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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.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Many Uninsured Choose Penalty Over Enrollment Offer Under Health Law - Tax preparers and survey find tepid response to Obama administration effort to boost sign-ups

From The Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON—A special enrollment period to obtain health insurance for millions of uninsured people who owe a tax penalty under the Affordable Care Act is off to a slow start.

The health law requires most Americans to have insurance or pay a fine at tax time. The open enrollment period under the health law ended Feb. 15, but the Obama administration said it would allow people who discover they owe a fine to sign up for coverage through April, at the end of the tax season.

Major tax-preparation firms say many customers are paying the penalty and not getting health insurance. It is still early, since the special enrollment period launched Sunday, but research also suggests that many people who lack health insurance will pay the penalty and not get covered this year.
Only 12% of uninsured people would buy policies if informed of the penalty, according to a survey of 3,000 adults polled through Feb. 24 by McKinsey & Co.’s Center for U.S. Health System Reform.

At H&R Block Inc., “our analysis indicates that a significant percentage of taxpayers whose household members were not covered for at least a portion of 2014 are opting” to pay the penalty, said Mark Ciaramitaro, a vice president of health-care enrollment services at the tax-preparation firm.

Richard Gonzalez, 59 years old, of Navarre, Fla., found out he will pay a $250 penalty for going without insurance. The retired employee of United Parcel Service Inc. said he won’t take advantage of the special enrollment period because it is cheaper for him to pay out-of-pocket for health care than to buy insurance on the exchange. He said he shopped on the exchange but would have to pay $400 a month for a plan with a $6,000 deductible.

“I think it’s wrong I have to pay the penalty,” said Mr. Gonzalez. “But it beats paying more than $10,000 a year.”

Lackluster sign-ups during the special period mean the Obama administration may only get a small enrollment boost. About 11.7 million people have already signed up on state and federal exchanges this year, though not all of them have yet paid premiums.

The special enrollment period applies to people who have to pay a penalty for going without coverage in 2014 and also face a penalty in 2015. They must pay any penalty they owe for not having coverage but can use the special enrollment period to obtain coverage and not generate any more fines.

Those who were uninsured in 2014 face penalties of $95, or 1% of their income—whichever is higher—when they file taxes this year. Fines will grow to $325, or 2% of income, for 2015, though millions of people qualify for exemptions.

Those with insurance through the exchanges might find another unpleasant surprise: As many as half the nearly 7 million Americans who got subsidies to offset their premiums may have to refund money to the government, according to an estimate by H&R Block. The subsidies are based on consumers’ own projections of their 2014 income, but some estimated incorrectly and received overly generous credits. Those people will see smaller-than-expected refunds or could owe the government money.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cruise Operator Diverts Ships From Tunisia After Museum Massacre - Until now, the country was considered one of the safer North African destinations for tourists seeking affordable beach vacations.

From The Wall Street Journal:

LONDON—Global cruise operator Costa Crociere SpA said Thursday it is diverting ships away from Tunisia, after at least 12 cruise passengers traveling on two ships were among those killed Wednesday in a gun attack in the capital Tunis.

The operator’s ship Costa Fascinosa, as well as the MSC Splendida, carrying a combined 6,875 passengers, were anchored at Tunis’s La Goulette port at the time of the attack which left a total of 21 dead, including 18 foreign tourists.

Three passengers traveling aboard the Costa Fascinosa were killed, eight were injured and another two were missing, said the ship’s operator, a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp.

Until now, the country was considered one of the safer North African destinations for tourists seeking affordable beach vacations.

From The Wall Street Journal:

TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed himself for the second time in a week on support for a Palestinian state and said he would back it under the right conditions, a turnaround that the U.S. and Palestinians dismissed as unconvincing.

On Monday, the day before parliamentary elections, the Israeli leader said he was in danger of losing and made a hard shift to the right—abruptly reversing his 2009 declaration of support for a two-state solution to the decades old conflict with the Palestinians. His victory on election day, which defied pre-election polls, was widely attributed to the late shift in strategy.

The U.S. responded Wednesday by upending decades of American policy when it left open the possibility that it might stop using its veto to shield Israel in the United Nations.

U.S. officials said Thursday that Mr. Netanyahu’s sharp departure on Monday from his long-held public position on the two-state plan made it difficult for President Barack Obama’s administration to accept his clarification on Thursday.

“If he had consistently stated that he remained in favor of a two-state solution, we’d be having a different conversation,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

In American television interviews on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu claimed that what he said Monday wasn’t a retraction of his commitment in 2009, maintaining that the conditions to set up such a state are just not achievable today.

Dani Dayan, a prominent leader of West Bank settlers, called Mr. Netanyahu’s recent statements “disorienting and zigzagging.” He said he was among those who switched his allegiance from nationalist party Jewish Home to Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud during the final part of the race.

But Mr. Dayan said he understood that Mr. Netanyahu did what was necessary in a tight race to ensure he got votes and prevailed over the left, even if he made promises he was bound to break. In the end, Mr. Dayan said he doesn’t believe Mr. Netanyahu would ever agree to two states in the current climate.

“Still I don’t like to see him reverse on two states,” he said.

Mr. Netanyahu said in the Thursday interviews that he believed a Palestinian state could exist if it were demilitarized and recognized Israel as a Jewish state. But he said he couldn’t support such a state now because of the possibility that extremist group Islamic State or militant movements backed by Iran would gain a foothold there.

“I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change,” he told MSNBC in an interview. He said he didn’t want a “one-state solution” in which Israel would retain control of Palestinian territories.

The White House said nothing in Mr. Netanyahu’s latest comments changes its decision to rethink the U.S. approach on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite the strain in relations, President Barack Obama called Mr. Netanyahu Thursday to congratulate him on his party’s victory. Mr. Obama stressed that the U.S. supports a two-state solution as part of a peace agreement, the White House said. The two also discussed nuclear talks with Iran, another point of contention.

A White House official said Mr. Obama made the same points in the private call that the administration has been making publicly, including the need for the U.S. to re-evaluate its options following Mr. Netanyahu’s “new positions and comments regarding the two-state solution.”

The White House has said it now sees no chance for restarting peace talks while Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu remain in office.

The two leaders also discussed what the White House has called “divisive” comments by Mr. Netanyahu about Israeli Arabs, which officials have said were a particular source of concern to Mr. Obama.

On election day Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu tried to win votes by warning that Arab citizens of Israel were turning out in large numbers at polling stations with the aim of toppling him. He also said United List, the party representing Israeli-Arabs, was extremist. Arab Israelis called his comments racist.

Asked why the administration couldn’t accept his comments Thursday at face value—just as it accepted his comments Monday—Ms. Psaki said the administration couldn’t overlook the shift on Monday.

“We believe he changed his position just a few days ago,” she said. “Certainly the prime minister’s comments from a few days ago brought into question whether he remains committed to that.”

The U.S. has privately questioned Mr. Netanyahu’s commitment to the peace process in the past, saying that Israel’s settlement policies under Mr. Netanyahu and the financial penalties it has pursued against the Palestinians undercut prospects for a peace accord.

Administration officials issued new warnings Thursday that they may no longer choose to shield Israel from pro-Palestinian resolutions at the United Nations. They explained that without an Israeli commitment to talks leading to a two-state solution, there was no point to the protective U.S. efforts, such as using its Security Council veto.

“Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations had been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means we need to re-evaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do moving forward.”

