.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Cracker Squire

THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

My Photo
Name:
Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Surprise (and just in time): In parts of this battle-torn country, a second civil war has begun

From The Wall Street Journal:

In parts of this battle-torn country, a second civil war has begun.
In the north and east bordering Turkey and Iraq, a stretch of Syria in rebel hands has split into competing fiefs. In some places, Islamist extremists with agendas that extend far beyond Syria are pushing aside the rebel battalions that started the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad's regime in 2011.

The resulting chaos has fragmented the rebel fight and created a playground for al Qaeda just as a U.S. debate heats up over how deeply to get involved.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In metro Atlanta, white student population down, Hispanic kids sky-rocket

From the AJC's Political Insider:

This morning, the Atlanta Regional Commission reported that metro Atlanta is leading this diversification of student population. Here, the non-white student population stands at 63 percent.

Between 2000 and 2012, 28 school districts in the 20-county Atlanta region experienced a decline of more than 30,000 white students, compared to a dramatic increase in the Hispanic population, and continued growth in Asian and African-American student populations.

In 2000, 52 percent (376,959) of metro Atlanta’s public school population was white. Blacks made up 36 percent (264,003); Hispanics, 6 percent (45,146); and Asians, 4 percent (26,101).

By 2012, the Hispanic population had “exploded” by more than 100,000 (to 148,787) and is now 16 percent of the school population. Whites (346,476) declined by roughly 30,000 and now make up 37 percent of metro Atlanta’s student population. Asians and African-Americans stayed proportionate to 2000.

Which school systems saw increases in white enrollment? The city systems of Decatur and Atlanta. In Atlanta, white student population increased from 6.5 to 14.1 percent between 2000 and 2012.

David Brooks on ongoing controversy with Eric Holder on leaks

David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus discuss controversy at the Department of Justice on PBS Newshour:
 
DAVID BROOKS: Right.

But I find it hard to believe, though, I should say, that they happened to pick the most anti-tax groups in America, and there wasn't some prejudice. I feel -- I don't know if it was political targeting. I do think there was prejudice. As a scandal, I remain convinced the Justice Department attack on the press is a much -- will balloon into a much bigger scandal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that's what I wanted to ask you about, because we have learned more about how aggressive the Justice Department has been in going after reporters at FOX News, at AP.
But the president yesterday in his speech said, there needs to be limits, clear limits on how far an administration goes after journalists in pursuing leaks. So where ...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he might talk to his attorney general.

I really think what's happened to Rosen at FOX News, what happened to AP is almost historically unprecedented and unconscionable.

I think it's without limits, without any sense of legal responsibility, of invading someone's private e-mail. And it's partly we have this technology where it's easier to trace people, because it's all done on e-mail now, and you can look at it this two ways. OK, there's going to be greater temptation for us to pry into every media reporter's e-mail, so we have got to police ourselves.

We have got to have some self-distrust. Well, there's no evidence of any self-distrust at the Justice Department. It's just hog wild. And I think this scandal is vastly over the line. I don't even say that as a reporter. I'm not a particularly open government kind of guy. But I think it's truly offensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the finger point at the attorney general, at Eric Holder? What ...

RUTH MARCUS: He's recused from one of these, the AP one, not from the other.

It's a classic example, right? There are Justice Department guidelines that, if they were followed carefully, should have stopped this. The richest part of the president's speech was when he said, we need to make sure that we protect reporters and the press from government overreach.

It's like, excuse me, sir. That's your government you're talking about. Now, just to be slightly fair to the president, it is very difficult, right, in a criminal investigation. You do not want the White House micromanaging. You don't want them saying, this subpoena is OK and that subpoena is not OK.
But you do want them making clear what the general tenor of their relations with the media should be. And I do fault both him and his attorney general for allowing this.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I mean, the press -- when we -- when anybody in the media reports on a story that's somewhat based on leaks, it's public. And if that's going to be a crime, publicly reporting on leaks, then we just can't function.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Some Small Firms Try Early Insurance Renewal to Blunt Health Law - UnitedHealth and Humana Will Offer Smaller Businesses Options Typically Left to Big Corporations

From The Wall Street Journal:

As businesses cast about for ways to minimize new costs related to the federal health law, health insurers are stepping up. Among their latest offerings: allowing ever-smaller companies to switch to a riskier form of coverage traditionally favored by big employers.

UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Humana Inc. will begin offering smaller employers—including firms with as few as 10 members in UnitedHealth's case—the option of so-called self-insurance in some markets later this year. Self-insured businesses pay their workers' medical costs directly, instead of joining a traditional managed-care plan. Usually, they hire benefits firms or insurance companies just to administer their plans.

Most big companies choose the approach, because it gives them more control over benefits and can lower costs.

For small businesses, being self-insured would let them avoid new requirements under the law that call for traditional small group plans to include richer benefits, such as mental-health and maternity care. Self-insured companies can also avoid changes to pricing rules that could increase costs for groups of healthy workers.

It comes with risks: A car accident or cancer case can leave small businesses on the hook for big medical bills. That is why most large insurers have generally offered such services to companies that have 100 or more workers and can spread the costs around.

The approach is part of a growing playbook of strategies to minimize the effects—and potential costs—of the health law. Insurers are also letting small companies renew their yearlong health-benefit plans early, before the end of 2013. That would delay the impact of health-law provisions that broadly kick in on Jan. 1, but would only affect plans once they renew after that date.

Some regulators worry the tactics, if they catch on widely, could undermine the exchanges—online insurance marketplaces for small businesses and individuals that are a centerpiece of the law. Starting next year, the law will block insurers from setting rates for businesses with fewer than 50 or 100 workers, depending on the state, based on how healthy they are. The exchanges are supposed to help spread around the risk, and cost, of coverage.

U.S. Oil Boom Divides OPEC - Cartel Struggles to Respond to Rise of Shale Drilling.

From The Wall Street Journal:

The American energy boom is deepening splits within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, threatening to drive a wedge between African and Arab members as OPEC grapples with a revolution in the global oil trade.

OPEC members gathering on Friday in Vienna will confront a disagreement over the impact of rising U.S. shale-oil production, with the most vulnerable countries arguing that the group should prepare for production cuts to prop up prices if they fall any lower.

"We are heading toward some problems," said a Persian Gulf OPEC delegate.

African OPEC members such as Algeria and Nigeria—which produce oil of similar grade to shale oil—are suffering the worst effects from the North American oil boom. Nigeria Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke deemed U.S. shale oil a "grave concern."

Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia, pass relatively unscathed—and are the only OPEC members with the flexibility to cut production. But they are unlikely to let that happen at Friday's meeting, several OPEC delegates said.

That would deepen power struggles that have dominated the organization in recent years. Iran, Venezuela and Algeria, who need high oil prices to cover domestic spending and offset falling production, have regularly clashed with Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, who have the financial strength to withstand lower prices.

OPEC has overcome past rivalries to rally against an external threat, most notably in 2008 when it agreed to a production cut of more than four million barrels a day to stem a price crash during the financial crisis. But the uneven impact of the North American supply surge makes a collective response—such as a coordinated production cut to support prices—more difficult, said delegates on both sides of the divide.

The U.S. and Canada are set to produce about 21% more oil by 2018 than from this year, according to data from the International Energy Agency.

This marks a historic and largely unexpected reversal. U.S. crude-oil production peaked in 1970 and had declined continuously for more than 20 years when shale oil first began to flow after 2008. U.S. crude production has risen to a 21-year high as hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and other technologies have unlocked large resources of oil previously trapped in shale rock in North Dakota and Texas. Shale deposits in other areas, such as Pennsylvania, are yielding mostly natural gas.

