IRS mistakenly spent billions of dollars on improper tax credit payouts in FY 2013

A recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has revealed that the Internal Revenue Service improperly paid out nearly $15 billion in Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) payments for fiscal year 2013 — a chunk representing almost one-fourth of the total EITC payments made for that same year.

The September report, which was made public last week, also found the IRS had improperly paid out at least $5.9 billion (and possibly as much as $7.1 billion) in Additional Child Tax Credits (ACTC) for FY 2013.

The TIGTA report estimates $14.5 billion of the total $63 billion in Earned Income payments was made in error. However, the agency’s greater problem lies in figuring out a way to curb the systemic shortcomings that continue to allow excessive and improper payments of the Additional Child credits.

“Processes have been developed to identify improper EITC payments and their root causes,” the TIGTA report states. “However, the IRS has not developed processes to quantify or identify the root causes of improper ACTC payments.

“The IRS has continually rated the risk of improper ACTC payments as low. However, TIGTA’s assessment of the potential for ACTC improper payments indicates the ACTC improper payment rate is similar to that of the EITC…

“Significant changes in IRS compliance processes would be necessary to make any significant reduction in improper payments.”

Elsewhere, the report asserts that the tax enforcement agency hasn’t “developed a strategy to identify the root causes of ACTC improper payments.”

Last year, a TIGTA report revealed the IRS had essentially lost $67 million in funds supposedly marked for the implementation of Obamacare.

Last month, another TIGTA report found the agency continues to be lax in enforcing its own policy concerning employees who maintain outside employment and avoiding conflicts of interest.

State senator pens column suggesting Alabama may need to start defining who is or isn’t a ‘journalist’

The Montgomery Advertiser ran an opinion piece Friday authored by Alabama Senate president pro tempore Del Marsh, a Republican. What did Marsh have on his mind? Well, the headline flatly stated, “Defining ‘journalist’ may become necessary.”

Marsh begins by pledging that “[f]reedom of the press is not going anywhere in Alabama,” then follows that handshake and smile with this:

With the national explosion of partisan political blogs and shady, fly-by-night websites offering purposely skewed and inaccurate interpretations of hard news events, I recently asked the Secretary of the Senate to put together a definition of what qualifies as a legitimate journalist.

Marsh said he’s concerned that “a number of partisan bloggers” might want to be credentialed for the State House press rooms in order to report on the legislature. But because they’re allegedly “partisan,” they can’t be trusted to write anything that’s less politically or emotionally freighted than the opinions offered by their mainstream peers.

“Allowing agenda-driven bloggers the same access and legitimacy as serious, long-established and unbiased reporters could soon create a confusing, circus-like atmosphere and blur the line between promoting opinions and reporting facts,” Marsh fretted. “… Because the Legislature does not have a definition of what constitutes a ‘journalist,’ anyone with a smartphone or a Facebook page could demand press credentials.”

Asking the government to tell you what a journalist is (or isn’t) is like asking a serial killer for his definition of “victim.” Aware (however dimly) of the potential for such criticism, Marsh got the Alabama Press Association to “assist the Senate staff in determining a proper definition of what constitutes a journalist meriting access to the press room.”

That’s like asking Coke to explain all the reasons why Pepsi isn’t a “real” cola. It’s a collusion between government and traditional media under the guise of preserving law and order — from both entities’ points of view. It’s a convenient one, as well: They share many of the same interests.

Arizona county considers refusing to offer employment to anyone who smokes

Arizona’s second most-populous county may soon require all prospective employees to submit to tests for the presence of nicotine in their bodies, automatically disqualifying anyone who tests positive from further consideration for employment.

According to the Tucson-based Arizona Daily Star, the Pima County board of supervisors is expected to vote Dec. 16 on whether to implement the new policy, which, if passed, would take effect in 2015.

Under the proposal, the county would reserve the right not to hire smokers (not people who seek to take smoking breaks on the job, but smokers, period) and would institute a hefty 30 percent health insurance surcharge on current employees who use tobacco products.

The county has indicated approximately 32 percent of its current workforce uses tobacco. As for potential new hires? They’d “have to provide proof they have been tobacco and nicotine free for a year in the form of a doctor’s note or drug test,” according to the Star.

Those smokers who already work for Pima County could see a new form of negative reinforcement, in the form of the surcharge, if the new policy is approved:

For current employees, there’s a carrot and a stick. Nonsmokers who sign an affidavit that they are nicotine-free are eligible for a $5 health-care discount each biweekly pay period. Tobacco users will pay 30 percent more on top of their existing health-care costs.

