The Debt Commission: Goodbye to Locality Pay, and Hello Post Closures, Again?

Pho failImage by interpunct via FlickrThe bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was created by President Obama to to address our nation’s fiscal challenges. The Commission is charged with identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run. The Commission is tasked with proposing recommendations designed to balance the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015.

The Commission has put up online a document called $200 Billion in Illustrative Savings.  Read the whole thing here. Excerpted below are the items included in the list that affect the State Department, particularly the “locality pay” for overseas employees, USAID and slowing foreign aid growth, reduction of contribution to the UN and the elimination of OPIC. And charge for services by US Foreign Commercial Service.

14. Reduce overhead cost of diplomatic operations.
29
The administration has requested $9.55 billion for Diplomatic and Consular Programs (D&CP) in FY2011, with plans to increase this to $12.5 billion by FY2015. Diplomatic and Consular Program funding provides for the day-to-day costs of running U.S. diplomatic operations such as maintenance and security of embassies and consulates, the salaries of ambassadors, and Foreign Service staff. This option would cut the budget by 10 percent. This reduces the rate of growth by trimming overhead costs while still allowing for significant growth from FY2010, when Diplomatic and Consular Programs were funded at $8.2 billion. 30
This reduction in future growth can be achieved in many ways and can be done in such a way that does not jeopardize the security of Americans and our allies working in embassies and consulates around the world.

One area that will cost the State Department a significant amount in resources is any decision to pay Foreign Service Officers serving overseas an additional bonus called “locality pay.” Locality pay is paid to federal employees, including Foreign Service Officers who live and work in Washington D.C. but not federal employees serving overseas. Foreign Service Officers have sought to end this so-called “pay gap” which they claim is above 20 percent.31 The Department of Defense’s employees serving overseas do not receive any locality pay either, but there are currently no proposals to give them this benefit. Proponents of this benefit claim that it is needed to address recruiting and retention problems, but the foreign service career field remains highly competitive with 25,000 applicants competing for 300 to 900 positions annually. The “pay gap” was temporarily fixed in 200932 and 201033 but a permanent fix has not been legislatively implemented. Based on Congressional Budget Office assessments, permanently repealing Washington D.C. locality pay for overseas State Department workers could save $427 million in FY2013.34

The State Department should also examine all consulates to determine cost savings from closing down those consulates that may have been more relevant in the Cold War, but are not longer absolutely necessary for the U.S. to conduct its diplomatic mission. Another area that the State Department should review is its plans for new construction. Many of these plans have included costly security measures that may not be necessary, or may cost more than is justified by the benefit they will give to the United States. For instance, in Krakow, Poland, the United States plans to build a consulate that will cost U.S. taxpayers $80 million but will house only ten American employees.35 The State Department should determine whether expensive security measures are appropriate for all countries. In addition it should consider whether there are some consular areas that should be consolidated or utilize teleconferencing and the internet to more efficiently perform its mission.

15. Slow the growth of foreign aid.36

The President’s budget calls for over $14 billion of increases in international affairs spending between 2011 and 2015. Nearly all of this growth is due to large increases in spending for international development and humanitarian assistance. 37 Since 2008, the budget for international development and humanitarian assistance has increase over 80 percent from over $17 billion to over $32 billion, and is expected to grow another 40 percent to over $45 billion by 2015 – more than double previous levels. This option slows the growth of this budget category, reducing the allocations 10 percent from the President’s budget, saving $4.6 billion in 2015.
A cut of this amount will slow the growth over the period, while still allowing for an increase of about 30 percent by 2015.

26. Reduce voluntary contributions to the United Nations.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the United States provided over $6.3 billion in taxpayer funds to the United Nations in FY2009. Less than half ($2.7 billion) of that total went to “assessed”  dues – payments that the United States is charged for being a member and for its share of peacekeeping operations around the world.57  The United States is by far the largest donor to the United Nations in terms of assessed dues. However, the United States gives the United Nations more than $3.5 billion in “voluntary” funds each year.58 This option allows the United States to remain a member in good standing of the United Nations by contributing the full dues that will be assessed, but reduces voluntary payments by 10 percent, which will save $300 million per year.