In the waning hours of the campaign on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu was trailing his center-left challenger in the polls when he was asked by an Israeli online news site to confirm that a Palestinian state wouldn’t be set up while he was prime minister. He replied in Hebrew: “Indeed.”

He went on to win a surprisingly decisive victory, aided by strong support from Israeli settlers and nationalists who oppose a Palestinian state.

Mr. Netanyahu reluctantly endorsed a two-state solution to the conflict with Palestinians in 2009, shortly after becoming prime minister. But the stance was unpopular among his conservative base.
The Israeli leader claimed in an interview with Fox News that he didn’t retract any of the things he said six years ago.

“I said we have to change the terms. Because right now, we have to get the Palestinians to go back to the negotiating table, break their pact with Hamas, and accept the idea of a Jewish state,” he added.

Before peace talks were suspended about a year ago, Israel had negotiated with the moderate Palestinian Authority, which administers one of two Palestinian territories, the West Bank. The Islamist Hamas rules the other one, Gaza, and Israel fought a 50-day war with the group in the summer.

Yuval Steinitz, minister of intelligence in Mr. Netanyahu’s current government, said the prime minister’s assertion Thursday that he hadn’t changed his position in the first place was “an honest and important statement.” He added: “There isn’t a change in Israeli policy; there is a change in the Middle East. Israel wants a solution to the conflict, but we and the rest of the world understands there is no partner.”

Amir Tibon, a commentator for Israel’s Walla! news website, said Mr. Netanyahu, who spoke English during both interviews Thursday, was practicing the same type of doublespeak that he and other Israeli leaders have often accused Palestinians of.

“The Palestinians started to lose credibility in the world when it became apparent that their leaders were saying one thing about the peace process in the local media in Arabic and something else in English” to American audiences, he wrote, adding that this “is no longer an exclusive Palestinian leadership behavior.”

In the MSNBC interview, Mr. Netanyahu played down the dispute with the White House, saying there were disagreements but the two countries had common interests.

“And America has no greater ally than Israel and Israel has no greater ally than the United States,” he said.

Yehuda Ben-Meir, a former politician and analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank, said he wasn’t surprised Mr. Netanyahu reversed himself.

“Now [Mr. Netanyahu] realizes he has to run the country and has to have good relations with the U.S.,” he said.

The Palestinians, along with many in Washington and European capitals, have long said that Mr. Netanyahu’s stance in negotiations and his government’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank seemed inconsistent with the two-state principle he endorsed in 2009.

“We all know what he is doing on the ground,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, adding that Mr. Netanyahu’s no-state pledge “showed his true colors” and described “exactly the policy he intends to pursue.”

Mr. Netanyahu has long argued that Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state and two years ago made it a central demand in negotiations. The Palestinian leadership has refused, saying such recognition would disenfranchise Arab citizens within Israel’s borders and undermine their long-standing demand for the return of Palestinians who became refugees when Israel was created in 1948. They say Mr. Netanyahu’s demand was meant to deadlock the negotiations.

Before the interviews, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that he was extremely worried about the election results and believed a two-state solution was no longer possible under Mr. Netanyahu.

“If what Netanyahu said is true, then the whole project of the two-state solution isn’t feasible—it is impossible,” Mr. Abbas said. “We are extremely worried about the result of the Israeli election.”
Mr. Abbas, however, said he would continue to work with any Israeli government.

The Central Elections Committee said Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud won 30 of 120 parliament seats to 24 for his main challenger, the center-left Zionist Union. Five nationalist and religious parties, including the center-right Kulanu party, won a total of 47 seats and are expected to join a Likud-led government.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

U.S. to ‘Re-Evaluate’ Mideast Peace Strategy - Obama and Netanyahu differ starkly on Iran and Middle East peace policy

From The Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON—The Israeli election results set Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama on a collision course in coming months over a series of high-stakes decisions on Iran policy and the Middle East peace process.

The White House upended decades of U.S. policy on Wednesday when it left open the possibility that it might not use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to shield Israel from unfavorable resolutions, such as the creation of a Palestinian state.

The dramatic shift came in response to Mr. Netanyahu’s hard political turn to the right in the final hours of the campaign, marked by an abrupt reversal of his endorsement of a separate Palestinian state. Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu, whose tattered relationship has come to define U.S.-Israel ties, clashed again over the longtime effort to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The White House now sees no chance for restarting peace talks while the two leaders remain in office.

The unexpected step by the Obama administration came as aides to the president said he is rethinking U.S. strategy on the Middle East peace process. They said it was a reaction to Mr. Netanyahu’s decisions during the campaign to oppose formation of a Palestinian state, to endorse settlement activity in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and to warn that a large turnout of Arab Israeli voters threatened his grip on power.

The Israeli leader’s comments on Arab Israelis were particularly disconcerting to the White House.

“The United States and this administration are deeply concerned by divisive rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.”

The U.S. is stressing that there will be no change in military, intelligence and security cooperation.

Danny Danon, a member of parliament from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Israel’s allies will have to respect the decision of the Israeli voters, whom he said have shifted toward rejecting the goal of a peace deal that establishes a Palestinian state.

The U.S. has several options for taking action at the U.N. Security Council, from refusing to veto resolutions related to the Palestinians to introducing a measure of its own.

“We’re not going to get ahead of any decisions about what we would do with regard to potential action at the U.N. Security Council,” said a senior administration official, adding: “There are policy ramifications to the positions that he took.”

While Mr. Netanyahu is considered likely to interpret the outcome of Tuesday’s election as an endorsement for his combative strategy toward the Obama administration on talks with Iran, Israel also faces deepening tension and isolation in its relations with the U.S. and Europe over his position on the peace process, according to several Israeli analysts, former officials and government advisers.

The European Union is likely to press for U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Israel over Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, a policy Mr. Netanyahu has pursued during his nine years in office, said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the EU and Jordan.

Israel, Mr. Eran added, is also certain to face diplomatic resistance if the new Israeli parliament adopts legislation, recommended by Mr. Netanyahu, to declare Israel to be a state for Jews. No such provision currently exists, and the country’s Arab minority views the proposed change as an affront.

Sabri Saidam, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Palestinians must now respond to Mr. Netanyahu’s rejection of statehood by presenting a more united front and pressing their case before the International Criminal Court.

The authority, which governs the West Bank, applied to join the ICC late last year, drawing condemnation from Mr. Netanyahu. The move would allow Palestinians to lodge war-crimes charges against Israel over its building of settlements in the West Bank and its military operations in the Gaza Strip.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Hillary Seems Tired, Not Hungry - Perhaps we’ve just seen the beginning of the end of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Maybe we’re not stuck in Scandal Land.

For a while I’ve assumed Hillary Clinton would run for her party’s nomination and be a formidable candidate in the general election. After Tuesday’s news conference I’m not so sure.

Did she seem to you a happy, hungry warrior? She couldn’t make eye contact with her questioners, and when she did she couldn’t sustain it. She looked at the ceiling and down at notes, trying, it seemed, to stick to or remember scripted arguments. She was shaky. She couldn’t fake good cheer and confidence. It is seven years since she ran for office. You could see it.

Her claims—she stayed off the State Department email system for “convenience,” she thought “it would be easier to carry just one device,” her server “contains personal communications from my husband and me”—were so transparent, so quickly disprovable. Minutes later journalists were posting earlier statements in which she said she carries two devices, and The Wall Street Journal’s report saying Bill has sent only two emails in his life.

