Secretary Blinken’s Travel to Costa Rica

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will travel on June 1-2 to San José, Costa Rica, where he will engage with senior leaders from Central America, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, as well as Costa Rican government officials and civil society.

While in San José, Secretary Blinken will meet with President Carlos Alvarado Quesada and Minister of Foreign Affairs Rodolfo Solano Quiros to discuss the strong U.S.-Costa Rica relationship, which benefits the people of both our countries.  Secretary Blinken will then participate in a meeting with senior leaders from member-states of the Central America Integration System (SICA), along with Mexico.  Together, they will advance a collaborative approach to addressing the root causes of migration, including improving democratic governance, security, and economic opportunity for the people of Central America.  He will also meet separately with several of his foreign counterparts to discuss joint efforts to address bilateral and regional issues.

Through these meetings and engagements, the Secretary will reinforce our cooperation on shared priorities, which also include promoting inclusive economic growth, combating the COVID-19 pandemic and recovering from its effects on our societies, and protecting livelihoods and the planet through environmental stewardship and action on climate change.

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OWS officials reported that as of January 31, 2021, companies had released 63.7 million doses—about 32 percent of the 200 million doses that, according to OWS, companies with EUAs have been contracted to provide by March 31, 2021. Vaccine companies face a number of challenges in scaling up manufacturing to produce hundreds of millions of doses under OWS's accelerated timelines. DOD and HHS are working with vaccine companies to help mitigate manufacturing challenges, including: Limited manufacturing capacity: A shortage of facilities with capacity to handle the vaccine manufacturing needs can lead to production bottlenecks. Vaccine companies are working in partnership with OWS to expand production capacity. For example, one vaccine company told GAO that HHS's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority helped them identify an additional manufacturing partner to increase production. Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing construction projects to expand capacity at vaccine manufacturing facilities. Disruptions to manufacturing supply chains: Vaccine manufacturing supply chains have been strained by the global demand for certain goods and workforce disruptions caused by the global pandemic. For example, representatives from one facility manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines stated that they experienced challenges obtaining materials, including reagents and certain chemicals. They also said that due to global demand, they waited 4 to 12 weeks for items that before the pandemic were typically available for shipment within one week. Vaccine companies and DOD and HHS officials told GAO they have undertaken several efforts to address possible manufacturing disruptions and mitigate supply chain challenges. These efforts include federal assistance to (1) expedite procurement and delivery of critical manufacturing equipment, (2) develop a list of critical supplies that are common across the six OWS vaccine candidates, and (3) expedite the delivery of necessary equipment and goods coming into the United States. Additionally, DOD and HHS officials said that as of December 2020 they had placed prioritized ratings on 18 supply contracts for vaccine companies under the Defense Production Act, which allows federal agencies with delegated authority to require contractors to prioritize those contracts for supplies needed for vaccine production. Gaps in the available workforce: Hiring and training personnel with the specialized skills needed to run vaccine manufacturing processes can be challenging. OWS officials stated that they have worked with the Department of State to expedite visa approval for key technical personnel, including technicians and engineers to assist with installing, testing, and certifying critical equipment manufactured overseas. OWS officials also stated that they requested that 16 DOD personnel be detailed to serve as quality control staff at two vaccine manufacturing sites until the organizations can hire the required personnel. As of February 5, 2021, the U.S. had over 26 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 449,020 reported deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions, with the unemployment rate and number of unemployed in January 2021 at nearly twice their pre-pandemic levels in February 2020. In May 2020, OWS was launched and included a goal of producing 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines with initial doses available by January 2021. Although FDA has authorized two vaccines for emergency use, OWS has not yet met its production goal. Such vaccines are crucial to mitigate the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic. GAO was asked to review OWS vaccine development efforts. This report examines: (1) the characteristics and status of the OWS vaccines, (2) how developmental processes have been adapted to meet OWS timelines, and (3) the challenges that companies have faced with scaling up manufacturing and the steps they are taking to address those challenges. GAO administered a questionnaire based on HHS's medical countermeasures TRL criteria to the six OWS vaccine companies to evaluate the COVID-19 vaccine development processes. GAO also collected and reviewed supporting documentation on vaccine development and conducted interviews with representatives from each of the companies on vaccine development and manufacturing. For more information, contact Karen L. Howard and Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or howardk@gao.gov or wrightc@gao.gov.