28. Eliminate the Overseas Private Investment Corporation
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The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) offers private U.S. companies subsidized financing for foreign investments and insurance against political risks to those investments, including nationalization. The aim is to support economic development in some countries that are “strategically important” to the United States. This option would eliminate new activity by OPIC, although it would continue to service its existing portfolio. The main rationale for implementing this option is that the activities of OPIC may not provide net public benefits to the United States. Its subsidies deliver benefits to foreigners and selected U.S. businesses. Furthermore, its subsidies to nations of strategic importance to the United States tend to overlap with and duplicate those provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development and by private insurance firms. They also could hamper the development of local financial institutions and markets in those countries.

36. Charge beneficiaries for the cost of the International Trade Administration’s trade promotion activities.74The International Trade Administration (ITA) of the Department of Commerce oversees a trade development program that monitors the competitiveness of  U.S. industries and operates the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Services to promote exports. Currently ITA’s mission is to create prosperity by strengthening the competitiveness of U.S. industry, promoting trade and investment, and ensuring fair trade and compliance with trade laws and agreements. The President’s FY2011 budget request for the ITA was $534.3 million, a 20 percent increase from the FY2010 request. This increase includes an additional $78.5 million to support ITA’s export promotion efforts. Services provided by ITA’s U.S. Commercial Services and other Divisions directly providing assistance to U.S. Companies should be financed by beneficiaries of this assistance. While the agency charges fees for those services, its fees do not cover the costs of all its activities. Additionally, it is argued that the benefits of trade promotion activities are passed on to foreigners in the form of decreased export costs. According to a study by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), businesses can receive similar services from state, local, and private-sector entities. The CBO option to eliminate ITA’s promotion activities or charge the program’s beneficiaries saves $267 million in 2010 and $1.6 billion through 2014.

Active links added above. 

By the way, the last time the State Department had a huge round of post closures was during the tenure of Warren Christopher in the 1990’s. Some 32 US embassies and consulates were closed between 1993 and 1997.

You can have your say on these issues —
 
“The Commission welcomes your input as we seek out creative solutions to our nation’s mid- and long-term fiscal challenges. Anyone can submit comments, ideas, and suggestions at anytime via email by contacting commission@fc.eop.gov. All comments received, including attachments and other supporting materials, are part of the public record. Due to the volume of comments we receive, we are not able to respond to each submission.”

How about for item#59, we add, “Bring all the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and let these countries do their own nation building.”

How many billions would that save us?

 


 

 


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The TSA, the terrorists who succeed even when they fail, and who the heck is going to do my cavity check?

From the photograher, Dean Shaddock: This was ...Image via WikipediaThe TSA is in the news a lot these days. And mostly, not in a good way.  There was Celeste, a rape survivor who described her experience with the new TSA procedures as devastating.

The University of California scientist points out that “The risk of radiation emission to children and adolescents does not appear to have been fully evaluated.” And for pregnant moms, “The policy towards pregnant women needs to be defined once the theoretical risks to the fetus are determined.”

And moms question if TSA’s new full body scanners are safe for kids.

Then there’s that man from the “if you touch my junk..” video that has now gone viral.  And because this is 2010, he not only had a camera phone but also can quickly set up a blog in 2 seconds to share his experience.  You can read the entire episode of his TSA encounter in his blog here.  When I last look, there were over 5,000 comments in that single blog post, which tells us this issue has hit a nerve with the public.

TSA administrator John Pistole told the Senate Homeland Security Committee yesterday that there will be no exemption from the full-body scanners or the enhanced pat downs.  Not for religious reasons. And obviously no exemption either for 96 year old grandma, or the two-month old sweet Samantha or that would give ideas to the bad guys..

Oh .. and since presumptive House speaker John Boehner says he will fly commercial between his Ohio district and Washington instead of using military aircraft, can we expect that he, too will not/not be exempted from the backscatter or the enhanced pat down?


How did it come to this?

True, there were plane bombs. That made us all paranoid, for no other reason than the fact that we now know there really are people out there who wanted to kill as many of us as they can. So out the boxcutters went; and knives, axes,meat cleavers, and all that. By the way, nail clippers, knitting needles and corkscrews are all urban legends according to the TSA blog.  Still, the list just kept getting longer, but even this list is a non-inclusive list. And the Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) may also determine that an item not on TSA’s Prohibited Items List is actually prohibited.