This wasn’t high-class spin. These were not respectable dodges. They didn’t make you grudgingly tip your hat at a gift for duplicity. I could almost feel an army of oppo people of both parties saying, “You can do better than that, Hillary!”

This wasn’t the work of a national, high-grade political-response team, it was the thrown-together mess of someone who knew she was guilty of self-serving actions, who didn’t herself believe what she was saying, who didn’t think the press would swallow it, and who didn’t appear to care.

She didn’t look hungry for the battle, she looked tired of the battle.

Everyone knows what the scandal is. She didn’t want a paper trail of her decisions and actions as secretary of state. She didn’t want to be questioned about them, ever. So she didn’t join the government’s paper-trail system, in this case the State Department’s official email system, which retains and archives records. She built her own private system and got to keep complete control of everything she’d done or written. She no doubt assumed no one outside would ask and no one inside would insist—she’s Hillary, don’t mess with her.

She knew the story might blow but maybe it wouldn’t, worth the chance considering the payoff: secrecy. If what she did became public she’d deal with it then. When this week she was forced to, she stonewalled: “The server will remain private.”

Is it outrageous? Of course. Those are U.S. government documents she concealed and destroyed. The press is not covering for her and hard questions are being asked because everyone knows what the story is. It speaks of who she is and how she will govern. Everyone knows it.
She knows it too.

At the news conference she seemed like a 20th-century figure in a 21st-century world. Her critics complain it’s the 1990s returning but it isn’t, it’s only the dark side of the ’90s without the era’s peace and prosperity.

Mrs. Clinton is said to be preparing to announce her candidacy for the presidency in three to four weeks. But did that look like the news conference of a candidate about to announce? It lacked any air of confidence or certitude. For a year the press has been writing about the burgeoning Clinton Shadow Campaign. Where’s the real one?

Defenses of Mrs. Clinton were ad hoc, improvised, flat-footed. It all looks disorderly, as if no one’s in charge, no one has drawn clear lines of responsibility or authority. We hear about loyalists, intimates, allies, pals, hangers-on, Friends of Hill. People buzz around her like bees on random paths to the queen.

In 2008 Barack Obama had impressive, disciplined people around him—David Axelrod,Robert Gibbs,David Plouffe. I remember thinking at the time that they were something unusual in politics: normal. Hillary has people like David Brock, a right-wing hit man who became a left-wing hit man. Who’s he supposed to do outreach to, the other weirdos?

Is this thing really happening? Is the much-vaunted campaign coming together?

After the news conference I thought what I never expected to think: Maybe she doesn’t really want this. Maybe that’s what this incompetence is meant to be signaling.

Here I will speculate, but imagine being Hillary Clinton right now:

Her mother, the rock of her life, died in 2011. In the past years she’s had health issues. She’s tired, having worked at the highest levels of American life the past 25 years. She’s in the middle of a scandal and, being Hillary, knows that others might pop along the way.

Add this: Maybe she thought her ideological hunger, which was real, would sustain her throughout her life, and it hasn’t.

Maybe what happened to her, in part, is the homes of her Manhattan mega-donors. She’s been in the grand townhouses and Park Avenue apartments since 1992. She’d go in and be met and she saw what they had. Beauty. Ease. Fine art of a particular, modern sort, the kind that is ugly, that reminds its owners that just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they don’t understand that life is hard, painful, incoherent. It is protective, cautionary, abstract and costs $20 million a picture.

But what lives they have! Grace and comfort and they don’t have to worry about the press, they don’t have to feel on the run, they don’t have to press the flesh with nobodies.

She’d like those things! But she went into “public service” and had to live on some bum-squat-Egypt Southern governor’s salary.

She wanted what they have. They’re her friends, no more talented than she. But they went to Wall Street and are oozing in dough. She stayed in the lane she was in. And she figures she missed out on the prosperity her husband presided over.

She has her causes—women’s rights, income inequality. But she can advance them in other ways.

Maybe she isn’t really hungry enough for the presidency anymore. And maybe she doesn’t have illusions anymore. She’s funded by Wall Street. Her opponent will be funded by Wall Street.

Maybe she’s of two minds about what she wants. But it’s not really hunger that’s propelling her now, its Newton’s law of inertia: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

Maybe she thinks about another line of work, a surprising fourth act. She likes to be served, be admired, be taken care of by staff. But you can get those things without being president. If you are wealthy, and she is now—and maybe that was the purpose of all those six-figure speeches—you can get those things easily.

Maybe she doesn’t, really, want to run. Maybe she’s not sure she can. Or maybe she’ll go for it: It’s what she’s been going toward all her life.

Maybe Democrats who saw that news conference will sense an opening and jump in. There’s the myth of the empty bench, but it won’t be empty if she leaves it. That’s another law of physics: Nature abhors a vacuum.

We all talk so much about the presidency and who’s got the best chance. Maybe it’s not Hillary. Maybe that’s over and no one knows, even her.

U.K.’s shrinking military clout worries U.S.

From The Washington Post:

— With Europe facing its shakiest security environment in a generation, Britain has slipped into a familiar role: Washington’s tough-talking wingman.

British leaders have led the rhetorical charge against the twin menaces of Russia and the Islamic State while browbeating reluctant European governments to wake up to the reality of a newly unstable continent.

But behind the flinty facade lies an unmistakable erosion in British power, one that has reduced Washington’s indispensable ally to a position that U.K. officials, military leaders and analysts acknowledge could leave the United States without a credible partner in taking on the greatest threats to global ­security.

“If the U.K. can’t do it, who else is the U.S. going to turn to in Europe?” said Gen. Richard Dannatt, a retired British army chief. “There’s no one else.”

Britain’s diminished military capacity is a product of years of stringent austerity policies that show no sign of easing.

Despite a too-close-to-call election in less than two months, neither major party has stepped up to shield the military from further cuts, reflecting a public weary of foreign interventions after campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that are widely seen as failures.

Its contribution to the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State is “strikingly modest,” according to a recent parliamentary report. And as Russia has eviscerated Ukraine over the past year, Britain has often been a bystander while others have tried to stanch the bleeding.

The British withdrawal from world affairs could soon accelerate, with budget cuts likely to take an even greater bite out of an already withered military.

A report issued this week by a respected British think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, found that Britain’s regular army could shrink to just 50,000 troops by 2019 – about half the number of the amount when the decade began and just a fraction of the figure from the height of the Cold War.

“The concern is that we’re going to fall from being a significant player to a bit-part player,” Dannatt said. “The U.K. isn’t of much use to the U.S. if we don’t have a worthwhile military force behind us. Anybody can talk tough. But if you don’t back it up, everyone just laughs at you.”

U.S. officials, normally unwilling to criticize their most stalwart ally, have been unusually open about their apprehension in recent days.

Last week, Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, said that he was “very concerned” about U.K. defense cuts and that they could result in British troops fighting within American ranks rather than alongside them in any future conflict.

On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told the BBC that she was alarmed by the “gap between the collective security needs that we all have and the resources we are bringing to bear.”

Although Power did not single out Britain for criticism, taking aim instead at Europe as a whole, she focused her comments on a NATO target for members to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

The long-standing goal is met by only four members from the 28-nation alliance: the United States, Estonia, Greece and ­Britain.