OPEC, the source of around one-third of the world's oil, has clearly been taken aback by the shift in U.S. production. In 2010, the organization forecast U.S. and Canadian oil production of 2014 at 11.8 million barrels a day. Just two years later, that forecast had risen to 14.5 million barrels a day.

A rebound in U.S. production would have been unexpected just five years ago because shale oil production requires an oil price that has rarely proved sustainable—typically $70 a barrel or above. But oil prices have remained much higher in the past two years, thanks in part to persistent geopolitical tensions in OPEC producers, such as the Libyan civil war and Persian Gulf tensions.

As U.S. production has grown, exports to the U.S. from three of OPEC's African members, Nigeria, Algeria and Angola, have fallen to their lowest levels in decades, dropping 41% in 2012 from 2011, largely because of shale oil, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In contrast, Saudi shipments of oil to the U.S. increased 14% in 2012. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said recently that the rise of unconventional energy sources doesn't threaten his country's dominant role in world oil supply because demand also is increasing.

"I don't think anyone should fear new supplies…. The pie is getting bigger, and there is enough to go around," he said.

But the Nigerian oil minister, Ms. Alison-Madueke, sees danger for her country. "Shale oil has been identified as one of the most serious threats for African producers," she said in the U.K. this month. Those producers, she said, could lose 25% of their oil revenue as they are edged out of the U.S.

Nigeria has been hardest hit because its light and low-sulfur crudes compete directly with shale oil, unlike Saudi Arabia's heavier and more sulfurous crude. Other OPEC members who don't serve the U.S. market, such as Iran, are also complaining. Muhammad Ali Khatibi, Iran's envoy to OPEC, told The Wall Street Journal that a combination of rising U.S. shale production and tepid demand is bringing "the price down."

While Saudi Arabia can tolerate lower prices, "there will be some members, like Venezuela, Iran who will struggle at $90," said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at London-based Energy Aspects Ltd. The front month Brent contract for July settled at $102.62 a barrel Monday. Venezuela's oil minister said on Monday that he would push for a cut in OPEC production if oil falls below $100 a barrel.

Iran needs high prices to offset the loss of $26 billion of oil revenue last year from tough Western sanctions on its exports, according to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Algeria, which has been rattled by riots over food and housing, needs an oil price of $121 a barrel to cover planned domestic spending—including for roads, jobs and housing—according to the International Monetary Fund.

The country's oil and gas revenue fell by 9% in the first four months of 2012, according to government figures. Algerian Finance Minister Karim Djoudi has said that lower revenue tied to mounting U.S. shale production could force the government to cut domestic spending.

"Cutting subsidies without increasing wages could bring tremendous political animosity," and instability, said Geoff Porter, head of security consultancy North Africa Risk Inc.

OPEC officials said the group is preparing studies to evaluate the impact of U.S. shale oil on demand for its crude. "Definitely, we will review nonconventional shale oil from the U.S.," said Mr. Khatibi, the Iranian envoy.

However, there is no agreement on the size of the challenge. Mr. Khatibi said the North American oil boom has created a global oversupply of 1.5 million barrels a day. Delegates from Gulf nations see the excess at no more than 500,000 barrels a day.

In the past, Saudi Arabia has simply ignored more hawkish members such as Iran and increased oil production when they failed to reach an agreement—as was the case during an acrimonious split two years ago. Saudi Arabia is the only country with sizable flexible production, giving it some influence on prices.

But the group can ill afford new divisions. In 2008, Saudi Arabia was forced to backpedal from a unilateral supply boost after prices crashed by $100 a barrel.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Partisan Gridlock Thwarts Effort to Alter Health Law

From The New York Times:

Almost no law as sprawling and consequential as the Affordable Care Act has passed without changes — significant structural changes or routine tweaks known as “technical corrections” — in subsequent months and years.

But  . . .  health care providers and others seeking changes are finding, to their dismay, that in a polarized Congress, accomplishing them has become all but impossible.

Republicans simply want to see the entire law go away and will not take part in adjusting it. Democrats are petrified of reopening a politically charged law that threatens to derail careers as the Republicans once again seize on it before an election year.

As a result, a landmark law that almost everyone agrees has flaws is likely to take effect unchanged.
 
“I don’t think it can be fixed,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said in an interview. “Everything is interconnected, 2,700 pages of statute, 20,000 pages of regulations so far. The only solution is to repeal it, root and branch.”
Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana and one of the law’s primary authors, said: “I’m not sure we’re going to get to the point where it’s time to open the bill and make some changes. Once you start, it’s Pandora’s box.”

States’ Policies on Health Care Exclude Some of the Poorest

From The New York Times:

The refusal by about half the states to expand Medicaid will leave millions of poor people ineligible for government-subsidized health insurance under President Obama’s health care law even as many others with higher incomes receive federal subsidies to buy insurance.

Starting next month, the administration and its allies will conduct a nationwide campaign encouraging Americans to take advantage of new high-quality affordable insurance options. But those options will be unavailable to some of the neediest people in states like Texas, Florida, Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, which are refusing to expand Medicaid.
More than half of all people without health insurance live in states that are not planning to expand Medicaid.
      
People in those states who have incomes from the poverty level up to four times that amount ($11,490 to $45,960 a year for an individual) can get federal tax credits to subsidize the purchase of private health insurance. But many people below the poverty line will be unable to get tax credits, Medicaid or other help with health insurance.
 
In approving the health care law in 2010, Congressional Democrats intended to expand Medicaid eligibility in every state.
       
But the Supreme Court ruled last year that the expansion was an option for states, not a requirement. At least 25 states — mainly those with Republican governors or Republican-controlled legislatures — have balked at expanding the program, in part because of concerns about long-term costs.
      
Several Republican governors,
 
The subsidies, for the purchase of private insurance, will vary with income and are expected to average more than $5,000 a year in 2014 for each person who qualifies.
 
The history of Medicaid shows that it took several years for some states to sign up in the 1960s, raising the possibility that additional states may decide to expand eligibility in coming years.

Drone Shift Alters Relations Overseas

From The Wall Street Journal:

With one heavily lawyered word change, the Obama administration redefined U.S. drone policy in a way that limits future strikes to terrorist groups that directly threaten Americans, rather than groups threatening U.S. allies and interests more broadly.

The alteration was made in a secret policy-guidance document signed earlier this week by President Barack Obama. The guidance, according to administration officials, narrows the use of lethal force to targets that threaten "U.S. persons." Previously, the White House had said America would go after groups or individuals who threaten "U.S. interests."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dern it: Obama Restarts Bid to Close Guantanamo - Plan Calls for Speeding Up Detainee Transfers, Kick-Starting Drive to Shut Prison; Hunger Strike Has Increased Pressure

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration is set to restart transfers of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.S. officials said, kick-starting a long-stalled drive to close the prison.

In a speech Thursday, President Barack Obama will reassert his case that closing Guantanamo is crucial to U.S. counterterrorism goals. While he isn't planning to detail how to speed up transfers from the prison, officials said the president in coming weeks plans to lift the administration's prohibition on sending detainees to Yemen.

The president also is set to lay down the broader outlines of his administration's approach to efforts to fight al Qaeda and its affiliates, including through the use of unmanned aircraft strikes.

Ahead of the speech, the administration told Congress in a letter Wednesday that four Americans have been killed in drone strikes, the first official acknowledgment of the U.S. deaths by the government.

Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that only Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric killed in September 2011, was specifically targeted. The others included Mr. Awlaki's son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan, an al Qaeda propagandist, both killed in Yemen; and Jude Kenan Mohammad, killed in Pakistan, who was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most-wanted list for supporting terrorism.

