December 31, 2013

ACLU sues to get info on NSA surveillance

The ACLU sued the Obama administration on Monday for more information about how intelligence agencies conduct surveillance.

The civil liberties group filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in a New York federal court seeking information on an executive order originally signed by President Reagan that is frequently used by the administration to justify National Security Agency actions.

The ACLU in its suit said the NSA is using the order to justify the collection of “vast quantities of data worldwide,” including “nearly 5 billion records per day on the location of cell phones, including Americans' cell phones."

It also said it usd the order to obtain “information from Google and Yahoo user accounts as that information travels between those companies' data centers located abroad.”
The group cited "revent revelations" in the press to back up its claims. It's lawsuit was joined by Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale University.
At issue is Executive Order 12,333, which focused on the surveillance of foreigners when it was signed by Reagan in 1981.
in its complaint, the ACLU said recent revelations "have confirmed that the government interprets that authority to permit sweeping monitoring of Americans' international communications.”
“How the government conducts this surveillance, and whether it appropriately accommodates the constitutional rights of American citizens and residents whose communications are intercepted in the course of that surveillance, are matters of great public significance and concern,” it said.

While the government has made available information about surveillance conducted under different authorities, “little information is publicly available regarding the rules that apply to surveillance of Americans' international calls and emails,” the complaint said.

In a statement announcing the suit, the ACLU questioned the lack of oversight that comes with an executive order.

“The executive is conducting surveillance under its own executive order without any real oversight,” the group said. “We now know too well that unchecked surveillance authority can lead to dangerous overreach."


December 30, 2013

New Benghazi report could aid Hillary Clinton, senior House Republican suggests

One of the biggest hurdles in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s potential path to the White House may have become easier to clear.

An extensive report Sunday in The New York Times casts doubt on Republican claims that al Qaeda played a key role in last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The article lends badly needed credence to the White House version of events and might remove some of the blame from the former secretary of state’s shoulders as she gears up for a 2016 presidential run.

A top House Republican went so far Sunday as to suggest that there may be a coordinated effort to help Mrs. Clinton — who is widely thought to be seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and leads her Republican counterparts in most polls — escape the shadow of Benghazi.

“I find the timing odd,” Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said of The New York Times piece and its political ramifications during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

Although he wouldn’t go much further, Mr. Rogers said, “I find it interesting that there is this rollout of stories” related to Benghazi.

The New York Times report says al Qaeda did not infiltrate Benghazi and backed up the initial White House claim that the event largely was spontaneous, wasn’t planned by al Qaeda’s central leaders and was fueled at least in part by outrage over anti-Islamic videos produced in the U.S.

The piece makes clear that the facts on the ground in Benghazi were murkier than what has been portrayed by both sides, and that neither Republicans’ nor the administration’s account is entirely accurate.

Democrats quickly used the report to dispute Mr. Rogers, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and others who have cited Benghazi as evidence that President Obama has not dismantled al Qaeda to the degree he claimed en route to winning re-election last year.

“I hope Chairman Issa and others have learned a lesson from this. Chairman Issa and members of that committee crusaded for over a year on what was really a fairy tale, claiming that the administration knew all along al Qaeda was involved and wouldn’t admit it,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, Texas Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Mr. Castro appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

As secretary of state at the time of the assault that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Mrs. Clinton has been a key target of Republicans who accuse the administration of failing to secure American assets and personnel in Benghazi and willfully hiding the truth for their own political benefit.

The reporting, to some degree, could shield Mrs. Clinton from charges that she participated in what critics have called a cover-up.

While not targeting Mrs. Clinton by name, Republicans on Sunday said parts of the article conflict directly with information in other reports and the sworn testimony of Americans on the ground in Benghazi.

“People from this administration, career professionals, have said under oath there was no evidence of any kind of reaction to a video and, in fact, this was a planned attack that came quickly. That’s the evidence we have,” Mr. Issa said on “Meet the Press,” referring to testimony from U.S. diplomats who described the anti-Islamic video as a nonevent in Libya at the time.

Other Republicans also disputed the notion that al Qaeda wasn’t involved. They noted that terrorist groups with clear connections to al Qaeda took part in the assault.

Even some lawmakers sympathetic to the administration say it’s misleading to suggest that al Qaeda had nothing to do with the incident.

“Intelligence indicates al Qaeda was involved,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and a member of the House intelligence committee.

Despite the latest report, Mr. Schiff said, he does not believe the State Department and Mrs. Clinton specifically are entirely absolved.

“I don’t think The New York Times report is designed to exonerate the security lapses within the State Department that left our people vulnerable,” he said in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”


December 27, 2013

Chamber of Commerce to Spend $50 Million to Crush Tea Party

On Christmas Day, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it plans to spend at least $50 million to "support establishment, business-friendly candidates in primaries and the general election, with an aim of trying to win a Republican Senate majority." 