In 2001, Richard “shoe bomber” Reid happened.  He hid the explosives in his shoes, which led to the new requirement of airline passengers having to remove their shoes for inspection before boarding a flight or entering an airline terminal.  [We did a lot of shoe removals in US airports, twice in a Guatemalan airport (even if we did not exit the building) and not once in Germany’s airports.] 

The 2006 foiled liquid explosives plot in the U.K. according to TSA “demonstrated a real threat and is the catalyst for TSA’s liquids restrictions.” So no more bottled water either.  Eventually the limit came to no more than 100 ml. explained in great detail by TSA here.

A 2009 OIG report indicates that TSA not only planned on spending 700 million in Electronic Baggage Screening Program  but also 300 million in passenger screening which includes proposed acquisition of 700 advanced tech x-rays, 500 bottled liquid scanners, 200 whole body imagers and 300 units of explosive trace detection.

The same month the OIG report was issued, Umar Farouk “underwear bomber” Abdulmutallab  attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in where else — his underwear.

The odds of dying

There were hearings and reports and whatnots in the aftermath of the attempted Christmas day bombing; we’ve lost track how many there were.  But we started seeing shadows in every corner.  The jaws of terror in every cloud, despite the odds — see our favorite number crunching guy who pulled down the numbers:

The Odds of Airborne Terror
by Nate Silver | 12.27.2009

Over the past decade, there have been, by my count, six attempted terrorist incidents on board a commercial airliner than landed in or departed from the United States: the four planes that were hijacked on 9/11, the shoe bomber incident in December 2001, and the NWA flight 253 incident on Christmas.
[…]
Over the past decade, according to BTS, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, we get one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.
These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 mles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune.
[…]
There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which these incidents occurred. By contrast, there have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

Those odds didn’t do us any good, of course.  The bad guys only have to get it right once. And even when they spectacularly fail, they still succeed — not in killing as many people as they can, but in screwing the head of as many of us as possible. Not only to terrorized us. But to shock governments into spending millions and millions of dollars on security programs and technologies.  And you know what, they probably can bleed our bank dry with their most amateurish attempts year in and year out.

Although TSA originally indicated to the OIG it would acquire 200 units of whole body imagers, in March 2010 it began deploying 450 advanced imaging technology units. On its website TSA says:   

TSA began deploying state-of-the-art advanced imaging technology in 2007. This technology can detect a wide range of threats to transportation security in a matter of seconds to protect passengers and crews. Imaging technology is an integral part of TSA’s effort to continually look for new technologies that help ensure travel remains safe and secure by staying ahead of evolving threats.

TSA uses two types of imaging technology, millimeter wave and backscatter. Currently, there are 317 imaging technology units at 65 airports.

In March 2010, TSA began deploying 450 advanced imaging technology units, which were purchased with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds.

Advanced imaging technology screening is safe for all passengers, and the technology meets national health and safety standards. Learn more about the safety of AIT here.
http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/ait/safety.shtm

TSA has implemented strict measures to protect passenger privacy, which is ensured through the anonymity of the image. Additionally, advanced imaging technology screening is optional to all passengers. Learn more about the privacy measures TSA has taken here.

In October 28, 2010, the following item came out of TSA’s press shop:

“TSA is in the process of implementing new pat-down procedures at checkpoints nationwide as one of our many layers of security to keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives. Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others.”

The money, the money

According to the Congressional Research Service (PDF), the President’s request in FY2011 for TSA specified a total gross funding of $8,165 million, an increase of about 7% over FY2010 enacted levels.  The FY2011 budget request also included $20 million for deploying 350 additional behavioral detection officers (BDOs) to spot suspicious behavior as part of passenger and baggage screening operations.

