Department Press Briefing – April 23, 2021

Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

2:06 p.m. EDT

MS PORTER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s briefing. I just have a few announcements at the top, and we’ll resume to taking your questions.

This morning, the Secretary hosted a virtual ministerial with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. He emphasized our commitment to the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the Central Asian countries. The Secretary highlighted the importance of a just and durable settlement in Afghanistan for our efforts to support stability, regional growth, and development.

Additionally, the Secretary announced a project supporting women business associations across Central Asia, proposed a future P5+1 meeting on climate change with Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Kerry, and discussed a range of issues, including the COVID-19 recovery.

The State Department also announced today that Jeffrey Feltman will serve as the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. This appointment underscores the administration’s commitment to lead an international diplomatic effort to address the interlinked political, security, and humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa. Having held senior positions in both the State Department and the United Nations, Special Envoy Feltman is uniquely suited to bring decades of experience in Africa and the Middle East, multilateral diplomacy, and negotiation and mediation to develop and execute an integrated U.S. strategy to address these complex regional issues. His work will also build on our ongoing effort to address the escalating conflict in Ethiopia and provide opportunities for reform.

I’ll give just a minute of time for you all to filter in the queue before we start taking your questions.

OPERATOR: And as a reminder, to join the Q&A queue, you may press 1 then 0.

MS PORTER: Let’s start with the line of Michael Lavers.

QUESTION: Hi —

OPERATOR: Michael Lavers, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay, fantastic. Thank you so much for the call today. I just wanted to see if you had any additional information about the cable that Secretary Blinken sent out regarding pride flags at the U.S. embassies and consulates and if you can confirm any further details about that.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question, Michael. I just want to start off by saying that Secretary Blinken is committed to the rights and prosperity of our LGBTQ+ community, both our employees at State and in all around the world.

When it comes to the cable that you mentioned, of course, the department issues pride guidance to our missions on a regular basis, and pride displays at overseas facilities actually don’t require Washington approval. However, flying a flag over the Foreign Service – from the same flagpole as the U.S. actually doesn’t require approval as well. In prior years, the department has issued a blanket authorization or requested that posts request permission from Washington to fly a pride flag from the same flagpole as the U.S. flag.

Let’s go to the line of Rosiland Jordan.

OPERATOR: Rosiland Jordan, your line’s open.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina, thanks for the call. A couple of questions. First, is there any reaction from the U.S. Government to the news that Aleksey Navalny, on the advice of his doctors, is ending his hunger strike? And what concern has been given to the Russian Government about his continued well-being?

And then in terms of the meeting that the Belarusian President Lukashenko had with Vladimir Putin, what concerns does the U.S. Government have about that meeting, especially in light of rumors that they’re looking at some sort of closer political affiliation, although Putin is rejecting calls that the two countries merge?

And then finally, is there any overall progress in U.S.-Russian discussions on employee staff, the status of the diplomats who have been declared PNG, and so on? Thanks so much.

MS PORTER: Thanks, Rosiland. I’m going to start backwards from forward with your questions, addressing the third one initially, and just say that the Russian Government, as we know, has made an unfortunate decision to announce regarding locally employed staff. These steps prohibit the employment of local staff, community members, and past personnel, as well as the community. We know that our locally employed staff are key members of the workforce all around the world. Their contributions are important not only to our operations but our bilateral missions.

When it comes to your question on Belarus and their meeting with Russia, we have nothing to preview or read out for that at this time.

But when it comes to Mr. Navalny, we’re certainly aware of the report that he is planning to end his weeklong hunger strike, and we remain deeply concerned about his health as well as his safety, and we continue to call for his unconditional and immediate release.

Let’s go to the line of Simon Lewis.

OPERATOR: Simon Lewis, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, I have a question about Myanmar, or Burma. There’s a summit in ASEAN coming up, and the regional countries are trying to – trying to address the coup that’s happened in Myanmar. And there’s been some controversy about them inviting or meeting with the commander-in-chief, so I guess I’m interested in if the U.S. has any take on the regional summit and what you’d like to see there regarding the coup.

