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White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Open Government Plan

June 6, 2014 Comments off

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Open Government Plan
Source: White House, Office of Science and Technology

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) today released its 2014 Open Government Plan. The OSTP plan highlights three flagship efforts as well as the team’s ongoing work to embed the open government principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration into its activities.

OSTP advises the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. The work of the office includes policy efforts encompassing science, environment, energy, national security, technology, and innovation. This plan builds off of the 2010 and 2012 Open Government Plans, updating progress on past initiatives and adding new subject areas based on 2014 guidance.

Agencies began releasing biennial Open Government Plans in 2010, with direction from the 2009 Open Government Directive. These plans serve as a roadmap for agency openness efforts, explaining existing practices and announcing new endeavors to be completed over the coming two years. Agencies build these plans in consultation with civil society stakeholders and the general public. Open government is a vital component of the President’s Management Agenda and our overall effort to ensure the government is expanding economic growth and opportunity for all Americans.

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NTIA Releases Interim Progress Report on Administration’s Plan to Free Up More Spectrum

June 6, 2014 Comments off

NTIA Releases Interim Progress Report on Administration’s Plan to Free Up More Spectrum
Source: National Telecommunications and Information Administration

NTIA today released the Fourth Interim Progress Report on the Obama Administration’s initiative to identify and make available 500 megahertz of federal and non-federal spectrum for commercial wireless broadband use by 2020. This report also includes a plan for federal agencies to conduct quantitative assessments of their actual spectrum usage in 960 megahertz of additional spectrum, as directed in President Obama’s June 2013 Memorandum.

CRS — Medicare Trigger

June 6, 2014 Comments off

Medicare Trigger (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via National Conference of State Legislatures)

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA, P.L. 108- 173) requires the Medicare Board of Trustees to provide in its annual reports an expanded analysis of Medicare expenditures and revenues (§801 of MMA). Specifically, if the trustees determine that general revenue funding for Medicare is expected to exceed 45% of Medicare outlays for the current fiscal year or any of the next six fiscal years, a determination of excess general funding is made. If the determination is issued for two consecutive years, a funding warning is issued, which triggers certain presidential and congressional actions (§802-§804 of MMA).

Because such a determination was issued in both the 2006 and 2007 Medicare Trustee’s reports, the President was required to submit a legislative proposal to Congress within 15 days of submitting his budget in 2008 that would lower the ratio to the 45% level. Similarly, each of the subsequent Annual Reports of the Boards of Trustees through 2013 has included an estimate that general revenue funding would exceed 45% at some point during the current or six subsequent fiscal years, thus “triggering” a response from the President and Congress. While such a proposal was submitted by President George W. Bush in 2008, no such legislative proposals have been submitted since that time. The House approved rules changes for a portion of the 110th Congress (H.Res. 1368) and for all of the 111th Congress (H.Res. 5) that waived the parliamentary procedures for the House contained in Section 803 of the MMA. The 112th Congress did not pass a similar measure, nor has the 113th Congress, and the trigger provision has gone back into effect in the House.

The Medicare funding warning focuses attention on the impact of program spending on the federal budget, and provides one measure of the financial health of the program. However, some options for reducing general revenue spending below the 45% level would have a greater impact than others. Proponents of the trigger maintain that it forces fiscal responsibility, while critics of the trigger suggest that other measures of Medicare spending, such as total Medicare spending as a portion of federal spending, would be more useful indicators.

CRS Memo — The Student Loan Refinancing Act: calculations showing changes in loan payment amounts for three borrower cases

June 6, 2014 Comments off

The Student Loan Refinancing Act: calculations showing changes in loan payment amounts for three borrower cases (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Education and the Workforce)

This memorandum presents calculations showing how the amounts paid by borrowers of federal student loans made through the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program and the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan program might be affected by the implementation of a student loan refinancing program that would be part of the Student Loan Refinancing Act.2 The memorandum first provides a brief summary of the student loan refinancing program. It then presents calculations for three borrower cases identified by you: (1) an undergraduate student who borrowed a total of $30,000 in Direct Unsubsidized Loans, (2) a graduate student who borrowed a total of $40,000 in Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and (3) a parent of an undergraduate student who borrowed a total of $50,000 in PLUS Loans. As you requested, the cases are based on borrowers who refinance their loans one year into repayment. The results of the calculations show the differences between the amounts that the three cases of borrowers would pay on loans repaid under current law and on loans refinanced with lower interest rates. Given the degree of general interest in issues related to the refinancing of student loans, the information presented in memorandum may be used in whole or in part to respond to other congressional clients. You will not be identified as the original requester.

