State of the Union: What was in it for feds?

Wednesday - 1/25/2012, 1:18am EST

State of the Union highlights on Federal Drive

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Amie Parnes, White House correspondent for The Hill newspaper, talks to Federal Drive

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By Jason Miller and Julia Ziegler
Federal News Radio

President Barack Obama hit upon some common themes federal workers will recognize during his State of the Union address Tuesday night. But while the President renewed his calls for government reorganization to serve citizens better, he also announced the creation of two new law enforcement offices to protect American businesses.

The first, a Trade Enforcement Unit, will investigate unfair trade practices. The President said the unit was created to help prevent counterfeit and unsafe goods from making their way into America — something the Defense Department has fallen victim to in the past.

The second, a Financial Crimes Unit, will be tasked with cracking down on large-scale fraud.

"Some financial firms violate major anti-fraud laws because there's no real penalty for being a repeat offender," Obama said. "That's bad for consumers and it's bad for the vast majority of bankers and financial service professionals who do the right thing."

The President said he will ask Attorney General Eric Holder to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.

"This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans," he said.

Green government

Along with more oversight, the President continued his theme for agencies to lead in the development and use of alternative energy and for the government to help fix the nation's roads, bridges and infrastructure.

"I'm directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power 3 million homes," he said. "And I'm proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world's largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history, with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year."

Last week, the Defense Department released a study that estimates it owns enough vacant land to generate 7,000 megawatts of solar energy — the same as seven nuclear power plants. The Army also announced plans in September to trade land for renewable energy sources.

"I'm directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources," the President said. "Right now, American oil production is the highest that it's been in eight years. That's right — eight years. Not only that, last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years."

Speed up infrastructure construction

As for the nation's infrastructure, the President said he will sign an Executive Order in the coming weeks to clear away the red tape that slows down construction projects.

"But you need to fund these projects," Obama said to lawmakers. "Take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home."

This would be the second executive order the President signed to speed up construction projects. The administration has been trying to push critical construction projects through a new permitting initiative. The Office of Management and Budget recently expanded the permitting pilot to develop metrics and best practices.

Government reorganization

Obama also reiterated his call to reorganize the government, reduce regulations and to give judicial and political appointees an "up or down" vote in the Senate.

"The executive branch also needs to change," he said. "Too often, it's inefficient, outdated and remote. That's why I've asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our government is leaner, quicker and more responsive to the needs of the American people." Earlier this month, the White House announced plans to begin the reorganization process.

And as for regulations, Obama said agencies have changed more than 500 regulations that could save businesses and citizens more than $10 billion over the next five years.

"We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill, because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk," the President said.

The President also urged Congress to work quickly to pass an extension to the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits. House-Senate negotiations on the issue reopened earlier in the day. It's still unclear whether federal pay and benefits will be used to help pay for the extension.