For example, a single employee pays about $21 premium for health care per pay period. If that employee smoked, they would have an additional $6.30 surcharge on each check — that adds up to $163.80 per year. In July 2017 the charge would increase 50 percent of their health-care premium.

Included in the proposed screening process (as well as the surcharge for current employees) are those who “vape” on non-combustible electronic nicotine delivery devices, or e-cigs.

The county’s HR director told the newspaper that the proposal isn’t intended to be punitive; rather, it’s “an attempt to encourage people to be healthy.”

That’s one way of looking at it. One might also say it’s an attempt to assist insurers in their never-ending quest to reduce costs and maximize profit, via a ceaselessly refining process of risk assessment and regulation.

Obamacare damage control: White House promotes ‘choice’ of plans to minimize impact of 2015 rate hikes

Knowing the rate schedule for 2015 Obamacare plans is poised to provoke a lot of anger, the Obama administration is actively encouraging would-be customers to become savvy healthcare shoppers — evidently in an effort to cast a less-bad pall over media reports of skyrocketing costs in the healthcare law’s second year.

“We strongly, strongly encourage people to come back to the website and shop,” Healthcare.gov CEO Kevin Counihan said last week, warning that current customers who simply assume they’ll be re-enrolled in their existing plans are likely to face “rate increases in high single digits.”

One industry consultant told The Washington Times that the Obama administration appears to be worried about the optics of more price hikes during the 2015 enrollment cycle.

“They are worried about the negative reaction that will follow and are trying to pre-empt it,” health policy consultant Robert Laszewski told The Times.

Damage control may not be the only reason for the administration’s exhortation that current customers should price-shop instead of simply re-enrolling. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has proposed a rules change that, if adopted, could deliver big surprises to those who think their automatic re-enrollments will guarantee a continuation of their policies.

That plan would allow HHS to drop and then re-assign the policy of any Obamacare customer who opts for automatic re-enrollment, without prior notice.

“We are considering alternative options for re-enrollment, under which consumers who take no action might be defaulted into a lower cost plan rather than their current plan,” an HHS fact sheet for new rules proposals revealed last month.

Bottom line: If you like your Obamacare plan, you should shop for a better one every year — and don’t let HHS do it for you.

Full-throttle stagnation in latest employment data

Though there have been some predictable attempts to give a hopeful spin to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ November jobs numbers, the data reveals a familiar pattern: a historic level of people dropping out of the U.S. labor force and a massive chunk of able Americans without jobs.

The BLS reported that 62.8 percent of eligible Americans were participating in the labor force by the end of November — the same percentage it reported in October, as well as a handful of other months in 2014. In all, more than 92 million eligible people are outside the labor force — meaning they aren’t working, and they aren’t trying to find work.

The 62.8 percent participation rate represents a persistent match for the nation’s lowest ratio of workers to non-workers in nearly four decades, and continues a present-day trend of “lows not seen since the Jimmy Carter administration,” according to Ed Morrissey. Despite the addition of 321,000 jobs, the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5.8 percent.

“The participation rate, which is the percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population who participated in the labor force by either having a job during the month or actively seeking one, was 62.8 percent in November which matches the percentage since March 1978,” CNS News reported Friday.

“In November, according to BLS, the nation’s civilian noninstitutional population, consisting of all people 16 or older who were not in the military or an institution, reached 248,844,000. Of those, 156,397,000 participated in the labor force by either holding a job or actively seeking one.”

Utah embarks on ambitious plan to reclaim massive chunks of land currently under federal control

A long-gestating plan to wrest control of large chunks of the state of Utah from the federal government and place it under state control is entering the action phase, although it’s too early to tell whether the Beehive State’s effort to sweep the feds aside will be successful.

The Utah legislature passed a law in 2012 aimed at booting the feds out of the land management business, affecting 31.2 million acres — approximately 65 percent of the state’s total land area.

An economic impact study released this week has given state government fresh optimism that the plan isn’t just a principled assertion of the state’s right to administer its own territory — it’s probably also a smart financial move.

“While conceding the transfer of 31.2 million acres of land managed by the federal government would pose a major shift in the ‘economic structure’ of the state, the report goes on to say that the land transfer could actually be profitable for the state if oil and gas prices remain high and if Utah aggressively manages its mineral lease program,” Salt Lake City-based KSL-TV reported Monday.