"Our No. 1 focus is to make sure, when it comes to the Senate, that we have no loser candidates," said U.S. Chamber of Commerce top political strategist Scott Reed. "That will be our mantra: No fools on our ticket." 
GOP establishment officials hope to elide Tea Party challenges by shrinking the nomination process down to a tight four-month window replete with penalties for states that shirk the rules. 

The WSJ reported that Republican leaders "hope a less restive Republican caucus will allow the House to pass a farm bill and push ahead on at least incremental overhauls of the immigration system." 

The Chamber's comments are just the latest salvo in a widening battle between the conservative Tea Party grassroots and the establishment wing of the Republican Party. Increasingly, the Tea Party's growing power and influence has unmoored Republican politicians from their traditional alliance with Wall Street in favor of grassroots conservative activists. 

The shift comes as grassroots activists have re-framed the GOP's old "pro-business" stance into a "pro-free markets" positioning that eschews corporate welfare and taxpayer-funded crony capitalist giveaways to industries that make major political contributions and reap big government contracts paid for by voters.  

The Journal says that joining the Chamber of Commerce will be groups like Karl Rove's American Crossroads, who "are preparing an aggressive effort to groom and support more centrist Republican candidates." 


December 26, 2013

Obama may be able to avoid environmental debate, Keystone pipeline decision

After five years of delays, it has become increasingly clear that President Obama doesn’t want to make a decision on the massive Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

It turns out he may not have to.

House Democrats and other critics of the proposed project — which has put traditional White House allies such as labor unions and environmental activists on opposite sides of a heated debate — are hinting that the State Department may have to restart its environmental review of Keystone from scratch. Such a move, which would be motivated by suspected conflicts of interest surrounding a company hired by the State Department to work on the analysis, could push a decision on the pipeline down the road for another few years, possibly until Mr. Obama leaves office in 2017.

That scenario once seemed impossible. But now, analysts say, it could be emerging as the administration’s ultimate out, one that allows the president to satisfy the environmental community without being blamed for killing the project.

“I’ve been of the mind that there’s no way it makes any kind of sense [for the president to avoid a decision on Keystone]. But it’s been well over five years and yet he keeps proving me wrong,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the conservative Institute for Energy Research. “In my experience, a lot of times what happens is the way that the environmental community works, and the political community aligned with them, they will put all kinds of speed bumps in the way [of a project] and when the car falls apart because it takes one more speed bump they say, ‘Look at that. The car couldn’t make it.’”

The latest “speed bump” for Keystone, which would transport Canadian oil sands south from Alberta through the U.S. heartland to refineries on the Gulf Coast, centers on what some have called conflicts of interest involving the State Department’s lengthy review of the project.

State must conduct analyses of the $7 billion pipeline because it crosses an international boundary.

To do that, the department contracted with leading environmental consulting firm Environmental Resources Management. A draft environmental study of Keystone largely was favorable, finding no significant uptick in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the project while determining that the pipeline would create tens of thousands of jobs.

But since that draft was released in March, Environmental Resources Management and the State Department’s overall process have come under fire. Critics — led by environmental groups and key House Democrats such as Rep. Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona — point to the fact that Environmental Resources Management is a member company of groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute, that have publicly and aggressively lobbied for Keystone to be built.

The company also is a member of other trade groups and organizations that support the project. 

Environmental Resources Management did not respond to requests for comment, though it previously denied any conflicts of interest with respect to its work on Keystone.

An earlier investigation by the State Department found no conflicts, but the ordeal now is getting a second look.

A report from the department’s inspector general is due early next year, said Douglas Welty, congressional and public affairs officer at State’s Office of the Inspector General.

He added that the primary objective of the review is to determine whether State “was effective in assessing potential organizational conflicts of interest” when it chose Environmental Resources Management to perform the environmental review.

Until that investigation plays out, Mr. Grijalva and others want State to delay the release of its final environmental study. That report is a prerequisite for a decision by Mr. Obama, and until it is released the White House continues to defer all questions on Keystone to the State Department.

“It would be unwise and premature for State to release a study prepared by Environmental Resources Management while it remains under investigation for lying to federal officials about its business connections and practices,” Mr. Grijalva said in a letter to the president this month. The letter was co-signed by two dozen other House Democrats.

The company proposing the pipeline, TransCanada, largely has been tight-lipped about the investigation.
“Quite frankly, there is nothing new here and this is a matter for the U.S. Department of State and ERM to address,” TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said.

TransCanada — along with many in the Canadian government — has been frustrated by the Obama administration’s seemingly endless delays.

Environmental reviews of Keystone have dragged on for years. Indeed, supporters of the project, including a bipartisan coalition in Congress, have dubbed it “the most studied pipeline in history.”

If the inspector general’s review determines that the whole State Department process was marred by conflicts of interest, it likely would necessitate another round of studies and, potentially, years of further delay.

Meanwhile, Canada has begun looking for alternatives to get its valuable fuel to market.

On Dec. 19, a three-member review panel recommended that the Canadian government approve a pipeline west to the Pacific Coast, allowing oil to be shipped to burgeoning markets in Asia.

That development, among others, could make Keystone a less-attractive project from an economic perspective, Mr. Kish said.