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    GAO's previous work has shown that a number of opportunities exist for the Department of Defense (DOD) to strengthen management of defense spending, which would help the department address the challenges it faces, especially in a constrained budget environment. These opportunities include: Improving budgeting execution of funds. DOD does not fully obligate the funds appropriated to it and can improve both its budgeting for and its use of the resources that are provided to it. For example, GAO found that DOD has left billions of dollars in appropriated amounts unspent over the past 10 fiscal years. Better estimating annual budget requirements and obligating appropriations provided by Congress within the period of availability established by Congress would help DOD minimize these cases of under-execution. More clearly determining future resource requirements related to overseas contingency operations. DOD and Congress need a clearer determination of DOD's future resource requirements, in particular how and whether to incorporate enduring Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) costs—costs that will endure beyond ongoing contingency operations—into DOD's base budget. These costs could total tens of billions of dollars a year. However, few details exist as to what makes up these enduring costs or how they were derived, raising questions about how much should be included as future requirements. Reducing improper payments. Addressing improper payments—payments that should not have been made or were made in an incorrect amount—is an area where better financial management could save DOD billions of dollars. In its fiscal year 2020 agency financial report, DOD estimated that it paid about $11.4 billion in improper payments, or about 1.7 percent of all payments it made that year. DOD has taken steps to reduce improper payments in some areas, but DOD's estimates of its improper payments in other areas indicate more remains to be done. Sustaining and refining department-wide business reform efforts. DOD must transform its overall business operations so that it can more efficiently and effectively use its resources. In recent years, DOD reported notable achievements from its most recent department-wide business reform efforts, including $37 billion in savings from fiscal years 2017 to 2021 as a result of these efforts. However, GAO previously found that while DOD's reported savings were largely reflected in its budget materials, the analyses underlying these estimates were not always well documented and the savings were not always the result of business reform. Moreover, uncertainty about the leadership structure at DOD for overseeing and reforming business operations, including the recent elimination of the Chief Management Officer position, calls into question whether efforts to fundamentally transform how the department does business can be realized and sustained. GAO has previously highlighted the importance of DOD providing clear department-wide guidance on roles, responsibilities, authorities, and resources for business reform efforts will be necessary for DOD to make progress in these efforts. Decisions by DOD and Congress regarding long-term defense needs will have a meaningful impact on the nation's fiscal future. As the single largest category of discretionary spending, defense spending is likely to play a large role in any discussion of future federal spending. GAO and others have found that DOD faces challenges that are likely to put pressure on its budget moving forward. DOD is the only major federal agency that has been unable to receive a clean audit opinion on its financial statements. This testimony provides information on how DOD can better manage defense spending, specifically related to its ability to (1) accurately estimate its budgetary requirements and execute its appropriated funds, (2) determine resource requirements related to overseas contingency operations, (3) reduce improper payments, and (4) sustain and refine department-wide reform efforts. For this testimony, GAO reviewed and summarized its recent work on DOD budget and financial management issues and departmental reform efforts. In prior work on which this testimony is based, GAO made recommendations that DOD take steps to better estimate its annual budget requirements and future fiscal needs for OCO, reduce improper payments, and refine and formalize its departmental reform efforts. DOD generally concurred with these recommendations and is working toward implementing them. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Close Air Support: Actions Needed to Enhance Friendly Force Tracking Capabilities and Fully Evaluate Training
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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress implementing initiatives to enhance capabilities that are used to identify friendly force locations during close air support (CAS) missions, but GAO identified additional actions that are needed to strengthen these efforts. Specifically, DOD has made limited progress in implementing 10 changes the department approved to address gaps in the interoperability of digital communications systems used to conduct CAS, hindering efforts to improve the speed and accuracy of information exchanges. DOD's efforts to assess the interoperability of digital systems used to perform CAS have been limited in scope. GAO found that DOD had formally assessed two out of 10 approved changes during joint service and multinational events, and these assessments were not conducted in a training environment that replicated capabilities of near-peer adversaries. DOD implemented a new capability in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to help identify the positions of friendly forces during CAS missions. However, GAO found that DOD did not provide adequate training for personnel who operate it or conduct an evaluation to resolve implementation challenges that have hampered its performance. DOD conducts evaluations of training programs for forces that participate in CAS missions, but GAO identified two areas where DOD can improve its efforts. First, the Army and Marine Corps have not systematically evaluated the effectiveness of periodic training for ground observers providing targeting information due to a lack of centralized systems for tracking training data and the absence of designated entities to monitor service-wide training. Second, the use of contract aircraft for training increased substantially between 2017 and 2019, but DOD has not fully evaluated the use of non-military contract aircraft to train air controllers for CAS (see fig.). GAO found that differences between U.S. military aircraft and contract aircraft (e.g., airspeed) can result in a misalignment of aircraft capabilities for certain types of training events. Without evaluating CAS training fully, DOD cannot have assurance that its forces are prepared to conduct CAS missions safely and effectively. Number of Hours Non-Military Aircraft Were Used to Train for Close Air Support for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2019 The use of ordnance delivered by aircraft to support U.S. military forces that are in close proximity to enemy forces on the ground requires detailed planning, seamless communications, and effective training. Mistakes in communications or procedures used to identify and maintain an awareness of the positions of friendly forces on the battlefield during CAS can result in the loss of U.S. military personnel. Senate Report 116-48 and House Report 116-120, accompanying bills for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included provisions for GAO to evaluate issues related to friendly-force identification capabilities in CAS missions. Among other things, this report evaluates the extent to which DOD has (1) implemented initiatives to enhance friendly-force identification capabilities during CAS, and (2) evaluated training for forces that participate in CAS. GAO analyzed documentation and interviewed officials regarding DOD efforts to develop and implement friendly force tracking capabilities for CAS; reviewed CAS training programs; and analyzed training data, including the number of hours that DOD used non-military contract aircraft for CAS training from 2017 through 2019. GAO is making 11 recommendations to DOD, including that DOD implement and assess initiatives to improve the interoperability of digital systems used in CAS and take additional steps to evaluate the training for certain forces that participate in CAS missions. DOD concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Cary Russell at (202) 512-5431 or RussellC@gao.gov.