The administration's restrictions on Yemen stemmed from a rising threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as Yemen's record under its previous government in holding prisoners or monitoring their whereabouts. The cutback also followed a thwarted airline bomb plot in December 2009 by a Nigerian militant with links to Yemen who concealed explosives in his underwear.
_______________

Also see article in The New York Times.

Emails Offer New Details on IRS Targeting - Documents Suggest Lower-Level Workers Were Behind Scrutiny of Conservative Groups

From The Wall Street Journal:

Emails and other documents released Wednesday suggest the Internal Revenue Service's procedures used to target conservative groups for added scrutiny were developed by lower-level employees.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Indonesia Weighs Curbs on Sex, Magic

From The Wall Sreet Journal:

JAKARTA, Indonesia—Legislators here are reviewing a proposed new criminal code that would outlaw sex between unmarried people, cohabitation and black magic, among other stricter measures that would mark a significant shift for a young democracy widely viewed as a voice for moderate Islam.

The drafting of the code, commissioned by the Ministry of Justice and led by a conservative Muslim legal scholar, reflects the influence of conservatives in Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims.

But the effort to legislate morality has been most divisive, even in Indonesia's broadly conservative society—where the state guarantees the right to practice all mainstream religions except Judaism.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Role of Health-Law 'Navigators' Under Fire - There would be no criminal background checks for navigators or requirements that they hold a high-school diploma.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Lawmakers across the country are tussling over the Obama administration's plans to create a small army of assistants to guide millions of Americans as they sign up for new health-insurance options available this fall.

Backers of the health-care overhaul face an uphill battle to spread the word about the law, in the face of consumer research that suggests most uninsured people know little about it and are skeptical about the value of health insurance generally. Some Democrats have openly worried that the administration is doing too little to make sure the enrollment process goes smoothly.

That is where the "patient navigators" are supposed to come in. But their role has come under question from Republicans who have criticized the administration's plans to educate people on the new legislation. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has already drawn fire for conversations with health-industry executives in which she encouraged them to help the nonprofit organization leading the campaign to publicize the law's benefits. Critics said that it was inappropriate for the government to turn to outside groups.

The health-care law envisioned each of the 50 states running a marketplace where people without insurance could comparison-shop for policies and apply for subsidies to help them pay premiums. To smooth the process, each of the states was to set up a program that would enlist nonprofits, professional associations and unions to act as navigators.

Part of the plan has already changed because 34 states won't be running their own marketplaces and are leaving part or all of the job to the federal government. In those states, Washington took on the task of granting money for hiring navigators.

Critics see the navigators as potential competitors to insurance brokers, and say that they are effectively federal government employees who should be subject to rigorous screening.
At a private briefing with federal officials last month, committee aides say they were told there would be no criminal background checks for navigators or requirements that they hold a high-school diploma.

"Because navigators and assisters will have access to personal and sensitive information such as Social Security numbers and tax returns, we believe they should be held to the same hiring standard as U.S. Census and [Internal Revenue Service] employees," who get Federal Bureau of Investigation background checks, wrote Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), the chairman of the committee, and two other Republican members in a letter to the department.

Backers of the health-care law say the navigators will largely be working with lower-income people, and in many cases helping them to sign up for federal subsidies or government programs such as Medicaid—not the typical work of a health-insurance broker.

Monday, May 20, 2013

States Bank On Online Sales Tax - Even Before Congress Decides to End Tax-Free Internet Shopping, Legislators Build New Revenue Source Into Their Budgets

From The Wall Street Journal:

Congress hasn't yet agreed to end tax-free shopping on the Internet, but some states already are planning how they'll spend the money.

Maryland and Virginia both passed transportation bills that counted on the revenue to avoid implementing future state gas-tax increases, which would kick in if Congress turns down the Internet-sales tax bill. In Missouri, residents could see a half-percentage-point cut on their personal income taxes if Congress approves it.

And in the nation's capital, two city council members recently suggested spending the estimated $49 million the District of Columbia would collect from online-sales taxes in 2014 on housing for the homeless.

Congress is considering legislation that would allow states to require businesses to collect taxes on goods or services sold online, over the phone or by catalog. Early this month, the Senate approved the legislation on a 69-27 vote.

The bill faces an unclear future in the House. Some conservatives have raised concerns about the legislation, saying it would essentially be a new tax on consumers, who would have to pay sales taxes that they have mostly avoided. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has said he might not support the bill because of concerns it would be tough to implement and could hurt small businesses.

State and local lawmakers say this isn't a new tax because it is something that consumers should have been paying anyway.

States have been trying for more than a decade to collect the money, an effort that has been hampered by a 1992 Supreme Court decision stating states could only require retailers to collect sales taxes if they had a physical presence in the state, such as a store or a warehouse. That case involved catalog sales but also covers online sales.

Opponents of the tax, including many small-business owners, say it will be a burden to comply with the rules in so many tax jurisdictions. The Senate legislation tries to ease the paperwork by requiring states to adopt standards. Also, companies with less than $1 million in revenue would be exempt.

Some states have already begun getting ready to collect the taxes, especially those that operate under two-year budget cycles.

Last year, Alabama lawmakers approved a measure spelling out how the state would spend funds from online sales—if Congress approves the bill. And 24 states have signed on to a national "streamlined sales and use tax agreement," to ease the collection process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Employers Eye Bare-Bones Health Plans Under New Law

From The Wall Street Journal:

Employers are increasingly recognizing they may be able to avoid certain penalties under the federal health law by offering very limited plans that can lack key benefits such as hospital coverage.

Benefits advisers and insurance brokers—bucking a commonly held expectation that the law would broadly enrich benefits—are pitching these low-benefit plans around the country. They cover minimal requirements such as preventive services, but often little more. Some of the plans wouldn't cover surgery, X-rays or prenatal care at all. Others will be paired with limited packages to cover additional services, for instance, $100 a day for a hospital visit.

Federal officials say this type of plan, in concept, would appear to qualify as acceptable minimum coverage under the law, and let most employers avoid an across-the-workforce $2,000-per-worker penalty for firms that offer nothing. Employers could still face other penalties they anticipate would be far less costly.

It is unclear how many employers will adopt the strategy, but a handful of companies have signed on and an industry is sprouting around the tactic. More than a dozen brokers and benefit-administrators in 10 states said they were discussing the strategy with their clients.

The idea that such plans would be allowable under the law has emerged only recently. Some benefits advisers still feel they could face regulatory uncertainty. The law requires employers with 50 or more workers to offer coverage to their workers or pay a penalty. Many employers and benefits experts have understood the rules to require robust insurance, covering a list of "essential" benefits such as mental-health services and a high percentage of workers' overall costs. Many employers, particularly in low-wage industries, worry about whether they—or their workers—can afford it.

But a close reading of the rules makes it clear that those mandates affect only plans sponsored by insurers that are sold to small businesses and individuals, federal officials confirm. That affects only about 30 million of the more than 160 million people with private insurance, including 19 million people covered by employers, according to a Citigroup Inc. C +0.31% report. Larger employers, generally with more than 50 workers, need cover only preventive services, without a lifetime or annual dollar-value limit, in order to avoid the across-the-workforce penalty.

Such policies would generally cost far less to provide than paying the penalty or providing more comprehensive benefits, say benefit-services firms. Some low-benefit plans would cost employers between $40 and $100 monthly per employee, according to benefit firms' estimates.

Administration officials confirmed in interviews that the skinny plans, in concept, would be sufficient to avoid the across-the-workforce penalty. Several expressed surprise that employers would consider the approach.

The low-benefit plans are just one strategy companies are exploring. Major insurers, including UnitedHealth Group Inc., UNH +5.70%Aetna Inc. AET -1.13% and Humana Inc., HUM -0.54% are offering small companies a chance to renew yearlong contracts toward the end of 2013. Early renewals of plans, particularly for small employers with healthy workforces, could yield significant savings because plans typically don't need to comply with some health law provisions that could raise costs until their first renewal after Jan. 1, 2014.