For Mr. Obama, it also would carry clear political benefits.

“He could say, ‘Hey, I didn’t do that. It was a failure of the market system,’” Mr. Kish said. “I’ve seen this over several decades with these environmental battles. First they say you need to study it, to do this and to do that. It delays it, delays it, delays it. And all of a sudden the project becomes uneconomic or they have sent a political signal to the market that they ought to back out.”


December 24, 2013

One of Obama’s NSA panel members wants to dramatically INCREASE surveillance

Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, a member of President Obama’s NSA recommendation task force, not only thinks the agency’s surveillance programs are important — he wants to increase what they collect.

During a CBS “Face The Nation” Sunday interview, Morell said he wanted to correct the growing media narrative that the report released by the team last week recommends a total overhaul limiting the agency’s programs and procedures.

According to Morell, the bulk collection of domestic and international telephone metadata — the primary point of controversy surrounding the intelligence agency since Edward Snowden leaks — should be increased to include email, and that such a move would help to prevent the next 9/11-scale attack.

“I would argue actually that the email data is probably more valuable than the telephony data,” Morell told National Journal. “You can bet that the last thing a smart terrorist is going to do right now is call someone in the United States.”

The controversial program has been justified under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.

“I would argue that what effectiveness we have seen to date is totally irrelevant to how effective it might be in the future,” Morell said. “This program, 215, has the ability to stop the next 9/11, and if you added emails in there it would make it even more effective. Had it been in place in 2000 and 2001, I think that probably 9/11 would not have happened.”

Morell wants to renew an agency program that was suspended for compliance in 2009 and stopped altogether because of cost efficiency in 2011 that collects expanded amounts and types of Internet metadata mentioned in the footnotes of page 97 in the panel’s report.

He also touted support for a provision allowing the agency to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the case of emergencies.

The former acting CIA director’s comments come in stark contrast to more than a week of NSA news. Last week, a federal district judge ruled Section 215 and bulk telephone metadata collection as likely unconstitutional, the NSA panel’s report recommended significant changes intended to increase transparency and privacy, and another panel member said the programs have contributed nothing to preventing terrorism.


December 23, 2013

Oil industry starts push to end ban on exports of crude oil

The oil and gas industry is seizing on recent comments by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to push for an end to the United States' 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports.

The American Petroleum Institute says the U.S. energy boom has made the ban irrelevant, citing Energy Information Administration projections this week that domestic oil production would hit a near-record 9.5 million barrels per day by 2016.

"It is undeniable that the American energy revolution has rendered our energy export policies obsolete," said Erik Milito, API's upstream director.

The comments come after Moniz suggested that the U.S. should "relook" at the ban, which was imposed in response to the 1970s Arab oil embargo, which caused worldwide shortages.

"There are lots of issues in the energy space that deserve some new analysis and examination in the context of what is now an energy world that is no longer like the 1970s," Moniz said at the Platts Global Energy Outlook Forum in New York.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has sparked the boom in domestic energy production. The technology involves blasting tight rock formations with a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals to access previously hard-to-reach hydrocarbons.

Although the practice has prompted concerns of water pollution, it has pumped out loads of new energy resources. That, with increasingly fuel-efficient cars and the proliferation of alternative-fuel vehicles, has helped curtail imports — the U.S. in October produced more oil than it imported for the first time in 25 years.

The Obama administration has touted that development as a sign of economic progress.

"This year is going to be the first in a very long time we're producing more oil and gas than we're importing. That's a very big deal," President Obama said at his press conference Friday.

The oil industry, starting with recent calls from Exxon Mobil, sees a window to press its case.

The industry contends the U.S. has more oil than it needs and that producers can't move the light, sweet crude to the proper U.S. refineries without significant regulatory changes and infrastructure upgrades — options that, for now, appear heavier lifts than ending the export ban.

Milito said the administration can act unilaterally in determining that exports are in the national interest. He also said Congress could end the export ban.

The potential Senate-musical-chairs article ascendancy of oil-friendly Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee could smooth a path for legislation. She is poised to take the gavel if current Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., slides into the top post on the Finance Committee to replace Max Baucus, D-Ore., whom Obama has nominated to become the next ambassador to China.

Milito said that "it's too early to speculate" about Landrieu's position and impact, though he noted that she has been supportive of oil industry goals in the past. Still, if Landrieu is named head of the committee, that would put her in a tandem with ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, an oil industry supporter who is scheduled to deliver a speech on energy exports at the Brookings Institution next month.

Regardless of Landrieu's role, removing the ban certainly would face hurdles in the Senate.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Obama this week opposing an end to the ban, suggesting it would create gasoline price spikes at home.

And Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that sending crude oil abroad would hinder U.S. energy security, saying that doing so would increase reliance on Middle East imports -- which the ban was meant to deflect in the first place.

“The growing chorus from the oil industry to change longstanding U.S. law to permit the export of American crude oil is a disturbing trend. There can be no doubt that this is now a coordinated attack by the oil industry on the U.S. law that bars exports of crude oil from the United States," Markey said last week.