And separately, the – there’s a national unity government that’s been formed in opposition to the coup, and they’re sort of calling for them to be recognized as the legitimate government of the country rather than inviting the commander-in-chief to these kind of diplomatic events. I wonder what the U.S. position is on – who do you recognize as the Government of Myanmar, and are you going to extend any form of – formal recognition to this national unity government? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thanks, Simon. When it comes to your question about the ASEAN summit as well as when it pertains to a specific government, I mean, we – the United States, again, we maintain our strong support for the people of Burma through and through. We maintain support for them overcoming their crisis as well as them restoring their – Burma’s path to democracy and eventually achieving lasting peace. We’ll continue to commend the steadfast courage demonstrated by the people of Burma in opposition to the military coup. They’ve made their voices heard, quite frankly, in the face of horrific violence and oppression from their military regime.

Let’s go to the line of Tejinder Singh.

QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay, this is more of a request for an update. After the spokesperson yesterday elaborated on the requests from India about raw materials for vaccines, there’s been a big outcry in the Indian media and everywhere. So I just wanted to know if there has been any update in the U.S. position on the raw materials for the vaccine, and any more concrete answer to the requests for the raw materials embargo lifting? Thank you.

MS PORTER: So we don’t have any specific update to raw materials, but we’ll just reiterate that we understand that the COVID situation in India remains a global concern. And as we look to our Indian friends battling this pandemic, we’ll also acknowledge the toll that it’s taking not only on the people of India but as well as all throughout South Asia and, quite frankly, all over the world.

We have continued to work closely with India to facilitate the movement of essential supplies and also address the bottlenecks of their supply chains. But we’ll also continue to collaborate with our partners in India to battle this at the highest level. We know Secretary Blinken spoke to his counterpart on Tuesday, and we remain deeply engaged with India at all levels as we work to combat this crisis of the pandemic together.

Let’s go to the line of Casey O’Neill.

OPERATOR: Casey O’Neill, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. Happy Friday, and thanks for doing this, Jalina. Couple of questions for you. Firstly, on Iran. We’ve heard from a lot of officials that the United States continues to raise the issue of arbitrarily detained Americans during the indirect JCPOA negotiations with the Iranians. Just curious as to what, if anything, the Iranians had to say in response to those voiced concerns.

And then second, just quickly on Belarus, there’s been some reporting that Ambassador Fisher is going to be taking up temporary residence in Lithuania. Just wondering if you can confirm that for us. Thank you.

MS PORTER: So I don’t have any updates as – when it pertains to Ambassador Fisher. But I will say to your question on Iran, the State Department takes seriously the health and safety of all those wrongfully detained, especially U.S. citizens, both in Iran and all over the world. When it comes to your question about the Iranians saying anything, we certainly can’t preview or say anything that they have said. But again, we will call – continue to call for the release of all those who were unjustly detained, not only in Iran but, again, all over the world.

Let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Hope you’re well. Could I ask another question about Russia? Yesterday, Ned mentioned that the United States was looking for action rather than words regarding the pullback of troops near the Ukrainian border. The Russian defense ministry says that that has gone ahead, the pullback. Do you have any further reaction today? Do you see this as a positive sign and easing of tensions in any way? And have there been any discussions with the Russians or, for that matter, with the Ukrainians on this? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thanks, Shaun. So we don’t have any specific updates, but I’ll just continue to underscore that we’ve made clear in our engagement with Russia, with their government that they need to restrain – refrain from their aggression and escalatory actions, and they need to immediately cease all of their aggressive activity in and around Ukraine. And that includes their recent military buildup in occupied Crimea as well as along Ukraine’s border.

The United States, of course, reaffirms its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty as well as its territorial integrity, extending to its territorial waters.

Let’s go to the line of Luis Rojas.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi, Jalina. Can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Yeah, I have only one question. What is (inaudible) by the United States Government regarding the case of Colombian Alex Saab who is detained in Cabo Verde? Have you a new update, a new information about this?