But looming defense cuts — coupled with a recovering economy — mean that Britain is on the verge of missing the mark. Prime Minister David Cameron has resisted calls from within his own Conservative Party to pledge to continue spending at that level, despite his government’s efforts to compel other NATO members to hit the target during an alliance summit that Britain hosted just six months ago.

Britain is not the only NATO country to cut military spending even as the apparent threat to European security grows.

A study by the London-based European Leadership Network recently found that at least six countries are trimming their military budgets this year, despite a promise at last year’s summit to halt a decline that has been felt across much of the West while military spending in Russia and China surges ahead.

Ian Kearns, the network’s director, said the cuts reflect the reality of a recession-scarred continent constrained by economic needs at home. Politicians, he said, assume that there are few votes to be won in amping up defense spending
at the expense of domestic ­programs.

“And unless we come to the brink of direct conflict with Russia, that political calculus is not going to change,” he said.

By any measure, Britain remains a potent military force. It has the fifth- or sixth-largest defense budget in the world — rankings vary depending on the source — as well as a submarine-mounted nuclear arsenal that can canvass the globe and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Responding to Odierno’s comments last week, Cameron asserted that Britain continues to be formidable.

“I know when I spend time with President Obama and others how much they appreciate the fact Britain is a strong and capable partner,” he said.

But Cameron’s military advisers have questioned how long that can continue given the trajectory of the cuts.

Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, Gen. Peter Wall, who until September was Britain’s top military officer, asserted that Britain had assumed “a lower level of ambition for U.K. involvement in global security than ever before.”

With British defense spending down by 10 percent over the past five years, Britain lacks maritime patrols to hunt for submarines and faces a projected decade-long gap in carrier-strike capability.

The cuts, Wall wrote, have left British policymakers with few options for deterring Moscow.

“We can now see those consequences playing out in our reticence to counter Russian ­expansionism, and her interference in our airspace and offshore waters,” Wall wrote.

In the Middle East, as well, Britain has been reluctant to engage.

A report released last month by Parliament’s defense committee found that just 6 percent of coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State had been carried out by Britain, and that Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy had all been more actively engaged in the fight.

Britain’s Labor Party, which is running neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in pre-election polls, has vowed to halt Cameron’s “retreat from the world” but has been vague about how.

More troubling for the prime minister may be a revolt from members of his own party who think he has given the country’s defenses short shrift.

Among them is John Baron, a Tory backbencher and military veteran who led a push Thursday in Parliament to request that the government spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. Though only a small number of members voted, the measure received backing from a majority of those who did, including leading Conservative voices on national security.

“I’m not an interventionist. What I see is a need to talk softly and carry a big stick,” said Baron, who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the scuttled 2013 bombing campaign in Syria. “These are challenging times. Hostile nation states are rearming and becoming more aggressive. But what we seem to be doing is hollowing out our armed forces.”

David Brooks: Hillary Clinton’s Big Test

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

The political world is stuck in the middle of an accelerating protocol crisis. All sorts of customary acts of self-restraint are being washed away. It used to be that senators didn’t go out campaigning against one another. It used to be they didn’t filibuster except in rare circumstances. It used to be they didn’t block presidential nominations routinely.
It used to be that presidents didn’t push the limits of executive authority by redefining the residency status of millions of people without congressional approval. It used to be that presidents didn’t go out negotiating arms control treaties in a way that doesn’t require Senate ratification. It used to be that senators didn’t write letters to hostile nations while their own president was negotiating with them.
All the informal self-restraints that softened the brutality of politics are being torn away. It’s like going to a dinner party where all the little customs of politeness are gone and everything is just grab what you can when you can.
Into this state of affairs walks Hillary Clinton. She has, maybe more than anybody else, been shaped by this sort of political warfare. Her career has been marked by a series of brutal confrontations: Whitewater, Travelgate, health care reform, cattle futures, Monica Lewinsky, Benghazi, the emails and so on.
Her manner amid these battles is well established. In normal times, she comes across as a warm, thoughtful, pragmatic and highly intelligent person. But she has been extremely quick to go into battle mode. When she is in that mode, the descriptions from people who know her are pretty much the same, crisis after crisis: hunkered down, steely, scornful and secretive. It is said that she demands extraordinary loyalty from her troops. In the 2008 campaign, she narrowed her circle of trust to a tiny and insular set of advisers. It is said that she assumes that the news media is operating in bad faith, that the press swarms are not there for information but just to tear people down.
So one big question this year is: What happens when Hillary Clinton’s battle mode temperament hits politics as it’s currently practiced?
Since Watergate, many scandal wars have been fought over access to information about the scandal rather than about the scandal itself. In the 1970s, a series of extremely stupid sunshine laws were put into place that semi-exposed the private deliberations of public figures, distorted internal debate and pushed real conversations deeper into the shadows. Now every hint of scandal is surrounded by an elaborate tussle over who gets to see what.
These struggles over information have brought out Clinton’s most aggressive and sometimes self-destructive instincts — even when the underlying scandal was not that bad. During Whitewater, she insisted that some of her law firm’s billing records could not be found (until they were discovered in the White House residence two years after being subpoenaed). Her health care reform effort was needlessly marred by her unwillingness to release the names of her consultants. The fallout from the attack of an American compound in Benghazi, Libya, was an overblown scandal, but the State Department still withheld emails from congressional investigators. 
In these cases, Clinton’s admirable respect for privacy shifted into a generalized atmosphere of hostility. It will be interesting in the months ahead to see if she continues to react to political stress in the same way. More specifically, it will be interesting to see if [she] goes strong or goes large.
If she goes strong, she will fight fire with fire. If she is hit, she’ll hit back. She’ll treat information as a source of power to be hoarded and controlled. She’ll strap on armor each morning and go into each day strictly disciplined — ready to prove that this woman is tough enough to be president.
If she goes large, she’ll resist the urge to fight scorn with scorn. Temperamentally, she’ll have to rise above the bitterness, as Reagan, F.D.R. and Lincoln did. She and her staff will recall that the primary mission is not to win the news cycle by hitting back at whatever loon is hitting her. It’s to craft a government agenda that can win the steady support of 61 senators. It’s to win a governing majority.
The only way to reverse the protocol crisis is to create policies that can win bipartisan support. If the next president gets the substance right, the manners will follow.
Can Hillary Clinton do this? Is she strong enough to rise above hostility, to instead reveal scary and vulnerable parts of herself so that voters feel as though they can trust and relate to her? We’ll see.
Frances Perkins, a hero of mine who was F.D.R.’s secretary of labor, was one of the nation’s great public servants. But she was too reticent, too closed in her attitude toward information. She shut down in the face of the media. This attitude did her enormous harm, regardless of her many other gifts.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Senate Republicans’ Budget Targets Medicaid, Food Stamps - Potential savings of hundreds of billions of dollars; leader of Democratic caucus on budget panel vows fight

From TheWall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON—The Senate Republican budget slated for release next week is expected to generate savings by turning more responsibility for Medicaid and food-stamp programs over to states, GOP lawmakers and aides said Thursday.

While details of the document aren’t final, Republicans would propose turning funding for those programs into something similar to a block grant, said Senate Budget Committee Member Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.). That approach would call for the federal government to pay states a lump sum, instead of a percentage of the program’s costs. States would have more control over the program and would be responsible for footing the rest of the bill.

