Amash Takes On The NSA (Again)

Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mi.), the libertarian-leaning first-term House member who came close to scoring a major legislative victory over the National Security Agency last summer, is back again with two similar amendments to this year’s defense spending bill. If the narrow defeat of his effort last year to defund the NSA’s metadata program had a silver lining, it’s that his second try might just succeed.

Last July, a defense bill amendment authored by Amash and co-sponsored by Michigan Democrat John Conyers, which would have stripped funding from the NSA’s bulk phone metadata collection program, lost in the House of Representatives by only seven votes. It was a much closer call than pundits (and even some informed lawmakers) had anticipated, and reflected a strong political will among Congressmen to respond to the Edward Snowden scandal with meaningful reform.

“Justin Amash almost beat the NSA. Next time, he might do it.” That was The Washington Post’s story headline the day after Amash’s NSA amendment died on a 205-217 House vote. POLITICO went with “Justin Amash prevails as amendment fails.”

Now we’ll see if that momentum will carry over into the debate on this year’s defense bill. There’s reason for optimism: Not only has Amash introduced two amendments this time around, but there’s a separate, more comprehensive standalone bill before the House — the USA Freedom Act — that, if successful, would obviate the Amash amendments, which are intended as a “backstop” in case the Freedom Act fails.

Amash attached the pair of amendments precisely to give the Freedom Act a helping hand, as National Journal reported Tuesday:

The amendment, offered to the Rules Committee, is meant as a fail-safe in the event the Freedom Act does not also come up for consideration this week in its current form or something closely resembling it, said Will Adams, Amash’s chief of staff. House leadership has scheduled the bill for “possible consideration” this week, but backdoor dealings that may change it continued through the weekend and spilled into this week.

“If negotiations keep dragging on and we don’t get consideration of the Freedom Act this week, we will use our opportunity to move with the NDAA legislation an amendment that would address NSA surveillance,” Adams said.

The first of Amash’s new amendments would fund NSA data seizures authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court only if each search order is accompanied by a statement that specifically delineates “selection terms” — presumably search query words — deemed worthy of suspicion by the court. It would also give a 180-day shelf life to each court order.

The other amendment codifies the above stipulations in a general ban on bulk collection, requiring each NSA data search to target a specific subject on “reasonable grounds to believe that the call detail records sought to be produced based on the specific selection term are relevant to an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment) conducted in accordance with section 501(a)(2) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978…”

To read the present incarnation of Section 501(a)(2), click here and scroll down to page 42. It’s perhaps worth noting that sections 501 and 502 of the FISA are set to revert next June to their original language prior to the creation of the Patriot Act — unless, of course, the current language is reauthorized between now and then.

Note from the Editor: Under the Obama Administration, the NSA, the IRS, and the State and Justice departments are blatantly stepping on Americans’ privacy—and these are just the breaches we’re aware of. I’ve arranged for readers to get a free copy of The Ultimate Privacy Guide so you can be protected from any form of surveillance by anyone—government, corporate or criminal. Click here for your free copy.

Connecticut Assembly Bans Chocolate Milk To Protect Federal School Lunch Funding

Facing the threat of losing its Federal funding carrot for public school lunches under a Michelle Obama-backed child obesity law, the Connecticut General Assembly last week approved a measure banning chocolate milk from being made available in lunchrooms throughout the State.

On the final night of the State’s legislative session, the Assembly passed a series of amendments to education bill HB 5566 that included language defining which types and quantities of milk can be served in school cafeterias — and chocolate milk, because of its sodium content, will effectively get the axe.

Pat Baird, dietician and president of the State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said the decision is counterproductive to improving the quality of kids’ diets, because the benefit of ditching the small amount of sodium contained in each serving of chocolate milk will be negated — and then some — by the discouraging effect that banning a popular drink will have on kids’ participation in school lunch offerings.

From CT News Junkie:

“This will have a significant impact on school meal participation and ultimately nutrient intake for students,” Baird said. “School chocolate milk has between 60-90 mg added sodium, which is only 2-4 percent of sodium intake in a day. Removing chocolate milk hardly moves the needle on added sodium intake; but what it does remove is critical nutrients for growth and development.”

She said the majority of the milk sold in schools is chocolate and “research has shown that when chocolate milk is not served, milk consumption drops 35 percent and does not recover.”

Baird’s remarks were echoed by other health professionals following the vote.

Governor Dannel Malloy said last week he disagrees with the chocolate milk ban, which most media sources have interpreted as an indication of his intent to veto the bill. But this statement from the Governor’s office forms the basis for that assumption:

“This specific bill has not yet come to the Governor’s desk and will be reviewed in detail when it arrives. However, on the broader topic at hand, the Governor is not supportive of banning chocolate milk in public schools. While we must be extremely mindful of the nutritional value of what’s offered to students, ensuring an appropriate array of options helps to ensure that kids receive the calcium and other nutrients they need.”

It sounds as though the Governor would like to veto the bill — if in doing so he doesn’t strike out the bevy of other provisions that keep the Federal dollars rolling in.

One Republican on the Connecticut House Education Committee said the vote wasn’t intended as a nanny-state dictate to parents and children on what students should or shouldn’t eat — although the effect is the same. Rather, said Representative Timothy Ackert, the Assembly was staring down the possibility that the Feds would yank funding for school programs if the State didn’t approve the measure to comply with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, for which first lady Michelle Obama served as lead cheerleader during her husband’s first Presidential term.

In addition to sometimes-amusing reports of students’ vehement rejection of the new school-lunch mandates, health professionals’ concerns that overall participation in school-lunch programs have suffered under the Act were indeed confirmed in a March Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The GAO found that student participation had declined by more than 1 million since 2010, while 48 States had struggled to enact the dietary standards without resorting to odd food combinations or adding new menu items kids simply don’t want.

Nevada Trashes Its Failed Obamacare Website

Nevada became the latest State to abandon its State-managed Obamacare online marketplace Tuesday, ending its relationship with the company that had been hired to set up and manage the Nevada Health Link exchange and referring future customers to the Federal Obamacare website, healthcare.gov.

Nevada’s insurance commission, the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange, unanimously voted to part ways with Xerox after losing confidence that the company could adequately correct a series of ongoing problems with the State exchange website in time for Obamacare enrollment this fall. The Silver State board emphasized that its reliance on healthcare.gov could end at the State’s discretion, should Nevada make a future attempt at contracting to develop a new State-managed Obamacare website.

