State Dept’s Made in the USA Glass Stemware Makes News on Shutdown Week

— By Domani Spero

In April 2010, this made the news: Not Made in the USA Glass Stemware Causes Not-So-Diplomatic Protest.  This week, the glass stemware controversy returned for another news splash.  The Cable reports that the State Dept Defends Its $5 Million Order for Hand-Crafted Glassware.

Apparently, according to The Cable, Congress is asking the State Department for specifics about a recent $5 million contract for handcrafted glasses for use in embassies around the world.

The order with a potential five-year contract covers “20 different styles of custom handcrafted stem and barware from the Vermont-based glassblowing company Simon Pearce.”  The Daily Mail says this includes 12,000 pieces of stemware for American embassies from a company that makes hand blown crystal that retails for up to $85-per-wine glass. Even the Wine Spectator covered the need for quality stemware here.

Below is an excerpt from Valley News on how this contract was “re-competed”:

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies, which oversees State Department funding, was instrumental in helping Simon Pearce get the contract. Leahy wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry in support of the bid by Simon Pearce, a news release says.

“It is wonderful to have such an exquisite example of Vermont craftsmanship on display and in use in our embassies around the world,” Leahy said in the release. “Marcelle and I have visited many of those embassies, and knowing that Simon Pearce’s products will be there is something that all Vermonters should be proud of,” Leahy said.

A State Department official, speaking on background, told The Cable that neither the order nor the timing is unusual:  “It’s not unusual for lots of contracts to be awarded by the end of the fiscal year.” 

The Cable quotes one Hill aide who was less than happy with this contract. “Seems like a poor use of funds given the current budget environment.” 

Aah! Aah! Aah!  Wanna bet that the Hill aide was not Senator Leahy’s. Okay.

Today is Day 11 of the shutdown but just a couple of weeks ago was “use it or lose it” week. In many cases, agencies must spend all their allotted funds by September 30, the end of the fiscal year.  If they don’t, they lose the money, or Congress could cut short their future funding.  So agencies are certainly incentivized to spend.  Jeffrey B. Liebman and Neale Mahoney who did a 2010 paper on Do Expiring Budgets Lead to Wasteful Year-End Spending? noted that “spending spikes in all major federal agencies during the 52nd week of the year as the agencies rush to exhaust expiring budget authority.”

Apparently, some contractors even make 25% of their annual business on that 52nd week alone.  The last week of September — AKA: the end-of-year spending binge, the Flush, or just Christmas in September.

If you think State is the only one doing this, get ready for a booo!

WaPo details some of the end of year binges in late September:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs bought $562,000 worth of artwork.
  • The Agriculture Department spent $144,000 on toner cartridges.
  • The Coast Guard spent $178,000 on “Cubicle Furniture Rehab.”

According to Feds here, government offices in their equivalent of shop till you drop week, bought three years worth of staples. What the what?  One office purchased 10 portable generators “that just sit there.” One department reportedly bought some flat screen TVs “which are not used, just big shiny black wall decorations.”

One from the National Guard said, “We had to go to the range every year to expend all of our remaining ammunition. It was fun for a while, but we were firing so much that it became tedious. When you get BORED from shooting MACHINE GUNS, there is a problem.”

The Washington Times reported that in the waning months of the 2012 fiscal year, the Navy paid $51,000 for clarinets and $21,000 for an organ. The Army spent $40,000 on violins. And the Army National Guard reportedly bought $18,000 worth of coffee mugs for recruitment.

This year, we saw some more interesting purchases in kind and volume during the last week of September.  The U.S. Navy spent $135,330.67 for book and overhead scanners. The U.S. Army spent $16,597.46 for kettlebells. The Department of Veterans Affairs spent $48,953.58 on trash cans. The Department of Homeland Security used $213,879.72 to leased copiers.

And oh, the U.S. Army spent $4,152,000.00 to purchase GUNS, OVER 30MM UP TO 75MM.