Insurers and health-benefits administrators are also offering small companies a chance to switch to self-insurance, a form of coverage traditionally used by bigger employers that will face fewer changes under the law. Employers are also considering limiting workers' hours to avoid the coverage requirements that apply only to full-time employees.

Regulators worry that some of these strategies, if widely employed, could pose challenges to the new online health-insurance exchanges that are a centerpiece of the health law. Among employees offered low-benefit plans, sicker workers who need more coverage may be most likely to opt out of employer coverage and join the exchanges. That could drive up costs in the marketplaces.

"The whole idea is to get healthy people in and not-so-healthy people in" the marketplaces, said Linda Sheppard, special counsel for the Kansas Insurance Department.

Experts worried that plans lacking hospital or other major benefits could leave workers vulnerable to major accidents and illnesses. "A plan that just covers some doctor visits and preventive care, I wouldn't say that's real health-insurance protection," said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation and former federal health official.

Limited plans may not appeal to all workers, and while employers would avoid the broader $2,000-per-worker penalty for all employees not offered coverage, they could still face a $3,000 individual fee for any employee who opts out and gets a subsidized policy on the exchanges.

But the approach could appeal to companies with a lot of low-wage workers such as retailers and restaurant operators, who are willing to bet that those fees would add up slowly because even with subsidies, many workers won't want to pay the cost of the richer exchange coverage.

A full-time worker earning $9 an hour would have to pay as much as $70 a month for a midlevel exchange plan, even with the subsidies, according to Kaiser. At $12 an hour, the workers' share of the premium would rise to as much as $140 a month.

Firms now offering low-cost policies known as mini-meds, generally plans that cap benefits at low levels, could favor the tactic. Companies sought federal health department waivers to cover nearly four million with mini-meds and other similar plans, which will be barred next year. Some employers are "thinking of this as a replacement for the mini-med plan," said Tracy Watts, national leader for health-care reform at Mercer, a consulting unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos.

San Antonio-based Bill Miller Bar-B-Q, a 4,200-worker chain, will replace its own mini-med with a new, skinny plan in July and will aim to price the plan at less than $50 a month, about the same as the current policy, said Barbara Newman, the chain's controller. The new plan will have no dollar limits on benefits, but will cover only preventive services, six annual doctors' visits and generic drugs. X-rays and tests at a local urgent care chain will also be covered. It wouldn't cover surgeries or hospital stays.

Because the coverage is limited, workers who need richer benefits can still go to the exchanges, where plans would likely be cheaper than a more robust plan Bill Miller has historically offered to management and that costs more than $200 per month. The chain plans to pay the $3,000 penalty for each worker who gets an exchange-plan subsidy.

But, "those are going to be the people who will be ill and need a more robust plan," and insuring them directly could cost even more, Ms. Newman said.

Many more workers, she expects, will continue to go without insurance, despite the exchanges and the limited plan. Currently, only one-quarter of workers eligible for the mini-med plan take it. Ms. Newman said, "We really feel like the people who are not taking it now will not take it then."

Tex-Mex restaurant chain El Fenix also said it would offer limited plans to its 1,200 workers, covering doctors visits, preventive care and drugs, but not hospital stays or surgery. "What our goal was all along was to make [offering coverage] financially palatable for the company as a whole, so we didn't do damage and have to let people go or slow down our growth," said Brian Livingston, chief financial officer of Dallas-based Firebird Restaurant Group LLC, owner of El Fenix.

Some benefits advisers worry that since the idea of the low-benefit plans is so new, they could yet invite scrutiny from regulators, and may run afoul of other health law requirements.

John Owens, a broker for the Lewer Agency in Kansas City, Mo., said a large Midwestern convenience store chain is considering signing up for such a policy and is awaiting guidance from regulators.

"What I'm telling people is, this may work, but you better have a plan B," said Andrew Ky Haynes, a Kansas City, Mo.-based benefits lawyer.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Confusion and Staff Troubles Rife at I.R.S. Office in Ohio - Low-level employees in what many in the I.R.S. consider a backwater, they processed thousands of applications a year, mostly from charities like private schools or hospitals.

See article in The New York Times describing how, aAlienated from the broader Internal Revenue Service culture and given little direction, specialists in a Cincinnati office struggled with the caseload of groups seeking tax exemptions. It begins:

During the summer of 2010, the dozen or so accountants and tax agents of Group 7822 of the Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati got a directive from their manager. A growing number of organizations identifying themselves as part of the Tea Party had begun applying for tax exemptions, the manager said, advising the workers to be on the lookout for them and other groups planning to get involved in elections.
 
The specialists, hunched over laptops on the office’s fourth floor, rarely discussed politics, one former supervisor said. Low-level employees in what many in the I.R.S. consider a backwater, they processed thousands of applications a year, mostly from charities like private schools or hospitals.
For months, the Tea Party cases sat on the desk of a lone specialist, who used “political sounding” criteria — words like “patriots,” “we the people” — as a way to search efficiently through the flood of applications for groups that might not quality for exemptions, according to the I.R.S. inspector general. “Triage,” the agency’s acting chief described it.
As a grim-faced President Obama denounced the “inexcusable” actions of the I.R.S. last week and lawmakers of both parties lined up in Washington on Friday to accuse it of an array of misconduct, everything seemed so clear: the nation’s tax agency had deliberately targeted conservative activists, violating the public trust — and perhaps the law.
While there are still many gaps in the story of how the I.R.S. scandal happened, interviews with current and former employees and with lawyers who dealt with them, along with a review of I.R.S. documents, paint a more muddled picture of an understaffed Cincinnati outpost that was alienated from the broader I.R.S. culture and given little direction.
Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with I.R.S. lawyers and executives in Washington and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name. But their review went beyond conservative groups: more than 400 organizations came under scrutiny, including at least two dozen liberal-leaning ones and some that were seemingly apolitical.
Over three years, as the office struggled with a growing caseload of advocacy groups seeking tax exemptions, responsibility for the cases moved from one group of specialists to another, and the Determinations Unit, which handles all nonprofit applications, was reorganized. One batch of cases sat ignored for months. Few if any of the employees were experts on tax law, contributing to waves of questionnaires about groups’ political activity and donors that top officials acknowledge were improper.
_______________

Also see How the IRS seeded the clouds in 2010 for a political deluge three years later in The Washington Post.

President Obama exercises a fluid grip on the levers of power

From The Washington Post:

President Obama’s professed ignorance of the targeting of conservatives by one government agency and his support of tracking journalists’ sources by another highlight one of the great paradoxes of his presidency: Sometimes he uses his office as aggressively as anyone who’s held it; other times he seems unacquainted with the work of his own administration.

The controversies over the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of tea party and other conservative groups and the Justice Department’s surveillance of Associated Press journalists are only the latest examples of Obama’s a la carte governing style.

Obama has been willing to push the bounds of executive power when it comes to making life-and-death decisions about drone strikes on suspected terrorists or instituting new greenhouse gas emission standards for cars.

But at other times he has been skittish. When immigration activists first urged him to halt deportations of many illegal immigrants, for instance, Obama said he didn’t have the authority to do so. He eventually gave in after months of public protest and private pressure from immigrant and Hispanic advocates, granting relief to certain people who had been brought to the United States as children.

The president’s inconsistency is so befuddling that not even his critics can get it straight. They simultaneously charge that he is “leading from behind” and that he is displaying, in the words of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), “the arrogance of power.”

Obama’s current and former advisers said the president’s approach is deliberate and coherent: On national security, he exercises power to keep the country safe, whereas on domestic issues, he acts strategically on a case-by-case basis.