“It’s just a better way to give flexibility on the ground, where people are at,” Mr. Graham said. “The more you manage something far away, the more costly and less efficient it becomes.”

Under the current system, Medicaid programs are administered by the states, but an average of 57% of their budgets come from federal funds, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. Republicans have proposed similar moves in the past, but have encountered Democratic resistance.

“I will do everything in my power to make sure we pass a budget that does not harm the most vulnerable Americans,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), the top member of the Democratic caucus on the Senate Budget Committee, in a statement Thursday.

To get a sense of potential savings, under last year’s House GOP budget, converting the food-stamp programs into a block grant starting in 2019 would have saved $125 billion over 10 years. The document also estimated that overhauling Medicaid would trim $732 billion over a decade.

Not all Republicans support the idea of turning food stamps into a block grant-type program.

“The governors would love the money, but they don’t want to be in charge of food stamps,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kansas), the Agriculture Committee chairman.

The new details come as the two parties prepare to unveil dueling priorities for setting spending for the next fiscal year, which starts in October. Senate Republicans say they expect their budget resolution will make no changes to Social Security and will propose overall spending for Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for the elderly and disabled, at the same level proposed by the White House budget earlier this year, according to a GOP lawmaker.

“I believe Medicare reforms will be similar to what the president has proposed,” Sen. Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said Thursday. Mr. Crapo said the GOP budget would differ somewhat from President Barack Obama’s proposal on Medicare, because Republicans will include their own changes to the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health-care law.

It wasn’t clear Thursday whether the Senate GOP budget would include a proposal from former House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) that has been one of the most contentious pieces of previous House GOP budgets. Mr. Ryan has called for overhauling Medicare to allow Americans who turn 65 in the future to choose between private insurance plans with government support for premiums or staying in traditional Medicare, though their costs could rise.

Democrats have attacked Republicans for backing Mr. Ryan’s Medicare proposal, known as “premium support.” While many House Republicans have supported the idea, some Senate Republicans are wary.

Senate GOP lawmakers represent a full state, encompassing a broader ideological range, and some view the proposal as a political liability without any shot of being signed into law during the final two years of Mr. Obama’s presidency, a Senate GOP aide said.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Two police officers shot, seriously injured in Ferguson ‘ambush’

Photo from this article in The Washington Post.

Retailers Can’t Shake the Circular Habit - Inserts in newspapers draw more shoppers than digital ads, but cost a lot more

From The Wall Street Journal:

The world may be going digital, but the brightly colored advertising inserts that spill out of newspapers every Sunday somehow missed the memo about the decline of print.

Newspaper circulars are hanging on even though they draw fewer and fewer eyeballs as readership shrinks. And they are expensive to produce, costing up to $1 million for a single run.

Chain stores would love to be free of the expense and have tried dozens of experiments over the years to find an alternative, with little or no luck.

Aware that it can’t go cold turkey on circulars, the department store Kohl’s Inc. this spring plans to scale back. Kohl’s is hoping to save money by using shopper ZIP Code data to better target its circulars.

First, Kohl’s will use purchasing history to divide its shoppers into four groups: loyalist, underengaged, infrequent and new. Then they will be cross-referenced by their ZIP Codes. Only areas with the highest concentration of loyal shoppers will get circulars.

Publishers have a lot on the line in keeping it that way. Circulars account for about a fifth of newspaper advertising revenue, Borrell Associates says, though the amount varies widely by paper.

Federal Agents Raid Suspected Fake Schools - Foreigners on U.S. student visas allegedly paid millions but didn’t take classes

From The Wall Street Journal:

LOS ANGELES—Amid a widening crackdown on immigration fraud, federal agents on Wednesday raided a network of schools alleged to be part of a scheme to collect millions of dollars from foreigners who came to the U.S. on student visas but never studied.

Agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations arrested three individuals who ran four schools in the Los Angeles area alleged to serve as a front for the purported scheme.

Hee Sun Shim, 51 years old, was arrested at his Beverly Hills home, and his alleged associates, Hyung Chan Moon and Eun Young Choi, were arrested in their offices near downtown Los Angeles.

Security concerns resurfaced in 2013 after the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. Authorities learned that Azamat Tazhayakov, who hid evidence about the attack, had entered the U.S. on a student visa that was no longer valid. Since then, the government has integrated the SEVIS database into the screening process at airports. Mr. Tazhayakov, a Kazakhstan national, was convicted last July of obstruction of justice in the bombing.

Investigators say the defendants misrepresented students on federal forms, enabling them to secure student visas in what amounted to a pay-to-stay scheme. In exchange for the so-called Form I-20, a student made “tuition” payments for up to $1,800 to “enroll” for six months in one of the schools, according to the indictment.

As part of the suspected conspiracy, the defendants allegedly created bogus student records, including transcripts, for the purpose of deceiving immigration authorities.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

I have been waiting for this headline since "the" visit to USA was announced and reading about Herzog; will it happen? We have to wait until the only poll that really matters and subsequent negotiations: Netanyahu Slips in Polls Days Before Israeli Elections - Labor Party Leader Herzog Benefits from Perception That Prime Minister is Not Focused on Economy

From The Wall Street Journal:

TEL AVIV—Less than a week before Israel’s general elections, the party of incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to fall behind an opponent who promises to restart talks with Palestinians and smooth the prime minister’s notoriously rocky relations with the White House.

Two polls on Wednesday put Isaac Herzog, leader of the dovish Labor Party, slightly ahead and suggest that support for Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party among working-class Jews has eroded because of their widespread perception that he has focused on nuclear threats from Iran and extremist Muslims at the expense of economic problems.

The polls show Mr. Netanyahu, who is seeking a fourth term as prime minister, lost support after his speech to Congress last week warning against the terms of a nuclear deal being negotiated between six world powers and Iran. The speech, cheered by Republicans in Congress, angered President Barack Obama. At home, former supporters of the prime minister said they were concerned more about the threat of rising housing prices than the threat of a nuclear Iran. Some retired generals criticized Mr. Netanyahu for alienating Israel’s most important ally.

[T]o most Israelis he lacks Mr. Netanyahu’s stage presence, combat history and experience handling national-security issues. Mr. Herzog still faces the daunting challenge of persuading undecided Israeli voters he should be the beneficiary of their dissatisfaction with Mr. Netanyahu. Even for longtime Labor Party supporters such as 63-year-old Nava Rosenberg, this election remains a referendum on Mr. Netanyahu.

Herzog hasn’t inspired the enthusiasm enjoyed by previous leaders of his party such as Yitzhak Rabin or the country’s revered founder, David Ben-Gurion, even among his supporters. He is battling an image as stiff and timid.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Some Supreme Court Justices Cite 2012 Argument Against Health Care Law as Defense for It Now

From The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — In 2012, the Supreme Court declared that Congress had put “a gun to the head” of states by pressuring them to expand Medicaid, and it said that such “economic dragooning” of the states violated federalism principles embedded in the Constitution.
Now, in a separate case, comments by several justices indicate that they could uphold a pillar of the Affordable Care Act — insurance subsidies for millions of lower-income people — by invoking those same principles.
In 2012, the court said it would be unconstitutional for Congress to cut off all Medicaid payments to states that refused to expand eligibility, and this ruling instantly transformed the expansion of Medicaid into a state option.
That precedent echoed through oral arguments last week before the court; justices again expressed respect for federalism and state sovereignty. 