Perhaps the more interesting purchases are $50,937.3 for an E-1 Between US Embassy, Paris, France and Elysee Palace, Paris, France by the Defense Information Systems Agency and $409,305.47 for a Catholic Priest by the Department of the Army, a firm-fixed-priced contract with a base period of one year beginning 1 October 2013 plus four one-year option periods.

Surprised? Me, too.

Anyway, it has been suggested even by the Feds that agencies be allowed to roll over their funds for next year’s funding. But the Liebman-Mahoney paper suggests that “even with rollover authority, there remain incentives for agencies to use up their full allocation of funding. Large balances carried over from one period to another are likely to be interpreted by OMB and Congressional appropriators as a signal that budget resources are excessive and lead to reduced budgets in subsequent periods.”

Given that Continuing Resolutions have now become the norm rather than the exception,  the propensity to hoard funds or to shop till you drop when funds are available is not going to get any better.  The solution might be to regularized funding and not to penalized agencies when they are unable to spend all their allocated funds.

But what do we know.  That’s the way it’s been for a long time now.  And since Congress is busy with some CC or Continuing Craziness of their own making, we are not hopeful that they will find a solution that works soon. For now, the Hill aide can continue being “less than enthused” because obviously there’s no fault in the Congress’ stars.

($_$)

Advertisements

Dear Congress: You Are Not Allowed to Make Fun of Secretary Kerry’s Asia Pivot Shirts

— By Domani Spero

The cancellation of President Obama’s trip to Asia lent to hyperventilating descriptions about the president’s “Asia Pivot” — “falters,” “in shambles,” “goes pffft,” “in jeopardy” and such.

Well, frankly, not sure where that is going. But we could certainly imagine the political hay that would have been expended over POTUS trip to Asia during a government shutdown.

In any case, Secretary Kerry took the trip instead.

Dear Congress, this is what happened to America in Bali, Indonesia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Official Dinner in Bali, Indonesia, on October 7, 2013. [State Department photo by William Ng/ Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Official Dinner in Bali, Indonesia, on October 7, 2013. [State Department photo by William Ng/ Public Domain]

So you’re not allowed to make fun of that shirt or any other shirts, kapish?

We actually think that purple batik suits him well.  Had they asked him to put on a gray one, he would have worn it too, even if he would have looked wash out in it.  Because he’s our top diplomat. Yes, diplomats are known to wear (and eat) things that their compatriots often find strange or weird. (See Round-Up: Headgears in the Foreign Service).

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, dressed in a traditional batik shirt, speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the two join other heads of delegation for a family photo before the APEC Leaders Dinner on October 7, 2013. in Bali, Indonesia. [State Department photo / Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, dressed in a traditional batik shirt, speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the two join other heads of delegation for a family photo before the APEC Leaders Dinner on October 7, 2013. in Bali, Indonesia. [State Department photo / Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and fellow foreign ministers, all clad in batik shirts favored in Brunei, enter a gala dinner at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan on July 1, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and fellow foreign ministers, all clad in batik shirts favored in Brunei, enter a gala dinner at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan on July 1, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses with other regional heads of state and leaders of delegation before the start of a dinner and cultural program at the ASEAN Summit meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on October 9, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses with other regional heads of state and leaders of delegation before the start of a dinner and cultural program at the ASEAN Summit meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on October 9, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

These are way tamer in comparison to what President Bush had to wear during his tenure.

Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Nari caused the cancellation of Secretary Kerry’s trip to the Philippines, so we are missing Secretary Kerry wearing the country’s famous Barong Tagalog.

Anyhow, we understand that Australia continues to host annual six-month training deployments of US Marines to its base in the Northern Territory. Australia’s Courier News reports today that Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised the necessary infrastructure will be put in place to accommodate the expected presence of a 1000 U.S. Marines set to train there next year. The government is preparing to construct additional accommodations at two bases in Darwin.