Exporting crude also could undercut recent gains in refined petroleum products, which the White House credited with propelling an upward revision of gross domestic product estimates for the second quarter.

Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said he's unsure whether ending the export ban would benefit the entire refinery industry, but he said his organization would support removing barriers to free trade, such as the ban.

"One needs to be really consistent in their positioning," he said. "Our position is crude should be able to find their highest value."


December 20, 2013

Deportations under Obama plunged to just 1 percent last year

The Obama administration deported just 1 percent of illegal immigrants living within the interior of the U.S. last year, according to statistics released Thursday, which signals that most illegal immigrants face little chance of being kicked out of the country.

In fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 133,551 immigrants, down more than 25 percent from the previous year, even as the estimated number of illegal immigrants grew to 11.7 million.

The numbers underscore the lack of capacity — and of political will — to remove most illegal immigrants.
The administration said the drop in interior enforcement is deliberate as it tries to focus more on border security and recent border crossers, and to go after immigrants in the interior only if they have amassed serious criminal records.

“Increasing border security is a top priority, and the results you see today clearly illustrate our ongoing commitment to this goal,” said John Sandweg, acting director of ICE.

When border and interior deportations are included, that total fell 10 percent from 2012, from nearly 410,000 to 368,644 this year. That is the lowest figure of President Obama’s five-year tenure.
The drop didn’t please either side of the immigration debate.

Even with the dip, immigrant rights advocates said, Mr. Obama has deported more than 2 million illegal immigrants during his time in office. They said the deportations were inhumane and included many parents of young children.

“How much longer do we have to stand by and watch our families get torn apart by unscrupulous immigration agents?” said Eddie Carmona, campaign manager for the Campaign for Citizenship.

Activists disputed Mr. Sandweg’s claim that 98 percent of those kicked out of the country are “priority” category offenders who either have violated immigration laws repeatedly, have amassed criminal records or are fugitives.

“It’s easy for the administration to say that those deported fit their priorities when this White House has practically made sneezing a criminal act for immigrants,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “These numbers may represent political calculus for the Beltway, but for immigrant families, they represent our parents, siblings and loved ones.”

From the other side is criticism that only one-third of deportations came from the interior, calling into question the administration’s enforcement claims.

“This information further reveals that the administration has been manipulating its figures to mislead the public,” said Stephen Miller, spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who led opposition to a legalization bill this year.

“The administration’s catch-and-release policy not only needlessly jeopardizes public safety but undermines the wages and employment of struggling U.S. workers,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Obama’s aides repeatedly have issued policies carving out categories of illegal immigrants who they say shouldn’t be deported. The most prominent was a decision last year to halt deportations of “Dreamers,” or younger illegal immigrants usually brought to the country as minors by their parents.

Other policies have discouraged deportations of parents and family members of veterans or active-duty troops.

Homeland Security officials testified to Congress this year that they are budgeted to detain and deport about 400,000 people a year, nearly 10 percent more than they managed to deport this year.

Trying to explain why the overall number dropped, Mr. Sandweg said more illegal immigrants are from outside of Mexico and are harder and more costly to deport. He said the administration is trying to target criminals, whose deportations also are more costly.

However, the number of criminal alien deportations dropped from 225,390 in 2012 to 216,810 this year.
Polling shows just how deep the fear of deportation runs in immigrant communities.

A Pew Hispanic Center survey of Asians and Hispanics in the U.S. released Thursday found people in those communities say avoiding deportation is more important to them than getting on an actual path to citizenship.

“By 55 percent to 35 percent, Hispanics say that they think being able to live and work in the United States legally without the threat of deportation is more important for unauthorized immigrants than a pathway to citizenship. Asian Americans hold a similar view, albeit by a smaller margin — 49 percent to 44 percent,” the Pew researchers said in their report.

Those findings could upend the immigration debate. For years, Democrats have fought for full citizenship rights for current illegal immigrants, arguing that anything less would be creating second-class residents, but many Republicans say granting citizenship is tantamount to amnesty.

The Pew findings suggest a middle ground, though Mr. Obama and other Democrats have said they cannot accept a bill that doesn’t have a full pathway to citizenship.


December 19, 2013

Obama’s own panel rips NSA spying on phone calls of Americans

President Obama’s internal review panel has accused the government of abusing the Patriot Act and said many of the intelligence community’s key tools should be reined in, including the NSA’s phone-snooping program and the FBI’s use of national security letters to demand secret information from private businesses, according to the stunning report released Wednesday.

The panel told Mr. Obama to scrap the National Security Agency’s phone-records collection program, saying it’s an infringement of privacy, and said the government instead should ask phone companies to store the records. The NSA would be able to ask for the records only when it deems national security is at stake.

“As a general rule and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about U.S. persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes,” the panel said.

The recommendation is a major blow to Mr. Obama, who has fought to preserve the phone-snooping program in the face of stiff criticism from privacy advocates and from conservatives and liberals on Capitol Hill.

