Weekly Federal News Update – Clean Water, Social Security Benefits, VA Addresses Race Issue

  • The Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps to improve the cyber hygiene of drinking water systems. The EPA is directing states to build cybersecurity into their sanitary reviews of public drinking water systems. The agency issued the new rule on Friday, along with guidance for how states and water utilities can evaluate and improve the cybersecurity of their systems. The move comes after President Joe Biden’s new cybersecurity strategy called for levying more cyber requirements on critical infrastructure. The EPA said a recent survey showed many water systems don’t have good cyber hygiene.
  • The Senate now has a companion bill aiming to repeal two provisions that limit some feds’ Social Security benefits. The Social Security Fairness Act would remove the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset. The decades-old provisions limit Social Security benefits for some federal employees, as well as their spouses, widows and widowers. The Senate companion bill comes after the House introduced its version in January, which has so far gained 180 co-sponsors. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association hopes that the now bicameral pair of bills will accelerate discussions and committee advancement for the legislation.
    (Social Security Fairness Act – Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs is creating a task force to address disparities in benefits decisions based on race. The VA’s equity task force will look into disparities in the rate at which the VA grants care and benefits to Black veterans, as well as other minority and “historically underserved” veterans. A federal lawsuit filed last December claimed that for decades the VA was more likely to reject the disability compensation claims of Black veterans than white veterans. VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters the agency has been wrestling with disparities based on race in VA benefits decisions and military discharge status. “The bottom line is this: We won’t rest until every veteran gets the world-class care and benefits that they have earned,” McDonough said.
  • Federal employees would get a grace period for their financial obligations under a re-introduced bill. The legislation would offer federal employees and contractors an extra 30 days after a government shutdown or government debt default before they would have to make payments on loans and other types of financial obligations. The Federal Employee Civil Relief Act aims to help feds avoid foreclosures, evictions and loan defaults, during periods when they may not receive pay. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) previously introduced the bill during the 2019 government shutdown.
  • The White House has ordered use of the Defense Production Act to expand production of the hypersonics industrial base. The Presidential Determination as it’s called, specifically targets air-breathing engines, advanced avionics, guidance systems, and materials for hypersonic systems. The Biden administration’s supply chain strategy calls kinetic capabilities, including hypersonic systems, a key focus area.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs is relaxing its requirements for masks, which had been required at all times in VA medical facilities. The VA said it will follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when COVID-19 transmission is high. Masks are now optional for areas with low or medium transmission. The VA still requires masks in some high-risk areas, including chemotherapy units, surgical units and intensive care units.
  • A new bipartisan bill, the IRS Whistleblower Program Improvement Act, is looking to strengthen the IRS’ whistleblower award program. The bill would require the IRS to make a whistleblower award determination within one year of the IRS collecting money based on whistleblower information. The bill would also make it easier for whistleblowers to remain anonymous in tax-court proceedings. The bill is led by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Roger Wicker (R-Ala.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.)
    (IRS Whistleblower Program Improvement Act – Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa))
  • One senator wants to see the upper chamber strengthen its cybersecurity measures. In a letter to the Senate Sergeant at Arms, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is calling for all Senate staff to use phishing-resistant, multi-factor authentication (MFA). Wyden said FIDO tokens — which enable users to securely access anything online that supports the FIDO U2F protocol using a single device — should be issued to every staff member to protect remote users accessing the Senate’s Virtual Private Network.

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