Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Remarks at the Florida Family Policy Council Dinner Gala: Respecting Life in America’s Foreign Policy

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Well, good evening, everyone.  Good evening to all my friends in Florida!  I can hear the applause all the way up I-95.

And I know many of you came from all across the state to be with this great group tonight – from Pensacola, to Pinellas County, to Palm Beach.

I am terribly sorry I can’t be with you in person.  I can tell you’re all having a good time and doing amazing work alongside of that, too.  Out of an abundance of caution, I thought I’d be better to be with you virtually.

It wasn’t the plan that we drew up, but that’s certainly been 2020.  You should know that I’m feeling fine, I’m doing great.  I’ve been tested twice in two days.  I’m as healthy as I’ve been.  And I intend still – I have a trip that I’m planning to take to Asia tomorrow.

I had a chance to speak to the Vice President a few minutes ago.  We’re – everything is in good order.  I hope that you will all join me in praying for the speedy recovery of President Trump and our First Lady Melania as well.

Congressman Steube, thank you for the generous introduction and for your service to our country.  Your service in the military predated mine by – or postdated mine by a little bit, as did your time in Congress.  I know you’re serving America quite ably.  Thanks so much for your very, very kind introduction.

John, I want to thank you – John Stemberger – I want to thank you and the Family Policy Council of Florida for your incredibly principled leadership.  My wife and I taught Sunday school back in Wichita, Kansas not too many years ago.  We know of your organization.  We know of organizations like it all across America that are truly doing important work on behalf of the Lord and on behalf of the people of Florida as well.

I was – I was last in the Sunshine State back in January.  I was speaking at the Sumter County Fairgrounds in Bushnell, back over in horse country.

It was really fun that day to be with so many patriots.  It reminded me – it reminded me that no matter where I go in the world, speaking with the American people is still my greatest privilege.  And so I’m just happy to be with you tonight even if it’s by video.

Look, I’ve been traveling as the Secretary of State and all across the world, but I’ve been traveling a lot in America, too.  I want the American people to know what their State Department is doing for them and how the Trump administration is executing its diplomatic mission all across the world on behalf of the American people.  I was in Wisconsin last week, I was in Texas, and I’ve been traveling, talking about the good work that our diplomats are doing all across the world.  And tonight, I want to talk about an important part of that.

Indeed, I just got back from Europe, where I went to the Vatican to talk about this very set of issues.

And in Brazil, now just two weeks back, I saw America’s goodness at work.

I went to a town called Boa Vista just on the – off the Venezuelan border.  I watched for myself how we’re helping – Americans are helping those fleeing the socialist nightmare that is Venezuela today.  Some of you in the audience probably still have family members there.

It was heartening to see our good work, but it was sobering, completely sobering, to see men and women and children seeking medical care, seeking reunification with family members who had already fled from the horrors or Venezuela, looking for basic food and shelter, just the simple things that we all need to sustain.

I had the chance to speak with one man – it was a father of a couple of kids – I had a chance to hear his story.  He kept thanking God over and over for delivering him and his family from the sheer misery that has become Venezuela, and I was thanking God along with him.

The truth is, I don’t think he would have been this way with the Chinese foreign minister or the Russian foreign minister.

He was with America’s Secretary of State.  And he knew he was talking to the representative of a country that respects every single life.

And that’s what I want to talk about this evening, this piece of our work at the State Department.

You know, moments like that remind me that as Secretary of State, I represent the nation with the most special set of founding principles in all of recorded history.

And they compel every one our leaders to respect life.

The Declaration of Independence tells us that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

If you go back and read the Federalist Papers, it’s pretty clear:  Our Founders knew God himself grants all human beings a very essential dignity.

And we as a nation and our State Department are exceptional because we use our power – our foreign policy power – to honor that dignity, when so many countries choose to execute their power and use their power in far different ways.

Look, we’ve done this for decades.  America is truly a light to the world.

But this administration has been unique; it’s been special.  Our administration has drawn on our first principles to defend life in our foreign policy like no administration in all of history.  Look no further than our unprecedented defense of the unborn abroad.

You know, this is a very personal issue for me.