MS PORTER: We don’t have any new updates to issue about this, but certainly we will make sure that when we do, we’ll either release them on our website or release them through one of our daily press briefings.

Let’s go to the line of Hiba Nasr.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thanks for doing this. I want to ask about what we are expecting tomorrow about the recognition of the Armenian genocide. What is the position of the State Department? And I read several reports that Secretary Blinken had a call with his Turkish counterpart. Can you confirm that?

MS PORTER: So at this time, we don’t have anything to read out as far as the Secretary’s call with his Turkish counterpart. But when it comes to the Armenian genocide, you can expect an announcement tomorrow, and we would have to refer you to the White House.

Let’s go to the line of Kristina Anderson.

QUESTION: Thank you for taking my call. I wonder if you could speak to some of the top line diplomatic issues between the U.S. and Turkey, just looking forward to the President’s visit next month on the margins of the NATO summit. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Well, what we’ll say is, obviously, that Turkey is a valued and longstanding NATO Ally. And we obviously have shared interests, and those shared interests include, of course, counterterrorism and ending the conflict in Syria as well as deterring any malign influence in the region. We also seek cooperation with Turkey on common priorities such as like engaging in dialogue to address any disagreements. Then at the same time, we’ll always uphold our values, which includes human rights and rule of law and protecting the interests of those while keeping Turkey as well aligned with the transatlantic alliance on all of these critical issues.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.

OPERATOR: Jiha Ham, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Okay, thank you. Hi, Jalina. Thank you for taking my question. My question is about the policy review on North Korea. It’s been more than a month now since the administration officials told reporters that the review would be completed in the coming weeks. So I have to ask you reasons for this delay. And some predict that the administration is going to wait until the South Korean president’s visit at the end of May. So is there any connection between the policy review and the president’s – President Moon’s visit? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thanks for your question. Again, while we don’t have a specific timeline for the review, again, what I’ll say is that the Biden administration is conducting a thorough interagency review of our policy towards North Korea, and that would include implementation of ongoing pressure measures as well as options for future diplomacy. And again, we have nothing to preview since that review is still ongoing.

Let’s go to the line of Janne Pak.

OPERATOR: Janne Pak, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, Jalina, for doing this, and Happy Friday. Currently, South Korea is in a difficult situation due to a lack of vaccines. So the South Korean Government is trying to introduce Russian-made vaccines. I think that unproven Russian vaccines are dangerous to the South Korean people. If the U.S. has enough vaccines, can the U.S. cooperate with its ally South Korea to support the vaccines? And when can we expect it to be able to supply U.S. vaccines to South Korea? Thank you very much.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your questions, Janne. So right now, we don’t have anything to announce as far as getting U.S. vaccines to South Korea. I mean, we certainly value South Korea as a strategic partner, and our relationship with South Korea – as you know, Secretary Blinken has traveled to the region and underscored our commitment to the Indo-Pacific, but right now, we have nothing to announce when it comes to vaccines in the region.

I’ll take one last question from Mr. Arshad Mohammed.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Two things, just to follow up on Turkey and Armenia. You said, quote, “At this time, we don’t have anything to read out as far as the Secretary’s call with his Turkish counterpart, but when it comes to the Armenian genocide, you can expect an announcement tomorrow.”

Question one: Are you confirming that the Secretary has indeed had a call with his Turkish counterpart?

And second: Are you – in referring to the events as, quote, the “Armenian genocide,” are you seeking to tell us that that is what the announcement will be tomorrow? I don’t think the department normally refers to those events with those terms.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your questions. Again, when it comes to the previous question raised that you reiterated on Armenia, I have nothing to preview, nothing to announce, and I would have to refer you to the White House.

To your previous question, kind of summarizing what I’ve said before, again, though, I – my words spoke for themselves. I have nothing else to preview at this time.

I’m sorry. We actually have one last question from Said Arikat.