“… The study said the biggest infusion of money into Utah coffers would be the elimination of revenue royalty sharing with the federal government. Utah would go from getting 50 percent of the proceeds under the current mineral lease program to getting 100 percent of the proceeds.”

The law — titled the Transfer of Public Lands Act — calls for the state to take over form the federal government before Dec. 31 of this year. Since being signed in 2012 by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, it’s endured more than one favorable legal analysis.

Still, the feds are being quiet. “So far… the federal government hasn’t given any indication that it plans to cooperate,” The Washington Times observed Thursday.

But the state isn’t likely to get bellicose over enforcing the law; rather, it plans to take advantage of available legal mechanisms (if necessary) while attempting to win the battle in the court of public opinion.

“[S]tate officials will proceed with a program of education, negotiation, legislation and litigation” — four approaches to enforcement set forward by Herbert, the Times reported.

Washington Post editorial board slams Obama’s executive action on immigration

You won’t see this every day. The Washington Post published an editorial this week pummeling the Obama administration for exceeding the limits of the president’s constitutional powers with the recent action on immigration, saying the president is falsely attempting to compare the scope of his overreach with similar actions by his predecessors.

To be sure, the editorial gets its pound of flesh from Republicans for ostensibly failing “to address immigration.” But that perceived failure doesn’t create a power vacuum for the president to inhabit, according to the editors:

It is outrageous that Republican leaders in the House refused to allow a vote on a bill that passed the Senate last year. That bill, backed by Democrats and some moderate Republicans, stood a good chance of passing the House and becoming law. Even now, Republicans’ refusal to enact a bill — and their use of Mr. Obama’s order as further pretext for obstinacy and paralysis — is an abdication of leadership and duty.

Republicans’ failure to address immigration also does not justify Mr. Obama’s massive unilateral act. Unlike Mr. Bush in 1990, whose much more modest order was in step with legislation recently and subsequently enacted by Congress, Mr. Obama’s move flies in the face of congressional intent — no matter how indefensible that intent looks.

The Post also takes Obama to task for comparing the scope of his immigration action with that taken by President George H.W. Bush, accusing Obama of comparing apples with oranges in an effort to convince the American people that this has all been done before.

Nothing like this has ever been done before, the editorial board retorts.

When the measure was announced, Bush administration officials estimated the number who would be affected at around 100,000. While that was followed by some fuzziness and upward revisions, the actual number affected by the 1990 [Bush] order was clearly a fraction — perhaps a couple of hundred thousand people, at most — of the 1.5 million that Obama administration officials have cited.

… This is not a game of gotcha; facts matter — even in Washington — and so do the numbers. Under close scrutiny it is plain that the White House’s numbers are indefensible. It is similarly plain that the scale of Mr. Obama’s move goes far beyond anything his predecessors attempted.

The piece offers no solution or redress to the problem Obama has exacerbated; it only offers criticism. That’s an observation usually reserved for critics of the bitter Tea Partiers who know what’s wrong, but supposedly have no better ideas of their own.

Welcome to the party, WaPo.

CBC’s ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ stunt isn’t consistent with members’ police voting record

You may have seen video footage of the four members of the Congressional Black Caucus who invoked the Ferguson protesters’ “hands up, don’t shoot” rallying pose from the floor of the U.S. House Monday.

But the posturing of these four CBC members — Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Al Green (D-Texas) — belies their voting history when it comes to the power of the state.

The gesture, as performed by Jeffries, represents “a rallying cry of people all across America who are fed up with police violence.” Or so he said.

But Jefferies and the other CBC members who threw up their hands haven’t demonstrated a will to curb one of the federal government’s most controversial police-state practices: the military surplus program that funnels free war equipment to municipal police forces.

“All four voted AGAINST an amendment in July that would’ve limited the transfer of military equipment from the Department of Defense to local police agencies,” Reason observed Tuesday.

“It’s just another reminder for protesters more interested in policy reforms than partisan agendas that elected leaders, by and large, are only interested in how they look vis a vis police issues and not what they can do to improve the situation.”

Here’s Jeffries’ hollow “contribution” to solving the problem he’s identified, as reported early Tuesday by CBS News:

Defense lawyers question FBI’s reluctance to turn surveillance cameras inward

Quis custodiet custodies — who will watch the watchers? In an era of mass phone surveillance and the ubiquity of the all-seeing digital eye, the FBI apparently can’t even put eyes on its own evidence stash.