Still, the advisers acknowledge, Obama’s sometimes-yes, sometimes-no approach can give the appearance that he’s all over the map. Four-and-a-half years in, they said, he still is figuring out how to strike the right balance.

“He is deeply concerned both that his office . . . never violate its primary duty to abide by the Constitution’s checks and balances and that he nonetheless exercise those powers to the limit as needed to protect the nation and its people,” said Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law professor who has been a mentor of Obama’s for two decades and served briefly in Obama’s Justice Department.

Still, Tribe expressed concern that Obama, himself a former law instructor, “is being a bit too much the constitutional lawyer in some of these matters and not enough the ordinary citizen, sharing the anger that ordinary citizens understandably feel but flexing the muscles that no citizen other than Barack Obama possesses.”

The scandals of the Nixon administration that followed resulted in the IRS becoming an independent enforcement agency — a fact White House aides cite as a justification for Obama’s not knowing what was going on there until the release of an independent watchdog report. And in the post-Watergate era, presidents and their political aides have steered clear of the agency’s day-to-day operations.

Obama, his allies said, has adhered to that norm more rigorously than some of his predecessors. Moreover, advisers say, Obama does not interfere with Justice Department investigations, such as the leak probe that led to the surveillance of AP reporters.

Aides say it was an unfortunate coincidence that two controversies erupted simultaneously in areas that do not necessarily fall under Obama’s direct power. Yet that reality also may have effectively shielded Obama from learning about red flags that arise beyond the bubble of the Oval Office.

“It’s one thing for the president to make sure he doesn’t say or do anything that might undermine the independence of agencies like the Justice Department or the IRS,” Tribe said. “It’s quite another for the president to insulate himself to a degree that creates the false public impression of disinterest or indifference.”

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Noonan: We all have our biases. Mine is for a federal government that, for all the partisan shootouts on the streets of Washington, is allowed to go about its work. That it not be distracted by scandal, that political disagreement be, in the end, subsumed to the common good. This is not about the usual partisan slugfest. This is about the integrity of our system of government and our ability to trust, which is to say our ability to function.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate. The reputation of the Obama White House has, among conservatives, gone from sketchy to sinister, and, among liberals, from unsatisfying to dangerous. No one likes what they're seeing. The Justice Department assault on the Associated Press and the ugly politicization of the Internal Revenue Service have left the administration's credibility deeply, probably irretrievably damaged. They don't look jerky now, they look dirty. The patina of high-mindedness the president enjoyed is gone.

Something big has shifted. The standing of the administration has changed.

As always it comes down to trust. Do you trust the president's answers when he's pressed on an uncomfortable story? Do you trust his people to be sober and fair-minded as they go about their work? Do you trust the IRS and the Justice Department? You do not.

The president, as usual, acts as if all of this is totally unconnected to him. He's shocked, it's unacceptable, he'll get to the bottom of it. He read about it in the papers, just like you.

But he is not unconnected, he is not a bystander. This is his administration. Those are his executive agencies. He runs the IRS and the Justice Department.

A president sets a mood, a tone. He establishes an atmosphere. If he is arrogant, arrogance spreads. If he is too partisan, too disrespecting of political adversaries, that spreads too. Presidents always undo themselves and then blame it on the third guy in the last row in the sleepy agency across town.

The IRS scandal has two parts. The first is the obviously deliberate and targeted abuse, harassment and attempted suppression of conservative groups. The second is the auditing of the taxes of political activists.

In order to suppress conservative groups—at first those with words like "Tea Party" and "Patriot" in their names, then including those that opposed ObamaCare or advanced the Second Amendment—the IRS demanded donor rolls, membership lists, data on all contributions, names of volunteers, the contents of all speeches made by members, Facebook posts, minutes of all meetings, and copies of all materials handed out at gatherings. Among its questions: What are you thinking about? Did you ever think of running for office? Do you ever contact political figures? What are you reading? One group sent what it was reading: the U.S. Constitution.

The second part of the scandal is the auditing of political activists who have opposed the administration. The Journal's Kim Strassel reported an Idaho businessman named Frank VanderSloot, who'd donated more than a million dollars to groups supporting Mitt Romney. He found himself last June, for the first time in 30 years, the target of IRS auditors. His wife and his business were also soon audited. Hal Scherz, a Georgia physician, also came to the government's attention. He told ABC News: "It is odd that nothing changed on my tax return and I was never audited until I publicly criticized ObamaCare."

Franklin Graham, son of Billy, told Politico he believes his father was targeted. A conservative Catholic academic who has written for these pages faced questions about her meager freelance writing income. Many of these stories will come out, but not as many as there are. People are not only afraid of being audited, they're afraid of saying they were audited.

All of these IRS actions took place in the years leading up to the 2012 election. They constitute the use of governmental power to intrude on the privacy and shackle the political freedom of American citizens. The purpose, obviously, was to overwhelm and intimidate—to kill the opposition, question by question and audit by audit.

It is not even remotely possible that all this was an accident, a mistake. Again, only conservative groups were targeted, not liberal. It is not even remotely possible that only one IRS office was involved.

Lois Lerner, who oversees tax-exempt groups for the IRS, was the person who finally acknowledged, under pressure of a looming investigative report, some of what the IRS was doing. She told reporters the actions were the work of "frontline people" in Cincinnati. But other offices were involved, including Washington. It is not even remotely possible the actions were the work of just a few agents. This was more systemic. It was an operation. The word was out: Get the Democratic Party's foes. It is not remotely possible nobody in the IRS knew what was going on until very recently. The Washington Post reported efforts to target the conservative groups reached the highest levels of the agency by May 2012—far earlier than the agency had acknowledged. Reuters reported high-level IRS officials, including its chief counsel, knew in August 2011 about the targeting.

The White House is reported to be shellshocked at public reaction to the scandal. But why? Were they so highhanded, so essentially ignorant, that they didn't understand what it would mean to the American people when their IRS—the revenue-collecting arm of the U.S. government—is revealed as a low, ugly and bullying tool of the reigning powers? If they didn't know how Americans would react to that, what did they know? I mean beyond Harvey Weinstein's cellphone number.

And why—in the matters of the Associated Press and Benghazi too—does no one in this administration ever take responsibility? Attorney General Eric Holder doesn't know what happened, exactly who did what. The president speaks in the passive voice. He attempts to act out indignation, but he always seems indignant at only one thing: that he's being questioned at all. That he has to address this. That fate put it on his plate.

We all have our biases. Mine is for a federal government that, for all the partisan shootouts on the streets of Washington, is allowed to go about its work. That it not be distracted by scandal, that political disagreement be, in the end, subsumed to the common good. It is a dangerous world: Calculating people wish to do us harm. In this world no draining, unproductive scandals should dominate the government's life. Independent counsels should not often come in and distract the U.S. government from its essential business.

But that bias does not fit these circumstances.

What happened at the IRS is the government's essential business. The IRS case deserves and calls out for an independent counsel, fully armed with all that position's powers. Only then will stables that badly need to be cleaned, be cleaned. Everyone involved in this abuse of power should pay a price, because if they don't, the politicization of the IRS will continue—forever. If it is not stopped now, it will never stop. And if it isn't stopped, no one will ever respect or have even minimal faith in the revenue-gathering arm of the U.S. government again.

And it would be shameful and shallow for any Republican operative or operator to make this scandal into a commercial and turn it into a mere partisan arguing point and part of the game. It's not part of the game. This is not about the usual partisan slugfest. This is about the integrity of our system of government and our ability to trust, which is to say our ability to function.

Friday, May 17, 2013

With the House set on Friday to convene the first of its hearings into the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service, the lessons learned from the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which cost Republicans in elections in 1998, have been on display in recent days. Republicans took obvious pains to balance their investigatory zeal with a promise to stay committed to a legislative agenda.