Some years ago, long before I had been a member of the Executive Branch, the Pompeo family was made complete when my sister adopted two beautiful gifts of life – my niece Emily and my nephew James.

Now, it was never a doubt in my mind that life begins at conception – my faith teaches me that, and I think everyone here tonight agrees with that.

But my sister’s incredible love refreshed my view on how precious life is – two mothers that made wonderful choices.

Now, back to what we’ve done at the State Department, because you’ll never read about it much in the papers or hear our accomplishments reported a whole lot on TV:

We brought what’s called the Mexico City policy under President Trump.  It makes sure that none of your money, none of your taxpayer money will ever go to any foreign entity or a non-governmental organization that performs or actively promotes abortion for family planning.  It would be unacceptable to permit that to happen.  (Applause.)

And last year – last year, for the first time in history, as the Secretary of State I made clear that we won’t fund any foreign non-governmental organization that gives money to other foreign entities in the global abortion industry.

We are using every element of federal law to prohibit the use of the State Department funds to lobby on behalf of abortion, and it’s successful.

Last year – a good example – Secretary Azar at the Health and Human Services, he and I rallied 20 countries to deliver a joint statement to condemn pro-abortion language that continued to slip into UN documents.

We said clearly:  “There is no international right to abortion.”  None.  That’s different; it’s special.  It’s what President Trump’s leadership demands.

After we released that statement, one of our colleagues at HHS received an email from an African friend in the pro-life movement.

She said, quote, “Never did I think that America – that America would use its great power to speak for the protection of the unborn in the most unambiguous and unapologetic terms.”

But America is special.  America is special because we respect life.

Now, we need your help.  Pro-abortion organizations are funding and lobbying for abortion internationally, just as they as they do here at home.

We need every one of you who’s in attendance tonight – we need you to use your networks and platforms to fight back against these pressures.

We need you to applaud other governments when they courageously stand for life alongside the United States of America.

All in all, we need you to tell the world the truth:  Abortion is not a human right…it takes a human life.  (Applause.)

There’s a second area – there is a second area I’m proud of in respect to our work for life: defending religious freedom.  The congressman spoke about that.

There’s good reason for this; it’s incredibly important.  Religious freedom is our “first freedom.”  When we, each of us, can worship freely and openly discuss the eternal questions of the soul, we can understand how we ought to live our lives – both individually and as a society.

Just this past week – I mentioned – I was in Rome meeting with senior Vatican officials.  I urged the Church to be a bold moral witness in defense of religious freedom, especially regarding China and the Chinese Communist Party’s staggering abuses.

I’m sure some of you have seen the list, but the reporters don’t like to talk about this much today:

One million or more Uyghurs and other Muslims are held in internment camps that rival the worst abuses that happened a century ago in Europe.

Even as you sit in this beautiful place tonight with this great group people, Christians in China are being ordered to replace pictures of Jesus with pictures of Chairman Mao.

Indeed, the peaceful Falun Gong movement banned, its practitioners frequently jailed.

We in the Trump administration have spoken up about these abuses.  We’ve taken action against those responsible.  And importantly, we’ve rallied our friends and allies around the world to do the same.  We’ve not led from behind – we’ve led from the front on this incredibly important moral issue.

But as I said when I was in Rome, the government can only do so much.  We need faith leaders – and I know there are many of you in the audience there tonight – we need faith leaders of all religions to denounce violations of religious freedom whenever and wherever they occur.

A story:  You know, using one’s power as a religious leader is exactly a man named Father Bernhard Lichtenberg did.  It’s a great story.  He was a priest in Berlin in the 1930s.  He was disgusted by the Nazi persecution of Jews.

After Kristallnacht, he began to pray publicly every day from his pulpit for Jews and other oppressed groups.  The Nazis sentenced him to prison and he died before reaching his final destination – the Dachau concentration camp.

But let’s all follow Father Lichtenberg’s example and speak up fearlessly for religious freedom.  It’s our duty; it’s the right thing to do.  This administration will do it each and every day.

Now one last point:  Our administration knows that respecting life in foreign policy means prioritizing the protection of our own people – America first.

We’ve worked to reduce nuclear risk here in America from North Korea.  And we’ve brought back our citizens from that country as well.