Nevada had awarded Xerox a $75 million contract, which was supposed to have produced a fully-functioning website and an underpinning enrollment database to track customers’ plans and payments. Silver State exchange board members and elected officials reportedly reached a consensus that it made no sense to push forward with a potentially costly fix, with Xerox at the helm, lacking a clear timetable or estimate of the final bill.

Nevada residents filed a class action lawsuit against Nevada Health Link in early April, alleging that the service failed to insure them even after they enrolled and paid their premiums. On the heels of the class action came a report from consulting firm Deloitte, which had been hired to assess whether it makes financial sense to salvage the Xerox-run exchange. “[T]he current project team has not proven they can successfully deliver the required management, processes or solution to successfully deliver an operational exchange,” Deloitte advised.

Nevada joins Oregon as the two States to give up completely on an in-house Obamacare marketplace for the coming 2015 enrollment period by reverting to healthcare.gov; Maryland and Massachusetts have also abandoned their expensive Obamacare websites to start over on State-managed websites officials hope to deploy in time for fall enrollment. Hawaii’s State-run exchange – the most expensive Obamacare site, per enrollee, in the Nation – also appears to be on the way out.

Bad Money After Worse: Democratic Congressman Pushes Bill For Federal Green Energy Bank

Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has redoubled his efforts to drum up grass-roots support for a piece of legislation that seeks to create a Federal bank dedicated solely to issuing loans for green-energy projects, five years after the same bill died in the Senate.

Van Hollen introduced the bill on April 30, and has been issuing urgent press releases and YouTube videos selling the idea.

Van Hollen’s plan would establish a Federal Green Bank out of an initial offering of $10 billion in Treasury bonds, supplemented by “the ability to acquire another $40 billion from Green Bonds,” as the Congressman explained.

“These funds will spur development of clean energy markets through loans, loan guarantees, debt securitizations, insurance, and other forms of financing support or risk management for qualified clean energy and energy efficiency projects,” Van Hollen’s press release states. “The legislation includes tax provisions on deductibility of foreign-related interest expenses to offset the Green Bank cost.”

Sound familiar?

When the bill first came before Congress in 2009, it passed the House before being killed off in the Senate. That was before the Solyndra collapse of 2011, which left the Federal government on the hook for nearly $400 million out of $536 million it had loaned the company through favorable terms under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act – as well as a host of lower-profile green-energy failures bankrolled by the Administration of President Barack Obama.

Millennial Generation Rejects Affirmative Action In MTV Survey

Last week, MTV released the results of a survey the pop-culture network commissioned as part of a larger, agenda-driven project to normalize cultural outliers, emphasize racial prejudices and, in the company’s own words, “address bias.”  Most of the respondents agreed it’s bad to treat people differently because of the color of their skin – a sentiment that carried over into respondents’ opinions about affirmative action.

Davis Binder Research, the data and consulting agency that carried out the three-month survey, found that the kids don’t think government should intervene with schools and employers to force the selection of applicants based on their racial background.

In fact, 88 percent of the 3,000 young people interviewed for the survey said they couldn’t get behind affirmative action, because it demonstrates preferential treatment based on racial differences. A full 90 percent said schools and employers should treat everyone equally, regardless of race. And 70 percent said it’s “never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.”

If those results seem to subvert MTV’s historical effort to foment progressive sympathy in young viewers, then maybe it’s a function of phrasing the question wrong – because the survey question leaves plenty of room for free, unencumbered thinking:

Despite the reality of their experience, their unwavering belief in equality trumps all else and makes it difficult for them to support affirmative action (Note ‐ there was no statistical difference by race for first two bullets).

88% believe that favoring one race over another is unfair, because of their belief in equality.

90% believe that everyone should be treated the same regardless of race.

70% believe it’s never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities. (65% for POC [people of color], 74% for White).

The numbers-based portion of the survey that yielded the affirmative action data specifically targeted the young and pop-savvy demographic: 14-24 year-old people who indicated they were MTV viewers. Along with the objective questions, the respondents also got a healthy dose of questions that presumed a general consensus on social issues, without offering the young viewers much wiggle room.

“65% would be interested in a tool to help them work on their biases,” one survey item observed.
“They want to join a campaign to understand more, talk more and develop tools to help combat bias. Two in three (68%) say that they want to join a campaign that, ‘aims to start a conversation around bias, empowering America’s youth to better recognize bias in themselves and their surroundings, challenge it when they see it, and help create a future with more equal opportunity.’”

Obama Administration Puts Money Squeeze On Gun Retailers

The Obama Administration is waging a semi-successful campaign to burden firearms dealers with regulations and veiled scrutiny tied to the consumer credit industry to such an extent that retailers are scrambling, in some cases, to find a bank willing to process customers’ card-based transactions or even handle their merchant accounts.

According to The Washington Times, which reported on what appear to be a multi-pronged strategy emanating from the Administration to bureaucratically hamstring businesses that lawfully deal in firearms, small dealers in particular face the prospect of losing their business, thanks to banks cautious of the Department of Justice’s Operation Choke Point initiative, which ostensibly targets businesses that carry a “reputational risk.”

“[The] Justice Department has launched Operation Choke Point, a credit card fraud probe focusing on banks and payment processors. The threat of enforcement has prompted some banks to cut ties with online gun retailers, even if those companies have valid licenses and good credit histories,” the Times reported Sunday.

That places gun dealers – especially small mom-and-pop operations – in the same company as pornographers, sweepstake scammers and short-term loan sharks when it comes to setting up a bank account or merchant service agreement to accept card-based payment.

Here are some examples the Times listed of firearms sellers who’ve had close calls – or worse – with Operation Choke Point:

• T.R. Liberti, owner and operator of Top Gun Firearms Training & Supply in Miami, has felt the sting firsthand. Last month, his local bank, BankUnited N.A., dumped his online business from its service.

An explanatory email from the bank said: “This letter in no way reflects any derogatory reasons for such action on your behalf. But rather one of industry. Unfortunately your company’s line of business is not commensurate with the industries we work with.”

• Black Rifle Armory in Henderson, Nevada, had its bank accounts frozen this month as the bank tried to determine whether any of Black Rifle’s online transactions were suspicious.

• In 2012, Bank of America suddenly dropped the 12-year account of McMillan Group International, a gun manufacturer in Phoenix, even though the company had a good credit history, the owner said. Gun parts maker American Spirit Arms in Scottsdale, Arizona, received similar treatment by Bank of America, the country’s largest banking institution.