QUESTION: Hi —

MS PORTER: Said, are you there?

QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m here. Can you hear me? Yeah.

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you. Thank you.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask you, for the last three, four nights, throngs of settlers and orthodox – that’s what they call them, that’s what Israel calls them – orthodox adherents and so on – they have been attacking Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. They are calling death to the Arabs and so on. And I know that the embassy in Jerusalem issued the – a statement that is really not very clear. What is your position on this?

MS PORTER: Well, we’re certainly deeply concerned about the recent escalation of violence in Jerusalem, and that includes the clashes in Old City, which left over 100 people injured, as reported. But again, when it comes to reports of extremist protestors chanting hateful, racist, and violent slogans, they are extremely disturbing, and they must be firmly rejected. We’ll call on the authorities in Jerusalem to take all appropriate steps to – not only to de-escalate the tensions, but also ensure the safety, security, as well as the rights of all of Jerusalem’s residents, as well as call on voices to urge calm and unity in the face of these hateful attacks.

That concludes today’s briefing. Thank you all for joining today. I wish you a safe and productive weekend ahead.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:31 p.m.)

 

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    The Department of Energy (DOE) has made progress in cleaning up radioactive waste at the site of the West Valley Demonstration Project in New York State. In the 1960s and 1970s, a commercial facility at the site reprocessed spent (used) nuclear fuel into reusable nuclear material—creating various wastes that remained on-site after the facility closed in 1976. Since 2011, DOE has demolished 51 of 55 structures there and disposed of about 1.3 million cubic feet of low-level waste to off-site locations. It has also placed solidified high-level waste into interim on-site storage (see fig.). In addition, DOE has processed for interim on-site storage about 30,000 cubic feet of transuranic waste (which is contaminated with elements that have an atomic number greater than uranium). As of February 2020, DOE reported spending about $3.1 billion on contracted cleanup activities, but it cannot estimate the cleanup's final cost until it decides how it will address the remaining waste. High-Level Waste from the West Valley Demonstration Project in Interim On-Site Storage, March 2017 DOE has been unable to dispose of the high-level and transuranic wastes stored at West Valley because there are no facilities authorized to accept these wastes. DOE has identified two potential options for disposal of the transuranic waste: the federal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico and a commercial facility in Texas. However, the New Mexico facility is authorized to accept only waste from atomic energy defense activities, and DOE does not consider West Valley waste to be from atomic energy defense activities. Regarding the Texas facility, state regulations preclude disposal of the waste there. In 2017, DOE submitted to Congress a report on all disposal options, as required by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Pursuant to this act, DOE must await action by Congress before making a final decision, and Congress has not yet acted. The West Valley Demonstration Project Act, enacted in 1980, requires DOE to assist with cleanup activities at the site of the nation's only commercial facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The site contained 600,000 gallons of liquid high-level waste, radioactively contaminated structures and soils, and buried radioactive waste. In 2011, DOE began the first phase of its decommissioning plan, which included demolishing above-ground structures and removing contaminated soils. The West Valley Reauthorization Act and the Senate Committee Report No. 116-48 included provisions for GAO to review progress on the cleanup at West Valley. GAO's report examines (1) the status of the cleanup and (2) DOE's options for disposing of the remaining radioactive waste. GAO reviewed DOE's data on cleanup costs and waste volumes and its decommissioning plans, as well as laws, regulations, and policies governing radioactive waste disposal. GAO also interviewed officials from DOE and the state of New York, as well as other stakeholders. Congress should consider taking action to provide a legal option for the disposal of West Valley's transuranic waste. For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or BawdenA@gao.gov.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