We’ve worked with Mexico and countries in Central America to control illegal immigration and fix a completely broken asylum-seeking process.

And we took out the leader of ISIS and the Iranian thug Qasem Soleimani – for my money, the world’s worst terrorist – keeping those of us here at home free to exercise our God-given rights.

But I want to say this again:  America is special because we don’t just protect our own people…we help other nations protect the lives of their own people, too.

It’s what we did when we helped craft the Abraham Accords.  The representative – congressman spoke about that.  This is the greatest step forward for peace in the Middle East in a generation.  We flipped the switch.  We took 40 years of history where people said you can’t get peace to the Middle East until you resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.  We said you could do this a different way.  We could improve security for Israel.  We could make the region safer.  We could decrease instability.

It was really very simple.  On one side of the equation you have the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain – countries that know the basic idea that normalized relations in the Middle East actually help people live in peace and in security.  We expect there’ll be more countries join this side, too, and soon.

On the other side of the equation you have the Islamic Republic of Iran, responsible for untold bloodshed across the region – not to mention inside its own borders – indeed killing of many Americans who fought there so valiantly in Iraq.  And it has spilt plenty of American blood, too over years and years all across the globe.

Look, the Abraham Accords mark which countries in the region – even in spite of some big differences – are sincere about cooperating to reduce risk to the lives of their citizens.

Iran and its terrorist lackeys are on the outside looking in.  They’re more isolated than ever.  The region and the world see which nations are serious about respecting life.

At the center of this new grouping is the only nation that could have pulled this together diplomatically – the greatest champion of life at all, the United States of America.

As I close tonight, I want to leave you with this:  Being America’s Secretary of State has reinforced how much the world watches America, watches America to see if we’re leading.

And I’m convinced more than ever:

We must go where others fear to tread.

We must speak up when others choose to stay silent.

We must let our light shine when others keep it under a bushel.

This can be a hard mission.  So much of what the world – disdains this respect for life in action.

But I’m not alone in my work.  Neither is President Trump.

Every morning when I arrive at the State Department, I get out of my vehicle, I take about a 20-second ride up the elevator to my office.

I use that time each day to ask the Lord’s help for the day.  I reach out in prayer to have him help me live in his grace and do things that he asks us all to do.

Tonight I want to ask for your prayers, too, and I’ll be sure to say one myself for each and every one of you who are part of the Policy Council that is doing such amazing work.

With faith in God and our people, we’ll continue to lead on respecting life as only America can.

May God bless you.

May God bless Florida.

May God bless the United States of America.

Thank you all so much.  (Applause.)

MR STEMBERGER:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  What a privilege it was to have met you in that Lake Sumter tent revival we were at, and thank you for taking the time to address us here.  If you don’t mind, we’re – it’s our tradition as an organization to pray for officials that address us or that we get to interact with, so we’re going to do that right now as the scripture commands us.

I want to introduce Kevin Baird who is the director of pastoral ministries, and so we’re just going to pray for you know and ask the Lord to bless you and protect you.  So thank you very much —

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Thank you.

MR STEMBERGER:  — for being with us tonight.

MR BAIRD:  And those of us that have gathered, if you’d just extend your hand toward the Secretary of State on the screen as we pray.

Our Father, we lift up Secretary Pompeo.  We thank you for his life.  We thank you for his leadership.  We thank you that it transcends even our own nation and across the globe.  We thank you that he carries truth and a voice to be able to influence nations in righteousness.  And our heart was gladdened as we listened to the report as to what was taking place all across the world.  And now, Lord, we ask that you would help him and bless him.  Give him and his team great wisdom, I ask.  I pray for both he and his family that you would keep them healthy in these days, pray that you would protect him and give them safety as they travel.

We ask, oh Lord, that you would continue to grant him favor in all that he is endeavoring to do, and let him know that there are those that are lifting him up, not only now but on a daily basis, that he would accomplish the great tasks that you have called him to do.  We bless him with every good thing as we pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Amen.

MR STEMBERGER:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Thank you.  Thank you, John.