So there’s that.

Then we heard that we are helping the Philippines develop Oyster Bay, a postcard-perfect cove on Palawan Island into a port for naval frigates and eventually for American warships?  All, of course, overlooking the disputed South China Sea.  But given all that’s happening in Washington, D.C….

No wonder Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the later’s 61st birthday “quaffing vodka and wolfing down cake”:

“It was 11:00 pm. I offered our Chinese friends to raise a shot of vodka,” Mr Putin said, according to Russian state news agency ITAR-TASS.

“They did not refuse, so we did just that.” As for the cake: “We wolfed it down successfully”. Needless to say, Mr Putin described his meeting with Mr Xi as “very warm” and “friendly”.

We can’t say if Secretary Kerry was in attendance for that “quaffing” and “wolfing” event.

Meanwhile, back in Foggy Bottom:  The East Asia Pacific bureau has six deputy assistant secretaries, twice as many as in 2004, and a deputy assistant secretary-level U.S. senior official for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. State/OIG reports that “the bureau needs to streamline front office staffing” — top heavy structure for the second smallest regional bureau in the house needs fixing.  Why? Because as in other bureaus, “the proliferation of DASes has diminished the role of office directors and reduced responsibility at every level.” Also this:

The administration’s rebalance toward Asia has not been matched by additional financial or human resources. A Congressional Research Service memorandum notes that “[new] initiatives have not, however, been accompanied by a significant increase in the State Department or USAID’s programmatic resources devoted to East Asia.” Foreign assistance to the region in FY 2013 is 19 percent below the FY 2010 peak. U.S. military resources for the region have increased, but sequestration may impact future plans.

Folks, somewhere, some heads of state are laughing their heads off.

👀

American Ambassador Finds New Love in the Philippines

— By Domani Spero

We’re late on this. Apparently, this past summer it was really big news in the Philippines that the American Ambassador was swept off his feet by a Philippine beauty. Manila Mail asks, Is US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas, Jr. in love with a dusky, voluptuous Filipina with a tattoo?  And made headlines like these:

Screen Shot 2013-10-07

Below an excerpt via Philippine Star:

MANILA, Philippines – Moved by “personal and professional relationships,” US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. said that his three-year stay in the Philippines was made more memorable and blessed when he was accepted by the family of his Filipina girlfriend.

“I am very blessed to be accepted by the entire Aquino family. Nanay (mother) and Tatay (father) are very nice to me. My heart is always there for her. I don’t want to answer tsismis (gossips). I don’t want to talk about her life, but I would say that I am blessed to be with her. I am blessed to know her and I am blessed to be accepted by all the members of the Aquino family and by all the Filipinos,” said Thomas, referring to relatives of his girlfriend Mithi Aquino.

“Having stayed in the country for three years made me realize that the Philippines and the Filipino people are great,” Thomas said in an interview last Tuesday night at Intercontinental Hotel in Makati where he and Vice President Jejomar Binay attended a testimonial dinner to celebrate Philippine-American friendship day.

Thomas, who was divorced from his wife while posted in Manila, met Mithi, a human resources specialist, on board a cruise ship.

At the time, Mithi was giving a training course for the cruise ship’s staff and crew.

Thomas had just gotten his divorce when he met Mithi who grew up in Mindanao but graduated from the Manila Central University in Caloocan City.

She is reportedly accompanying Thomas when he leaves for the US after his tour of duty in the Philippines.

Last month, the ambassador also gave an interview to a local press: For the first time, Harry Thomas talks about his ladylove.  According to Philippine press clips, he was previously married to jazz singer Ericka Ovette.

It looks like Ambassador Thomas is still in the Philippines but already listed as Diplomat in Residence for the Southwest.  He will be posted at Arizona State University – Phoenix.  His successor at US Embassy Manila, Ambassador Philip Goldberg, until recently A/S to State/INR, had his nomination hearing at the SFRC last month.

(♥_♥)