From The New York Times:

The investigations ensnaring the White House have unified the Republican Party, energized a political base shattered by election losses and given common purpose to lawmakers divided over a legislative agenda.

The most pressing question for Congressional Republicans is no longer how to finesse changes to immigration law or gun control, but how far they can push their cases against President Obama without inciting a backlash of the sort that has left them staggering in the past.

With the House set on Friday to convene the first of its hearings into the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service, the lessons learned from the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which cost Republicans in elections in 1998, have been on display in recent days. Republicans took obvious pains to balance their investigatory zeal with a promise to stay committed to a legislative agenda.
 
Republicans privately acknowledge political benefits like rekindling the fervor of the Tea Party — a key ingredient in 2010 Congressional victories — particularly given the fact that the I.R.S. was subjecting those very groups to special scrutiny.
 
“Few things can get the conservative base as fired up as being targeted by an agency in the government of a president they already strongly dislike,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is already using the I.R.S. case against some Senate Democrats who are up for re-election.
 
As of now, Republican strategists say they do not expect voters to flood the polls in November 2014 to vote against the president’s party over Benghazi, the seizure of phone logs of Associated Press reporters, or even the political intrusion by the I.R.S. Instead, they say, Republicans will use the controversies to undermine Mr. Obama’s credibility, question his competence and diminish his political capital. The cases also help them tar the health care law, gun control efforts and Mr. Obama’s regulatory agenda as just more examples of government overreach.
 
At the outset of his second term, President George W. Bush was able to prosecute the Iraq war with little political interference, despite its unpopularity. It was Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 that cemented a reputation for incompetence that dogged the Bush administration to its end. Republicans are working off the same playbook.
 
To veteran lawmakers, the sudden proliferation of investigations cannot help but raise the ghost of 1998. After seizing control of Congress in 1995, Republicans opened investigations into the White House Travel Office, allegations of malfeasance around the Whitewater Development Corporation, and claims of campaign finance improprieties in the 1996 presidential campaign. Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, famously shot a melon in trying to prove that the White House lawyer Vincent W. Foster Jr. did not commit suicide.
 
But it was the impeachment of Mr. Clinton that cost Republicans seats in the House, cost Newt Gingrich his job as House speaker, and ultimately lifted a moribund Democratic president from the political depths.
 
Mr. Gingrich said in an interview that the parallel could be taken only so far. Impeachment, he said, was about perjury, not sexual indiscretion, but that was lost on most Americans — much to the fault of the House Republicans.
 
“If we had been calmer and more focused, we would have done better and had a better argument for the American people,” he said.
 
This time, the questions around the I.R.S., the A.P. subpoena, Benghazi and Ms. Sebelius arise not from Mr. Obama personally, but from the actions of his administration, and they go at the very least to Mr. Obama’s ability to govern. At worst, Mr. Gingrich said, investigations will move toward whether senior White House officials knew of improper or even illegal acts and chose to cover them up in an election year.
 
“It’s always the cover-up that kills you,” he said.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Brief History of IRS Political Targeting

James Bovard writes in The Wall Street Journal:
 
Many Republicans are enraged over revelations in recent days that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative nonprofit groups with a campaign of audits and harassment. But of all the troubles now dogging the Obama administration—including the Benghazi fiasco and the Justice Department's snooping on the Associated Press—the IRS episode, however alarming, is also the least surprising. As David Burnham noted in "A Law Unto Itself: The IRS and the Abuse of Power" (1990), "In almost every administration since the IRS's inception the information and power of the tax agency have been mobilized for explicitly political purposes."

President Franklin Roosevelt used the IRS to harass newspaper publishers who were opposed to the New Deal, including William Randolph Hearst and Moses Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Roosevelt also dropped the IRS hammer on political rivals such as the populist firebrand Huey Long and radio agitator Father Coughlin, and prominent Republicans such as former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Perhaps Roosevelt's most pernicious tax skulduggery occurred in 1944. He spiked an IRS audit of illegal campaign contributions made by a government contractor to Congressman Lyndon Johnson, whose career might have been derailed if Texans had learned of the scandal.

President John F. Kennedy raised the political exploitation of the IRS to an art form. Shortly after capturing the presidency, JFK denounced "the discordant voices of extremism" and derided people who distrust their leaders—President Obama didn't invent that particular rhetorical line. Shortly thereafter, JFK signaled at a news conference that he expected the IRS to be vigilant in policing the tax-exempt status of questionable (read: conservative) organizations.

Within a few days of Kennedy's remarks, the IRS launched the Ideological Organizations Audit Project. It targeted right-leaning groups, including the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, the American Enterprise Institute and the Foundation for Economic Education. Kennedy also used the IRS to strong-arm companies into complying with "voluntary" price controls. Steel executives who defied the administration were singled out for audits.

A 1976 report by the Senate Select Committee on Government Intelligence on the Kennedy program noted: "By directing tax audits at individuals and groups solely because of their political beliefs, the Ideological Organizations Audit Project established a precedent for a far more elaborate program of targeting 'dissidents.'"

After Richard Nixon took office, his administration quickly created a Special Services Staff to mastermind what a memo called "all IRS activities involving ideological, militant, subversive, radical, and similar type organizations." More than 10,000 individuals and groups were targeted because of their political activism or slant between 1969 and 1973, including Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling (a left-wing critic of the Vietnam War) and the far-right John Birch Society.

The IRS was also given Nixon's enemies list to, in the words of White House counsel John Dean, "use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies."

The exposure of Nixon's IRS abuses during congressional hearings in 1973 and 1974 profoundly weakened him during the uproar after the Watergate hotel break-in. The second article of his 1974 impeachment charged him with endeavoring to obtain from the IRS "confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposes not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner." Congress enacted legislation to severely restrict political contacts between the White House and the IRS.

In the following decades, the IRS regularly sparked outrage by abusing innocent taxpayers, but there was not much controversy about the agency's politicizing until Bill Clinton took office.

In 1995, the White House and the Democratic National Committee produced a 331-page report entitled "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce" that attacked magazines, think tanks and other entities and individuals who had criticized President Clinton. In the subsequent years, many organizations mentioned in the White House report were hit by IRS audits. More than 20 conservative organizations—including the Heritage Foundation and the American Spectator magazine—and almost a dozen individual high-profile Clinton accusers, such as Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers, were audited.

The Landmark Legal Foundation sued the IRS in 1997 after being audited. Its brief quoted an IRS official who had explained at an IRS meeting in San Francisco that audit requests from members of Congress or their staff had been shredded and also suggested how future requests from Capitol Hill could be camouflaged. The IRS told the court that it could not find 114 key files relating to possible political manipulation of audits of tax-exempt organizations.

One potential bombshell of the Clinton era that went relatively unrecognized was an Associated Press report in 1999 that "officials in the Democratic White House and members of both parties in Congress have prompted hundreds of audits of political opponents in the 1990s," including "personal demands for audits from members of Congress." Audit requests from congressmen were marked "expedite" or "hot politically" and IRS officials were obliged to respond within 15 days. Permitting congressmen to secretly and effortlessly sic G-men on whomever they pleased epitomized official Washington's contempt for average Americans and fair play. But because the abuse was bipartisan, there was little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for an investigation.

The IRS has usually done an excellent job of stifling investigations of its practices. A 1991 survey of 800 IRS executives and managers by the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics revealed that three out of four respondents felt entitled to deceive or lie when testifying before a congressional committee.