 

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    What GAO Found The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Department of the Treasury (Treasury), among others, continue to provide financial assistance to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. FEMA reported obligating over $79 billion from its Disaster Relief Fund to respond to COVID-19. Through several programs, FEMA is providing help to individuals with funeral costs; reimbursing communities for vaccine distribution; and funding federal agencies' efforts to support communities, including National Guard deployments. DOT and Treasury continue to make available the over $200 billion appropriated by COVID-19 relief laws for financial assistance to the transportation sector, including to air carriers, airports and airport tenants, Amtrak, and transit agencies. Through several financial assistance programs, GAO's work has found DOT and Treasury have provided critical support to the transportation sector during a period of sharp declines in travel demand and uncertainty about the pace and nature of the recovery. Depending on the program, financial assistance has reportedly enabled recipients to avoid layoffs, maintain service, and ramp up operations as demand for their services improves. Based on GAO's prior work examining responses to public health and fiscal emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic, GAO has (1) identified key lessons learned that could improve the federal response to emergencies, and (2) made several related recommendations, including ones that highlight the importance of applying these lessons learned. For example, DOT has not developed a national aviation preparedness plan to coordinate, establish, and define roles and responsibilities for communicable diseases across the federal government. GAO recommended in 2015 that DOT work with federal partners to develop such a plan, but it has not taken any action. Without such a plan, the U.S. is less prepared to respond to future communicable disease events. In addition, FEMA has faced challenges collecting and analyzing data on requests for supplies, such as personal protective equipment, made through the federal government. In 2020, GAO recommended that FEMA work with relevant stakeholders to develop an interim solution to help states track the status of their supply requests and plan for supply needs. FEMA has not taken action on this recommendation, and until the agency develops a solution, states, tribes, and territories will likely continue to face challenges that hamper the effectiveness of their COVID-19 response. Why GAO Did This Study In response to the public health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress provided billions of dollars across a range of agencies to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. This included billions to: FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to provide assistance to individuals as well as state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and DOT and Treasury to provide financial assistance to the transportation sector. This statement describes: (1) the federal response and selected relief programs administered by FEMA, DOT, and Treasury and (2) lessons learned based on GAO's reviews of selected COVID-19 relief programs, including related recommendations and their implementation status. This statement is based on GAO's body of work on the CARES Act issued from June 2020 through July 2021.To update this information, GAO reviewed agency documentation; and interviewed agency officials, industry associations, and selected businesses that applied to these programs on the latest implementation efforts.
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  • Private Security Contractors: DOD Needs to Better Identify and Monitor Personnel and Contracts
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) has been unable to comprehensively identify private security contractor (PSC) contracts and personnel supporting contingency, humanitarian, peace-keeping, or other similar operations, limiting DOD's ability to readily and accurately identify the use of PSCs. DOD uses PSCs, which include companies and their personnel, hired to provide security services for the U.S. government. However, neither DOD nor GAO was able to use DOD's three PSC data sources to readily determine the universe of PSCs, the type of operation or exercise they support, or their functions, activities, and armed or unarmed status. For example, queries of DOD databases using the term “security guard” to identify PSC personnel excluded eight other job titles that may also perform private security functions. DOD has not comprehensively determined and communicated the contracted activities that fall within its definition of private security functions. Further, DOD does not have a means of readily identifying the contracts and personnel performing those activities in data sources. Without better identifying and tracking its PSC contracts and personnel, DOD will not be able to accurately determine its use of PSCs. Since 2009, DOD has established an oversight framework for its use of PSC contracts, but has not fully monitored the implementation of this framework. DOD's framework distributes oversight functions across the department as well as to organizations outside the department (see fig.). Roles and Functions of Entities to Oversee DOD's Use of Private Security Contractor (PSC) Contracts and Personnel However, DOD has not fully monitored whether and how it and the other entities have carried out their PSC oversight roles and functions. For example, GAO reviewed data for deployed contractor personnel with the job title of “security guard” and found that about 12 percent of those individuals were employed by companies not on a DOD list of certified PSC companies. Independent, third-party certification is a key oversight mechanism DOD relies on to ensure it contracts with companies that use approved personnel hiring, screening, training, and reporting practices. DOD lacks a single, senior-level position assigned to fully monitor whether DOD and various entities are carrying out their respective PSC oversight roles and functions. Without assigning this position, DOD increases the risk of incidents that its framework aims to prevent.  