Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Uses and Abuses of Emergencies

The bill designed to finance emergency spending triggered by Hurricane Sandy was debated in the Senate yesterday. This bill has been one of those poster children for Congressional ineffectiveness, since the Senate passed it last session, and the House rejected it -- while doing a poor job explaining the quantity of pork in the bill. -- and then passed a similar bill in the new session to avoid looking bad. Accordingly. the bill has become one of the Exhibits in demonstrating GOP heartlessness, cruelty, and fatuity. This is true, even though  a CBO analysis tells us that only 7 percent of the funding in this bill will be spent this year--FY 2013--and roughly 70 percent of the funding will not be spent until FY 2015 and beyond.

 John McCain (Maverick, AZ), in yesterday's debate, does something the press never does (and GOP members, for some strange reason, never seem able to do), and actually lists out the non-emergency spending in the legislation. I have cheerfully plagiarized his list below. Some items are small, some are large. None require immediate, right now, no delay action (for the reasons explained by the Senator.)
  1. Some of the spending is designed to replace government vehicles ($1 million for DEA to replace 15 vehicles; $230,000 for ATF to replace three vehicles; $300,000 for the Secret Service vehicles; and $855,000 for ICE vehicles.) The Federal Government currently owns or leases over 660,000 vehicles--surely we can find replacements within our current inventory.
  2. $16 billion for Community Development Block Grant funds for 47 States and Puerto Rico that can be used for events in 2011, 2012 and 2013. (In other words -- the appropriation is not specific to folks who are camping out in budget motels waiting to rebuild their New Jersey, New York, Connecticut homes.)
  3. There is $2 million to repair damage to the roofs of museums in Washington, D.C.,
  4. 50 million for National Park Service Historic Preservation grants.
  5. $180 million for the Department of Agriculture's Emergency Watershed Protection program, which helps restore watersheds damaged by wildfires and droughts for areas including Colorado; 
  6. Highway funding for the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands; 
  7. $15 million for NASA facilities, though NASA itself has called its damage from the hurricane ``minimal.'' 
  8.  $111 million for a weather satellite data mitigation gap reserve fund, a controversial program created by President Obama by executive order for ocean zoning planning; 
  9. $8.5 million for weather forecasting equipment; 
  10. $23 million for the USDA ``Forest Restoration Program'' for planting trees on private property. This program is actually a Farm Bill subsidy program that's run by a relatively unknown agency called the ``Farm Service Administration'' which is primarily responsible for managing crop insurance. Under this program, private landowners with about 50 acres of land can apply for up to $500,000 in free grants for tree planting activities. 
  11. The bill also includes $118 million for taxpayer-supported AMTRAK, $86 million more than the President's request. While some of the funding will go for repairs, money will also go to increasing passenger capacity to New York and future mitigation efforts. In a 2-page letter from AMTRAK that gives a broad description of how the money will be spent, almost all of it falls under funding for future capital projects.  AMTRAK is up and running so it is not apparent why this funding is deemed ``emergency'' spending and included in this spending package. Keep in mind, AMTRAK receives roughly $1 billion in annual funding.
  12. The bill includes $100 million for Head Start;
  13.  $1 million for Legal Services Corporation; 
  14. $3.5 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers-- with little clarity on how the money will be spent. More projects are not something the Army Corps can handle. They are currently experiencing a backlog of construction and maintenance projects of approximately $70 billion
By the way -- chock full of waste or not -- this bill passed the Senate 62-36. Hope the Chinese like what they are spending their money on...

Monday, January 28, 2013

Our President Is Displeased

From New Republic and Franklin Foer comes a Q&A with the newly re-elected President, which just shows a man who is ready and willing to be embittered and angry. So bitter, in fact that left-leaning New Republic felt compelled to label it "Barack Obama is Not Pleased".