The report goes much further, saying the government needs to rein in the secret court that oversees intelligence operations and needs to restrict the FBI’s use of national security letters.

It also called for far more information to be provided to make Congress and the public aware of government activities.

The report was released two days after a federal judge in Washington concluded that the phone-records program likely violates the Fourth Amendment.

The NSA said the Patriot Act gives it permission to collect records of nearly every phone call made in the U.S., including the numbers involved and the time and duration of the calls. The NSA says it does not store the contents of the conversations.

The White House said Mr. Obama is reviewing the report and will make decisions by early next year about the NSA program, but the panel’s conclusions are setbacks to him and to members of Congress who argue that the snooping is constitutional and necessary for national security.

Opponents of the snooping said the panel’s conclusions show a growing consensus that the government has overreached.

“The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the SenateJudiciary Committee.

The report is the latest fallout after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the NSA’s phone-snooping and other U.S. intelligence programs this year, igniting a fierce debate on the extent of government intrusion and the security trade-offs.

After the revelations, Mr. Obama said he wanted to have a more public conversation to put the programs on firm legal and political footing. He formed his five-member internal review panel as part of that.

Panelists submitted their report to the White House late last week, but it was made public Wednesday after officials said they felt the need to counteract what they said was inaccurate reporting on the recommendations.

Mr. Obama met with the review board Wednesday morning, ahead of the report’s release. Afterward, the White House said Mr. Obama was still reviewing the report and getting input.

“This is a fairly broad assessment that’s being done. And the president will take his time because it is absolutely necessary to do that in his review. And come January, he’ll have concluded that work and make a presentation on it,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

The panel’s 46 recommendations amount to a wholesale rejection of the direction the intelligence community has gone since the war on terrorism began.

In one recommendation, the panel said the NSA director should require confirmation by the Senate and that the position — which is a military post — be open to civilians. The panel said the next director probably should be a civilian.

Under the Patriot Act, the federal government and the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are able to order businesses to turn over private information.

The panel said that power should be constrained to narrow circumstances in a specific, authorized investigation — not a broad fishing expedition.

Panelists also recommended changes that could cut down on leaks like Mr. Snowden’s — including a scoring system that would determine how much access personnel have to sensitive information.

Even as it was being criticized by Mr. Obama’s panel, the intelligence community was reveling in another distinction: For the fifth straight year, it was named one of the five best places to work in the federal government, based on employee satisfaction.


December 18, 2013

Sessions: Ryan-Murray Budget Deal Uses Double Counting Just Like Obamacare

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said on the Senate floor Tuesday that he has discovered double counting accounting tactics were used in the budget deal House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) cut with Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

The little-noticed detail first surfaced in a section-by-section analysis of the Ryan-Murray deal that the Senate Budget Committee Republican staff published Monday:
Sec. 101 also continues the sequestration of certain mandatory accounts required under the BCA [Budget Control Act] for an additional two years (2022 and 2023) to reduce deficits by $28 billion. Approximately $22 billion of that amount comes from extending the 2% Medicare sequester. This is a cut to health care providers—in other words, not a true reform—and it sunsets in 2023. A large part of the Medicare savings accrues to the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund for Part A, so the proposal uses trust fund savings to increase discretionary spending.
The key line in that wonky quote is the last part of the last sentence, “the proposal uses trust fund savings to increase discretionary spending.”

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sessions expanded on that point. He walked through several of the details of the plan and the financial accounting of it before noting that this Ryan-Murray deal uses Medicare money to pay for more spending. 

“One of the things that’s happened in the bill that’s before us today is there has been an extension of the 10-year BCA [Budget Control Act] plan which was enacted two years ago, only eight years left, an extension of a 2 percent reduction in payments to providers—hospitals, doctors, to Medicare—who provide services for Medicare, treat patients and get paid by the United States government,” Sessions said. 
So they were reduced 2 percent. And this is scored as a savings for the country and, in effect, and that savings, as was done in this legislation, involved the last two years, years nine and ten of the 10-year window from today. And it creates some money, they say, because we have reduced Medicare costs and that we can spend that money today and this year and next year on non-defense and defense discretionary spending, and we’re going to promise to use the money we save in years nine and ten, outside the promise of the BCA 10-year window, which is already moving along.
Sessions said that unfunded liabilities to programs like Medicare and Social Security and various pension and retirement funds are potentially as high as $100 trillion and that “it’s growing considerably.” Sessions added that such debts are a “long-term threat to America” but that the country can correct these problems. However, he said, it is not possible to use Medicare or Social Security trust fund money to pay for things like Obamacare, Department of Defense spending, or non-Defense discretionary spending.

“It needs to be something where everybody participates in tightening the belt, and we could get the country on a sound path,” Sessions said. “But I want to register again and I’m going to continue to talk about this because I think it leads to a false impression; it leads to the impression we have more money than we really have, and you can’t use Social Security’s money, Medicare’s money, to fund Obamacare, the Defense Department, or non-defense discretionary spending. It’s not possible to use that money twice.”