Why GAO Did This Study During Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001–2014 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003–2011, DOD significantly increased its use of PSCs. In 2008, the Swiss Government and the Red Cross issued the Montreux Document, which generally reaffirmed the obligation nations have to ensure that their PSCs respect international humanitarian law. PSCs supporting DOD have faced international attention resulting from incidents allegedly involving their personnel. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's use of PSCs. GAO assessed the extent to which DOD has (1) identified PSC contracts and personnel used to support contingency operations and (2) established a framework to oversee the department's use of PSC contracts. GAO analyzed DOD contract and personnel data for PSCs from 2009 through 2019, reviewed DOD guidance on PSC use, and conducted interviews with DOD officials and representatives from standards organizations.
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  • Cybersecurity and Informtion Technology: Federal Agencies Need to Strengthen Efforts to Address High-Risk Areas
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In March 2021, GAO issued its high-risk series update and emphasized that federal agencies' needed to implement numerous critical actions to strengthen the nation's cybersecurity and information technology (IT) management efforts. In the update, GAO reiterated the importance of agencies addressing four major cybersecurity challenges facing the nation: (1) establishing a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy and performing effective oversight, (2) securing federal systems and information, (3) protecting cyber critical infrastructure, and (4) protecting privacy and sensitive data. Overall, the federal government has to move with a greater sense of urgency to fully address key cybersecurity challenges. In particular: Develop and execute a more comprehensive federal strategy for national cybersecurity and global cyberspace . In September 2020, GAO reported that the White House's national cyber strategy and associated implementation plan addressed some, but not all, of the desirable characteristics of national strategies, such as goals and resources needed. Mitigate global supply chain risks . GAO reported in December 2020 that few of the 23 civilian federal agencies it reviewed implemented foundational practices for managing information and communication technology supply chain risks. Address weaknesses in federal agencies information security programs. GAO reported in July 2019 that 23 agencies almost always designated a risk executive, but had not fully incorporated other key risk management practices, such as establishing a process for assessing agency-wide cybersecurity risks. In its March update, GAO also stressed the importance of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and federal agencies fully implementing critical actions recommended to improve the management of IT to better manage tens of billions of dollars in IT investments. GAO emphasized, for example, that OMB had demonstrated its leadership commitment to improving IT management, but sustaining this commitment was critically important; twenty-one of 24 federal agencies had not yet implemented recommendations to fully address the role of Chief Information Officers, including enhancing their authorities; OMB and agencies needed to address modernization challenges and workforce planning weaknesses; and agencies could take further action to reduce duplicative IT contracts and reduce the risk of wasteful spending. Until OMB and federal agencies take critical actions to strengthen efforts to address these important high-risk areas, longstanding and pervasive weaknesses will likely continue to jeopardize the nation's cybersecurity and management of IT. Why GAO Did This Study The nation's critical infrastructures and federal agencies are dependent on IT systems and electronic data to carry out operations and to process, maintain, and report essential information. Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on cybersecurity and IT investments. GAO has long stressed the continuing and urgent need for effective cybersecurity, as underscored by recent events that have illustrated persistent and evermore sophisticated cyber threats and incidents. Moreover, many IT investments have failed, performed poorly, or suffered from ineffective management. Accordingly, GAO has included information security on its high-risk list since 1997 and added improving the management of IT acquisitions and operations in 2015. In its March 2021 high-risk series update, GAO reported that significant attention was needed in both of these important areas. GAO was asked to testify on federal agencies' efforts to address cybersecurity and the management of IT. For this testimony, GAO relied on selected products it previously issued.
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  • Medicare Advantage: Beneficiary Disenrollments to Fee-for-Service in Last Year of Life Increase Medicare Spending