On top of that, banks have been clamping down on gun dealers following a 2011 warning by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) that takes aim at the firearms trade as a “high-risk” business category.

“Basically, what we’re saying is, these types of programs can be, can involve high-risk activities that could create litigation risk and reputation risk for financial institutions,” FDIC General Counsel Richard Osterman told a House panel last month. “So, they need to do due diligence to ensure that the folks who they’re banking are acting in a safe and sound manner.”

Does that apply even to the many mom-and-pop gun dealers who have been doing business “in a safe and sound manner” for decades without government-prompted institutional harassment?

In January, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was already condemning Operation Choke Point as a government scheme to regulate the legal payday loan industry out of business.

“The extraordinary breadth of the Department’s dragnet prompts concern that the true goal of Operation Choke Point is not to cut off actual fraudsters’ access to the financial system, but rather to eliminate legal financial services to which the Department objects,” Issa wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder. “…It appears the Department has indiscriminately targeted an access point to the financial system that countless legitimate merchants rely upon simply because it is ‘faster’ than targeting the actual perpetrators of fraud.”

Issa wrote that before the Operation’s other convenient regulatory uses came into full view. As a web of Federal regulations continues to tighten around the gun trade, his words now reflect what many small gun dealers are experiencing firsthand.

One Thing Republicans, Democrats, Blacks, Whites, Rich And Poor Have In Common: Support For Voter ID

As State courts go back and forth over the Constitutionality of voter identification laws, public opinion appears to strongly favor voter ID as a means of reducing elections fraud. Significantly, a majority of Americans identifying with both major parties supports some form of voter ID law.

The results of a FOX News poll last week reveal that 70 percent of Americans are necessary to prevent fraudulent voting, as opposed to 27 percent who believe the laws aren’t necessary. The remaining three percent did not offer an opinion.

Fox News graphic
FOX News

As the graphic shows, Americans’ opinion on the validity of voter ID laws has remained consistent over time. The current poll’s numbers are virtually identical to the results FOX News observed the last time the same question was asked, in April 2012.

Even a majority of Democrats, whose party leaders are waging the political campaign to treat voter ID laws as a regressive means of denying voting rights to minorities and poor people, favor voter ID laws, by a 55 percent to 43 percent margin. A majority of blacks also favor voter ID, by a 51 percent to 46 percent margin.

In fact, not a single demographic broken down by FOX News yielded a majority of respondents who opposed voter ID laws, as this graphic shows:

Fox News graphic
FOX News

President Barack Obama, then, would be in the minority on the issue. Obama told an audience at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network last month that current voter ID laws are nothing more than a Republican-supported form of voter suppression, enacted to counter a problem that doesn’t exist.

“The real voter fraud is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud,” said Obama. “Across the country Republicans have led efforts making it harder, not easier, to vote.”

Teen Beats Out Two-Term GOP Incumbent In West Virginia State Primary

West Virginia voters advanced 17 year-old high school senior Saira Blair to the November general election for a seat in the State House of Delegates this week, stalling the political career of her opponent, who was seeking his third term.

Blair, a pro-life, pro-gun Republican, defeated 66 year-old incumbent Republican Larry Kump in a low-turnout election to represent counties in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle in Charleston. She received 872 votes to Kump’s 728, and will face Democrat Layne Diehl in November.

Blair, who can’t vote until she turns 18 in July, ran a positive campaign that played up her conservative position on abortion, 2nd Amendment rights, government regulation of small business and taxation. She doubtless received some of her political gifts from her father, Craig Blair, a Republican who currently serves in the State Senate.

In an election-day interview published in Hagerstown-based newspaper The Herald-Mail, Blair said her youth, as well as her direct approach to engaging voters, is an asset.

“I don’t have as many biases because I am younger and so I’m more capable of taking the views of the people directly from the district to Charleston,” she said. “I think I’m fully capable of doing the job, and I don’t think it’s rocket science by any means — not if you just listen to the people… In order to [help the private sector create jobs]…we need to make it a more business-friendly state by lowering the corporate net tax, eliminating the business franchise tax and eliminating the tax on equipment and machinery.”

If Blair wins the general election, she’ll opt to forego her spring semester at West Virginia University, where she plans to enroll as a freshman this fall, so that she can attend the State legislative session when it convenes for 2015.

Blair’s not the only young person making political waves this week. In what could be another indication that voters in some parts of the country are ready for new blood, 18 year-old Kelvin Cletus Green won the mayor’s seat in the small town of Archer City, Texas.

Then again, voters in Archer City didn’t have to think very hard about electing Green – he was the only person who filed to run, so there wasn’t even an election.

Another Test Case In Government’s Ongoing Push To Define ‘Real’ Journalism

Government’s interjection into the ongoing debate about what constitutes “real” media took another turn this week, when advocates for a nonprofit seeking to assert its 1st Amendment protections appealed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court’s narrow interpretation of what constitutes journalism.

The case stems from the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) denial of a request from Cause of Action, a nonprofit government watchdog, to waive fees on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests it had filed in 2012. The FTC ruled Cause of Action is not a traditional media outlet and, therefore, must pay FOIA fees for the honor of being treated like one.

Cause of Action appealed the decision in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., but the court denied the group’s appeal last year. Now the group has taken its case to the appeals court, where a group of news organizations and civil liberties organizations filed an amicus brief siding with Cause of Action on Tuesday.

“Despite the best efforts of Congress to emphasize how important it is to broadly define ‘representative of the news media’ for the purposes of a FOIA fee waiver, courts and government agencies have continued to apply inappropriately narrow definitions,” the brief asserts. “This court should ensure that the standard applied aligns with what Congress intended and what best serves FOIA’s goals of government transparency and accountability.”

Among those siding with Cause of Action are several traditional news organizations — including The Washington Post and, remarkably, National Public Radio, Inc. In filing the brief, those entities defended the open-ended intent of the 1st Amendment to preserve freedom of speech for all, as well as for the Amendment’s implicit limitations on government abrogating that freedom:

This case centers on a question that strikes at one of the central accountability principles of democratic government: how far government agencies and the courts can go in defining what is “news” and of “public interest,” and thus merits disclosure without hefty fees to the requester. As advocates for the media and the media’s ability to gather information from the government and disseminate information to the public, amici [“friends” of the plaintiff] have a strong interest in ensuring that both established and new media outlets can obtain fee waivers for public records. Amici also have a strong interest in ensuring that the needs of the public, and not the interests of the government, determine what is “in the public interest,” and that even yet-unpublicized issues can be brought to light in service of that interest.