The Employment Situation — May 2014

June 6, 2014 Comments off

The Employment Situation — May 2014
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 217,000 in May, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.3 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Employment increased in professional and business services, health care and social assistance, food services and drinking places, and transportation and warehousing.

Country Analysis Brief: United Kingdom

June 6, 2014 Comments off

Country Analysis Brief: United Kingdom
Source: Energy Information Administration

The United Kingdom (UK) is the sixth largest economy in the world, as well as the largest producer of oil and the second-largest producer of natural gas in the European Union (EU). Following years of exports of both fuels, the UK became a net importer of natural gas and crude oil in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Production from UK oil and natural gas fields peaked around the late 1990s and has declined steadily over the past several years as the discovery of new reserves and new production has not kept pace with the maturation of existing fields.

SIGAR — Baghlan Prison: Severe Damage to $11.3 Million Facility Requires Extensive Remedial Action

June 5, 2014 Comments off

Baghlan Prison: Severe Damage to $11.3 Million Facility Requires Extensive Remedial Action (PDF)
Source: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

After construction of the Baghlan prison was completed in November 2012, building settlement occurred, which led to serious structural damage including wide cracks to three buildings. As a result, one building was demolished. Two other buildings also have collapsing walls and cracked structural beams and columns and will likely need to be rebuilt. The Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) and its contractor, Omran Holding Group (OHG), an Afghan firm, do not agree on the cause of the building settlement and remain in negotiation regarding OHG’s responsibility for repairing the facilities and assuming the cost of those repairs. Nonetheless, both parties agree that OHG did not fully comply with all contract requirements. For example, OHG failed to construct a required stormwater management system and substituted lower-grade plumbing materials that had been prohibited by INL. OHG also failed to deduct 10 percent from its billed invoices to create a retainage fund as required by the contract. This led to an $807,254 shortfall in funds, which should have been retained for INL’s protection in the event of a contract dispute.

CRS — Federal Building and Facility Security: Frequently Asked Questions

June 5, 2014 Comments off

Federal Building and Facility Security: Frequently Asked Questions (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The security of federal government buildings and facilities affects not only the daily operations of the federal government but also the health, well-being, and safety of federal employees and the public. Federal building and facility security is decentralized and disparate in approach, as numerous federal entities are involved and some buildings or facilities are occupied by multiple federal agencies. The federal government is tasked with securing over 446,000 buildings or facilities daily.

The September 2001 terrorist attacks, the September 2013 Washington Navy Yard shootings, and the April 2014 Fort Hood shootings have refocused the federal government’s attention on building security activities. There has been an increase in the security operations at federal facilities and more intense scrutiny of how the federal government secures and protects federal facilities, employees, and the visiting public.

This renewed attention has generated a number of frequently asked questions. This report answers several common questions regarding federal building and facility security, including
• What is federal facility security?
• Who is responsible for federal facility security?
• Is there a national standard for federal facility security?
• What are the types of threats to federal facilities, employees, and the visiting public?
• How is threat information communicated among federal facility security stakeholders?
• What are the potential congressional issues associated with federal facility security?

TIGTA — Expansion of the Delinquent Return Refund Hold Program Could Improve Filing Compliance and Help Reduce the Tax Gap

June 5, 2014 Comments off

Expansion of the Delinquent Return Refund Hold Program Could Improve Filing Compliance and Help Reduce the Tax Gap
Source: Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration

IMPACT ON TAXPAYERS
The IRS has the authority to delay issuing income tax refunds for up to six months while it investigates return delinquencies from other tax years. Holding refunds encourages taxpayers to take action and resolve their delinquent filing obligations earlier.

