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Red Tape, Now With More Clickiness!

By Al Kamen
Friday, July 31, 2009

The government keeps trying to make things easier for people. But it's often a matter of one step forward, two steps back. And sometimes there's not even a step forward.

For example, the Web site for dockets filed with federal agencies (Regulations.gov) -- this is used for filing comments on pending regulations and rules and such -- has always a pain to use, we're told. Lawyers and others needing to use it would always try to bypass it when possible, according to one user. Over the weekend, the site was redesigned, without any warning, and even the feds were dismayed.

The Transportation Department officials responsible for air carrier licensing sent an e-mail Monday to a group of frequently appearing aviation attorneys, advising them to send in a copy of anything filed on the Web site. There's even some chatter that a courtesy copy might be needed in order to ensure that your comments are read.

"The FDMS [Federal Document Management System] web site has been redesigned and is even more difficult to use," said the e-mail Monday from Esta Rosenberg, chief of the U.S. Air Carrier Licensing Devision in the Office of International Aviation. "Please send George Wellington or me a courtesy copy of anything you file in the system."

Otherwise . . .

HOW'RE WE DOIN'?

This might go in the "careful what you wish for" folder. It's the brand-new Department of Homeland Security suggestion box!

The White House yesterday posted prominently on its home page a solicitation for comments about how to improve DHS. And Secretary Janet Napolitano has recorded a video asking people to participate in the process.

The QHSR, as it is known, is kind of a big deal in DHS circles. It was required by Congress and is modeled after the QDR or Quadrennial Defense Review, one of the pillars of Pentagon strategic planning. We're told most everyone thinks this can't hurt and probably can be a huge help and is part of the "maturing" of DHS. It is supposed to be completed over the next few months.

Let's hope the maturing extends to those submitting suggestions.

SOFT ON DRINKS

A Bush administration official gave us a bit more detail on Wednesday's item on how presidential aides for decades have been able to get free soft drinks at the White House mess -- a perk that, if you're addicted, can add up to serious savings. Seems that beverage companies donate the Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other soft drinks -- don't know whether it's tax-deductible to them -- to the Navy, which then ships them over to the White House. Thus no cost to the Navy.

Apparently there is some prohibition on the White House taking free stuff directly. But we're told that the Navy has "statutory gift acceptance authority," so it's okay for the Navy to receive the cans and bottles and then pass the gifts on to thirsty White House employees. We were told that anyone who wanted bottled water also used to get that free, but the company involved stopped donating. So aides now have to pay or drink D.C. water. (Coffee and tea have not been free as far back as anyone can remember, though Starbucks and Lipton might want to consider their options.)

We're also told the beverage industry's generosity extends as well to members of Congress and aides on the Hill.

Patriotic duty and sympathy for low-paid staffers is the obvious impetus for the industry's largess. But, you know, it doesn't hurt to have goodwill in the right places, especially when doctors and dentists and do-gooder groups try to tax your products to help pay for health-care reform.

The health lobby has even suggested a tax on soft drinks -- one penny per 12-ounce can could bring in $1.5 billion, they estimated -- but it's unclear whether the proposal will get any traction on the Hill.

Still, even the thought of such an evil notion had the beverage industry launching an ad campaign to stamp it out. Wonderful ads began on radio and in newspapers from "Americans Against Food Taxes" -- mostly the beverage and junk-food folks -- that said: "This is no time for Congress to be adding taxes on the simple pleasures we enjoy like juice drinks and soda." Actually, there will never be a time for that. The print ad features a nice couple, who clearly used to hang at the Hotel Eden in Rome, now reduced to pitching a tent and camped on folding chairs by a small pond.

"Middle-class families," many of them morbidly obese, "are struggling to make ends meet," the ad says, "and they know taxes never made anyone healthy -- education, exercise and balanced diets do that." Actually, taxes on tobacco seemed to have a serious impact on smoking.

ALL IN DUE TIME

With a lot on its plate, it's no surprise that the Obama administration didn't get around tout de suite to pick a new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration as soon as it got to town. Career agent Michele Leonhart has been acting chief in the interim 19 months since Karen Tandy left the administrator's job.

The years have not been kind to the agency, as the war on drugs receded from the front pages here -- though not in Mexico. The Justice Department has been keeping a tight rein on the agency -- it never even seems to go up by itself to testify on the Hill, usually tagging along with another agency, such as ATF.

But we're told that the administration is working on filling the job and has talked to Leonhart, deputy FBI chief John Pistole, New York assistant U.S. attorney Boyd Johnson (best known of late for leading the investigation of former governor Eliot Spitzer's links with a prostitution service), and former San Diego assistant U.S. attorney Greg Vega about the post, with Pistole and Johnson seen as front-runners.

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