The agency also has a long history of seeking to intimidate congressional critics: In 1925, Internal Revenue Commissioner David Blair personally delivered a demand for $10 million in back taxes to Michigan's Republican Sen. James Couzens—who had launched an investigation of the Bureau of Internal Revenue—as he stepped out of the Senate chamber. More recently, after Sen. Joe Montoya of New Mexico announced plans in 1972 to hold hearings on IRS abuses, the agency added his name to a list of tax protesters who were capable of violence against IRS agents.

With the current IRS scandal, we may have seen only the tip of the iceberg. Thorough congressional investigations would no doubt help reveal the extent of the operation, and the criminal investigation announced by the Justice Department on Tuesday may prove fruitful as well. Regardless of what these inquiries uncover, though, we can be almost certain that IRS audits will remain irresistible political weapons.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears - China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level.

Form The New York Times:

The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.       

The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.       

Virtually every automobile ride, every plane trip and, in most places, every flip of a light switch adds carbon dioxide to the air, and relatively little money is being spent to find and deploy alternative technologies.
      
China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level.
 
 For the entire period of human civilization, roughly 8,000 years, the carbon dioxide level was relatively stable near that upper bound. But the burning of fossil fuels has caused a 41 percent increase in the heat-trapping gas since the Industrial Revolution, a mere geological instant, and scientists say the climate is beginning to react, though they expect far larger changes in the future.
Indirect measurements suggest that the last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago, during an epoch called the Pliocene. Geological research shows that the climate then was far warmer than today, the world’s ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher.
      
Experts fear that humanity may be precipitating a return to such conditions — except this time, billions of people are in harm’s way.
 
Countries have adopted an official target to limit the damage from global warming, with 450 parts per million seen as the maximum level compatible with that goal. “Unless things slow down, we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years,” Ralph Keeling said.
      
Yet many countries, including China and the United States, have refused to adopt binding national targets. Scientists say that unless far greater efforts are made soon, the goal of limiting the warming will become impossible without severe economic disruption.
      
“If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”

Taxing Problem for an Immigration Plan


From The Wall Street Journal:

Senators who want to offer legal status to the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants often say that the process won't be speedy or easy. Among other things, illegal immigrants would first have to pay all back taxes they owe.

"Get in the back of the line, pay taxes, learn the English language," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), co-author of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill, has said. People applying for legal status would have to pay fines, "pay taxes and learn English," says another co-author, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.).

Requiring people to pay all back taxes is one way to answer critics who say that legalization would be a form of amnesty for those who broke U.S. law by entering the country illegally.

But opponents of the bill see a problem: There is no sure way to determine who owes how much in back taxes.

Critics of the immigration bill say officials will have to rely on the honesty of illegal immigrants, who may have no paperwork to show from their work history. To them, that means many could be awarded legal status without paying taxes they owe. Legal residents, meanwhile, are required to pay taxes on all their income.

Two Republican lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee this week filed amendments to the immigration bill that aim to toughen the back-tax provision. It is unclear whether either amendment—one from Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, and one from Sen. Mike Lee, also of Utah—will get a vote by the panel.

The Senate immigration bill essentially hands responsibility for the issue to the Internal Revenue Service, but it doesn't provide the agency specific instructions on how to collect taxes from people who have been working with false Social Security numbers or in the black-market economy. Nor does it say that the IRS, already struggling with its increased mandate stemming from the 2010 Affordable Care Act, will get any more resources to deal with millions of new taxpayers.

Immigration and tax-policy experts say the agency is unlikely to make collection of taxes from illegal immigrants a high priority.

"If this does come to pass, it's unlikely the IRS will have a lot of resources to devote to this," said William McBride, chief economist at the Tax Foundation, a business-backed think tank focusing on tax policy. "It's unworkable. The IRS is likely not to have any real ability to do this."

A spokesman for the IRS declined to comment.

Many illegal immigrants are paid in cash under the table. They are unlikely to have paid taxes on that income or to have proof of past earnings. Others have worked under someone else's Social Security number, suggesting that payroll taxes were withheld but not necessarily income taxes.

Amendments from Messrs. Lee and Hatch would shift responsibility from the IRS to the illegal immigrant for proving how much is owed in federal income taxes.

Neither one takes additional steps to help officials verify what each person's tax liability would be. A spokesman for Mr. Lee said the purpose of the amendment was to illustrate how difficult it would be to design a system to accurately determine how much is owed by illegal immigrants.

Mr. Hatch's amendment, among other things, would direct the IRS to share tax-payment information with state and local governments, so they could pursue individuals for taxes owed.

Two aides to lawmakers who wrote the Senate legislation, one working for a Democratic senator and the other a Republican, said collection of back taxes wasn't a top priority for authors of the bill. The more important goal was to move illegal workers out of the cash economy or stop them from using false documents, so that they pay their proper taxes in the future.

A sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, said the eight senators who crafted the bill believe the current tax provision in it is robust.

One immigration expert said that, ultimately, the IRS would rely on the same thing as it does with other taxpayers: honesty.

"In the population that's about to legalize, we'll have to rely heavily on the honor of the people," said Muzaffar Chishti, a director at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that backs an overhaul of immigration law. "For people in the informal economy, it would be very difficult to assess how much is owed in back taxes."

But an opponent of the immigration bill, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), said the bill needs to have more teeth to ensure people seeking to become legal residents pay the taxes they owe to the federal government.

"It's not right for someone to come into the country illegally, owe a bunch of taxes and get amnesty for that, as well as being allowed to stay in the country legally," Mr. Sessions said.

Peggy Noonan: The Inconvenient Truth About Benghazi - Will this story ever be completely told? Maybe not. But it's not going to go away, either. It's a prime example of the stupidity of all-politics-all-the-time. You make some bad moves for political reasons. And then you suffer politically because you made bad moves.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The Benghazi story until now has been a jumble of factoids that didn't quite cohere, didn't produce a story that people could absorb and hold in their minds. This week that changed. Three State Department officials testifying under oath to a House committee changed it, by adding information that gave form to a growing picture. Gregory Hicks, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom were authoritative and credible. You knew you were hearing the truth as they saw and experienced it. Not one of them seemed political. You had no sense of how they voted. They were professionals. They'd seen a bad thing. They came forward to tell the story. They put the lie to the idea that all questioning of Obama administration actions in Benghazi are partisan and low.

What happened in Benghazi last Sept. 11 and 12 was terrible in every way. The genesis of the scandal? It looks to me like this:

The Obama White House sees every event as a political event. Really, every event, even an attack on a consulate and the killing of an ambassador.

Because of that, it could not tolerate the idea that the armed assault on the Benghazi consulate was a premeditated act of Islamist terrorism. That would carry a whole world of unhappy political implications, and demand certain actions. And the American presidential election was only eight weeks away. They wanted this problem to go away, or at least to bleed the meaning from it.

Because the White House could not tolerate the idea of Benghazi as a planned and deliberate terrorist assault, it had to be made into something else. So they said it was a spontaneous street demonstration over an anti-Muhammad YouTube video made by a nutty California con man. After all, that had happened earlier in the day, in Cairo. It sounded plausible. And maybe they believed it at first. Maybe they wanted to believe it. But the message was out: Provocative video plus primitive street Arabs equals sparky explosion. Not our fault. Blame the producer! Who was promptly jailed.

If what happened in Benghazi was not a planned and prolonged terrorist assault, if it was merely a street demonstration gone bad, the administration could not take military action to protect Americans there. You take military action in response to a planned and coordinated attack by armed combatants. You don't if it's an essentially meaningless street demonstration that came and went.