WHY TIGTA DID THE AUDIT
In Calendar Year 2012, the Delinquent Return Refund Hold Program collected nearly $242 million, which was applied to balances due on delinquent returns. This audit was initiated to determine the effectiveness of the Program as a tool to promote filing compliance.

WHAT TIGTA FOUND
For Calendar Years 2008 through 2012, the Program held an average of 156,422 refunds per year. During the same period, the Program secured an average of 64,222 returns from taxpayers per year and coordinated with the ASFR program to prepare and post an additional 117,895 substitute returns per year.

TIGTA reviewed two separate random samples of 30 taxpayer cases each in which a refund was held and the refund hold was either manually or systemically released. Results showed employees followed procedures when working cases and when refund holds were released.

TIGTA compared delinquent return data for a population of refund hold cases with a certain dollar amount above the threshold criteria to a population of cases with a certain dollar amount below the threshold criteria (i.e., refunds were not held for these cases). Analysis showed that 88 percent of delinquencies associated with the held refunds were subsequently resolved, compared with less than one percent of delinquencies associated with cases for which refunds were not held, thus indicating the value of this Program in improving filing compliance.

IRS management has considered expanding the Program by lowering the dollar threshold but has not because of limited resources. However, taxpayers who become compliant with their prior period filing requirements could remain compliant in future years and reduce the need for additional enforcement resources in subsequent filing seasons. TIGTA also identified other opportunities for expansion.

The IRS has not established performance measures to evaluate the Program’s primary goal of increasing taxpayer filing compliance. As a result, management does not have complete information about how well the Program is achieving its goal, or if it is an effective tool for improving taxpayer filing compliance over time.

WHAT TIGTA RECOMMENDED
TIGTA recommended that the IRS: 1) consider opportunities to expand the use of the Program as resources become available and 2) develop specific performance measures to compare actual results with management’s goal to improve filing compliance.

In response to the report, IRS management agreed with both recommendations. However, management did not commit to a specific corrective action plan to expand the Program and agreed only to explore the development of performance measures, with implementation dependent on the availability of resources.

TIGTA continues to believe that expansion of this Program is important as it represents an opportunity to increase both taxpayer filing compliance and revenue at a lower cost than traditional Collection programs. In addition, until specific performance measures are implemented, management will not have complete information about how well the Program is achieving its goals.

CRS — The Number of Veterans That Use VA Health Care Services: A Fact Sheet

June 5, 2014 Comments off

The Number of Veterans That Use VA Health Care Services: A Fact Sheet (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

It’s a simple question—how many veterans use services at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)? It’s a question being asked a lot these days, and it is important, baseline information to know when changes are being contemplated1 to the way in which VA delivers health care to veterans.

In the course of an investigation into allegations that veterans seeking health care services from the VHA experienced long delays in treatment, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an interim report3 that substantiated the delays. Final determinations by the OIG of the full scope and impact of the problems, including whether delays in treatment resulted in harm to or the death of any veterans, will not be available until the OIG completes its investigation and issues a final report.

The issue of wait times for VA health care is not new (see CRS Insight IN10063, Wait Times for Veterans Health Not New). Approaches to providing timely access to care for veterans enrolled in VA health care have included the use of non-VA care reimbursed by the VA (see CRS Insight IN10074, Getting Health Care Outside the VA). The need to rely on non-VA care in some cases has raised questions about the VA’s capacity to provide services to the veteran population now and in the future. Knowing how many veterans there are is essential to answering those questions.

CRS — Internet Domain Names: Background and Policy Issues (updated)

June 5, 2014 Comments off

Internet Domain Names: Background and Policy Issues (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Navigating the Internet requires using addresses and corresponding names that identify the location of individual computers. The Domain Name System (DNS) is the distributed set of databases residing in computers around the world that contain address numbers mapped to corresponding domain names, making it possible to send and receive messages and to access information from computers anywhere on the Internet. Many of the technical, operational, and management decisions regarding the DNS can have significant impacts on Internet-related policy issues such as intellectual property, privacy, Internet freedom, e-commerce, and cybersecurity.