If the District Court’s denial of Cause of Action’s fee waiver requests is allowed to stand, it could make it much more difficult for new media to obtain public records without being forced to pay prohibitively high fees. This case thus has implications beyond the outcome for the parties directly involved, and could make it difficult for the news media to fully report on the workings of government for the benefit of the public.

In addition to the potential threat to organized media operating within or near the periphery of mainstream journalism, the case has even more profound implications for newsgathering blogs and citizen reporters whose recognition inherently falls far beneath the government’s radar.

If the FTC’s decision is allowed to stand, it will represent a major victory in the state’s ongoing effort to squelch the voices of independent journalists, by pricing public information — information that’s supposed to be free to all — out of the reach of all but the most affluent newsgatherers.

Arkansas Supreme Court Strikes Down Judge’s Voter ID Ruling

Opponents of Arkansas’ voter ID law had less than a month to celebrate their evident court victory against the law before the State Supreme Court reinstated the law, overturning the decision of a circuit judge who’d declared that it violated the State Constitution.

On Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Arkansas 6th Circuit Judge Tim Fox had erred when he struck down the law, because he attempted to issue a blanket ruling encompassing the law in its entirety, when only a portion of the law — that which concerns the casting of absentee ballots — had been contested before his court.

The high court made no ruling on the merits of the voter ID law, leaving the issue for its own day in court as part of a separate Constitutional challenge currently underway in Arkansas.

The Supreme Court agreed with Fox’s original finding. Fox had remarked that the State Board of Election Commissioners had exceeded its authority when it authorized a unique way of addressing as provisional a number of absentee ballots submitted without voter ID. The Board had not put forward a clear consensus on whether a non-ID absentee voter has the right, after the fact, to be informed and to remedy their illegal (that is, non-ID-verified) ballot by presenting identification while the ballot was held in provisional status.

“At issue in the present case are certain rules promulgated by the ASBEC that establish an entire procedure by which an absentee voter, who fails to submit the identification or documentation with his or her ballot as required under section 7-5-201(d)(1)(B), shall be notified of the deficiency and can remedy the deficiency in order to have his or her ballot counted,” the high court’s decision states.

But Fox went too far in his attempt to invalidate the whole of the State’s voter ID law based on that limited challenge to only one part of the law, the court ruled.

The upshot: Voter ID is still the law in Arkansas.

A more interesting aside concerns the Arkansas Supreme Court’s take on the clear division between legislative authority and administrative duty. A quick read-through of the majority opinion in the voter ID case reveals that the Barack Obama Administration’s use of Federal agencies to essentially make laws, as well as to selectively enforce existing laws, would not fare well if Arkansas’ Supreme Court were the arbiter of such things.

Here’s a sampling:

This court has held that “there must be strict compliance with statutory provisions regarding the application for and casting of absentee ballots.” Womack v. Foster, 340 Ark. 124, 153, 8 S.W.3d 854, 871 (2000). Moreover, the law is elementary that an agency has no right to promulgate a rule or regulation contrary to a statute.

…Where the General Assembly has so evidently not provided a procedure for absentee voters similar to that provided for in-person voters, it is clear to this court that the ASBEC’s emergency rules conflict with the election code, because the ASBEC created a procedure that did not exist, and the legislature did not intend for it to exist.

The ASBEC and Webb contend that the ASBEC was given the authority to adopt any regulations necessary to fill statutory gaps and to correct oversights by the General Assembly. However, this contention contravenes the basic principle of separation of powers. By promulgating the emergency rules that it did, the ASBEC was legislating. This court has previously observed it is “not the business of the courts to legislate; and, if a change in the law in this respect is desired, the General Assembly is the branch of government whence the change must come.” Southern Tel. Co. v. King, 103 Ark. 160, 165, 146 S.W. 489, 491 (1912). It is not the courts’ business to legislate; likewise, it was not the business of the ASBEC, as part of the executive branch, to do so.

Ted Cruz Moves To End FCC Stifling Of Net Neutrality

Arguing that “a five-member panel at the FCC should not be dictating how Internet services will be provided to millions of Americans,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Wednesday announced his plan to introduce a new bill that would revoke the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to tinker with broadband speeds under an obscure provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

“I will be introducing legislation that would remove the claimed authority for the FCC to take such actions, specifically the Commission’s nebulous Sec. 706 authority,” said Cruz.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act affords the FCC, in conjunction with State utility service commissions, to take swift action against broadband providers if the FCC determines in its annual report to Congress that they are not, “in a reasonable and timely fashion,” providing convenient, consistent and affordable internet access to customers.

It’s a vague provision that, given the FCC’s proclivity to interpret its administrative powers broadly, gives the agency enormous enforcement power that borders on lawmaking. It was written nearly 20 years ago, when Congress was far more concerned with other networked infrastructure based on cable television and telephone services.

Writing for the Federalist Society in 2012, Howard Waltzman described the contemporary problems posed by the FCC’s reliance on Section 706 to force its square-peg regulatory agenda into a round hole:

Section 706 of the ’96 Act was a somewhat obscure, but now highly debated, provision of the law. Section 706(a) provides that the Commission and State Public Utility Commissions must “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans . . . by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” Section 706(b) requires the Commission to conduct regular inquiries into “the availability of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans.” If the Commission determines that such capability is not being deployed to all Americans “in a reasonable and timely fashion,” the Commission is required to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”

… But, if nothing else, the complexity and fluidity of the Internet market demonstrates that Section 706 is an unsustainable framework for this rapidly changing market. Congress needs to provide clearer guidance to the Commission beyond simply prodding the agency to incentivize infrastructure investment. Rather than simply telling the Commission that there needs to be more broadband network deployment, Congress should establish a clear framework regarding the Commission’s authority (or lack thereof) over broadband services and infrastructure; the relationship between broadband network providers and applications providers; and what, if any, rules apply to the transmission of applications over the Internet. Twenty-first century technology and services warrant a twenty -first century framework.

That was in 2012. Cruz’ new proposal, on the heels of a fresh eruption of the FCC’s role in the net neutrality debate, would mark the first step in doing exactly what Waltzman recommends: putting Congress, and not a Federal agency chaired by a Presidential appointee, in charge of establishing a framework for the way a Nationwide Internet infrastructure will serve Americans.

Cruz isn’t a maverick on the net neutrality issue, either: Congressional action of one kind or another has bipartisan support. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) told FCC chairman Tom Wheeler last week that the FCC should not be in the business of turning Internet access into a shop-your-speed bandwith store that favors wealthy content pushers.

