Federal Diary: Searching for answers at the troubled Federal Protective Service

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 12, 2011

Congress again looks at improving the troubled Federal Protective Service with yet another Capitol Hill hearing on Wednesday.

For years, congressional panels have examined the agency that allowed testers to sneak bomb-making materials into federal buildings. The Government Accountability Office has issued numerous reports with dull but telling titles like: “The Federal Protective Service Faces Several Challenges That Hamper Its Ability to Protect Federal Facilities.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

When do we move from talk and reports to action?

FPS is one federal law enforcement agency where employment has fallen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That’s odd, because the service is responsible for protecting federal facilities, which probably would be on the hit lists of would-be terrorists.

While the number of employees has fallen from about 1,450 in 2003 to fewer than 1,200 in January, the agency has about 13,000 contract guards, more than double the number employed on Sept. 11. The service is chronically underfunded by a system that provides revenue from fees paid by agencies using space in federal facilities.

Reliance on so many private company guards likely will be an area of debate on Wednesday at the House Homeland Security subcommittee on cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and security technologies hearing. Despite repeated problems with private guards, in some cases related to poor training, there is Republican opposition to federalizing them.

One such problem occurred in February, when a bag with a bomb was left outside Detroit’s McNamara Federal Building.

A private security guard, working on an FPS contract, took the bag inside the building and placed it in the lost and found, without, apparently, inspecting it.

“The egregious mishandling of this IED [improvised explosive device] package raises serious questions about whether the Federal Protective Service is fulfilling its mission to secure federal buildings and demonstrates the continued vulnerability of federal facilities and the safety of the federal employees who occupy them,” Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) plans to say in his opening statement.

In more innocent times, simply placing it in the lost and found would have been the thoughtful thing to do.

But after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and the 2001 attacks, it was a stupid move. The bag sat in the lost and found for three weeks, until a FPS inspector scanned it with the building’s X-ray machine and discovered the unexploded device.

GAO findings planned for release at the hearing confirm what the office has found previously and what the Detroit case demonstrates — there are “weaknesses with FPS’s ability to protect federal facilities.”

But things may be getting better, slowly.

David Wright, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 918, which covers FPS officers, plans to say at the hearing that the Obama administration has made “significant progress to better protect federal employees, facilities and members of the public who obtain services from their government, but in doing so, they have used almost every tool in their toolbox.”

He counts nine congressional hearings and seven GAO reports on the Federal Protective Service during the last three years. Wright wants members of Congress to pass a comprehensive reform of the agency as soon as possible.

“The time for your action is now,” he said in prepared testimony.

Truth is, even now is late.

Worried about your TSP?

If you’re a federal employee worried about what will happen to your Thrift Savings Plan account if President Obama and congressional leaders don’t reach agreement on raising the debt ceiling, stay cool.

Here’s part of a letter the folks at TSP sends to people who are concerned about their savings in the G (for government) Fund, which is invested exclusively in short-term U.S. Treasury securities:

“With regard to the Federal debt limit, absent legislation by Congress to raise it, the Secretary of the Treasury may determine that portions of the monies in the G Fund cannot be reinvested in Treasury securities because to do so would exceed the present Federal debt limit. However, all of the G Fund monies would still be on account with the Treasury, and the interest which would accrue if the G Fund were fully invested would still be credited to the G Fund.

“Some published reports have mischaracterized the actions which may be taken by the Treasury, which are authorized under the law. G Fund investments are safe and will continue, by law, to accrue earnings. The integrity of the G Fund would not be compromised.

“TSP participants’ accounts would not be affected as a result of any suspension of issuance of Treasury securities to the G Fund.”

The letter goes on to say: “The G Fund account balances would be exactly the same from day to day as if they were invested in Treasury securities. Furthermore, disbursements of TSP loans and withdrawals would not be delayed, nor would the amounts of those payments be reduced.”

So, no need to worry about your TSP account.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @joedavidsonwp

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