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Under Medicare Advantage (MA), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) contracts with private MA plans to provide health care coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. MA beneficiaries in the last year of life disenrolled to join Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) at more than twice the rate of all other MA beneficiaries, GAO's analysis found. MA plans are prohibited from limiting coverage based on beneficiary health status, and disproportionate disenrollment by MA beneficiaries in the last of year life may indicate potential issues with their care. Stakeholders told GAO that, among other reasons, beneficiaries in the last of year life may disenroll because of potential limitations accessing specialized care under MA. While CMS monitors MA disenrollments, the agency does not specifically review disenrollments by beneficiaries in the last year of life. Doing so could help CMS better ensure the care provided to these beneficiaries. Medicare Advantage Beneficiary Disenrollments to Join Fee-for-Service, 2016-2017 Beneficiaries in the last year of life who disenrolled from MA to join FFS increased Medicare costs as they moved from MA's fixed payment arrangement to FFS, where payments are based on the amount and cost of services provided. GAO's analysis shows that FFS payments for such beneficiaries who disenrolled in 2016 were $422 million higher than their estimated MA payments had they remained in MA, and were $490 million higher for those that disenrolled in 2017. Estimated Medicare Advantage Payments for Beneficiaries in Last Year of Life that Disenrolled Compared to Fee-for-Service Payments, 2016-2017 Why GAO Did This Study In contrast to Medicare FFS, which pays providers for claims for services, CMS pays MA plans a fixed monthly amount per beneficiary to provide health care coverage. For beneficiaries with higher expected health care costs, MA payments are increased. In 2019, CMS paid MA plans about $274 billion to cover about 22 million beneficiaries. Prior GAO and other studies have shown that beneficiaries in poorer health are more likely to disenroll from MA to join FFS, which may indicate that they encountered issues with their care under MA. Beneficiaries in the last year of life are generally in poorer health and often require high-cost care. GAO was asked to review disenrollment by MA beneficiaries in the last year of life. In this report, GAO examined (1) disenrollments from MA to join FFS by beneficiaries in the last year of life, and CMS's associated monitoring; and (2) the costs of such disenrollments to Medicare. GAO analyzed CMS disenrollment and mortality data for 2015 through 2018—the most current data at the time of the analysis—to examine the extent of MA beneficiary disenrollment in the last year of life. To estimate the costs of disenrollment, GAO used CMS data to estimate payments for disenrolled beneficiaries had they remained in MA, and compared those estimates against those beneficiaries' actual FFS costs.
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  • Veterans with Disabilities: VA Could Better Inform Veterans with Disabilities about Their Education Benefit Options
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Most school and veteran service organization (VSO) officials GAO interviewed stated that when given the choice between the Post 9/11 GI Bill (GI Bill) and the Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E) program, veterans with disabilities will base their choice on which program best suits their unique goals, preferences, and circumstances. For example, certain veterans may prefer the GI Bill's flexibility to independently select courses of study, whereas others may prefer to have the assistance of a counselor to select a course of study as part of an employment plan, as provided under VR&E. However, most officials GAO interviewed said veterans with disabilities often use the GI Bill for education benefits without knowing that the VR&E program exists, or that it can pay for education, provide assistive equipment for their disability, or offer unique benefits of working with a counselor. Selected Comments Regarding the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Veteran Readiness & Employment Programs “Had I known about VR&E I would have [used it.]” -Veteran with disabilities “I often think of VR&E as sort of a hidden program when it comes to education benefits.” -VSO official ”Veterans with disabilities are often not aware of the differences between the two programs.” -School official Source: GAO survey of veterans and GAO interviews with school and VSO officials | GAO-21-450 VA provides information about education benefits to veterans with disabilities through various methods, including in-person communication, online materials, and written communications. However, on the agency website, VA.gov, few webpages devoted to VR&E explicitly mention that it can help pay for a college degree. In addition, the letters that VA sends to veterans when they receive their disability rating do not specifically mention that VR&E can cover education costs for a college degree. VA's online GI Bill Comparison Tool allows veterans to learn more about the tuition amounts each program will cover for certain schools, but it does not inform veterans on the key differences in program features across the programs. Most school and VSO officials GAO interviewed said VA's efforts do not adequately inform veterans with disabilities about their potential education benefit options, as evidenced by the number of veterans with disabilities they encounter who are unaware that VR&E exists or who do not fully understand the benefits VR&E can provide. Including more information about how VR&E can help veterans pay for higher education, and facilitating direct comparison between the features of the GI Bill and VR&E, would help better position