“I believe [Obama] pledged to appoint FCC commission that would honor net neutrality and keep net neutrality as law,” Franken told Time magazine in an interview recapping his letter to the FCC. “[But] The latest proposed rules by Wheeler — what he’s really talking about is creating a fast lane where people can pay to have their content treated unequally. That’s not net neutrality. That’s pay for play. That’s antithetical to net neutrality.”

Cruz’ statement on his new bill takes direct aim at that concern.

“More than $1 trillion has already been invested in broadband infrastructure, which has led to an explosion of new content, applications, and Internet accessibility,” said Cruz.

“Congress, not an unelected commission, should take the lead on modernizing our telecommunications laws. The FCC should not endanger future investments by stifling growth in the online sector, which remains a much-needed bright spot in our struggling economy.”

Rand Paul Vows To Block Obama’s Judicial Nominee Until DOJ Comes Clean On Targeting Killings

On Wednesday, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blasted President Obama’s nomination of a controversial former member of the legal team that green-lit the drone killing of two radicalized Islamist U.S. Citizens in 2010, penning a lengthy column for Breitbart pledging to block the judicial appointing process in Congress until the nominee, Judge David Barron, had squared his position on the assassination of Americans without due process.

“President Obama’s nomination of Judge David Barron to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals is troubling because it relates directly, again, to the issue of whether this Administration believes we have a Fifth Amendment,” wrote Paul, referencing his now-famous 2013 filibuster, which compelled the Obama Administration to relent – albeit snarkily – via a terse memo from Attorney General Eric Holder.

But Barron’s nomination carries baggage, since the U.S. Department of Justice is withholding advisory documents Barron authored pertaining to the 2010 drone assassinations of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan – both U.S. citizens. Without knowing Barron’s views on the Constitutional issues in play in both cases, Paul argued, it would be irresponsible to support his elevation to the bench on the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

“In 2010, Barron was the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, a group that dispenses legal advice to executive branch agencies,” wrote Paul. “That year, Barron circulated a memo that authorized the extra-judicial killing of two American citizens, radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Islamic extremist Samir Khan. Both would be assassinated by a CIA drone the following year.”

I have no sympathy for al-Awlaki, Kahn, or others like them. But that does not mean the president or anyone else in government has the authority to kill an American citizen without due process where there isn’t an imminent threat.

…What is this Administration trying to hide?

On April 21, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ordered that the Department of Justice disclose a redacted version of the Office of Legal Counsel memorandum that authorized the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. David Barron was one of the principal writers of this memorandum. He has spoken openly about his role in crafting the Administration’s legal position that it can kill Americans abroad without due process.

It would be irresponsible for the Senate to move forward on this nomination until the Department of Justice has complied with the court order to disclose this document, which will highlight Barron’s views on international law, the Fifth Amendment and its guarantee of due process, and the civil liberties of our nation’s citizens.

“The right to due process is not some negotiable aspect of our Constitution, subject to the whim of whoever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office,” Paul concluded. “Such legal protections are quintessential to our most basic freedoms, dating all the way back to the Magna Carta. Our constitutional rights are not negotiable… Until that memo is made public, I will do everything in my power to stop David Barron’s nomination to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Read Paul’s full piece here.

Reid’s Sudden Zeal For Campaign Finance Amendment Just More Koch Brothers Rhetoric

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced on Wednesday his intention to hold repeated floor votes, if necessary, on a piece of legislation he’s aiming straight at the Koch brothers, Reid’s favorite conservative-libertarian punching bag in the 2014 election cycle.

And this is no ordinary footnote of a bill; it’s a proposal to amend the Constitution.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) would authorize Congress to regulate fundraising and spending for Federal campaigns, authorize States to do the same for State elections, and, as Udall puts it, “not dictate any specific policies or regulations, but instead allow Congress to pass campaign finance reform legislation that withstands constitutional challenges.” The text of the bill is here.

“It’s been tried before, we should continue to push this and it should become our issue. That really puts the Koch brothers up against it. We believe and I believe that there should be spending limits. We’re going to push a constitutional amendment so we can limit spending because what is going on today is awful,” Reid told BuzzFeed Politics.

“We’re going to arrange a vote on it. We’re going to do it until we pass it because that’s the salvation of our country.”

Of course, this bill has no chance of amending the Constitution, or Harry Reid wouldn’t be ready to stage a floor show themed around a phony battle against evil Republicans intent on frustrating its chances. This is the kind of bill that makes for great Sunday news show fodder once it’s failed: “If you’ll remember, back in 2014 my Democratic colleagues and I fought in the Senate to bring about a Constitutional amendment that would level the playing field for candidates and make elections focus on the American people instead of big corporate donors. But my friends in the Republican Party would not cross the aisle on that important vote to clean up our elections laws, because they’re too vested in the old big-money system.”

The hypocrisy of that move won’t be lost on anyone familiar with opensecrets.org, which currently lists the Democratic Party’s haul for the 2014 midterms at nearly $100 million more than what the Republicans have raised.

The page devoted to Reid, who plans to run again in 2016, is pretty interesting, too. “Large individual contributions,” which channel most corporate money to a campaign by passing it through the hands of a person to keep things legal, represent $13,633,682 of Reid’s support from 2009-2014. Another $4,743,764 came from PACs, which can receive corporate money as well. Reid himself thought enough of his candidacy to throw $99,750 of his own money behind it. “Small individual contributions” — donations of less than $200 from living, breathing people — came in at $2,091,999.

At least Reid is being remarkably transparent about one thing: his motives for getting hung up on a Constitutional amendment right here at the start of summer 2014.

“The Koch Brothers, I’m not walking away from them,” he told BuzzFeed. “I’m going to be on their tail for the whole campaign because if they think [Mitt] Romney was watched closely by me, that’s nothing compared to what it’s going to be like with the Koch Brothers.”

New Mexico County Defies Feds In Another Ranching Dispute

The governing body of a rural county in southern New Mexico threw down the gauntlet against the Feds this week in another land use dispute, voting to defy the U.S. Forest Service by granting local ranchers access to a watering hole for cattle that the Forest Service had gated and declared off limits.

In a 2-0 vote, the Otero County commission agreed to authorize the county sheriff to open the disputed gate, clearing the way for approximately 200 cattle to venture into a 23-acre area the Forest Service had, for years, quarantined to protect a natural spring and the meadow jumping mouse, which inhabits the area.