These double counting tactics have appeared in recent years before in other pieces of major legislation, most notably Obamacare, in which various spending constraints and tax hikes were used to pay for new entitlements while at the same time to bolster Medicare’s finances.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney used a line about Obamacare’s double counting frequently during the 2012 election cycle. “Under the president's plan, he cuts Medicare by $716 billion, takes that money out of the Medicare trust fund and uses it to pay for Obamacare,” Romney said in an interview during the campaign with Tampa Bay’s WTSP 10 News, for instance. “I think this is something that people are just now focused on; and [they] find it very, very difficult to understand why he would cut Medicare for our current seniors.”

In February 2010, when Ryan led House Republicans in their takedown of Obamacare at the White House health summit, he focused in on the double counting practices. “[Obamacare] takes $52 billion in higher Social Security tax revenues and counts them as offsets, but that's really reserved for Social Security,” Ryan addressed the president directly at that health summit. “So either we're double-counting them or we don't intend on paying those Social Security benefits. It takes $72 billion and claims money from the CLASS Act -- that's the long-term care insurance program. It takes the money from premiums that are designed for that benefit and instead counts them as offsets. The Senate Budget Committee chairman said that this is a Ponzi scheme that would make Bernie Madoff proud.”

Ryan said at the time Obamacare “treats Medicare like a piggy bank.”
It raids a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare, not to shore up Medicare's solvency, but to spend on this new government program. Now, when you take a look at what this does, it is -- according to the chief actuary of Medicare, he's saying as much of 20 percent of Medicare's providers will either go out of business or will have to stop seeing Medicare beneficiaries. Millions of seniors who are on -- who have chosen -- Medicare Advantage will lose the coverage that they now enjoy. You can't say that you're using this money to either extend Medicare solvency and also offset the cost of this new program. That's double counting.
Ryan frequently has attacked Obamacare’s double counting on many other occasions as well.

On the Senate floor on Tuesday, Sen. Sessions compared Ryan’s double counting in his budget deal with Murray to the double counting employed by the Democrats in Obamacare:
The entitlement programs that went into Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, $500 billion of that money that supposedly was used to fund it was based on reductions in Medicare and some Social Security and other fund expenditures. They have trustees. And when they ran surplus, as they have done for many, many decades but not now, when they were running a surplus, the money was loaned to the federal treasury and then spent it, but the federal treasury owes it back to them, and now that both of those programs are heading into steep fiscal decline, they’re calling the notes. They’re calling back the money that they loaned, the trustees of those organizations know who they represent. They help Social Security recipients. They represent Medicare beneficiaries. And they are demanding their money, and they’re going to get it and we’re going to honor it. So what I’m saying is you can’t count that money twice and that’s what Mr. Elmendorf, the director of the CBO, told us on Dec. 23, the night before the bill was passed on the floor of the Senate, the Obamacare bill was passed in 2009. He said you can’t count the money twice, and to suggest you are strengthening Medicare and simultaneously providing a source of money to spend on the new Obamacare program is double counting. He used the word ‘double counting.’ How simple is this?

December 17, 2013

Why Ryan's Budget Deal May Be Poor Political Strategy

On Monday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) argued that the budget deal he cut with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) was a political win for Republicans because it avoided the possibility of another government shutdown, thereby keeping focus supposedly on Obamacare before the 2014 election cycle. “On our side of the aisle, we like the fact for the economy, no shutdowns,” Ryan told NBC’s Meet the Press. “We also don’t want to have shutdown drama so we can focus on replacing Obamacare, so we can focus on showing better ideas and what this is coming in.”

This has become the common wisdom surrounding the government shutdown in October: the notion that Republicans somehow distracted from Obamacare failures by refusing to fund Obamacare, thereby leading to a shutdown that ended in disastrous political polling for the GOP. To avoid another such catastrophic impasse, the logic goes, Republicans should sign onto a bill that raises spending in the short run but supposedly reduces it in the long run.

The big problem with this logic is that it is a misreading of the politics of the shutdown itself. Most observers recognized going in that the shutdown was not going to end with the repeal of Obamacare – not with President Obama in the White House and a solid Democratic majority in the Senate, plus enough Republicans willing to end the shutdown without any real concessions.

The real upshot of the shutdown was that the American public recognized that Republicans would stand firm against the implementation of Obamacare – and simultaneously, Americans were forced to pay attention to the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, since the highly-publicized shutdown focused on Obamacare itself. The results: Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the ringleader of the shutdown, has vaunted into prime political position, with polls of Americans ranking him as the third most influential figure in the world, behind the Pope and President Obama. Meanwhile, President Obama’s polls have been steadily sinking ever since the Obamacare rollout – he hit a record low in job approval among Americans last week, with just 38 percent approving, versus 58 percent disapproving.

In fact, even Ryan recognizes the fact that the shutdown was a net positive for Republicans – that’s why he continues to insist, despite his budget deal, that he will ask for concessions when America hits the debt ceiling again in February. If he truly believed that fighting over budget matters distracts from the true issue of Obamacare, he wouldn’t threaten movement on the debt ceiling – he’d look for a way to avoid a debt ceiling fight.