See also: Internet Governance and the Domain Name System: Issues for Congress (PDF)

CRS — Water Infrastructure Financing: Proposals to Create a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) Program

June 5, 2014 Comments off

Water Infrastructure Financing: Proposals to Create a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) Program (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via National Agricultural Law Center)

Policy makers have recently been considering several legislative options to help finance water infrastructure projects, including projects to build and upgrade wastewater and drinking water treatment systems. This report examines one particular option being debated, creation of a “Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act,” or WIFIA, program. Although several other approaches have also been proposed, much of the recent legislative and policy attention has been on WIFIA. In the 113th Congress, House and Senate conferees have included a WIFIA pilot program in H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, or WRRDA. The conference report adopts WIFIA provisions from Senate-passed S. 601 with some additions and modifications. H.R. 3080 as passed by the House did not include similar provisions.

Alert — GameOver Zeus P2P Malware

June 5, 2014 Comments off

GameOver Zeus P2P Malware
Source: US-CERT

GameOver Zeus (GOZ), a peer-to-peer (P2P) variant of the Zeus family of bank credential-stealing malware identified in September 2011, [1] uses a decentralized network infrastructure of compromised personal computers and web servers to execute command-and-control. The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), is releasing this Technical Alert to provide further information about the GameOver Zeus botnet.

See also: GameOver Zeus Botnet Disrupted (FBI)

CRS — Fish and Wildlife Service: Compensation to Local Governments

June 5, 2014 Comments off

Fish and Wildlife Service: Compensation to Local Governments (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via National Agricultural Law Center)

Many counties are compensated for the presence of federal lands within their boundaries because these lands are exempt from local taxes. Counties with lands under the primary jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) are compensated through the National Wildlife Refuge Fund (NWRF). Counties have argued that the program is underfunded; in some instances, counties raise lack of funding as an argument against the establishment of new refuges. At the same time, some hold that budget constraints argue for a reduction in the program. Congress has begun to examine the program for possible changes.

New From the GAO

June 5, 2014 Comments off

New GAO Reports
Source: Government Accountability Office

1. Maritime Critical Infrastructure Protection: DHS Needs to Better Address Port Cybersecurity. GAO-14-459, June 5.
http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-459
Highlights - http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/663824.pdf

2. Fusion Energy: Actions Needed to Finalize Cost and Schedule Estimates for U.S. Contributions to an International Experimental Reactor. GAO-14-499, June 5.
http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-499
Highlights - http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/663833.pdf

CRS — EPA’s Proposed Wood Stove / Wood Heater Regulations: Frequently Asked Questions

June 5, 2014 Comments off

EPA’s Proposed Wood Stove / Wood Heater Regulations: Frequently Asked Questions (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

On January 3, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released proposed emission standards for new residential wood heaters, the most common of which are wood stoves, pellet stoves, hydronic heaters, and forced air furnaces. The proposal, which would revise standards for wood stoves and pellet stoves and establish standards for other types of wood heaters for the first time, appeared in the Federal Register on February 3. This began a public comment period that is scheduled to run until May 5, 2014.

According to EPA, smoke from wood heaters contributes “hundreds of thousands of tons” of fine particles to the air throughout the country each year, accounting for nearly 25% of all area source air toxics cancer risks and 15% of non-cancer respiratory effects. In many areas, in wintertime, wood heaters are the largest source of particulate air pollution; yet many heater types are not currently subject to any federal emission standard.

The proposed rule would only gradually reduce this pollution, because it would apply only to new heaters (not those already in use) and it would give the industry a five-year grace period before its most stringent standards would take effect. Wood heaters can last for 40 years or more, so it will be decades before the full health benefits of the rule would be attained.