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    In fiscal year 2019, debt held by the public reached 79 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The government's fiscal response to COVID-19 combined with the severe economic contraction from the pandemic will substantially increase federal debt. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that debt held by the public will reach 98 percent of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2020. The nation's fiscal challenges will require attention once the economy has substantially recovered and public health goals have been attained. GAO has previously reported that a long-term plan is needed to put the government on a sustainable fiscal path. Other countries have used well-designed fiscal rules and targets—which constrain fiscal policy by controlling factors like expenditures or revenue—to contain excessive deficits. For example, Germany's constitution places limits on its deficits. The U.S. federal government has previously enacted fiscal rules, such as those in the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, current fiscal rules have not effectively addressed the misalignment between spending and revenues over time. GAO identified key considerations to help Congress if it were to adopt new fiscal rules and targets, as part of a long-term plan for fiscal sustainability (see table). Key Considerations for Designing, Implementing, and Enforcing Fiscal Rules and Targets Setting clear goals and objectives can anchor a country's fiscal policy. Fiscal rules and targets can help ensure that spending and revenue decisions align with agreed-upon goals and objectives. The weight given to tradeoffs among simplicity, flexibility, and enforceability depends on the goals a country is trying to achieve with a fiscal rule. In addition, there are tradeoffs between the types and combinations of rules, and the time frames over which the rules apply. The degree to which fiscal rules and targets are binding, such as being supported through a country's constitution or nonbinding political agreements, can impact their permanence, as well as the extent to which ongoing political commitment is needed to uphold them. Integrating fiscal rules and targets into budget discussions can contribute to their ongoing use and provide for a built-in enforcement mechanism. The budget process can include reviews of fiscal rules and targets. Fiscal rules and targets with limited, well-defined exemptions, clear escape clauses for events such as national emergencies, and adjustments for the economic cycle can help a country address future crises. Institutions supporting fiscal rules and targets need clear roles and responsibilities for supporting their implementation and measuring their effectiveness. Independently analyzed data and assessments can help institutions monitor compliance with fiscal rules and targets. Having clear, transparent fiscal rules and targets that a government communicates to the public and that the public understands can contribute to a culture of fiscal transparency and promote fiscal sustainability for the country. Source: GAO analysis of literature review and interviews. | GAO-20-561 Our nation faces serious challenges at a time when the federal government is highly leveraged in debt by historical norms. The imbalance between revenue and spending built into current law and policy have placed the nation on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Fiscal rules and targets can be used to help frame and control the overall results of spending and revenue decisions that affect the debt. GAO was asked to review fiscal rules and targets. This report (1) assesses the extent to which the federal government has taken action to contribute to long-term fiscal sustainability through fiscal rules and targets, and (2) identifies key considerations for designing, implementing, and enforcing fiscal rules and targets in the U.S. GAO compared current and former U.S. fiscal rules to literature on the effective use of rules and targets; reviewed CBO reports and relevant laws; and interviewed experts. GAO conducted case studies of national fiscal rules in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Congress should consider establishing a long-term fiscal plan that includes fiscal rules and targets, such as a debt-to-GDP target, and weigh GAO's key considerations to ensure proper design, implementation, and enforcement of these rules and targets. The Department of the Treasury and other entities provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jeff Arkin, at (202) 512-6806 or arkinj@gao.gov.
