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“Facts are stubborn things,” Ronald Reagan famously said. This week, I’ve enjoyed witnessing the lava flow of progressive politics, with its infinite plasticity, slowed down by solid rocks of facts – arithmetic facts.
Neil Barofsky, with the intense eyes of a prosecutor and big ears that add a sort of earnestness to his visage, bored into the “transparency” myth of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), of which he is the inspector general. Maybe the $700 billion of TARP money that went out did save the finance industry, or maybe not. This unanswerable swims in the political ooze. Barofsky’s report to the Senate Banking Committee can be summarized thus: the Treasury department has, to put it charitably, only the vaguest notion of how the banks spent their funds. And, by the way, the full liability of the taxpayers for the assets warranted by the TARP program is, gulp, $23.7 trillion.
Too bad Vivek Kundra wasn’t in place as CIO at the Office of Management and Budget when the TARP program got started. He could have started a feed-to-the-Web site like the IT dashboard, only for TARP. Congress might have instituted a rule: no data feed, no TARP money. Too late.
Another fact derived from simple math came from the director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Doug Elmendorf. He took on the purely political claim that the health care “reform” plan, as expressed in the House version (H.R. 3200 – but don’t download it, it’s a thousand pages) would be “deficit netural.” Actually it would add a quarter of a trillion dollars to the deficit over the next 10 years, by CBO’s calculations.
When Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker suspended 45 IT projects based on what turned up thanks to the dasboard, it made me wish the administration and Congress were equally fastidious about the big things.
“An inexcusable waste of money” is how President Obama described continued spending on the F-22 Raptor, given the deficits the nation is running. And he prevailed in the 58-40 vote to strip the 2010 Defense Authorization bill of $1.75 billion that would have funded seven more of the F-22s, to add to the 187 already ordered.
So this is what passes for fiscal discipline from a president using all of his political capital to force feed the nation a trillion dollar health care “reform” bill, and presiding over a $767 billion stimulus bill under which most of the money hasn’t left the Federal Reserve, where it is parked. He is pushing across the board budget increases for nearly every Federal agency in fiscal 2010, while the deficit this year has already reached the trillion dollar mark.
From a financial standpoint, the F-22’s program costs are mostly sunk with the 187 already built. That means the next 100 (or 200 proponents say would be the minimum needed) would start to yield the volume economies that accrue to complex tasks when they come down the learning curve. To a less exaggerated degree, it is the same phenomenon that causes the first of a new generation of microprocessors to cost $1 billion, whereas a few months later the chips are found in $1,000 computers selling profitably.
“Complete nonsense” is how Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates described the notion that not getting more F-22s would imperil the nation’s security. At least Gates gets to address what should be the heart of the matter: is a greater quantity of the F-22 needed for national defense?
And here is where the military brass who favor the F-22 and other experts failed to make a case. Some analysts think that as the U.S. air superiority yielded for 30 years by the F-15 has passed, and that the F-22 can take over for the next several decades. The F-15 in its heyday was capable enough that no nation would challenge it.
Yet F-22 proponents, notably Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), talked about the plane as if it were as much a jobs program as a strategic necessity. Notwithstanding that the F-22 is probably a more efficient stimulus program than anything actually in the stimulus bill, weapons-as-pork is a poor sales strategy.
Gates is correct that the F-22 has never been needed in Iraq or Afghanistan, wars in which improvised explosive devices buried in dirt have been the most legal weapon fielded by the enemy. But he might be mistaken in thinking that the U.S. will never face an enemy in the next 30 years with air strike capabilities approximately equal to its own. It is possible that lack of the F-22’s abilities will invite a challenge.
In any case, the battle is not over, because the Defense appropriations bill will give supporters another chance to test Obama’s veto threat.
Sometimes you have to shock ‘em into believing.
Now approaching my “double nickels” stage of life, I still vividly remember my first day of first grade. Let’s see, that would have been September, 1961. The teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, paddled a boy named Billy L----. I’ll leave the name out. Who knows, he may work for the Federal government. That did it. We saucer-eyed first graders had mucho respect for Mrs. Jenkins from that morning forward. I remember asking my big sister why the paddle had three rows of holes in it.
“I guess so she could swing it faster,” was the answer.
Barely a month ago, Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker gave his initial interviews after settling into the job. He outlined a new process to review all IT projects in the department. Shortly thereafter, the Office of Management and Budget launched its IT dashboard, using data supplied by agencies. Then late last week week, Baker – with the explicit and highly visible backing of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who actually made the announcement – put a hold on 45 IT projects he said were severely late or over budget, and were costing the department upwards of $200 million a year.
No doubt the 45 VA projects deserved a time out, but the theatricality of the timing looked, well, stage managed. Baker said the projects came to light while his staff prepared to populate the dashboard. And, at the dashboard site, OMB CIO Vivek Kundra blogged about the potential VA cancellations, managing to praise both Baker and the dashboard in the same posting. Pretty neat.
One could argue that VA should have management practices in place already to catch projects that are off. In one case a project was a year late and 100 percent over budget – surely that must have been known to someone before the dashboard got underway. Even Kundra said on his blog, “the dashboard is not a substitute for good management.” I suspect someone was aware.