CRS — Tier 3 Motor Vehicle Emission and Fuel Standards

June 5, 2014 Comments off

Tier 3 Motor Vehicle Emission and Fuel Standards (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via National Agricultural Law Center)

On March 3, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized new (“Tier 3”) emission standards for light duty (and some larger) motor vehicles. Light duty vehicles include cars, SUVs, vans, and most pickup trucks. Phase-in of the standards will begin with Model Year 2017. By the time Tier 3 is fully implemented in Model Year 2025, the standards for light duty vehicles will require reductions of about 80% in tailpipe emissions of non-methane organic gases and nitrogen oxides (both of which contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone) and of about 70% in tailpipe emissions of particulates. Ozone and particulates are the most widespread air pollutants in the United States. Both contribute to respiratory illness and premature mortality. EPA estimates that implementation of the standards will reduce premature mortality by 770 to 2,000 persons annually, as well as providing reductions in hospital admissions, lost work days, school absences, and restricted activity days for persons with respiratory illness. Assigning monetary values to these benefits, EPA estimates the annual benefits at between $6.7 billion and $19 billion in 2030.

Easier Commutes and Cheaper Housing are Increasing as Main Reasons for Moving, Census Bureau Reports

June 5, 2014 Comments off

Easier Commutes and Cheaper Housing are Increasing as Main Reasons for Moving, Census Bureau Reports
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Among the 36 million people 1 year and over who moved between 2012 and 2013, 5 percent said the most important reason for moving was to be closer to work or for an easier commute, while another 8 percent cited the desire for cheaper housing, according to a report released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. The most common reasons for moving in 2013 were “wanted new or better home/apartment,” “other housing reason” and “other family reason.”

The report, Reason for Moving: 2012 to 2013, presents an in-depth look at 19 reasons why people changed residences during the previous year and is the Census Bureau’s first on this topic since 2001.

CRS — The Northeast Heating Oil Supply, Demand, and Factors Affecting Its Use

June 5, 2014 Comments off

The Northeast Heating Oil Supply, Demand, and Factors Affecting Its Use (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via National Agricultural Law Center)

The United States’ exports and imports of refined petroleum products include distillate fuel oil— the general category for heating oil. In 2013, distillate fuel oil imports exceeded 56.4 million barrels, up from the previous year’s 46.2 million barrels. However, distillate fuel imports have been declining. Overall, some 6.9 million households rely on heating oil nationally. The number of overall household users, however, has declined from 8.7 million in 2006-2007, and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects a 3% decline for 2013-2014. By and large, the greatest demand for home heating oil is in the Northeast United States, where some 5.5 million households relied on it for primary space heating during the winter of 2012-2013, consuming 645.5 gallons per household on average (compared to 766.4 gallons by Midwest households).

In response to the near doubling of heating oil prices in some Northeastern states during the winter of 1999-2000, which raised the concern of many Northeastern lawmakers, Congress authorized 2 million barrel Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve (NHHOR) in the Energy Policy Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-469). As an emergency stockpile of government-owned heating oil, Congress intended NHHOR to meet roughly 10 days of demand by the Northeastern states at the time. Currently, NHHOR stands at under 1 million barrels, split between Groton, CT (400,000 barrels), and Revere, MA (500,000 barrels).

CRS — The Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI): Budget Authority and Request, FY2010-FY2015

June 5, 2014 Comments off

The Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI): Budget Authority and Request, FY2010-FY2015 (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via National Agricultural Law Center)

The United States supports international financial assistance for global climate change initiatives in developing countries. Under the Obama Administration, this assistance has been articulated primarily as the Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI), a platform within the President’s 2010 Policy Directive on Global Development. The GCCI aims to integrate climate change considerations into U.S. foreign assistance through a range of bilateral, multilateral, and private sector mechanisms to promote sustainable and climate-resilient societies, foster low-carbon economic growth, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and land degradation. The GCCI is implemented through programs at three “core” agencies: the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Most GCCI activities at USAID are implemented through the agency’s bilateral development assistance programs. Many of the GCCI activities at the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury are implemented through international organizations, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Least Developed Country Fund and Special Climate Change Fund, as well as multilateral financial institutions such as the Global Environment Facility, the Clean Technology Fund, and the Strategic Climate Fund. The GCCI is funded through the Administration’s Executive Budget, Function 150 account, for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

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