Why couldn't the administration tolerate the idea that Benghazi was a planned terrorist event? Because they didn't want this attack dominating the headline with an election coming. It would open the administration to criticism of its intervention in Libya. President Obama had supported overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi and put U.S. force behind the Libyan rebels. Now Libyans were killing our diplomats. Was our policy wrong? More importantly, the administration's efforts against al Qaeda would suddenly come under scrutiny and questioning. The president, after the killing of Osama bin Laden, had taken to suggesting al Qaeda was over. Al Qaeda was done. But if an al Qaeda offshoot in Libya was killing our diplomats, the age of terrorism was not over.

The Obama White House didn't want any story that might harm, get in the way of or lessen the extent of the president's coming victory. The White House probably anticipated that Mitt Romney would soon attempt to make points with Benghazi. And indeed he did pounce, too quickly, the very next morning, giving a statement that was at once aggressive and forgettable, as was his wont.

The president's Republican challenger was looking for gain and didn't find it. But here's the thing. More is expected from the president than mere politics. That's why we tend to re-elect them. A sitting president is supposed to be bigger, weightier, more serious than his rival.

This week's testimony from Messrs. Hicks, Thompson and Nordstrom was clarifying, to say the least.

Mr. Hicks, deputy chief of mission at the time of the attack, said the YouTube video was never an event in Libya, and no one in Benghazi or Tripoli saw what was happening as a spontaneous street protest. Beth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, sent an email on Sept. 12 saying: "The group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists." Mr. Hicks himself said he spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at 2 a.m. Benghazi time the day after the attack and told her it was a planned attack, not a street protest.

Still, the administration stuck to its story and sent out Susan Rice—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., someone with no direct connection to the event—to go on the Sunday talk shows and insist it was all about a video. They sent someone who could function as a mouther of talking points, someone who was told what to say and could be relied upon to say it. Mr. Hicks said that when he saw what Ms. Rice said his jaw dropped.

All of this is bad enough. Far worse is the implied question that hung over the House hearing, and that cries out for further investigation. That is the idea that if the administration was to play down the nature of the attack it would have to play down the response—that is, if you want something to be a nonstory you have to have a nonresponse. So you don't launch a military rescue operation, you don't scramble jets, and you have a rationalization—they're too far away, they'll never make it in time. This was probably true, but why not take the chance when American lives are at stake?

Mr. Hicks told the compelling story of his talk with the leader of a special operations team that wanted to fly to Benghazi from Tripoli to help. The team leader was told to stand down, and he was enraged. Mark Thompson wanted an emergency support team sent to the consulate and was confounded when his superiors in Washington would not agree.

Was all this incompetence? Or was it politics disguised as the fog of war? Who called these shots and made these decisions? Who decided to do nothing?

From the day of the attack until this week, the White House spin was too clever by half. In the weeks and months after the attack White House spokesmen said they were investigating the story, an internal review was under way. When the story blew open again, last week, they said it was too far in the past: "Benghazi happened a long time ago." Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, really said that.

Think of that. They can't give answers when the story's fresh because it just happened, they're looking into it. Eight months later they don't have anything to say because it all happened so long ago.

Think of how low your opinion of the American people has to be to think you can get away, forever, with that.

Will this story ever be completely told? Maybe not. But it's not going to go away, either. It's a prime example of the stupidity of all-politics-all-the-time. You make some bad moves for political reasons. And then you suffer politically because you made bad moves.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

For First Time on Record, Black Voting Rate Outpaced Rate for Whites in 2012

From The New York Times:

The turnout rate of black voters surpassed the rate for whites for the first time on record in 2012, as more black voters went to the polls than in 2008 and fewer whites did, according to a Census Bureau report released Wednesday.

The survey also found that Hispanics and Asians continue to turn out at much lower rates than other groups, and that women turn out at higher rates than men. The increase in black turnout was driven in significant part by more votes from black women.

According to the Census report, 66.2 percent of eligible blacks voted in the 2012 election, compared with 64.1 percent of eligible non-Hispanic whites. An estimated two million fewer white Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008, just as about 1.8 million more blacks went to the polls, more than 90 percent of them voting to re-elect President Obama, exit polls showed.

“In 2008, we changed the guard. In 2012, we guard the change,” said Michael Blake, who ran the Obama campaign’s effort to reach out to black and minority voters, Operation Vote.

The overall turnout rate nationwide was 61.8 percent in 2012, a decline from 63.6 percent four years earlier. Researchers cautioned that their estimates might overstate how many people voted across all categories, because they are based on surveys in which people were asked whether they had voted — a “socially desirable” activity.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

As red ink recedes, pressure fades for budget deal

From The Washington Post:

After four years of trillion-dollar deficits, the red ink is receding rapidly in Washington, easing pressure on policymakers but shattering hopes for a summertime budget deal.

Federal tax revenue is up and spending is down thanks to an improving economy, tax increases that took effect in January and the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester.

IIn the image-conscious world of politics, the subject of a politician's weight is not off limits - Here, statements from some politicians who openly discussed their weight struggles at various points in their careers. - Once known for preferring "the stuff with fat in it,” Mr. Clinton switched to a mostly vegan diet, losing 24 pounds in 2011.

Article from The New York Times.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Florida rejects Medicaid expansion, leaves 1 million uninsured

From The Washington Post:

It seemed like a watershed moment for the Affordable Care Act when Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a staunch Obamacare opponent, embraced the Medicaid expansion in February.

“While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the costs, I cannot deny Floridians who need access to health care,” Scott told reporters at a press conference.

Scott wouldn’t be the one to “deny Floridians” a part of the health care law—but the Florida legislature had other plans. Lawmakers adjourned Friday after passing a budget that does not include funding for a Medicaid expansion. Unless the Republican-controlled legislature comes back for a special session later this year—which some Democrats are calling for—Florida will not expand Medicaid in 2014.

In Florida, where one in five non-elderly residents lack insurance coverage, the consequences are especially large: An estimated 1.3 million Floridians were expected to gain coverage through the the Medicaid expansion. About a quarter of those people—Floridians earning between 100 and 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Line—would still be eligible for tax subsidies on the health insurance exchange.

Florida now joins 24 other states that have either decided against expanding Medicaid, or are leaning in that direction, according to analysts at Avalere Health. One caveat: They created this map just prior to the Florida legislature’s adjournment and might now consider Florida in the “will not expand” category.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

No doubt a continuation of Dick Cheney's nation building: Karzai Says He Was Assured C.I.A. Would Continue Delivering Bags of Cash

From The New York Times:

The C.I.A.’s station chief here met with President Hamid Karzai on Saturday, and the Afghan leader said he had been assured that the agency would continue dropping off stacks of cash at his office despite a storm of criticism that has erupted since the payments were disclosed.

The use of the C.I.A. cash for payoffs has prompted criticism from many Afghans and some American and European officials, who complain that the agency, in its quest to maintain access and influence at the presidential palace, financed what is essentially a presidential slush fund. The practice, the officials say, effectively undercut a pillar of the American war strategy: the building of a clean and credible Afghan government to wean popular support from the Taliban.

Instead, corruption at the highest levels seems to have only worsened. The International Monetary Fund recently warned diplomats in Kabul that the Afghan government faced a potentially severe budget shortfall partly because of the increasing theft of customs duties and officially abetted tax evasion.
 
The United States was not alone in keeping the Karzai administration awash in cash. Iran, too, made regular cash payments to the presidential palace, though Mr. Karzai said that it cut off the money after Afghanistan began negotiating a strategic partnership deal with Washington.
 
The British intelligence agency MI6 has given small amounts for special projects, he said, but only a fraction of what the Americans and Iranians gave.
 
Members of Congress have also raised questions about the payments. Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, wrote to President Obama last week expressing concern that they appeared to “indicate an incoherent U.S. policy toward Afghanistan,” and asking for an explanation.
 
“The alleged arrangements make accountability impossible and promote corruption at the top levels of the Afghan government, as well as break trust with the American taxpayer,” Mr. Corker wrote.