That’s not criticism. Dramatic gestures, arranged for effect, are useful in making the case that things have changed. Whether the dashboard fueled the decision-making at VA or the other way around, credit goes to Kundra and Baker for creating a teaching moment.
No sooner had Federal agencies finished mopping up from the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack launched July 4, then the requests for information about protective software started coming out. First to launch was the Defense Information Systems Agency. Other agencies followed.
Which raises the obvious questions: Can it be there are Federal agencies that don’t have software that can alert them to and deter DDoS attacks? And how did the Einstein boxes perform at those agencies that have them?
I spoke to one civil agency chief information security officer yesterday who shrugged knowingly that his department was aware of the attack as it was happening, but that it didn’t succeed in overwhelming his Web sites.
Another question, which I’ve heard repeatedly around town with an increasingly loud drumbeat, is when will President Obama get around to appointing the cyber security coordinator? He made the promise back in May, the 29th to be exact. Melissa Hathaway, the acting cyber advisor, appears to have stopped giving speeches, or at least no one reporting on them any more.
With the Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination essentially in the bag, and the energy and health care debates reaching their fortissimo climax, perhaps the president can dig one layer down in his in-box and get the cyber coordinator in place. The DDoS incident ought to nudge this appointment off center.
Hillary Clinton’s State Department is embarking on a Pentagon-style self-examination called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). Clinton announced the QDDR last week to employees. Jack Lew, deputy secretary for management and resources (and former OMB director under President Clinton), held a Q&A with USAID employees to talk further about it.
Lew got some pointed questions from the staff members gathered, including some about the fact that State Department systems make it hard to correlate spending outlays with diplomatic activities. For example, the questioner said, “...when we ask, as we did, for example, recently about Honduras, well, how much money does the U.S. government give Honduras, then it took 48 hours to get that question answered.”
Lew acknowledged “the systems are far from perfect. I mean, it’s not like we inherited a system where the numbers tie together easily, you push a button and you get a report.” He said the QDDR would try to look at the State “holistically” with the caveat not to “expect that in 12 months we will have it down perfect, and that we’ll be able to, after decades of all of those things being separate, have them seamlessly integrated so that you can sit at a computer and get the answer to your Honduras question in five minutes.”
The point of the QDDR will not be to examine information systems. Far from it. It’s partly a response to the administration’s desire to step up its efforts in war areas where the military would rather stick to fighting the wars while have a stronger partner in State. (In fact, Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed this desire during the Bush administration.) And I believe it’s partly a gambit by Clinton to increase visibility and relevance relative to other Obama aides. But the online document describing the components of the QDDR states that the end product will include a recommended set of tools and resources needed to implement whatever strategy the examiners arrive at.
All I can say is, it better be good.
In awarding a whopping $9.5 million contract for the new recovery.gov Web site on behalf of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the General Services Administration (GSA) has decidedly not taken the low-price route.
“No public facing Web site has ever attempted to provide the type of functionality that Recovery.gov has been tasked to offer to the American public.” This is what a GSA spokesperson stated, explaining why the improvements and enhancement contract line items were not awarded on a fixed priced basis. Most of the work is for a fixed price, though.
The contract, to Smartronix, a contractor in Hollywood, Md. under GSA’s Alliant vehicle, requires an August 27 launch of the site, according to reporting by Federal News Radio, which broke the story Thursday morning. Only SRA and Accenture competed for the contract, presumably because of the short time frame and the mostly fixed price. Interestingly, the RAT Board had by Thursday evening not announced the award on its own Web site.
Given that at least two other sites have been up and running with detailed recovery data, www.stimuluswatch.org and www.recovery.org, what in heck will the RAT board get for 9 mil?
Last year, when the Bush Office of Management and Budget (OMB) set up www.usaspending.gov, it spent $600,000 and used technology from OMB Watch, which had built the functionality at its own expense.
OMB managed to get www.data.gov up quickly and at low cost, which may be a less technically complex project since it just accepts data sources the government was already publishing. Recovery, in contrast, requires new sources and new ways of combining information – including from non-Federal sources, namely state and local governments receiving stimulus money.
Nine million bucks, with a total contract potential value of $17 million, is a large amount for a Web site. This one should do the hula.
While the rest of the world was wallowing in existential angst over the death of Michael Jackson, here in Washington the tintinnabulation of the week concerned the Washington Post. The self-important Politco reported that the Post was having sponsored dinners for lobbyists and trade association honchos at which they could meet Obama administration officials and editorial staff members of the Post.
Reaction ran along several lines. One was satisfaction at having confirmation Post editorial, already liberal, was for sale to the administration. Another was worry that the so-called revelation would affect the dinners we others in the media do. The latter reaction came from the smaller media outfits such as 1105 (Federal Computer Week, Washington Technology) and Atlantic Media (Government Executive).
Seemingly outed by Politico, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth canceled the dinners, and editor Marcus Brauchli also denounced the arrangement.