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    The Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) Readjustment Counseling Service (RCS) provides counseling through 300 Vet Centers, which can be found in community settings and are separate from other VHA facilities. RCS has set expectations for counselor productivity at Vet Centers. For example, one expectation is for counselors to achieve an average of 1.5 visits for each hour they provide direct services. However, RCS officials told GAO that they have not conducted, and do not have plans to conduct, an evaluation of the expectations. VA Vet Center Productivity Expectations for Counselors Although most counselors met the productivity expectations in fiscal year 2019, counselors GAO spoke with said the expectations led them to change work practices in ways that could negatively affect client care. For example, counselors at one Vet Center told GAO that, to meet productivity expectations, they spend less time with each client to fit more clients into their schedules. Without an evaluation of its productivity expectations, RCS lacks reasonable assurance that it is identifying any unintended or potentially negative effects of the expectations on counselor practices and client care. RCS officials told GAO that by the start of fiscal year 2021 they plan to implement a staffing model to identify criteria for determining staffing needs at Vet Centers. The model incorporates data on counselors' productivity (work hours and number of visits), and total clients to determine criteria for adding or removing a counselor position from a Vet Center. However, the model does not fully address key practices in staffing model design GAO identified in previous work. For example, the model does not include the input of Vet Center counselors, or client data associated with directors, who also provide counseling. As a result, RCS is at risk of making decisions about Vet Center staffing that may not be responsive to changing client needs. Shortages of mental health staff within VHA coupled with the increasing veteran demand for mental health services highlight the critical importance of ensuring appropriate Vet Center staffing. VHA's RCS provided counseling (individual, group, marriage, and family) and outreach services through Vet Centers to more than 300,000 veterans and their families in fiscal year 2019. In 2017, RCS implemented changes to expectations that it uses to assess Vet Center counselor productivity, setting expectations for counselors' percentage of time with clients and number of client visits. GAO was asked to review Vet Center productivity expectations for counselors and staffing. Among other issues, this report examines the extent to which VHA (1) evaluates its productivity expectations; and (2) assesses Vet Centers' staffing needs. To do this work, GAO reviewed RCS documentation regarding counselors' productivity expectations and analyzed RCS data on counselor productivity expectations and staffing, for fiscal year 2019. GAO interviewed RCS leadership, including district directors, and directors and counselors from 12 Vet Centers, selected for variation in geographic location and total number of clients, among other factors. GAO is making four recommendations, including that VHA (1) evaluate Vet Center productivity expectations for counselors; and (2) develop and implement a staffing model that incorporates key practices. The Department of Veterans Affairs concurred with GAO's recommendations and identified actions VHA is taking to implement them. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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    What GAO Found The Department of the Interior's (Interior) Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) does not have a robust oversight process for ensuring the integrity of approximately 8,600 miles of active offshore oil and gas pipelines located on the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, BSEE does not generally conduct or require any subsea inspections of active pipelines. Instead, the bureau relies on monthly surface observations and pressure sensors to detect leaks. However, officials told us that these methods and technologies are not always reliable for detecting ruptures. In response to a pair of significant oil leaks in 2016 and 2017, BSEE partnered with industry to improve subsea leak detection, but the technologies identified remain relatively new and cannot be retrofitted to a majority of pipelines. According to BSEE, the bureau's regulations are outdated and do not address how pipelines should be inspected, the complexities of deep water pipeline operations, and changes in technological standards. BSEE has long recognized the need to improve its pipeline regulations, and in 2007 issued a proposed rule that cited the need to enhance safety and protect the environment, but this effort stalled. The 2007 proposed rule addressed offshore pipeline integrity, including new requirements regarding pipeline inspection and subsea leak detection technologies. Since 2013, BSEE has noted plans to update its pipeline regulations but has made limited progress in the interim. Without taking actions to develop, finalize, and implement updated regulations to address identified oversight gaps, BSEE will continue to be limited in its ability to ensure the integrity of active pipelines. BSEE does not have a robust process to address the environmental and safety risks posed by leaving decommissioned pipelines in place on the seafloor due to the cumulative effects of oversight gaps before, during, and after the decommissioning process. First, BSEE does not thoroughly account for such risks during the review of decommissioning applications. This has contributed to BSEE and its predecessors authorizing industry to leave over 97 percent (about 18,000 miles) of all decommissioned pipeline mileage on the Gulf of Mexico seafloor since the 1960s. Generally, pipelines must be removed from the seafloor. BSEE, however, may allow pipelines to be decommissioned-in-place if certain criteria are met. Such a high rate of approval indicates that this is not an exception, however, but rather that decommissioning-in-place has been the