Under the health care law, Congress gave states a choice: They could establish and operate their own competitive insurance marketplaces, or they could rely on one established by the federal government. It was, several justices said, inconceivable that Congress would then punish states that used the federal exchange by denying insurance subsidies to their residents.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy suggested that such a choice could coerce states in a potentially unconstitutional way. Under the theory favored by critics of the health care law, Justice Kennedy said last week, “the states are being told either create your own exchange, or we’ll send your insurance market into a death spiral,” and “the cost of insurance will be sky high.”
Mark H. Gallant, a health lawyer at Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, said: “Justice Kennedy’s take on this case was a brilliant touch. He used the plaintiffs’ own argument against them to suggest that it would be unconstitutionally coercive if Congress made the subsidies depend on a state’s decision to establish an exchange.”
Plaintiffs in the case, King v. Burwell, say the Affordable Care Act authorizes subsidies only in states that created their own insurance exchanges.
Justice Antonin Scalia said it was “gobbledygook” for the Obama administration to suggest that an exchange set up by the federal government “qualifies as an exchange established by the state.” When the language of the law is clear and unambiguous, he said, the court cannot twist the words to avoid “untoward consequences.”
And Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the court could delay the impact of its ruling if the consequences were as disruptive as the administration said.
But the Obama administration argues that the subsidies are available in all states, including more than 30 that refused to establish exchanges and rely on the federal marketplace. Without the subsidies, it says, many people would be unable to afford insurance, and healthier consumers would go without coverage, leaving insurers with a sicker, more expensive pool of customers.
The Affordable Care Act has begun reducing the number of uninsured in two main ways: by expanding Medicaid and by providing tax credits to subsidize private insurance purchased through the public exchanges. The court, which focused on Medicaid three years ago, is now examining the subsidies.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael A. Carvin, that if the court accepted his argument, it would be “intruding on the federal-state relationship, because then the states are going to be coerced into establishing their own exchanges.”
And Justice Elena Kagan said Congress had not warned states of the consequences if they chose to use the federal exchange. In interpreting statutes, Justice Kagan said, the court presumes that “Congress does not mean to impose heavy burdens and draconian choices on states unless it says so awfully clearly.”
For decades, more conservative justices have emphasized respect for state sovereignty. The court often uses “basic principles of federalism embodied in the Constitution to resolve ambiguity in a federal statute,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in his opinion for the court in an unrelated case nine months ago.

The oral arguments also showed how the court, in the digital age, could be influenced by a flood of research, analysis and commentary from bloggers, scholars and advocates forecasting dire consequences if insurance subsidies end. More than 20 legal briefs have conveyed those concerns to the court, citing studies by groups like the Commonwealth Fund, the Urban Institute, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the RAND Corporation and Families USA.
“In the last six weeks,” said Abbe R. Gluck, a law professor at Yale, “people finally woke up and became aware of the drastic real-world consequences.”
A typical study, from the Urban Institute, based on a computer model of the health care system, was titled: “Implications of a Supreme Court Finding for the Plaintiff in King v. Burwell: 8.2 Million More Uninsured and 35 Percent Higher Premiums.”
When ruling on appeals, judges typically make decisions by closely reading the law and applying it to the facts of a case, as revealed in a trial court. But in the subsidies case, supporters of the health care law found a way to bring their predictions to the Supreme Court justices’ attention.
The government argued that Congress could not have imposed such drastic consequences on states without discussing the impact and without giving clear, explicit notice to the states.
“If that was really the plan, then the consequence for the states would be in neon lights in this statute,” said Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr.
Justice Kennedy has long been a protector of the states. They need clear notice of the conditions attached to federal funds so they can “guard against excessive federal intrusion into state affairs and be vigilant in policing the boundaries of federal power,” he wrote in 1999.
The Affordable Care Act expanded federal power, but preserved a large role for states.
Mr. Carvin, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said the law had offered an irresistible incentive — “billions of free federal dollars” in subsidies — as an inducement for states to set up exchanges.
“That’s hardly invading state sovereignty,” Mr. Carvin said

Sunday, March 08, 2015

This stuff is going to have legs beyond the typical one to two weeks: Stuck in Scandal Land - As long as she is in public life, Hillary will protect and serve herself.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Doesn’t the latest Hillary Clinton scandal make you want to throw up your hands and say: Do we really have to do this again? Do we have to go back there? People assume she is our next president. We are defining political deviancy down.

The scandal this week is that we have belatedly found out, more than two years after she left the office of secretary of state, that throughout Mrs. Clinton’s four-year tenure she did not conduct official business through the State Department email system. She had her own private email addresses and her own private Internet domain, on her own private server at one of her own private homes, in Chappaqua, N.Y. Which means she had, and has, complete control of the emails. If a journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking to see emails of the secretary of state, the State Department had nothing to show. If Congress asked to see them, State could say there was nothing to see. (Two months ago, on the request of State, Mrs. Clinton turned over a reported 55,000 pages of her emails. She and her private aides apparently got to pick which ones.)

Is it too much to imagine that Mrs. Clinton wanted to conceal the record of her communications as America’s top diplomat because she might have been doing a great deal of interesting work in those emails, not only with respect to immediate and unfolding international events but with respect to those who would like to make a positive impression on the American secretary of state by making contributions to the Clinton Foundation, which not only funds many noble causes but is the seat of operations of Clinton Inc. and its numerous offices, operatives, hangers-on and campaign-in-waiting?

What a low and embarrassing question. It is prompted by last week’s scandal—that the Clinton Foundation accepted foreign contributions during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. It is uncomfortable to ask such questions, but that’s the thing with the Clintons, they always make you go there.

The mainstream press is all over the story now that it has blown. It’s odd that it took so long. Everyone at State, the White House, and the rest of the government who received an email from the secretary of state would have seen where it was coming from—a nongovernmental address. You’d think someone would have noticed.

With the exception of the moment Wednesday when a hardy reporter from TMZ actually went to an airport and shouted a query at Mrs. Clinton—it was just like the old days of journalism, with a stakeout and shouted queries—Mrs. Clinton hasn’t been subjected to any questions from the press. She’ll slide, she’ll glide, she’ll skate. (With TMZ she just walked on, smiling.)

Why would she ignore regulations to opt out of the State email system? We probably see the answer in a video clip posted this week on Buzzfeed. Mrs. Clinton, chatting with a supporter at a fundraiser for her 2000 Senate campaign, said: “As much as I’ve been investigated and all of that, you know, why would I . . . ever want to do email?”

But when you’re secretary of state you have to. So she did it her way, with complete control. It will make it harder, if not impossible, for investigators.

The press is painting all this as a story about how Mrs. Clinton, in her love for secrecy and control, has given ammunition to her enemies. But that’s not the story. The story is that this is what she does, and always has. The rules apply to others, not her. She’s special, entitled, exempt from the rules—the rules under which, as the Federalist reports, the State Department in 2012 forced the resignation of a U.S. ambassador, “in part for setting up an unsanctioned private e-mail system.”

Why doesn’t the legacy press swarm her on this? Because she is political royalty. They are used to seeing her as a regal, queenly figure. They’ve been habituated to understand that Mrs. Clinton is not to be harried, not to be subjected to gotcha questions or impertinent grilling. She is a Democrat, a star, not some grubby Republican governor from nowhere. And they don’t want to be muscled by her spokesmen. The wildly belligerent Philippe Reines sends reporters insulting, demeaning emails if they get out of line. He did it again this week. It is effective in two ways. One is that it diverts attention from his boss, makes Mr. Reines the story, and in the process makes her look comparatively sane. The other is that reporters don’t want a hissing match with someone who implies he will damage them. They can’t afford to be frozen out. She’s probably the next president: Their careers depend on access.

