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Congress Tackles Cabinet Confirmations, Expands Watchdog Powers

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Congress wrapped inaugural week by confirming Defense Secretary James Mattis with a vote of 98 to 1. 

A few hours after Trump was sworn in as 45th president, he signed the waiver the retired Marine Corps general needed to serve as secretary, a role that by statute requires a 7-year waiting period before a member of the military may serve in it. During his confirmation hearing, Mattis supported a measured approach to cutting the department’s civilian workforce and called for a national cyber doctrine.

The Senate also confirmed Gen. John Kelly as Homeland Security secretary by a vote of 88 to 11.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, abstained from both votes.

Last Obama Actions

Before leaving office, Barack Obama on Jan. 17 issued an executive order tidying up security clearance processes and credentialing. The order aims to modernize background checks, encouraging the use of enterprise IT capabilities, automating where practical, and sharing information between agencies.

It also designates the National Background Investigation Bureau as the agency responsible for background checks and created a multi-agency accountability council of the Office of Personnel Management director, director of national intelligence, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management.

On his last day, Obama signed a bill known as the TALENT Act, which codifies the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. The program, now a General Services Administration responsibility, offers technologists short-terms stints in public service.

Headed to the New President

The GAO Access and Oversight Act, which expands the records the Government Accountability Office can access during investigations, passed the Senate on Tuesday. The act also allows GAO to take civil actions against agencies that don’t comply with requests.

"GAO is one of the most important tools used in this fight and my legislation ensures federal agencies cooperate with GAO so they are able to access what is necessary to conduct their investigations,” the bill’s sponsor Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., said in a statement.

Bevy of Tech Bills Head to Mark Up

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation plans to tackle a bunch of tech-related bill Jan. 24. The docket includes: the MOBILE NOW Act, designed to expand broadband investment; the DIGIT Act, focused on internet of things development; the SANDY Act, addressing first-responder network resiliency; and the INSPIRE Women Act, aimed at encouraging women to pursue STEM jobs.

Another H-1B Visa Bill

Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., plan to introduce the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, which would give require U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to give preference to those educated in the U.S. or hold advanced degrees. The bill also establishes a wage floor for L-1 visas and expands the Labor Department’s investigating authority.

“For years, foreign outsourcing companies have used loopholes in the laws to displace qualified American workers and facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs,” Durbin said in a statement. “The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act would end these abuses and protect American and foreign workers from exploitation.”

Sights on Russia

The Senate Intelligence Committee Jan. 13 passed its version of the fiscal year 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act, the intel community’s major policy bill. The bill includes a provision requiring Trump to establish an interagency committee to counter Russian “active measures,” such as the data breaches and leaks at Democratic political organizations that sowed chaos during the 2016 election.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., introduced legislation Jan. 13 strengthening sanctions against Russia for its 2016 election meddling. The Secure our Democracy Act boasts more than 50 Democratic cosponsors.

That New Cyber Subcommittee

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., will take the helm of a new cybersecurity panel on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the committee’s leadership announced Wednesday. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., will be the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Heather Kuldell and Joseph Marks contributed to this report.

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