norm for decades. Second, BSEE does not ensure that operators meet decommissioning standards, such as cleaning pipelines, because they do not observe any pipeline decommissioning activities, inspect pipelines after their decommissioning, or verify most of the pipeline decommissioning evidence submitted. Third, BSEE does not monitor the condition and location of pipelines following their decommissioning-in-place, which reduces its ability to mitigate any long-term risks, such as pipeline exposure or movement. Additionally, if pipelines decommissioned-in-place are later found to pose risks, there is no funding source for removal. As discussed above, BSEE has made limited progress in updating what it acknowledges are outdated pipeline regulations. Without taking actions to develop, finalize, and implement updated pipeline regulations, BSEE will continue to be limited in its ability to ensure that its pipeline decommissioning process addresses environmental and safety risks. Why GAO Did This Study The offshore oil and gas industry has installed approximately 40,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines in federal offshore waters since the 1940s. BSEE is responsible for enforcing standards and regulations for oil and gas operations—including the oversight of active pipelines and their decommissioning—to enhance environmental protection and safety. As pipelines age, they are more susceptible to damage from corrosion, mudslides, and seafloor erosion, which can result in leakage of oil and gas into the ocean. Additionally, hurricanes can move pipelines extensive distances, which may damage subsea habitat, impede access to sediment resources, and create navigational and trawling hazards. GAO was asked to review BSEE's management of offshore oil and gas pipelines. This report examines BSEE's processes for (1) ensuring active pipeline integrity and (2) addressing safety and environmental risks posed by decommissioning. GAO reviewed regulations, procedures, and other documents and data related to BSEE's pipeline management processes. GAO also interviewed BSEE officials and those from other agencies with offshore responsibilities.
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  • Uranium Management: Actions to Mitigate Risks to Domestic Supply Chain Could Be Better Planned and Coordinated
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    Federal agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and the separately organized National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within DOE, and uranium industry representatives have identified risks to the commercial supply chain for uranium needed for defense purposes. Such uranium may need to be mined domestically and enriched using U.S. technology to be free of obligations for the peaceful use of uranium and certain technology imported under international agreements. Identified risks to the unobligated uranium supply chain include (1) possible loss of domestic uranium mining capabilities and (2) possible challenges in re-starting the only facility in the United States for converting natural uranium into a form suitable for use in enrichment operations. Further, the U.S. has not had an operating enrichment capability that uses U.S. technology since 2013. Idle Domestic Plant for Converting Uranium to a Form Suitable for Enrichment DOE and NNSA have initiated actions officials believe will mitigate such risks to the unobligated uranium supply chain. For example, DOE and NNSA have both taken steps to reestablish a domestic enrichment capability with U.S. technology. In addition, DOE has proposed creation of a domestic uranium reserve to help support the domestic uranium mining and conversion industries until market conditions improve. DOE's fiscal year 2021 budget request includes $150 million for the reserve. However, we cannot conclude that the estimate is reasonable because it is unclear how the funding needs for the reserve were determined. By providing a more complete analysis to support future funding requests for the reserve, DOE could better provide assurance that such requests would achieve objectives. The Nuclear Fuel Working Group's strategy to mitigate risks to the domestic uranium industry does not fully incorporate all desirable characteristics GAO has identified for a national strategy. For example, it does not identify (1) the level of resources needed to support proposed actions or (2) an interagency coordinating mechanism. DOE is developing an implementation plan for the strategy, but DOE officials provided conflicting statements about the extent to which the agency will coordinate interagency implementation. NNSA has several defense needs for enriched uranium, including low-enriched uranium to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. To meet these needs, NNSA relies on commercial sectors of the domestic uranium industry, such as uranium mining or enrichment, which make up a supply chain for unobligated uranium. However, this industry faces commercial viability risks. In April 2020, the President's Nuclear Fuel Working Group released a strategy to mitigate risks to the domestic uranium industry. This working group includes DOE, the Department of Defense, and other agencies. Senate Report 115-262 included a provision that GAO review NNSA's planning for the future supply of unobligated enriched uranium. This report examines (1) risks agencies and others have identified to the unobligated uranium supply chain and agency actions to mitigate those risks, and (2) the extent to which the Nuclear Fuel Working Group's risk mitigation strategy incorporates desirable characteristics of a national strategy. GAO analyzed key NNSA and DOE planning documents and interviewed NNSA and other agency officials and industry representatives. GAO is making three recommendations, including that DOE improve its cost estimate to support future funding requests for the proposed uranium reserve and ensure its implementation plan for the strategy addresses each of the desirable characteristics of a national strategy. DOE concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact at (202) 512-3821 or bawdena@gao.gov.
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