And of course, how can he be? I mean, the man just faced a rousing electoral triumph, but he still is faced with this:
The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they're really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies. There are going to be a whole bunch of initiatives where I can get more than fifty percent support of the country, but I can't get enough votes out of the House of Representatives to actually get something passed. 
Obama recognzies just how tough it is to be a Republican:
I think John Boehner genuinely wanted to get a deal done, but it was hard to do in part because his caucus is more conservative probably than most Republican leaders are, and partly because he is vulnerable to attack for compromising Republican principles and working with Obama.
He just doesn't want to admit how tough it is to be a Democrat:
The same dynamic happens on the Democratic side. I think the difference is just that the more left-leaning media outlets recognize that compromise is not a dirty word. And I think at least leaders like myself—and I include Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in this—are willing to buck the more absolutist-wing elements in our party to try to get stuff done.  
 (Mr. President -- if you honestly believe that...Well, I do you the credit of believing that you know you are lying) But, lest anyone think that Obama believes that Democrats really  are part of the problem... don't worry -- he doesn't:
There's not a—there's no equivalence there. In fact, that's one of the biggest problems we've got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, "A plague on both their houses." On almost every issue, it's, "Well, Democrats and Republicans can't agree"—as opposed to looking at why is it that they can't agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?
Poor Obama. He was going to change the tone in Washington. And he did. It's now worse. Maybe he'll work off the tension by shooting some more skeet.


Friday, January 25, 2013

The Bipartisans Want Your Medigap

In all the various howlings about Medicare, most of the focus has been on raising the eligibility age (to match the future increase in the eligibility age for Social Security). But the aggressively bipartisan budgeteers have another proposal, that I think would draw as much shouting, if anybody would just pay attention to it. Let's let Senator Orrin Hatch (R) describe the idea:
We need to modernize the Medigap Program by limiting supplemental Medicare insurance plans from covering initial out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare beneficiaries.
What does that mean?   Essentially, the elderly would be prevented from buying a policy that pays Medicare's deductibles. Of course, there is a good technocratic reason for that:
Almost 30 percent of beneficiaries have so-called Medigap policies that provide first-dollar coverage. Multiple studies have found that this 30 percent--the ones with Medigap insurance policies--use about 25 percent more services than those without similar coverage. This overutilization of services leads directly to higher costs for all seniors on Medicare.
In other words, the folks who pay an insurance company in order to avoid paying a Medicare deductible shouldn't be allowed to do that, because those people go to the doctor too much, and use more Medicare. As the Senator tells us: "Limiting first-dollar coverage will encourage seniors to make better health care choices and ensure the highest quality outcome while lowering costs for the entire Medicare Program.":

Of course, since this idea is somewhat subtle, it garners bipartisan support:
This policy was supported by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and it was part of the Biden-Cantor deficit reduction negotiations in 2011. In addition, the Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee included this idea as part of a set of cost-sharing reforms in their 2011 deficit reduction proposal. The President's own 2011 deficit reduction package included a similar proposal to reduce costs associated with Medigap insurance plans.
But the costs to seniors would be real. The idea of going to the doctor is a lot less attractive for that alarming but undefined pain, when you know it is going to cost you $100 or so -- and maybe more. And that's precisely the point. Medicare saves money -- and the adverse health outcomes aren't easy to quantify. But the shock, when seniors learn that something is about to be taken from them, will have ugly political results. Can't imagine those results really benefit the GOP.

There are two ways to go about Medicare reform. One is a direct way -- by raising eligibility ages that tracks improving life expectancies, and the way Tip O'Neal and Ronald Reagan dealt with Social Security. And the other is the sneaky, zero sum, cost-shifting approach that is the hallmark of so much of Obamacare. In this case, it is the senior who is being stiffed for the greater good.

This approach is sneaky. It is designed to make elders pay more, and is an interference in the little bit of the free market left to health insurers. So why are Republicans supporting it?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Did Hillary Answer GOP Questions on Benghazi?