“We are reacting to the infringement of the U.S. Forest Service on the water rights of our land-allotment owners,” Otero County Commissioner Tommie Herrell told the Reuters news service. “People have been grazing there since 1956.”

“The winds are blowing, we’re in a drought. Sacramento Mountains are dry. So whatever water source these animals can find, they have to be able to get to it,” fellow commissioner Susan Flores told KVIA news earlier this month.

A Forest Service supervisor told KVIA that both parties in the dispute had remained civil in their disagreement so far, assuaging present concerns that the land-rights battle will take on the acrimonious tenor of the Nevada dispute involving Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management.

“We all recognize that there are different ideas and value systems at play here,” Travis Moseley said, “and I respect that.”

Pressure From Democratic Senator Contributed To Washington-Led IRS Discrimination Against Conservatives

Judicial Watch, the organization that has done more than anyone except House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to untangle the skein of corruption in the scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s discriminatory targeting of conservative groups, released on Wednesday another round of revelations gleaned from IRS emails it obtained via a FOIA request.

The government transparency organization disclosed today that, contrary to Obama Administration talking points in the weeks immediately following the scandal, the marching orders for the agency’s discriminatory targeting came from Washington, D.C., and not from a rogue batch of employees in the IRS field office in Cincinnati.

That confirms what former Cincinnati employee Cindy Thomas reportedly told her superiors last May, accusing former exempt organizations division director Lois Lerner (now under a Congressional contempt charge) of throwing the Cincinnati office under “a convoy of Mack trucks.”

“Cincinnati wasn’t publicly ‘thrown under the bus’ [but] instead was hit by a convoy of Mack trucks,” Thomas wrote to Lerner on May 10 of last year – the same day Lerner was apologizing for the scandal and blaming it on the Cincinnati office. “As you can imagine, [Cincinnati] employees and managers furious. Was it also communicated at that conference in Washington that the low-level workers in Cincinnati asked the Washington office for assistance and the Washington office took no action to provide guidance to the low-level workers?”

The other revelation from today’s Judicial Watch release is the apparent involvement of a career Democratic Senator, Carl Levin of Michigan, in fomenting IRS discrimination against conservative nonprofits organizations during President Obama’s reelection campaign.

“The documents also show extensive pressure on the IRS by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) to shut down conservative-leaning tax-exempt organizations,” Judicial Watch said in a press release. “The IRS’ emails by Lois Lerner detail her misleading explanations to investigators about the targeting of Tea Party organizations.”

Here’s more:

A series of letters between Senator Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations, and top IRS officials throughout 2012 discuss how to target conservative groups the senator claimed were “engaged in political activities.” In response to a Levin March 30 letter citing the “urgency of the issue,” then-Deputy Commissioner Steven Miller assured the senator that IRS regulations were flexible enough to allow IRS agents to “prepare individualized questions and requests” for select 501(c)(4) organizations.

The newly released IRS documents contain several letters and emails revealing an intense effort by Levin and IRS officials to determine what, if any, existing IRS policies could be used to revoke the nonprofit exemptions of active conservative groups and deny exemptions to new applicants. In a July 30, 2012, letter, Levin singles out 12 groups he wants investigated for “political activity.” Of the groups – which include the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, the 60 Plus Association, and the Susan B. Anthony List – only one, Priorities USA, is notably left-leaning.

And then there’s much more, including a synopsis of emails Levin sent the agency with increasing urgency ahead of the 2012 Presidential election “intensifying his [Levin’s] campaign against predominantly conservative nonprofit groups.”

“These new documents show that officials in the IRS headquarters were responsible for the illegal delays of Tea Party applications,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in today’s statement. “It is disturbing to see Lois Lerner mislead [sic]the IRS’ internal investigators about her office’s Tea Party targeting. These documents also confirm the unprecedented pressure from congressional Democrats to go after President Obama’s political opponents. The IRS scandal has now ensnared Congress.”

South Carolina Republicans Censure Lindsey Graham Only One Month Before Primary Election

The best that Republican challengers hoping to unseat incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) can hope for in next month’s South Carolina primary election is that somebody will force him into a runoff. Repeated polling ahead of the June 10 primary shows that Graham will finish first, but it’s an open question whether he’ll end up with the clear 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher.

But there’s a lot of antipathy toward Graham among South Carolina conservatives; and, in the home stretch ahead of the primary, it appears to be growing. On Monday, the Charleston County Republican Party became the ninth local party in the State during the current election cycle to formally censure Graham by an executive committee vote.

The 39-32 vote may have been close, but, as Ben Swann observed Tuesday, Charleston County is supposed to be an electoral haven for Graham.

“The Charleston County Party is located in the ‘low country’ which is considered a Graham stronghold,” wrote Joshua Cook. “The fact that Graham was censured by executive committeemen who represents voters in their precincts shows how weak and vulnerable Graham really is.”

The resolution itself lists 30 separate grievances against Graham’s Senate voting record, as well as for siding with Congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama on a range of issues. His body of work in the Senate is “fundamentally inconsistent with the South Carolina Republican Party Platform,” according to the censure resolution.

Here’s a sampling:

[Senator Graham:]

  • Voted to Confirm Obama’s appointment to Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection: In July of 2013, Senator Graham voted with the Democrats to confirm Richard Cordray, a noted leftist promoter of aggressive economic regulation, as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, while Senator Scott voted in opposition.
  • Supported arming Al Qaeda / Muslim Brotherhood Revolutionaries in Syria: In June of 2013, Senator Graham called for supplying American arms to known affiliates of Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and assistance in the form of a “no-fly zone” and bombing of Syrian airfields.
  • Supported amnesty but not border control: In June of 2013, on the issue of an immigration bill that provides effective amnesty to illegal aliens without taking action to close the border first, Senator Graham joined the Democrats in invoking cloture and supporting the bill while Senator Scott voted in opposition.
  • Supported NSA spying on private American citizens: In June of 2013, Senator Graham displayed a cavalier attitude, as he has done repeatedly, toward Americans’ right to privacy by stating “It does not bother me one bit for the National Security Administration to have my phone number…”
  • Supported abridging the First Amendment for those who criticize the government: In June of 2013 Graham displayed a similar cavalier attitude about restricting freedom of speech: “Who is a journalist is a question we need to ask ourselves,” he said. “Is any blogger out there saying anything—do they deserve First Amendment protection? These are the issues of our times.”
  • Supported massive new Internet sales tax: In May of 2013, Graham joined Democrats in voting to pass a massive new Internet sales tax with burdensome reporting requirements. Senator Scott and most Republicans opposed the bill.
  • Supported restrictions on the Second Amendment: In April of 2013, when he had the opportunity to join fellow Republicans in support of a filibuster against unconstitutional limitations on the right to keep and bear arms, Senator Graham voted to invoke closure against those Republicans opposed to the bill.
  • Supported Obama’s drone program against American citizens: In March of 2013, when Republican Senator Rand Paul bravely stood up to the White House to seek reassurances that drone strikes would not be used on American soil in contravention of the Constitution, Senator Graham stated that he was “disappointed in Senator Paul and that his positions were ‘not a Republican view.’”
  • Supported subordinating American sovereignty to the United Nations: In November of 2012, and in prior years, while Senator DeMint was strongly opposing the Law of the Sea Treaty, which would unconstitutionally cede American sovereignty rights to the United Nations, Senator Graham sided with Democrats and failed to support Senator DeMint.
  • Supported giving foreign aid to terrorist governments in the Middle East: In October of 2012, when Republican Senator Rand Paul began running advertisements attacking Democrats for voting to continue foreign aid to Middle-East countries who are actively anti-American, Senator Graham defended the Democrats.