veterans with disabilities to choose the program that best meets their needs. Why GAO Did This Study VA offers education benefits to veterans with disabilities through the GI Bill, VA's largest education program, and VR&E, which helps veterans with service-connected disabilities re-enter the workforce. Each offers distinct features that may better serve veterans depending on their individual circumstances. However, veterans with disabilities may not know that VR&E can help pay for education as part of its employment services. GAO was asked to what extent eligible veterans are aware of the comparative features of the programs. This report examines (1) the reported factors that influence whether veterans with disabilities select the Post-9/11 GI Bill or VR&E, and (2) how VA informs veterans with disabilities about the education benefits available to them from each program, and the effectiveness of those efforts. For both programs, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws; analyzed participant data; conducted semi-structured interviews with officials from schools and VSOs selected for their depth of knowledge about veteran affairs, and reviewed relevant VA informational materials.
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  • COVID-19 Contracting: Contractor Paid Leave Reimbursements Could Provide Lessons Learned for Future Emergency Responses
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found To help government contractors keep their workforce in a ready state during the COVID-19 pandemic, section 3610 of the CARES Act generally authorized government agencies to reimburse contractors for paid leave provided to contractor personnel and subcontractors during the national emergency. Section 3610 did not appropriate specific funding for this purpose. The four agencies GAO reviewed—the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security, and NASA—reported use of section 3610 authority totaling at least $882.8 million over 14 months. The extent to which the agencies used the authority varied, from $1.4 million at Homeland Security to $760.7 million at Energy. Further, Defense officials estimated that defense contractors have more than $4 billion in paid leave costs that are potentially eligible for reimbursement under section 3610. Defense officials also noted, however, that the department does not plan to reimburse this full amount using existing funding. Agencies also based their reimbursement decisions on the nature of the work performed by contractors, such as whether telework was an option. Twelve out of the 15 contractors GAO interviewed reported that paid leave reimbursement had a great or moderate effect on their ability to retain employees (see figure), in particular those with specialized skills or clearances. Selected Contractors' Views on the Effect of Paid Leave Reimbursement on Workforce Retention Given the urgency of the pandemic, agencies prioritized quick implementation of section 3610 over a more deliberative process, resulting in variations such as how agencies tracked use of the authority. Officials from all four agencies said that they either have captured or intend to capture lessons learned from implementing section 3610 and are willing to share these with other federal agencies. However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—which coordinates government-wide contracting policy—has not collected and shared lessons learned. With coordination from OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the government could seize an opportunity to enhance implementation of paid leave reimbursement provisions that may be enacted as part of rapid federal responses to future emergencies. Why GAO Did This Study In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance for those affected by COVID-19. Section 3610 of the CARES Act enables agencies, at their discretion, to reimburse contractors for paid leave provided to their employees and subcontractors who are unable to access work sites due to facility closures or other restrictions, and whose duties cannot be performed remotely during the pandemic. The CARES Act also includes a provision for GAO to review federal contracting pursuant to authorities provided in the Act. In September 2020, GAO found that agencies had not made much use of section 3610 authority as of July 2020, and expectations of future use varied. This report (1) examines how selected federal agencies have used section 3610 authority and (2) presents selected contractors' perspectives on COVID-19 paid leave reimbursement. GAO reviewed guidance and data and interviewed cognizant officials from four agencies with contract obligations greater than $10 billion in fiscal year 2019. GAO also selected a non-generalizable sample of 15 contractors that received or requested section 3610 reimbursements from one or more of the selected agencies and conducted semi-structured interviews of contractor representatives.
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  • COVID-19: VA Should Assess Its Oversight of Infection Prevention and Control in Community Living Centers