If you are one of my two or three regular readers, then you remember that just last week, Rep. Frank Wolf placed a series of unanswered Benghazi questions into the Congressional Record. Let's do an experiment and see if any of them were answered by Mrs. Clinton in her testimony yesterday. What is striking is that Wolf's questions -- which are based on a similar list Lindsay Graham circulated back in November -- were not always asked by the GOP Senators.  In particular, none of the GOP Senators asked about one of the larger bones of contention in the days when it looked like this might be an active scandal -- why a military response was not requested. Also, the Senators did not ask about a possible Al Qaeda connection to the attack -- which was a key part of Rep. Wolf's demand for a Special Benghazi investigative committee.

The original Wolf questions are intalicized. The indented material includes Secretary Clinton's statements.

With the inexplicable release of suspect Ali Harzi by Tunisian authorities earlier this month, why are there no suspects in custody?
 Upon [Harzi's} release, I called the Tunisian prime minister. A few days later,Director Mueller met with the Tunisian prime minister. We have been assured that he is under the monitoring of the court. He was released because at that time -- and Director Mueller and I spoke about this at some length -- there was not an ability for evidence to be presented yet that was capable of being presented in an open court. But the Tunisians have assured us that they are keeping an eye on him. I have no reason to believe he is not still in Tunis, but we are checking that all the time <Response to Senator Risch, who asked directly about Harzi> 
Well, I believe that -- well, I know that the FBI has been briefing some committees -- I
assume members or staff of this committee are included -- I don't know that, but I would assume -- about the progress of their investigation. I got the most recent update from the director just a few days ago, when he returned from North Africa. They are following some very promising leads and putting together cases. They would have to speak to you directly about that, in a classified setting. But I think what they are trying to determine is how best to respond. And I think what the president clearly said is, we will respond and we will bring those to justice. And I don't think anybody should doubt this president at his word. We have some very good examples of that. It may take time, but he does not in any way divert attention from the goal of bringing them to justice. <Response to Senator Barasso,t great length, essentially asked why there were no suspects in custody>
Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, Attorney General Holder and DNI Clapper still haven't testified before Congress--what steps did they take during the attack and in the days that followed?
 First, let's start on the night of September 11th itself and those difficult early days. I directed our response from the State Department, stayed in close contact with officials from across our government and the Libyan government. <Opening Statement>
========================= =================================
Regarding what I was doing on September 11th, I was at the State Department all day and late into the night. At the -- during most of the day, prior to getting notice of the attack on our compound at Benghazi, we were very focused on our embassy in Cairo. That was under assault by a group of protesters. We were assessing the security of our embassy, which is, as those of you who have been there, certainty well defensed, but there were crowds that were intent upon trying to scale the wall, and we were in close communication with our team in Cairo.
I was notified of the attack shortly after 4 p.m. Over the following hours we were in continuous meetings and conversations, both within the department, with our team in Tripoli, with the interagency and internationally. I instructed our senior department officials and our diplomatic security personnel to consider every option to just break down the doors of the Libyan officials to get as much security support as we possibly could to coordinate with them. I spoke to the national security adviser, Tom Donilon,
several times. I briefed him on developments. I sought all possible support from the White House, which they quickly provided. Tom was my first call.
I spoke with our charge in Tripoli to get situation updates. I spoke with former CIA Director Petraeus to confer and coordinate, given the presence of his facility, which, of course, was not well- known but was something that we knew and wanted to make sure we were closely lashed up together. I talked with the then-Libyan National Congress president to press him on greater support, not only in Benghazi but also in Tripoli. I participated in a secure video conference of senior officials from the intelligence community, the White House and DOD. We were going over every possible option, reviewing all that was available to us, any actions we could take. We were reaching out to everyone we could find to try to get an update about Ambassador Chris Stevens, also our information specialist, Sean Smith. So it was a constant ongoing discussion and sets of meetings. I spoke with President Obama later in the evening to, you know, bring him up to date, to hear his perspective. Obviously, we kept talking with everyone during the night. Early in the morning on the 12th I spoke with General Dempsey, again with Tom Donilon.