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    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified eight priority recommendations for the Federal Reserve. Since then, the Federal Reserve has implemented five of those recommendations. As of April 2021, the remaining open three priority recommendations for the Federal Reserve involve the following areas: Collaborating with other financial regulators to communicate with banks that have third-party relationships with fintech lenders about using alternative data in underwriting. Communicating uncertainties surrounding stress testing, including capital ratio estimates. Communicating uncertainties surrounding stress testing, including tolerance levels for key risks, and the degree of uncertainty in projected estimates. The Federal Reserve's continued attention to these issues could improve its ability to more effectively oversee risks to consumers and the safety and soundness of the U.S. banking system. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Daniel Garcia-Diaz at (202) 512-8678 or garciadiazd@gao.gov.
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  • Conflict Minerals: 2020 Company SEC Filings on Mineral Sources Were Similar to Those from Prior Years
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) disclosure rule on conflict minerals broadly requires that certain companies submit a filing that describes their efforts to determine the source of their conflict minerals—tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. As part of this process, these companies must conduct a reasonable country-of-origin inquiry (RCOI). Depending on the determination reached through this inquiry, some companies must then conduct due diligence to further investigate the source of their minerals. According to GAO's analysis, companies' RCOI determinations have not changed significantly since 2015. In 2020, an estimated 58 percent of the companies that conducted an RCOI reported preliminary determinations regarding whether the conflict minerals in their products may have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or adjoining countries (covered countries), as the figure shows. Of those companies, an estimated 42 percent reported that they had preliminarily determined that at least some of their minerals may have originated in covered countries, and an estimated 16 percent determined that their minerals were not from a covered country. Source of Conflict Minerals in Products as Determined by Companies' Reasonable Country-of-Origin Inquiries, Reporting Years 2014–2020 In 2020, an estimated 78 percent of the companies that conducted an RCOI went on to conduct due diligence to further investigate the source of their minerals. After conducting due diligence, an estimated 44 percent of these companies reported that they could not determine whether their minerals originated in covered countries. An estimated 38 percent of the companies reported that their minerals may have originated in covered countries, and the remaining 18 percent did not clearly report their due diligence determination. Most filings indicated that companies used standardized tools and programs to attempt to determine the source of their minerals, but filings and industry experts noted challenges relating to these tools and programs. For example, an estimated 96 percent of company filings indicated use of a supplier survey to collect information, but many companies did not receive responses from all their suppliers, of which there could be hundreds in some companies' supply chains. Why GAO Did This Study The United States has sought to improve security in the DRC for over 2 decades. However, according to the Department of State and the United Nations, conflict has persisted and contributed to severe human rights abuses and the displacement of people. Armed groups continue to profit from the mining and trade of “conflict minerals,” according to State. Provisions in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act required, among other things, the SEC to promulgate disclosure and reporting regulations regarding the use of conflict minerals from the DRC and adjoining countries. In 2012, the SEC adopted a conflict minerals disclosure rule requiring companies to file specialized disclosure reports beginning in 2014 and annually thereafter. The act also included a provision for GAO to assess, among other things, the SEC regulations' effectiveness in promoting peace and security in the DRC and adjoining countries. This report examines how companies responded to the SEC conflict minerals disclosure rule when filing in 2020. GAO analyzed a generalizable sample of 100 SEC filings; reviewed SEC documents; and interviewed SEC officials and other stakeholders, including representatives from the private sector and nongovernmental organizations. For more information, contact Kimberly M. Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.
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  • Medicaid Program Integrity: Action Needed to Ensure CMS Completes Financial Management Reviews in a Timely Manner
    In U.S GAO News