And those are just the first 10. Keep reading and you’ll find support for Obama nominees to the Supreme Court, voting with Democrats to keep George W. Bush-era tax cuts from becoming permanent, coming down in favor of “cap and trade” environmental policy and even nationalizing the banking system.

States With Democratic Governors Raise Taxes; Those With Republicans Lower Them

If the Republican Party is working for the people who vote their candidates into office anywhere at all, it appears to be happening in the States, where the election of GOP Governors and lawmakers tends to correlate to results that reflect the party’s platform more closely than at the Federal and executive levels.

Take a newly released survey of recent taxation trends in all 50 States. In broad terms, those States that have had Republican Governors in office since 2011 have seen a net decrease in State taxes of $36 billion. Over the same time period, States with Democratic Governors have seen a net State-level tax increase of $58 billion.

The report, released last week by Americans for Tax Reform, notes that the comparison represents a general trend rather than a one-to-one correlation between political affiliation and States’ fiscal policies. Yet the trend is there, led by Democratic Governors Pat Quinn of Illinois ($12 billion in higher taxes) and Martin O’Malley of Maryland ($3 billion since 2011; $11 billion since 2008).

“It should be noted that many, but not all, Democrat governors have raised taxes,” the report summary states. “In fact, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) recently went against the Democratic governor grain by signing a corporate tax cut into law this year.

“However, in general, Democrat governors have been increasing taxes in their states, while Republican governors have been moving in the opposite direction. With some of the politicians on this list considering a White House run, this is a compilation worth saving.”

View Americans for Tax Reform’s item-by-item review of each of the tax increase initiatives led by Democratic Governors here. It’s worth mentioning that California voters have approved about $18 billion in increased tax initiatives under Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. Subtract that amount from the national total, and the tax increases under Democratic Governors still total $40 billion.

The Obama Recovery: U.S. Economy May Have Shrunk In First Quarter Of 2014

It will be May 29 before the U.S. Department of Commerce updates its estimate of how the Nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) performed during the first fiscal quarter of 2014, but it’s looking more and more likely that the worth of what the U.S. is producing has declined for the first time since the middle of 2009.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that fresh data from the Commerce Department on retail sales and business inventories, the latter of which grew slugglishly in March. That information, combined with an earlier Commerce GDP report of anemic 1st-quarter growth, set off a series of negative estimates from five major fund management firms, all of which anticipate an imminent announcement that the economy has, in fact, contracted.

“A couple weeks ago, the Commerce Department said U.S. economic output expanded at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.1% in the first three months of the year. A near-stall for the economy, for sure, but at least it wasn’t worse,” WSJ observed, before offering this:

Based on more up-to-date figures, including the March trade data released last week, private forecasters now expect gross domestic product contracted in the first quarter for the first time in three years.

The latest evidence came Tuesday, when the Commerce Department released reports on retail sales and business inventories. Retail sales in February and March were revised up, but business inventories grew less in March than the agency had assumed in its GDP calculations.

Incorporating the new data, J.P. Morgan Chase on Tuesday estimated GDP contracted at a 0.8% rate in the first quarter. Macroeconomic Advisers put the contraction at 0.7%. Barclays Capital predicted a 0.6% decline. Pierpont Securities estimated output fell at a 0.4% rate. Action Economics estimated a 0.2% decline.

Any of those estimates, if correct, will mark the first time the U.S. economy has contracted since President Obama’s first year in office.

The GDP shrank by 2.8 percent in 2009, and has “recovered” marginally since, with annual growth margins of 2.5 percent (2010), 1.8 percent (2011), 2.8 percent (2012) and 1.9 percent (2013). Under President Clinton in the 1990s, the GDP routinely saw annual gains in excess of four percent, followed by a roller coaster ride for eight years under President Bush, whose best year came in 2004, when the GDP grew by 3.8 percent.

Minnesota Ends Law Enforcement’s Civil Forfeiture Money Grab

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a member of the State’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, signed into law last week a bill that ends the police practice of civil forfeiture — a private property confiscation ruse used by law enforcement that, although it denies citizens their due process, nonetheless remains legal in many States.

Under established civil forfeiture laws, a person can lose his money and/or his property — most often a vehicle or real estate — if he can’t prove in civil court that his belongings have not been used in the commission of a drug crime or that custody of his belongings has not, at some time in the past, passed through the hands of a person accused of a drug crime. Under the former civil forfeiture law, a person does not have to be accused of a crime in order for the State to claim his property. Worse, a person can be acquitted of a drug crime in criminal court — yet still lose his belongings to the State under civil forfeiture provisions.

The new law changes all that in Minnesota, removing the burden of proof from citizens accused, but not convicted, of a crime and instead placing it back on the State. The law also affirms the right to due process of the accused, by requiring either a criminal conviction or a guilty plea before the State can enrich itself by divesting a citizen of his belongings.

“Previously,” Forbes’ Nick Sibilla explained last week, “if owners wanted to get their property back, they had to prove their property was not the instrument or proceeds of the charged drug crime. In other words, owners had to prove a negative in civil court. Being acquitted of the drug charge in criminal court did not matter to the forfeiture case in civil court.”

In Minnesota, as elsewhere, an accused person’s resistance to having his property seized by the police is predictably low, thanks to a perverse conflation of civil and criminal law, as well as simple demographics.