The two hardest calls that I made were obviously to the families of Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. And it -- you know, they, I have to say, were extraordinary in their responses and their understanding of the pride we had in both men and gratitude we had for their -- for their service.
I would also just quickly add, Mr. Chairman, that while this was going on and we were trying to understand it, get on top of it, we were continuing to face protests, demonstrations, violence across the region and as far as India and Indonesia.  There were so many protests happening, and thousands of people were putting our facilities at risk, so we were certainly very determined to do whatever we could about Benghazi. We were relieved when we finally got the last of the Americans out of Benghazi, but then we were turning around dealing with the very serious threats facing so many of our other facilities.  <Answering Sen. Menendez who asked about her activities on 9/11> 
What were the President's activities during the seven-hour period of attack?
[Per the testimony of Clinton, she talked to the President but she (unsurprisingly) was not asked any question that would elicit an answer]
Why wasn't the U.S. military deployed to assist? On the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, after multiple attacks this year on U.S. and Western interests, why were U.S. military units and assets in the region not ready, alert and positioned to respond? After all, two of the four people were killed seven hours after fighting began.
I saw firsthand what Ambassador Pickering and former Chairman Mullen called
timely and exceptional coordination: no delays in decision-making, no denials of support from Washington or from our military. <Opening Statement>
 But the specific security requests pertaining to Benghazi, you know, were handled by the security professionals in the department. I didn't see those requests. They didn't come to me. I didn't approve them. I didn't deny them. That's obviously one of the findings that Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen made; that, you know, these requests don't ordinarily come to the secretary of state. <Response to Sen. Corker>
I think you get a sense of the challenge ...from a statement that Admiral Mullen made. You know, he said, and I quote, "On the night of the attacks, Benghazi, Tripoli and Washington communicated and coordinated effectively with each other. They looped in the military right away. The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there was simply not enough time for U.S. military forces to have made a difference. Having said that," Admiral Mullen goes on, "it is not reasonable nor feasible to tether U.S. forces at the ready to respond to protect every high-risk post in the world <Response to Senator Shaheen>
Why do we still not have clear answers on the internal process that produced the inaccurate talking points on which Ambassador Rice relied several days after the attack?
And you know, I wasn't involved in the talking points process. As I understand it, as I've been told, it was a typical interagency process, where staff, including from the State Department, all participated to try to come up with whatever was going to be made publicly available. And it was an intelligence product, and it's my understanding that the intelligence community is working with appropriate committees to kind of explain the whole process. <Response to Senator Risch>
You know, I understand -- I've been on the other side of the table. I understand trying to figure out what was going on and why were we told this, that and the other. But I can only assure you that as the information came to light and as people thought it was reliable, we shared it, but that took some time. <Response to Senator Flake>
Why were the testimonies of the U.S. personnel who were evacuated from Benghazi on September 12--eyewitnesses who knew there never was a demonstration outside the Consulate--not immediately factored in to the judgments of our intelligence community?
Well, first of all, Senator, I would say that once the assault happened and once we got our people rescued and out, our most immediate concern was, number one, taking care of their injuries -- as I said, I still a DS agent at Walter Reed seriously injured -- getting them into Frankfurt, Ramstein --
SEN. JOHNSON: Is that --
SEC. CLINTON: -- to get taken care of, the FBI going over immediately to start talking to them -- we did not think it was appropriate for us to talk to them before the FBI conducted their interviews, so -- and we did not -- I think this is accurate, sir -- I certainly did not know of any reports that contradicted the IC talking points at the time that Ambassador Rice went on the TV shows. And, you know, I just want to say that, you know, people have accused Ambassador Rice and the administration of, you know, misleading Americans. I can say, trying to be in the middle of this and understanding what was going on, nothing could be further from the truth. Was information developing? Was the situation fluid? Would we reach conclusions later that weren't reached initially?...

