislation is coming soon.

Subpoenas for Four Agencies

House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., late Thursday sent subpoenas to four agencies he views as being out of compliance with the Small Business Act's provisions on structuring their Offices of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.

The Agriculture, Justice, Treasury and State departments were sent the subpoenas asking them to testify at a hearing in late October or early November.

The bone of contention is whether the law's provisions to give clout to offices that help small minority contractors win federal business are being followed if the officials running the OSDBUs do not report directly to the agency chief or deputy.

Following a GAO report, letters and a hearing in September, the four agencies now being subpoened offered varying arguments why their special reporting structures are fully compliant with the law.

Going After Shady Contractors

A grab-bag bill approved on Wednesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee aims to shake up the business-as-usual world of federal contracting.

The Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Improvement Act would take a whack at the estimated $125 billion in undeserved payments made by agencies in 2010 by toughening a similar bill President Obama signed that same year. The bill would expand requirements for estimating agency improper payments, mandate a governmentwide "Do Not Pay List" for delinquent contractors, improve databases to reduce payments to deceased individuals, and expand pilot audit programs used successfully by Medicare to recover erroneous payments.

The Senate committee bill was welcomed by Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Organization, Efficiency and Financial Management. He plans to work with the senators, saying, "Focusing on eliminating improper payments goes to the very heart of government accountability."

It all sounds unassailable, but well-behaved federal contractors may not be happy. As the Professional Services Council argues, compiling a governmentwide "Do Not Pay List" risks misinterpretation by the public, reporters and public interest groups that don't always understand past performance data in contracting.