“Most of the victims of asset forfeiture are poor and politically weak, and cannot easily fight a prolonged legal battle to get back their possessions,” The Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog noted Saturday. “In many cases, state law gives owners have [sic] so little effective opportunity to challenge the confiscation of their property that the seizures end up violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids states from taking away property rights without ‘due process of law.’”

Although the new Minnesota law provides a much-needed check on law enforcement’s self-enriching confiscation routine and relieves citizen bystanders caught in the crossfire of the politically charged drug war, the Volokh Conspiracy’s Ilya Somin — a George Mason law professor who’s done his share of civil liberties litigation — questions the very existence of asset forfeiture in law enforcement:

The Minnesota reform is a good step in the right direction that other states should copy. But it might be even better to simply ban asset forfeiture completely. Even if a defendant has been convicted of a crime, the appropriate remedy is to punish him for it and — if possible — force him to pay compensation to the victims. But there is no reason to allow the state to enrich itself by seizing property that happened to be somehow used in the commission of the offense, even if it was not illegally obtained and is not needed for victim compensation. If a thief uses his legitimately acquired car to flee the scene of a crime, we should certainly punish him for the theft and force him to compensate the victim for their loss. But that’s no reason to let the police seize the car and sell it for their own profit.

Most Obamacare Enrollees Already Had Coverage

Even as some Democrats and their apologists declare victory in the war of words over Obamacare, reports continue to emerge that reveal the law’s shortcomings.

A new survey by the McKinsey consulting company has found that only 26 percent of people who enrolled in a healthcare plan under the Affordable Care Act were without some form of insurance prior to their enrollment — a finding that lends perspective to the White House’s glowing self-assessment of the impact the President’s healthcare law.

McKinsey’s April survey, one in a series of periodic surveys assessing the progress of Obamacare, reflects a more-of-the-same pattern for Obamacare enrollees, with the vast majority of those who bought insurance through an online exchange reporting that they had healthcare coverage prior to last year:

  • Enrollment continued to grow — at the time of our April survey, 90 percent of the respondents who indicated that they had previously had coverage, and 13 percent of those who were previously uninsured,2 reported that they had enrolled in a plan. Of all respondents who reported having selected a new ACA plan at the time of the April survey (either on or off the exchanges), 26 percent reported being previously uninsured. This percentage is similar to the one we found in our February survey (27 percent).
  • Eighty-seven percent of all respondents who reported having selected a new 2014 ACA indicated that they had already paid their first premium. Reported payment rates were higher among those previously insured and those aged 30 or older. A slightly lower percentage of respondents (80 percent) reported that they definitely intend to pay future 2014 premiums; that intention was lower among those previously uninsured than among those previously insured (71 percent vs. 83 percent).
  • A higher percentage of those previously uninsured reported having shopped for a plan in our April survey than in our February survey (61 percent vs. 44 percent); however, the conversion rate — the percentage who said they had purchased a plan after shopping for one — remained much lower among the previously uninsured than among the previously insured (for example, 21 percent vs. 84 percent in April, and 23 percent vs. 71 percent in February).
  • As in earlier surveys, perceived affordability was the reason most often given for not enrolling by both previously insured and previously uninsured respondents. About 90 percent of all those citing perceived affordability challenges were subsidy-eligible, and among these subsidy-eligible respondents, awareness of the subsidies has remained low.

The Administration of President Barack Obama has recently celebrated the relatively high percentage of enrollees who actually appear to have followed through by paying their first premium. Yet it ignores most of the asterisks that shape the real meaning of that lone statistic.

The McKinsey report does not, noting that most people who aren’t signing up cite the unaffordability of the policies available and pointing out the redundancy of the Administration’s boast that Obamacare has extended health coverage to a wide swath of Americans who were previously uninsured. It turns out that 74 percent of those “new” enrollees are new only to Obamacare — but not to being covered under a health insurance plan.

And, as ever, government’s enticement of free stuff has played a crucial role in persuading those without any kind of insurance to buy in to Obamacare: “Among previously uninsured, subsidy-eligible respondents, those who indicated that they were aware of the subsidies were almost three times as likely to have reported enrolling as those who were unaware,” McKinsey observes.

The political takeaway is that Democrats know Obamacare will hurt them in the midterms and that the most efficacious way to handle the albatross around their necks is to declare victory — citing Republicans’ relative quiet on the law, of late, as evidence.

A more pragmatic view of the situation would be for Democrats to recognize that Obamacare is such a massive liability for their candidates in 2014 that their Republican opponents can take it for granted as a virtual voter-referendum issue. Many GOP candidates are intensely focused on their own party primaries, where consensus on Obamacare is a given. At the same time, those who can afford to look past the primary season have begun opening new fronts to attack their Democratic opponents on other issues.

As November approaches, though, expect more than a few Republicans to take Obamacare out of their back pocket — where it’s been safely kept ever since the law thudded out the gate in October of last year.

House Bill Would Force Health Insurers To Share Rate Info With Congress, Since The White House Won’t

Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith has introduced a bill before the House of Representatives that, if it becomes law, would mandate that health insurers share with Congress the same information they share with the White House about annual rate adjustments before they take effect.

Griffith, a Republican, introduced the so-called Insurance Rate Transparency Act on Friday, commenting on his Congressional website the bill is squarely aimed at the Obama Administration’s reticence in sharing with Congress – and, by extension, the public – what it knows about how the Affordable Care Act affects projected premium increases for consumers.

While campaigning in 2007, now-President Obama said “I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family’s premiums by up to $2,500 a year.”

Thus far, Obamacare has seemingly failed to fulfill the President’s promise. And some of the nation’s largest health insurance providers were unable to confirm such a reduction under Obamacare when I recently asked them about that promise at a Committee hearing.

At this hearing, the insurance providers indicated that their rates would be filed with the Department of Health and Human Services and various states by the end of June. Since the Administration has delayed open enrollment until after the 2014 elections, many Americans simply will not know what premium increases they will face in the exchanges. The Insurance Rate Transparency Act would ensure that the American people are not kept in the dark for political reasons.

Here’s a video of Griffith questioning insurers at a May 7 hearing about which way rates are heading under Obamacare:

Currently, insurers are only required to “submit their rates to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and certain states – including the Commonwealth of Virginia – so that any rate changes and increases in premiums can be reviewed and certified,” Griffith observed. Under his proposal, however, HHS would have 30 days after it had received that information to hand it over to Congress.