<Senator vs Secretary cross talk deleted.You can find it on YouTube. Why didn't Secetary Clinton drill down on whether there was a demonstration or not?? Here's her now famous answer...>
 Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this. But the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information. The IC has a process, I understand, going with the other committees to explain how these talking points came out. But, you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we'll figure out what was going on in the meantime. <Response to Sen. Johnson>
We have a disagreement about what did happen and when it happened with respect to explaining the sequence of events. We did get to talk to the DS agents when they got back to this country. We did so. It was not before September 15th. We had no access to the surveillance cameras for weeks, which helped to answer a number of questions. <Response to Sen. McCain, who took Clinton to task for her response to Johnson>
 Why wasn't Secretary Clinton interviewed by the Pickering Commission?'
[Interestingly, none of the GOP Senators asked this question]
Was the White House aware of the FBI investigation of Gen. Petraeus? If not, why not?
[Not Hillary's area of expertise. Issue never came up.]
 There are also serious questions about links of this terrorist attack to the protests at the U.S. embassies in Cairo, Egypt, Tunis, Tunisia and Sanaa, Yemen that same week--where each American compound was breached by individuals allegedly linked to al Qaeda-affiliated groups. What, if any, were the connections between these incidents and the attack in Benghazi?
Yes, we now face a spreading jihadist threat. We have driven a lot of the AQ operatives out of the FATA, out of Afghanistan, Pakistan; killed a lot of them, including, of course bin Laden. But we have to recognize this is a global movement. We can kill leaders, but until we help establish strong democratic institutions, until we do a better job communicating our values and building relationships, we're going to be faced with this level of instability.  <Response to Sen. Corker>

Monday, January 21, 2013

Remember Benghazi? Well, Somebody Still Does. Really!

As we drift into Obama's second term, and the mind of everyone in DC seems focused on piddling gun control measures and whatever the President, the Senate and the GOP are going to do  about spending, it's good to remember there are still some unanswered questions laying around from the past Obama term. Congressman Frank Wolf reminds us of questions still unanswered about Benghazi:

With the inexplicable release of suspect Ali Harzi by Tunisian authorities earlier this month, why are there no suspects in custody?
Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, Attorney General Holder and DNI Clapper still haven't testified before Congress--what steps did they take during the attack and in the days that followed? 
What were the President's activities during the seven-hour period of attack?
Why wasn't the U.S. military deployed to assist? On the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, after multiple attacks this year on U.S. and Western interests, why were U.S. military units and assets in the region not ready, alert and positioned to respond? After all, two of the four people were killed seven hours after fighting began.
Why do we still not have clear answers on the internal process that produced the inaccurate talking points on which Ambassador Rice relied several days after the attack?
Why were the testimonies of the U.S. personnel who were evacuated from Benghazi on September 12--eyewitnesses who knew there never was a demonstration outside the Consulate--not immediately factored in to the judgments of our intelligence community?
Why wasn't Secretary Clinton interviewed by the Pickering Commission?
Was the White House aware of the FBI investigation of Gen. Petraeus? If not, why not?
There are also serious questions about links of this terrorist attack to the protests at the U.S. embassies in Cairo, Egypt, Tunis, Tunisia and Sanaa, Yemen that same week--where each American compound was breached by individuals allegedly linked to al Qaeda-affiliated groups. What, if any, were the connections between these incidents and the attack in Benghazi?
All of these are good questions. Even if Benghazi was just one of those foul ups that was the result of silly mistakes made by underlings, they deserve official answers.

There is just one question I would add to this list, but it was one that has bothered me about the administration's response to Benghazi from the start. Why was the administration hell bent for leather on propounding the idea that it was the exercise of free speech rights in the USA that caused the death of our ambassador? The administration did not reluctantly concede this explanation might be the case. They embraced it with the ardor reserved for a long-absent hot girlfriend, and took steps (and publicized the taking those steps) to make sure that the guy who made the video was punished.