    Since fiscal year 2016, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has initiated 49 financial management reviews (FMR) to examine state Medicaid agencies' compliance with a variety of federal policies. These 49 FMRs frequently found one or more instances of states' non-compliance. CMS identified instances of non-compliance that had a financial impact totaling about $358 million. CMS identified internal control weaknesses and directed states to make changes to their Medicaid policies. However, FMRs have not always examined topics or states that reflect the areas of highest expenditures. In 2018, GAO recommended that CMS improve its targeting of oversight resources. CMS agreed with this recommendation, but has not yet implemented it. In addition, CMS guidance generally expects draft FMR reports to be completed in the year they began. However, two-thirds of FMRs (26 of 39) initiated in fiscal years 2016 to 2019 were still under review in June 2020, which can delay state actions to address program vulnerabilities. CMS officials said that at least five states would not take actions—such as returning federal funds for unallowable expenditures—until they received a complete report. Status of Financial Management Reviews (FMR) Initiated in Fiscal Years 2016 to 2019, as of June 2020 CMS officials cited competing priorities, decreased staff, and the agency's review process—which involves multiple steps and levels of review—as factors affecting their use of FMRs for oversight. CMS took steps during the course of GAO's review to complete FMRs that had been under review for several years. The agency has not established time frames for the completion of individual review steps or for its overall review of FMR reports. Developing and implementing such time frames would provide a tool to help monitor CMS's progress in completing FMRs and ensure prompt action on FMR findings. Over the last two decades, Medicaid—a joint, federal-state health care financing program for low-income and medically needy individuals—more than tripled in expenditures and doubled in enrollment. CMS estimates the program will continue to grow, exceeding $1 trillion in expenditures and 81 million enrollees in 2028. The size and growth of Medicaid present oversight challenges. CMS is responsible for assuring that states' Medicaid expenditures comply with federal requirements, and FMRs are one of its financial oversight tools. CMS generally directs its regional offices to conduct one focused FMR each year on an area of high risk within their regions, typically within one state. GAO was asked to examine CMS's use of FMRs. In this report, GAO examines the extent to which CMS has used FMRs to oversee state Medicaid programs. GAO reviewed CMS documentation on FMR findings and their status, and resources assigned to FMRs and other financial review functions. GAO also interviewed CMS officials from all 10 regional offices and the central office, and assessed CMS's FMR policies and procedures against federal internal control standards. CMS should develop and implement time frames to ensure the timely completion of FMRs. The Department of Health and Human Services concurred with our recommendation. For more information, contact Carolyn L. Yocom at (202) 512-7114 or yocomc@gao.gov.
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  • Disaster Block Grants: Factors to Consider in Authorizing a Permanent Program
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    What GAO Found In March 2019, GAO reported that because the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program lacks permanent authority and regulations—unlike other disaster assistance programs—appropriations require the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to customize grant requirements for each disaster in Federal Register notices—a time-consuming process. GAO identified challenges associated with the lack of permanent statutory authority, including delays in disbursal of funds and the need for grantees to manage multiple grants with different rules. For example, GAO found it took HUD 5 months after the first appropriation for the 2017 hurricanes (Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria) for HUD to issue the first Federal Register notice establishing the grant requirements. Officials from one of the 2017 CDBG-DR grantees told GAO of challenges managing multiple CDBG-DR grants it received over the years because each grant had different rules. HUD officials noted then that permanently authorizing CDBG-DR would allow HUD to issue permanent regulations for disaster recovery. GAO identified factors to consider when weighing whether and how to permanently authorize a program for unmet disaster assistance needs. These factors, which are based on GAO's body of work on emergency management and past observations of broader government initiatives, include the following: Clarify how the program would fit into the broader federal disaster framework. GAO has emphasized the importance of articulating a program's relationship to other programs and of aligning the program within organizations with compatible missions and goals. This is particularly important with disaster programs, given the approximately 30 agencies involved in disaster recovery. Clarify the purpose and design the program to address it. Greater clarity about the purpose of CDBG-DR could help resolve implementation issues GAO has previously identified, such as how much time grantees should have to spend funds and the proportion of funds that should be distributed to renters. Consider the necessary capacity and support infrastructure to implement the program. GAO's prior work found that state, local, territorial, and tribal grantees and federal agencies faced capacity challenges in administering and overseeing federal grant funds, including CDBG-DR. Capacity challenges for grantees may contribute to fraud risks and slow expenditure of funds. Why GAO Did This Study Legislation proposed over the years would permanently authorize CDBG-DR or a similar program, but no proposal has been enacted. Since 1993, Congress