Friday morning federal headlines - Nov. 18, 2011

Friday - 11/18/2011, 8:38am EST

  • Congress has voted to avoid a government shutdown. First the House and then the Senate approved a continuing resolution to keep the government running through Dec. 16. The bill contains regular 2012 funding for Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Agriculture, Commerce and Justice, and some smaller agencies. The president is expected to sign the legislation. (Federal News Radio)

  • Sand is blowing in the wind on the surface of Mars, the Associated Press reported. NASA has just released images documenting dozens of spots on the red planet where sand dunes shifted several yards. Scientists suspected it, but thought it was limited to a few locations. The latest images were taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been photographing the martian surface since 2005. Dust is constantly being blown around on Mars, but sand grains are tougher to move. In a study published online in the journal Geology, scientists surmised that the planet has stronger winds than expected in order to move the sand. (AP)

  • Alternatives to the Post Office, like the Internet, self-service kiosks and retail partnerships are a few ways USPS can improve its performance by providing service at a lower cost. The Government Accountability Office took a closer look at the initiative, just to see how well it's working. While it is too early yet to know if the Postal Service is saving money with retail alternatives, GAO says the agency still needs to come up with a way to measure success. The Postal Service is also reaching out to the public to make sure they're aware the retail alternatives exist, but they don't know if that message is getting through. USPS says it is already working on a plan. (AP)

  • Congress and the administration are pushing agencies to suspend or debar contractors more liberally. Lawyers representing contractors say that effort is poisoning government-industry relations. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy issued new guidance for agencies to get tough on contractors. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on debarment. Contractor Lawyer Bill Shook calls it all the criminalization of procurement. He says suspending or debarring companies from federal work is equivalent to capital punishment. (Federal News Radio)

  • A NASA employee's money-saving idea has landed him an appointment with the president. Matthew Ritsko is this year's SAVE Award winner. It's an annual contest conducted by the Office of Management and Budget. Ritsko suggested a lending library of specialized tools to avoid expensive, duplicate purchases. Eileen Hearty of Denver is a runner up in the contract. She suggested that HUD inspectors not visit proven, high-performing properties so often. That would save travel and time. The top SAVE award ideas become part of the 2013 budget request. (Federal News Radio)

  • The Army's Space and Missile Defense and Strategic Commands say they've successfully tested a new missile. It flies low, fast and far. The Advanced Hypersonic weapon is designed to fly long distances, faster than sound. Unlike some missiles, the prototype stays in the earth's atmosphere. The AHW flew between two locations in the Pacific, starting in Hawaii. While the missile was in flight, the Army measured its navigation, guidance and heat-protection qualities. (Defense.gov)

  • Launch delays and shrinking federal budgets threaten NASA's private-rocket plan. The space agency will soon rely on private rockets to take astronauts and equipment to the international space station. But the Washington Business Journal reports that coming budget cuts could have a direct impact on the future of Orbital Sciences, SpaceX and Boeing, which are all competing for work with NASA.

  • Executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could soon say bye-bye to their millions and hello to a federal pay scale. The House Financial Services Committee passed a bill to suspend the multi-million dollar salaries for Fannie and Freddie top execs. It would force them to adopt a pay scale similar to the General Schedule and Senior Executive Service systems. It caps top executive pay at under $219,000. And pay increases would be based on performance. Bill sponsors say it unreasonable for the struggling loan company to pay out exorbitant salaries and bonuses while receiving billions in taxpayer assistance.