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) took steps—such as issuing guidance and trainings—to support the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Community Living Centers (CLC), which are VA-owned and -operated nursing homes. This guidance focused on, for example, limiting CLC entry and testing residents and staff for COVID-19, while the trainings were intended to prepare staff for, among other things, a surge in cases. However, the agency conducted limited oversight of infection prevention and control in these facilities during the first year of the pandemic, from March 2020 through February 2021. In particular, the agency suspended annual in-person inspections of CLCs before resuming them virtually in February 2021. The agency also required that CLCs conduct a one-time self-assessment of their infection prevention and control practices but did not review the results in a timely manner to make more immediate improvements. VA officials acknowledged these shortcomings as the agency responded in real time to the rapidly evolving pandemic. As VA has described this time as a “learning period,” it could benefit from assessing its decisions and actions related to oversight of infection prevention and control during the pandemic to identify any lessons learned. Such an assessment would align with VA's plans to assess and report on the agency's overall response to the pandemic as well as its strategic goal to promote continuous quality improvement in CLCs. Results from such an assessment—which could look at both successes and missed opportunities—could help VA better prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks in CLCs. Why GAO Did This Study Close to 8,000 veterans per day received nursing home care provided by VA in CLCs in fiscal year 2020. COVID-19 has posed significant risks to nursing home residents and staff, as residents are often in frail health, and residents and staff have close daily contact with each other. The CARES Act includes a provision that GAO monitor the federal response to the pandemic. This report describes, among other objectives, guidance and training VA has issued to help CLCs respond to the pandemic and examines VA's oversight of infection prevention and control in CLCs during the pandemic. GAO analyzed documents, including guidance, training-related materials, and CLC self-assessments of their infection prevention and control practices. GAO also interviewed VA officials and CLC staff, the latter from five facilities selected based on factors such as having been cited for infection prevention and control deficiencies prior to the pandemic.
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  • U.S.-China Trade: USTR Should Fully Document Internal Procedures for Making Tariff Exclusion and Extension Decisions
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) developed a process in July 2018 to review tariff exclusion requests for some imported products from China and later developed a process to extend these exclusions. From 2018 to 2020, U.S. stakeholders submitted about 53,000 exclusion requests to USTR for specific products covered by the tariffs. USTR's process consisted of a public comment period to submit requests, an internal review, an interagency assessment, and the decision publication. USTR documented some procedures for reviewing exclusion requests. However, it did not fully document all of its internal procedures, including roles and responsibilities for each step in its review process. GAO reviewed selected exclusion case files and found inconsistencies in the agency's reviews. For example, USTR did not document how reviewers should consider multiple requests from the same company, and GAO's case file review found USTR performed these steps inconsistently. Another case file lacked documentation to explain USTR's final decision because the agency's procedures did not specify whether such documentation was required. Federal internal control standards state that agencies should document their procedures to ensure they conduct them consistently and effectively, and to retain knowledge. Without fully documented internal procedures, USTR lacks reasonable assurance it conducted its reviews consistently. Moreover, documenting them will help USTR to administer any future exclusions and extensions. USTR evaluated each exclusion request on a case-by-case basis using several factors, including product availability outside of China and the potential economic harm of the tariffs. According to USTR officials, no one factor was essential to grant or deny a request. For example, USTR might grant a request that demonstrated the tariffs would cause severe economic harm even when the requested product was available outside of China. USTR denied about 46,000 requests (87 percent), primarily for the failure to show that the tariffs would cause severe economic harm to the requesters or other U.S. interests (see figure). Further, USTR did not extend 75 percent of the tariff exclusions it had granted. USTR's Primary Reasons for Denying Exclusion Requests for Section 301 Tariffs on Products from China, 2018-2020 Note: Totals may not sum due to rounding. Why GAO Did This Study In July 2018, USTR placed tariffs on certain products from China in response to an investigation that found certain trade acts, policies, and practices of China were unreasonable or discriminatory, and burden or restrict U.S. commerce. As of December 2020, the U.S. imposed tariffs on roughly $460 billion worth of Chinese imports under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended. Because these tariffs could harm U.S. workers and manufacturers that rely on these imports, USTR developed a process to exclude some products from these additional tariffs. U.S. businesses and members of Congress have raised questions about the transparency and fairness of USTR's administration of this process. GAO was asked to review USTR's tariff exclusion program. This report (1) examines the processes USTR used to review Section 301 tariff exclusion requests and extensions and (2) describes how USTR evaluated those tariff exclusion requests and extensions, and the outcomes of its decisions. GAO analyzed USTR's public and internal documents relating to the exclusion and extension processes, including 16 randomly selected nongeneralizable case files, and data from USTR and the U.S. Census Bureau. GAO also interviewed agency officials.
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