Some Republicans may be looking to buy a little breathing space. But strategically speaking, they’d be wise to continue to stand up against Obamacare in every available way, especially given the fact that we have not yet hit the end of 2013. Establishment politicians like Ryan may think that Tea Partiers like Cruz need a little strategic refresher – but Ryan would do well to remember that it’s Cruz, not a certain former vice presidential candidate, who is leading the anti-Obamacare fight in the minds of Americans.

December 16, 2013

Senate faces year-end deadline on budget, defense bill

The House has already left town for the holiday recess, and so all eyes will turn this week to the Senate, which must pass a budget compromise and other critical legislation before leaving town as well.

Budget bill

The biggest item on the Senate's agenda is a contentious budget compromise needed to avoid a second government shutdown in mid-January.

The budget bill will dampen the impact of budget cuts known as sequestration, largely by raising government user fees. Conservatives derided those fee hikes as tax increases, but the Republican-run House easily approved the deal, 332 to 94, before leaving town Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Sunday filed a procedural motion to end debate on the budget bill, setting the stage for a vote on Tuesday and final passage by week's end.

The most serious challenge to the budget bill comes from conservative Republicans, who object to the suspension of sequester-driven spending cuts. The compromise raised spending levels to about $1 trillion a year for two years, reflecting Democrats' call to protect domestic programs and Republicans' desire to insulate the Pentagon from deep reductions.

Heritage Action and other outside conservative groups, the force behind the Obamacare defunding effort that led to a government shutdown in October, denounced the compromise.

“By increasing spending, increasing fees and offering up another round of promises waiting to be broken, the deal represents a step backwards,” Heritage Action said in a statement.

Ryan defended the compromise, saying that a second government shutdown in mid-January, when the current budget bill expires, could be devastating for Republicans.

“Government has to function, and we saw the specter of two possible government shutdowns in 2014 ... I don't think that's good for anybody, that's not good for the country,” Ryan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

National Defense Authorization Act

The Pentagon’s annual policy legislation has been passed by both houses and signed by the president for 51 years in a row, a streak threatened this year when the Senate was unable to agree on how to proceed with amendments to the bill. With the Senate in gridlock, the House and Senate Armed Services committees hashed out a compromise that overwhelmingly passed the House last week by a vote of 350 to 69.

It’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition: The Senate will not have an opportunity to amend the defense bill. It can only vote it up or down.

To craft a compromise that could pass both chambers quickly, lawmakers cut some of the more contentious provisions from the bill. Among the issues set aside was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal for sexual assault reform, which won't be taken up until sometime next year.

Some senators have grumbled about the ban on amendments, but Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the chamber has to approve the same bill approved by the House to finish it and take credit for passing a defense policy bill for the 52nd straight year.


Since Senate Democrats changed the chamber's rules to limit minority-party power to block presidential nominations, lawmakers are moving swiftly to clear a backlog of President Obama's administrative and judicial nominees.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on the nominations of Jeh Johnson to head the Department of Homeland Security, and Anne Patterson as assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.


December 13, 2013

Jeff Sessions: Senate GOP to Filibuster Paul Ryan's Budget Deal

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the ranking GOP member of the Senate Budget Committee, said Thursday that Senate Republicans plan to filibuster the budget deal that House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) cut with Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

The deal passed the House 332-94, with 62 Republicans and 32 Democrats voting against it. The bill is expected to come up for votes in the Senate early next week, either Monday or Tuesday.

The type of filibuster Sessions spoke of is not the traditional “talking filibuster” like the one Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) launched earlier this year to protest Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama’s drone policies. It is a procedural filibuster, The Hill reports, that would require Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to at least twice obtain 60 votes to pass the bill.

“They’ll need 60 votes on cloture and 60 votes on the budget point of order,” Sessions said, according to The Hill.

Since there are only 55 Democrats in the U.S. Senate, Reid will twice need at least five Republicans to break from their party and support the budget deal. Reid may need more Republicans if liberals like Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) or Bernie Sanders (I-VT) oppose the deal because it does not extend unemployment benefits. Considering 32 Democrats voted against the deal in the House, it seems plausible Reid may lose at least one, maybe two Democrats in the Senate.

Senate Republicans largely seem unified against the bill. As of late Thursday, not one Senate Republican confirmed support of the plan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will vote against it, and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn and GOP conference chairman John Thune have indicated their opposition to it as well. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) has said he opposes it. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Sessions each oppose it too.

Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Roger Wicker (R-MS), who usually support similar measures, have each announced their opposition.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) is undecided as of this point, and while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)—easily the Senate’s most liberal Republican—has said he is leaning “yes,” he has not yet committed to voting for the deal, citing concerns with military pension cuts in it.

Appropriators like Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have not committed either, according to Roll Call.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Majority Whip in the Senate, confirmed to reporters on Thursday that the Democrats need GOP votes to make this happen.