But how will such smash-mouth tactics play the next four, five years?

Back to the questions at the top of the column.

Sixteen years ago, when she was first running for the Senate, I wrote a book called “The Case Against Hillary Clinton.” I waded through it all—cattle futures, Travelgate, the lost Rose law firm records, women slimed as bimbos, foreign campaign cash, the stealth and secrecy that marked the creation of the health-care plan, Monica, the vast right-wing conspiracy. As I researched I remembered why, four years into the Clinton administration, the New York Times columnist William Safire called Hillary “a congenital liar . . . compelled to mislead, and to ensnare her subordinates and friends in a web of deceit.”

Do we have to go through all that again?

In 1992 the Clintons were new and golden. Now, so many years later, their reputation for rule breaking and corruption is so deep, so assumed, that it really has become old news. And old news isn’t news.

An aspect of the story goes beyond criticism of Mrs. Clinton and gets to criticism of us. A generation or two ago, a person so encrusted in a reputation for scandal would not be considered a possible presidential contender. She would be ineligible. Now she is inevitable.

What happened? Why is her party so in her thrall?

She’s famous? The run itself makes you famous. America didn’t know who Jack Kennedy was in 1959; in 1961 he was king of the world. The same for Obama in ’08.

Money? Sure she’s the superblitz shock-and-awe queen of fundraising, but pretty much any Democrat in a 50/50 country would be able to raise what needs to be raised.

She’s a woman? There are other women in the Democratic Party.

She’s inevitable? She was inevitable in 2008. Then, suddenly, she was evitable.

Her talent is for survival. This on its own terms is admirable and takes grit. But others have grit. As for leadership, she has a sharp tactical sense but no vision, no overall strategic sense of where we are and where we must go.

What is freezing the Democrats is her mystique. But mystique can be broken. A nobody called Obama broke hers in 2008.

Do we really have to return to Scandal Land? It’s what she brings wherever she goes. And it’s not going to stop.

The Hillary Clinton e-mail story just keeps getting worse for her

Chris Cillizza writes in The Washington Post:

Hard on the heels of the New York Times scoop Monday night that Hillary Clinton exclusively used a private e-mail account to conduct business as secretary of state comes this report Wednesday morning by the Associated Press:
The computer server that transmitted and received Hillary Rodham Clinton's emails — on a private account she used exclusively for official business when she was secretary of state — traced back to an Internet service registered to her family's home in Chappaqua, New York, according to Internet records reviewed by The Associated Press.
The highly unusual practice of a Cabinet-level official physically running her own email would have given Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, impressive control over limiting access to her message archives. It also would distinguish Clinton's secretive email practices as far more sophisticated than some politicians, including Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, who were caught conducting official business using free email services operated by Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc.
Uh oh.

There's any number of problematic phrases in those two paragraphs but two stand out: (1) "impressive control over limiting access to her message archives" and (2) "secretive email practices as far more sophisticated than some politicians."

Let's take them one by one.

The first phrase speaks to the suspicion that has long hung around the Clintons that they are always working the angles, stretching the limits of how business can be conducted for their own benefit. It seemed clear that Clinton went out of her way to avoid the federal disclosure requirements related to e-mail by never even setting up an official account. That she took it another step and created a "homebrew" e-mail system that would give her "impressive control over limiting access" is stunning -- at least to me -- given that she (or someone close to her) had to have a sense that this would not look good if it ever came out.

Yes, her allies have maintained that she turned over more than 55,000 pages of e-mails from her time as secretary of state. But, the decisions over which e-mails to turn over were made by Clinton and/or her staff. That's not exactly the height of transparency for someone who is the de facto Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.

The second phrase makes clear that Hillary, Bill or Chelsea Clinton didn't (a) dream up or (b) set up the e-mail system the former New York senator used as secretary of state. This wasn't some garden variety home e-mail system; it was "sophisticated" in ways that went well beyond what candidates like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin -- both of whom used private e-mail accounts to do official business -- put in place. That level of sophistication speaks to the fact that this was not thrown together at the last minute; instead it was a planned maneuver to give the Clintons more control over their electronic correspondence.

Again, at one level that's entirely defensible. This is not your average family; it has a former president and a once-and-future presidential candidate in it. Some level of caution is warranted. Makes sense. At the same time, Clinton is virtually certain to run for president in 2016. She will run on her long and deep record in public life; an ability then for voters to have as complete a picture as possible of how she acted in key moments as secretary of state is critically important. Any attempt to purposely alter that picture by withholding e-mails -- or simply keeping them in a place that makes it harder for people to access them -- is politically problematic.

Clinton continues to maintain radio silence on the e-mail issue. That's going to become increasingly difficult for her to do that with the reporting today on her "homebrew" e-mail system. Explaining why she did what she did would go a long way to taking some -- though hardly all -- of the energy out of this story.

Lessons that David Ralston might offer to John Boehner

Jim Galloway pens a keeper in the AJC's Political Insider:

David Ralston is no John Boehner. And for that, supporters of a $1 billion boost to transportation spending in Georgia are breathing a sigh of relief.

On Thursday, there was every reason to fear that H.B. 170, the “big and bold” effort to address road and bridge repair and open the way for state support of commuter rail, would be whittled down to something tiny and inconsequential.

That demands from the right wing of a right-leaning House Republican caucus, driven by tea-party forces, would paralyze the state Capitol, just as we’ve seen happen time and again in Washington.

Yet as we said, David Ralston is not his D.C. counterpart. “But I can relate,” the Georgia speaker said Thursday evening, after the dramatic series of votes that sent H.B. 170 to the Senate.

It won’t happen, but if Boehner were to call Ralston for advice, here’s what Blue Ridge lawmaker might tell him:

“First, remember that you’re the elected leader of your caucus – not its prisoner.”

Back in January, in a first scrum with the press, Ralston was asked if the transportation bill would be subject to the “Hastert Rule,” named after a previous U.S. House speaker who declared that he would move no legislation unless it had the support of a majority of his caucus.

Ralston said he was confident that his Republican caucus would come to an agreement on a measure. But eight weeks later, after H.B. 170 was approved on a 123-46 vote, the House speaker had shifted his tone.

“I don’t know that it ever was a Republican caucus issue. This is an issue that should have bipartisan support, and it did today,” Ralston said.

Seventy-two Republicans stuck by their speaker, but among the 43 who defected were many of high rank – including Majority Leader Larry O’Neal of Bonaire, and Majority Whip Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City.

Ralston allowed the Republican rebellion to play out, but subjected it to a vote by the entire House, giving Democrats a voice.

Word was that at least 10 House Republicans feared a primary challenge if they voted for H.B. 170. Which led O’Neal to attempt to reduce the proposed excise tax on gasoline from 29.2 cents per gallon to 24.5 cents.

“The majority leader and I are like family,” said Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and lead sponsor of H.B. 170. “We actually share an apartment together. He has a job to do as majority leader, from that position. He has to look at it from a caucus standpoint, and a caucus position.”

O’Neal’s amendment failed on a 77 to 94 vote.