We'll see if this goes anywhere. But the media silence on Benghazi since Ambassador Rice pulled out of the running for Secretary of State has been striking -- and media silence usually means Congressional silence.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

GOP Freshmen Explain -- Why Fight on the Debt Limit

Having averted one fiscal cliff, the GOP majority in the house now face another one -- this one tied to the debt limit authorization. Naturally, the GOP wants to get its case out there, and started with a CSPAN dog and pony show Tuesday night, featuring the Freshman GOP class of 2012. Let's look at the transcript of what they had to say:

Let's start with newly minted Congressman Luke Messer of Indiana, who wants to highlight the importance of the upcoming debt limit debate and "the need to get serious about addressing the out-of-control spending and borrowing that is jeopardizing the American Dream for our children and grandchildren"

What are the fundamental questions involved? 
The fundamental question that this Congress needs to answer is whether Washington should take more than it already does from these hardworking, taxpaying Americans?
 Um, not sure what authorizing the debt limit has to do with tax increases, but never fear, Mr. Messer is opposed to tax increases. Next up, Susan Brooks of Indiana. This is what the debt limit debate means to her:
My message today is simple: On too many big items, Congress has been kicking the can down the road for years. It's time to supply real leadership on the most pressing challenges we face. This is the only way we can restore trust in Congress.
Well, OK.  But what does that have to do with allowing the government to pay the debt? Well, because these votes are "opportunities"
We're in a position to clearly see three obvious opportunities to make real, sustainable changes. First, we know we are approaching the debt ceiling. Second, sequestration will go into effect in 2 months, and third, funding for the government will expire March 27. These are opportunities to make real changes in spending.
In other words (Obama type words, to be exact), the debt limit must be held hostage in order to make real, sustainable changes. Swell. Over to you, Jackie Walorski of Indiana:
Mr. Speaker, I want to let the people of Indiana know that in the coming weeks they'll hear many assertions in the debate over whether Congress should increase the debt ceiling. The people of Indiana deserve to hear the truth. The entire Nation deserves to hear the truth:
And what is the truth? Why must a fight on what Congress appropriates be held over whether we pay the debts we owe (as opposed by the spending we authorize)?
Each day that we delay getting our fiscal house in order, we threaten the safety and well-being of those we love and care about the most. We threaten the opportunity and promise of future generations by limiting the resources we have to invest in infrastructure and education.
All true. All beside the point raised by authorizing an increase in the debt ceiling. All of this amounts to  justification of hostage taking for the greater good. Well, maybe, someone other than a Hoosier can do this better. Congressman Robert Pittenger, please do North Carolina proud. Tell us why fighting over the Debt Limit is necessary:
Our Nation is in peril. We are threatened, not by a foreign tyrant, but by our own reckless spending. Just today, the Fitch Ratings agency warned that our AAA credit rating is at risk.
 OK. But isn't the fact that we choose fights over the debt limit -- rather than the budget -- part of the problem?
Today the Fitch Ratings agency warned that our Nation's AAA credit rating is at risk if an increase in the debt ceiling doesn't also include a credible plan for deficit reduction.
 And here, finally, we have a rationale that links GOP actions to the issue at hand!! There's only one problem. You got to ask the question -- Is it true?  Well, let's go to the Fitch press release causing the commotion:
In Fitch's opinion, the debt ceiling is an ineffective and potentially dangerous mechanism for enforcing fiscal discipline. It does not prevent tax and spending decisions that will incur debt issuance in excess of the ceiling while the sanction of not raising the ceiling risks a sovereign default and renders such a threat incredible.
 Uh oh. If a media factchecker bothers to care what is said on the floor of Congress, he's going to start breaking out all the Pinocchios. This would be too bad, because Fitch does, sort of say what Pittenger claims:
In the absence of an agreed and credible medium-term deficit reduction plan that would be consistent with sustaining the economic recovery and restoring confidence in the long-run sustainability of U.S. public finances, the current Negative Outlook on the 'AAA' rating is likely to be resolved with a downgrade later this year even if another debt ceiling crisis is averted.
But sort of  is not good enough when the media is hostile -- something any GOP  spokesman needs to learn, and learn quickly. Fitch's concerns would be answered by a deal based on ordinary budget negotiations between the House and Senate, and they would be far happier if the debt limit were not the budget battleground.

If these are the GOP arguments going into the debt limit fight -- they are going to be in for a whipping. The GOP needs to learn to fight spending issues when they are working on spending bills.