has provided over $90 billion in supplemental appropriations through HUD's CDBG program to help communities recover from disasters. Just since 2001, HUD has issued over 100 Federal Register notices linked to these funds. Communities use these funds to address unmet needs for housing, infrastructure, and economic revitalization. HUD is one of approximately 30 federal agencies tasked with disaster recovery. This testimony discusses (1) challenges associated with the lack of permanent statutory authority for CDBG-DR and (2) factors to consider when weighing whether and how to permanently authorize CDBG-DR or a similar program. It is based primarily on GAO's March 2019 and May 2021 reports on CDBG-DR (GAO-19-232 and GAO-21-177) and GAO reports issued between February 2004 and June 2019 that identified factors to consider in making critical federal policy decisions. For those reports, GAO reviewed documentation on CDBG-DR and its observations of efforts to reorganize or streamline government, among other things.
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  • Laboratory Safety: FDA Should Strengthen Efforts to Provide Effective Oversight
    In U.S GAO News
    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken steps intended to improve safety at its laboratories, including those that work with hazardous biological agents. Specifically, FDA created the Office of Laboratory Safety (OLS) in 2017 as a safety oversight body for all FDA laboratories. Establishment of FDA's Office of Laboratory Safety (OLS) Note: Prior to March 2019, OLS was referred to as the Office of Laboratory Science and Safety. In coordination with FDA's operating divisions—known as centers—OLS has standardized safety policies, incident reporting, inspections, and safety training. However in creating OLS, FDA did not implement key reform practices that could have helped ensure OLS's effectiveness. For example, FDA's centers and OLS did not reach a shared understanding of OLS's roles and responsibilities—a key practice for effective agency reforms. Although senior agency leaders were involved in developing OLS's strategic plan, disagreements about OLS's role raised by center directors at that time still remain. For example, center directors told GAO that OLS's mission should not include science, laboratory quality management, or inspections. Conversely, the director of OLS said OLS remains committed to its mission as envisioned in the strategic plan, which includes these areas of responsibility. FDA officials said they plan to update the plan in 2021, which presents an opportunity for FDA to address areas of disagreement. In its current form, FDA's laboratory safety program also does not meet the key elements of effective oversight identified in GAO's prior work. For example, The oversight organization should have clear authority to ensure compliance with requirements. However, as part of a 2019 reorganization, FDA placed the OLS director at a lower level than the center directors. Also, OLS does not directly manage the center safety staff responsible for ensuring the implementation of safety policies that OLS develops. As a result, OLS has limited ability to access centers' laboratories—in part because they cannot inspect them unannounced—or to ensure compliance with safety policies. The oversight organization should also be independent from program offices to avoid conflict between program objectives and safety. However, OLS depends on the centers for much of its funding and has had to negotiate with the centers annually for those funds, which can allow center directors to influence OLS priorities through the funding amounts they approve. FDA has not assessed potential independence risks from using center funds for OLS. Without taking steps to do so, FDA's laboratory safety program will continue to compete with the centers' mission objectives and priorities. In 2014, FDA discovered improperly stored boxes of smallpox virus, posing a risk to individuals who might have been exposed. This raised concerns about the oversight of FDA's laboratories that conduct research on hazardous biological agents. In 2016, GAO made five recommendations to improve FDA's laboratory safety, four of which the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had not fully implemented as of July 2020. GAO was asked to examine FDA's efforts to strengthen laboratory safety. This report examines FDA's efforts since GAO's 2016 report to improve safety in its laboratories that work with hazardous biological agents. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed FDA documents; assessed FDA's safety oversight practices against key reform practices and oversight elements GAO identified in prior work; and interviewed FDA officials, including staff and senior leaders at OLS and the three centers that work with hazardous biological agents. GAO is making five recommendations to FDA, including to resolve disagreements over roles and responsibilities, to provide OLS with the authority and access to facilities necessary to oversee laboratory safety, and to take steps to assess and mitigate any independence risks posed by how OLS is funded. HHS agreed with all five recommendations. For more information, contact Mary Denigan-Macauley at (202) 512-7114 or deniganmacauleym@gao.gov.
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