Then there was the amendment from state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, who noted a coming revolution in the state attitude toward commuter rail. The Setzler amendment would have allowed referendums of county voters to veto expansion beyond Clayton, Fulton and DeKalb, which are served by MARTA.

It was a generous power-sharing proposal, given that this Legislature doesn’t even trust locals to decide whether to use paper or plastic bags in a grocery store. Setzler’s amendment lost by only three votes.

“Secondly, you can’t always protect your members from tough votes.”

Cobb County, where transit remains a hot topic, was the source of many a tortured vote. Four Republicans voted for H.B. 170, five opposed.

Among those who voted “no” were state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Kennesaw, a first-termer who had been successfully backed local business interests against a tea partyer during last year’s GOP primary. And state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, who may have sacrificed H.B. 218, his “religious liberty” bill, in doing so.

Among those voting yes were state Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, a hard conservative – who last month won prominent backing from the House speaker for a measure to overhaul the Georgia tax code.

“Thirdly, the ‘D’ next to the names of members of the opposition party does not stand for ‘demon.
From the outset, Ralston included Democrats in his transportation calculations – specifically, state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus. “While we serve in different political parties, the speaker and I agreed to have an open door policy with one another,” Smyre said Friday.

Smyre, a former chairman of the state Democratic party and a confidante of governors and presidents, is the longest serving lawmaker in the Capitol. He proved the ultimate behind-the-scenes partner.

When members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus threatened a late revolt over the dearth of African-American contractors who share in state road contracts, Smyre quietly assisted in the
compromise that allowed the legislation to move forward. Only three Democrats voted against H.B. 170.

The question now becomes whether Senate Republicans are willing to absorb any lessons in finesse from House Republicans.

As of Friday, Senate Democrats had reported no diplomatic outreach from their Republican colleagues. But some lessons are harder to learn than others. Ask John Boehner.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

This is likely to become significant in litigation challenging this Executive Action as legislating: Critics are right that Obama action could provide access to citizenship

From The Washington Post:

A little-known provision of U.S. immigration law, which allows illegal immigrants to travel home in special or emergency circumstances, is being denounced by Republican critics and others as part of a back-door scheme by the Obama administration to slip large numbers of illegal immigrants into line for green cards and U.S. citizenship.

The special travel permission, known as “advance parole,” is one of the benefits that as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants could apply for under the president’s executive action offering a three-year reprieve from deportation.

The use of advance parole, as well as other elements of the Obama administration’s plan, represents a “sneaky attempt to place potentially hundreds of thousands of unlawful immigrants on a path to citizenship,” charged Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a persistent critic of Obama’s immigration policies who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

But is there any truth to Republican criticisms? Yes and no, it appears.

What even many illegal immigrants don’t know is that taking an approved trip home and back has a magic side effect: It erases the legal black mark of the person’s original illegal border-crossing — known as Entry Without Inspection, or EWI — and thus eliminates a major barrier to becoming a legal resident.

But immigration officials and advocates say that Goodlatte’s numbers probably are exaggerated because green-card applicants need an American sponsor, usually a spouse or an employer, and must meet other qualifications, including having a clean criminal record. Traveling with advance parole does not change any of that.

“It won’t fix fraud, and it won’t fix not having a sponsor,” said John Y. Vandenberg, an immigration lawyer in Philadelphia who has written extensively on the subject. “It merely provides a remedy for a specific different problem — one that is standing between families being permanently united or potentially separated.”

For the moment, the issue is moot because of a lawsuit challenging Obama’s legal right to take broad executive action to benefit millions of illegal immigrants. A federal judge has suspended the deferred deportation actions, and the administration has asked for an emergency stay of the order while higher courts decide the case.

But Obama’s policy may well be cleared to resume later this year, making the issue of advance parole timely and significant for illegal immigrants targeted by the president’s action who are either parents of U.S.-born children or adults who immigrated illegally as children. This is especially true for those married to U.S. citizens, who potentially stand to gain much more than a work permit and a trip to their home village in Mexico or Central America.

For many illegal immigrants, the chance to legally travel home and back, often for the first time in years, is one of the most eagerly awaited elements of Obama’s plan.

According to government statistics, of the 522,000 young illegal immigrants who were awarded deportation relief through a 2012 presidential order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, only about 6,400 applied for advance parole. But most of those applications were granted — a fact that alarmed Goodlatte and other critics.

This time, the government has invited all applicants to request advance parole at the same time they apply for the newly extended version of DACA, and far more are expected to do so.

Moreover, the number of illegal immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizen children, covered in a separate White House executive action called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, is much larger with potentially deeper ties to home countries.

In some cases, these immigrants, too, will be able to use approved home travel as a means to “cure” their original illegal entry — often several decades earlier — and apply for permanent residency.
This extra method of overcoming barriers to legalization is not widely known and has evolved recently through a series of court rulings and changes in the law.

At one time, illegal immigrants who left the United States were automatically barred from returning for three or 10 years, depending on how long they had lived here. This situation often led to agonizing personal choices, such as whether to risk visiting a dying parent.

But in 2012, an immigration court ruled that advance parole should not count against an immigrant’s need to maintain a full-time “lawful presence” in the United States in order to apply for a green card. The judge’s ruling “shook the earth,” Vandenberg wrote.

That year, when Obama issued his first DACA order, word began to spread about the potential extra benefit of obtaining advance parole. Vandenberg, who published a paper on the issue last year, was flooded with excited messages such as this one, from an immigrant named Jessica: “I just received DACA and I had no idea I was able to apply for advance parole. . . . I saw that parole can cure EWI. Is that true? If so can I adjust my status through my husband? We have been married for 2 years.”

In the Washington area, immigration advocates said they view advance parole as a godsend for families that have members in the country legally and illegally. At Just Neighbors, a nonprofit program in Northern Virginia, attorney Allison Rutland Soulen said advance parole is neither a “magic wand” nor a “back door” for her clients, but rather a legal way to resolve cases where the sole impediment to permanent residency is a border-crossing that took place many years ago.

One such client is Adelia Aguilar, 55, a Salvadoran health-care worker in Manassas, Va., who fled her conflicted homeland 21 years ago. She has two teenage children who were born in the United States, and she has temporary protected legal status as a war refu­gee. Last year, she was granted advance parole to attend the funeral of her father, whom she had supported for years without being able to see him.

Recently, Aguilar learned from Soulen that the approved funeral trip she took will “cure” the illegal border-crossing she made 21 years ago — and thus enable her son John, now 19, to sponsor her for a green card once he is 21.

“I have worked for a long time, and America has given me many opportunities, but it also took away a lot,” Aguilar said. “Here I am caring for elderly people, but I would have given anything to be with my father and care for him in his last days. It’s too late for that prayer to be answered, but maybe now God is helping me in another way.”

Immigration officials caution that to obtain advance parole, illegal immigrants must prove they have a bona fide family emergency or an educational or professional purpose for travel. They also note that those who abuse advance parole, by overstaying their trips and trying to return illegally, will again be subject to deportation.

To critics, though, the use of advance parole to erase the offense of an earlier illegal entry is a gimmick that flouts the basic intent of immigration laws and part of a pattern by sympathetic officials to expand the ways illegal immigrants can become legal in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.

“This is one more example of the anti-border folks pushing in every direction to get more people legalized,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in the District. “I am for amnesty in some cases, but this is chipping away at various restrictions to get more and more amnesty here and there.”