This would give TSA a total of 3,350  behavioral detection officers (BDOs). See our post, TSA’s $200M Spot a Terrorist Program Never Caught One? Friday, May 21, 2010

Also the following: 

Proposed increases for passenger screening and security include an increase of $215 million over FY2010 baseline levels for the purchase and deployment of advanced imaging technology (AIT), also known as whole body imaging (WBI) systems, at airport screening checkpoints. The President’s request also specified an additional $219 million for about 3,500 full-time equivalent (FTE) screeners to operate newly deployed AIT systems, as well as $96 million for airport management and mission support for deploying and operating these systems.
[…]
By the end of FY2011, the TSA anticipates that AT X-ray deployment will be at 96% of full operating capacity (FOC) sought by FY2014, whereas AIT deployments will only be at 56% of FOC. The TSA strategy is to focus its AIT deployments at larger airports first, and by end of FY2011, it plans to have deployed 75% of the FOC at the most critical Category X airports. This strategy may, however, leave vulnerabilities at smaller airports. The sustainment costs of checkpoint screening systems may also be a particular concern for appropriators. For FY2011, the TSA request includes $74 million for maintenance of checkpoint screening equipment, a 45% increase compared to FY2010. Checkpoint screening maintenance costs will likely increase considerably in future years, to pay for upkeep and extend the service life of the more complex next generation screening technologies currently being deployed.

So there will be job creation…. and an booming expanding industry.

And that’s where we are.

About these new technologies

A GAO report in October 2009 included this item:

“TSA has relied on technologies in day-to-day airport operations that have not been demonstrated to meet their functional requirements in an operational environment. For example, TSA has substituted existing screening procedures with screening by the Whole Body Imager even though its performance has not yet been validated by testing in an operational environment. In the future, using validated technologies would enhance TSA’s efforts to improve checkpoint security. Furthermore, without retaining existing screening procedures until the effectiveness of future technologies has been validated, TSA officials cannot be sure that checkpoint security will be improved.”

The OIG report dated December 2009 had this:

At the time of our review, TSA had used only $3 million of its $197.7 million passenger screening technology budget to purchase first-generation advanced technology x-ray machines. TSA planned to award the remaining $194.7 million by the fourth quarter of FY 2009 for the following screening technology:

All of these technologies, except for explosives trace detection, are still undergoing qualification and operational testing. As a result, TSA does not yet know whether or when these technologies will be available for deployment.

Now, what do you make of that?

Potentially the next big thing…

In August 2009, four months before the “underwear bomber” attempted martyrdom, an al Qaeda affiliate hid an improvised explosive device (IED) in his anal cavity and detonated himself in Saudi Arabia. 

In AQAP: Paradigm Shifts and Lessons Learned, STRATFOR writes, “Suicide bombers have long been creative when it comes to hiding their devices. In addition to the above-mentioned IED in the camera gear used in the Masood assassination, female suicide bombers with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have hidden IEDs inside brassieres, and female suicide bombers with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party have worn IEDs designed to make them look pregnant. However, this is the first instance we are aware of where a suicide bomber has hidden an IED inside a body cavity.”

The terrrorist who fortunately, killed only himself, reportedly used an explosive called PETN. The same one used by the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber. Apparently, also the same material used in the attempted toner bombing recently.

Which then begs the question — can these new machines find explosive materials inside a body cavity? Understandable, TSA would probably keep that info under wraps.  Still, sooner or later, that’s where it’s going, no?

And what happens the next time we find explosive materials in somebody’s bra or in somebody’s breast implants? 

Are we then going to have booty or boobies scanners?

And who’s going to do the cavity check, pray tell, if the passenger opts out?

Somehow, the terrorists are laughing their heads off in some cave as we spin in our hamster wheels. Is this really the best we can do?

Related items:

 


SFRC Hearings: Thomas R. Nides to be Deputy Secretary for State M/R

Also hearings on the nominations of William R. Brownfield, Suzan D. Johnson Cook and Paige Eve Alexander

At the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations today:

Presiding: Senator Kerry
Date: Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Time: 10:00 AM
Location: 419 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Panel 1:

Nominees:
      Thomas R. Nides, of the District of Columbia
      to be Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources

Panel 2

    William R. Brownfield, of Texas
    to be an Assistant Secretary of State (International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs)

    Suzan D. Johnson Cook, of New York

    to be Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom

    Paige Eve Alexander, of Georgia

    to be an Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development

Click here to watch the hearing video and read the prepared testimonies.