Having worked at the Washington Post Company for 10 years – although not at the Post itself – I can say with certainty that few companies maintain ethical standards – in journalism and in other endeavors – as high as those of the Post and its parent company. True, the sponsorship invitation flier was extravagantly written and unworthy of the company. But the program was killed before it got off the ground. I believe Brauchli (formerly managing editor of the Wall Street Journal) and Weymouth (granddaughter of the late Katharine Graham) who basically said the business office went off on this program without properly vetting it within the company. End of story.
A long-flourishing cottage industry in Washington, Washington Post watching/bashing seems always to have preoccupied letter media lights. Perhaps out of jealousy of the Post’s power and prestige. Even in its recent circulation decline and financial stress, the Post – while by no means flawless – maintains its institutional influence. The recent snafu might be a sign of that stress, or simply evidence of a relatively young publisher learning on the job. But it doesn’t signal that editorial access at the Post is for sale.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) didn’t reveal the names of the 652 companies agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be visiting. But last week’s report that a crackdown on employers via audits of their workers’ I-9 forms showed that the Obama administration wants to establish its chops on illegal immigration. But it will be taking a different tack than the Bush administration, which arrested large numbers of the workers themselves.
If you want to make sure companies verify the eligibility of their workers, fine. But that means tools must be available for employers to do so at a minimum of effort and cost. It means the databases the government maintains for the specific purpose of eligibility verification must be accurate, and that is a tall order.
The checkered and much-argued-over e-Verify system is DHS’s system of choice for employers to check eligibility against. It uses information from the Social Security Information. Its use is voluntary except for Federal contractors, who will be obligated to use it starting Sept. 8. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has postulated that every employer should be compelled to check the eligibility of every worker in the U.S.
A couple of years ago, e-Verify exhibited accuracy rates too low to make it a practical system. Now DHS claims accuracy rates of above 99 percent. A 99.9 percent accurate rate would produce 1,000 errors per million queries. When you compare that to the estimated five percent of jobs in the U.S. held by illegal immigrants, e-Verify doesn’t look so bad.
Joe Biden – Vice President Joe Biden, that is – is known for utterances that are not well thought out, to put it charitably. He uttered his latest doozy, as reported by the Associated Press, in Pennsylvania the other day at the rollout of the administration’s broadband grants program.
“We believe we are in the process of transforming rural America...so it’s integrated with the country, without losing its character.”
Biden used two words that have become cheap commodities, nearly bereft of meaning: “transform” and “integrate.” Here are my questions for Biden:
1. Why does the administration presume to “transform” rural America in the first place?
2. What precisely do you mean by transform? To make it less rural? Isn’t transformation essentially changing the character of the transformed?
3. How is rural America not “integrated with the country?” Is it somehow separated from urban America? The last I checked, you could drive all the way from the Naval Observatory off Massachusetts Ave. in Washington, D.C. to Wattsburg, Pa., where you spoke. And you would pass neither a checkpoint nor a change in language or currency along the way
Biden also said:
“The bottom line is, you can’t function – a nation can’t compete in the 21st century – without an immediate, high-quality access for everything from streaming video to information online.”
Setting aside the sloppy syntax, my questions are:
1. If it is true that 95 percent of households can already access broadband, as the National Cable and Telecommunications Association claims, why is the government spending $7 billion on this program?
2. How is the United States non-competitive because of a perceived lack of broadband access? One rural industry in which the nation leads innovation and productivity is agriculture. Farming is among the most technologically advanced of industries, with farmers regularly employing satellite-supplied geographical position data.
3. For those Americans who choose not to use computers or subscribe to broadband, will you compel them to sign up?
4. How will you measure how many jobs will be created after broadband is installed everywhere?
5. To qualify for a grant, according to Commerce Department standards, installers must promise a minimum download speed of 768 kilobits per second. That’s pretty slim for the online video you said is necessary for competitiveness in the 21st century. How do you reconcile those two notions?
The vice president’s words were both vague and far-fetched only in part because of his particular thought process. They also reflect the dubiousness of the notion that the Federal government must force broadband to where it may not be needed or wanted.
I’m going to spend the 4th of July weekend trying to skim the 1,428 pages of HR 2454, the energy legislation which narrowly passed in the House last week. But I have to say right now, I find the ambitions of this bill to be awe-inspiring. Most offensive is the loudly shouted notion – there on the home page of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) chairs – that it will create “millions” of jobs. This is so absurd that you wonder if anyone in the Congress ever took a basic course in economics, or even business.
We even potentially threaten other countries with this bill. Way up in the first few pages, the EPA administrator is required to report to Congress, which then releases the information to “the media,” whether China and India, specifically, have adopted energy standards as strict as those in the bill.
I feel like taking the PDF file to Kinkos and having a few dozen copies printed, single sided. How green is that? But I’m too much of a cheapskate to really undertake such a futile protest.
Every American should be appalled at the way this thing was written, the numbing, inscrutable detail of which no member of the House, I’ll bet, can claim to know even 10 percent. What is amazing to contemplate are the staff hours that must have been required to create the document. Should it become law, this gambit would create such a complex of boards, commissions and non-productive corporations that will take lawyers months or years to figure out. There are carbon credits, taxes, rebates, grants, assessments, exceptions – and all the mechanisms that go with them.
Just open it up and tell me what you think.