“We need Republican votes to pass the budget agreement, period,” Durbin said. “We need at least five, and I’m hoping that there’ll be more than that. There are not five who Republicans have announced they’re for it, I mean to my knowledge, and I hope there are many more than that, and they’re just holding back for any number of reasons.”

While the deal is more likely to pass the Senate than not, the question becomes about which Republicans -- if any -- Reid will be able to attract to support the Ryan budget deal.


December 12, 2013

Why John Boehner And Paul Ryan Should Immediately Resign

Thomas Jefferson once said that “the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”  In other words, he believed that government debt was the equivalent of stealing money from future generations on a massive scale.  Right now, the U.S. government is stealing roughly $100,000,000 from future generations of Americans every single hour of every single day.  And it is being projected that the U.S. national debt will more than double during the 8 years of the Obama administration.  In other words, the federal government will pile more debt on to the backs of our children and our grandchildren during the Obama years than had been accumulated during all of the rest of U.S. history combined.  The federal government is literally destroying the future of America, and what we are doing to our children and our grandchildren is beyond criminal.  If there was one thing that the Republicans in Congress were supposed to do, it was to do something about all of this debt.  These days Republicans can’t seem to agree on much, but the one issue that virtually all “conservatives” were supposed to agree on was the national debt.  The American people gave the Republicans control of the House in 2010 and 2012 for a reason.  

Unfortunately, nothing has been done.  Our debt has continued to spiral out of control and now John Boehner and Paul Ryan are pushing a “budget deal” that will essentially give the free-spending Democrats virtually everything that they want for the next 10 years.  That is why John Boehner and Paul Ryan should immediately resign.

This “budget deal” actually increases the deficit in the short-term.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Overall, it is supposed to reduce the federal budget deficit by about 20 billion dollars over the next decade.  But even if the unrealistic assumptions that those numbers are based upon end up working out (which they never do), the “savings” will average just 2 billion dollars a year over the next decade.

And considering the fact that federal budget deficits will likely average well over a trillion dollars over that time span, that is a complete and total joke.

It is kind of like spitting into Niagara Falls and thinking that it will actually make a difference.

Even Paul Ryan is admitting that “this isn’t the greatest agreement of all time”, and in interviews he is complaining that the Democrats wouldn’t allow him to do more.

As if we are supposed to feel sorry for him.

Look – according to the U.S. Constitution the federal government cannot spend a single penny without the approval of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Democrats cannot force the Republicans to do anything.

So if the national debt more than doubles during the Obama administration it is the fault of both the Democrats and the Republicans.

Today, U.S. Senator Rand Paul called the proposed budget deal “shameful“, and he was exactly correct.

It is utterly shameful that the Republicans believe that it is just fine to steal more than 10 trillion dollars from future generations of Americans during the Obama years.

It is utterly shameful that the Republicans believe that it is just fine that the U.S. government has accumulated more than 200 trillion dollars of unfunded liabilities that will need to be paid in future years.

It is utterly shameful that the Republicans believe that it is just fine to keep running up a debt that is now more than 37 times larger than it was just 40 years ago.

But instead of doing something to fix this, House Speaker John Boehner is blasting those that are concerned about all of this debt
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who ceded control of the budget talks to Ryan, likewise pushed back on outside groups’ attempts to influence lawmakers. “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner said, “This is ridiculous. Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.”
The Democrats don’t even have to attack fiscal conservatives anymore because the Republican leadership is taking care of that job for them.

And John Boehner has got to be joking when he uses the phrase “deficit reduction” in relation to this proposed budget deal.  In fact, even CNN is admitting that it essentially does nothing to help our long-term debt problems…
It doesn’t really move the needle much on the country’s long-term debt trajectory. That’s because Ryan and Murray opted for pragmatism, explicitly ruling out wrestling over entitlement and tax reform in this round of negotiations.
Back on September 30th, 2012 our national debt was sitting at a total of 16.07 trillion dollars.
Today, it is up to 17.23 trillion dollars.

That means that we have added 1.16 trillion dollars to the national debt in a little more than 14 months.
This is a recipe for national suicide.

We were the wealthiest nation in the history of the planet, but that was never good enough for us.
We always had to spend even more.

Now we have accumulated the greatest mountain of debt the world has ever seen, and someday if our children and our grandchildren have the chance they will curse us for what we have done to them.

Anyone that has run up massive amounts of credit card debt knows that the ride up can be quite enjoyable.  At times, it can seem like the good times will go on forever and that there will never really be any consequences.

But in the end, a very painful day of reckoning always arrives.

The rest of the world is watching what is going on.  They can see us running up all this debt.  The can see the Federal Reserve wildly printing up money.

At some point the rest of the world is going to stop using our increasingly unstable currency to trade with one another and they are going to stop lending us trillions of dollars at super low interest rates.

When that time arrives, the consequences of decades of very foolish decisions will catch up to us very rapidly.

If only we had listened to our forefathers.

Thomas Jefferson once said that if he could add just one more amendment to the U.S. Constitution it would be a complete ban on all borrowing by the federal government
I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its Constitution; I mean an additional article, taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.
How much better off would we be today if we had only listened to him?