The Washington Times reported Monday that the agency’s Washington, D.C., field office had potentially compromised an untold number of pending cases by failing to place video surveillance in the evidence room at its Washington, D.C., field office — a fact unearthed by assiduous defense lawyers representing a suspect in a drug conspiracy case.

The use of video monitoring is considered a best practice, but it isn’t set in stone by FBI policy. That hasn’t stopped attorneys representing Matthew Lowry, accused of swiping seized heroin in evidence storage during his time as an FBI agent, from casting doubt on an accuser who can’t attest to the integrity of its own chain-of-custody practice for the evidence in question.

The FBI accuses Lowry of stealing evidence and firearms from evidence, but defense attorneys filed a motion Monday pointing out the storage area remained unmonitored — a weak spot in the government’s case that has revealed itself in countless other prosecutions throughout the country.

“I’ve got thousands of headlines [about similar cases] and that’s no exaggeration,” Joe Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence Inc., told the Times. “Every day there is something going on.”

If the American population at large has reached the point at which there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy anywhere in public — even as the NSA erodes the expectation of privacy while people inhabit their own private space — the least the government can do is to point its cameras inward for a change.

“If you look at general law enforcement, I’d say more don’t have video surveillance than do,” Latta added. “Should they? Absolutely. But the evidence room is sometimes low on the food chain in the organization.”

Of course, there’s a downside to more video surveillance. It’ll just throw up one more barrier to our suspension of disbelief whenever we try to watch an entertaining set piece like this:

Another round of unqualified Obama donors get ambassadorships

It’s that time again: time for another round of meritless, politically driven appointments to luxe U.S. ambassadorships. It’s a long-standing presidential thank-you to campaign donors and allies — one that remains alive and well in 2014.

No Republicans voted to confirm either of Barack Obama’s two recent nominations to ambassador posts in Argentina and Hungary, but each was approved by the outgoing Democratic-controlled Senate on a simple majority confirmation vote.

The Senate confirmed Noah Bryson Mamet and Collen Bell Tuesday, with Mamet heading to Argentina and Bell destined for Hungary. Both were among Obama’s biggest fundraisers in the 2012 presidential race.

Beyond that, it’s hard to gauge their other qualifications to represent U.S. interests overseas.

“Mamet, who was chosen for Argentina, has never even been to the country,” The Washington Free Beacon reported Monday. “Asked by Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) during his confirmation hearing whether he had ever been to Argentina, Mamet responded that he has ‘traveled pretty extensively around the world’ but hasn’t ‘had a chance’ to get to Argentina. The State Department doesn’t even know whether he speaks Spanish.”

Bell failed to identify a single strategic interest the U.S. has in Hungary when it was her turn to go before the Senate confirmation panel. “Bell’s failure to eloquently speak on the issue should not be a surprise, as the highlight of her résumé is that she was the producer for soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful,” the Beacon added.

Obama does this, but he’s hardly alone among presidents — be they Democrat or Republican. As we’ve noted in the past, Reagan did it; Clinton did it; and both Bushes did it.

Yet even Obama’s hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, has called for an end to the practice of rewarding campaign donors with prestigious ambassador posts for which they’re manifestly unqualified.

It’s a political device that represents “the last vestige of a spoils system that disappeared in the military after uniformed amateurs led thousands to their slaughter during the Civil War and in the civil service during the reforms of the Progressive Era,” the Tribune’s Robert J. Callahan wrote in February.

What was the ambassadorial controversy at that time? Obama’s nomination of this guy.

EPA climate rule draws more than 1.6 million comments as deadline passes

The Environmental Protection Agency reported at least 1.6 million responses during the five-month-long public commenting period concerning its controversial proposal to tighten carbon dioxide emissions policy.

The agency’s deadline for comments on the proposal came and went Monday, with an EPA spokesperson telling The Hill EPA had received more than 1.6 million responses as of Monday morning — not counting all the carefully prepared responses many industry advocates typically release at the end of comment periods.

The proposed rule, which aims to force dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by power plants (predominately coal-fired ones), was announced in June. The agency immediately drew anger from business interests, which argued the rule will create new regulatory expenses that will cost the private sector billions of dollars.

Constitutionalists and conservatives also argued the rule would further expand the federal government’s legislative power through agency-level rulemaking and policy tweaks — a hallmark of the Obama administration’s approach to getting things done.

If the EPA preserves the rule more or less as written (and there’s little reason to believe that it won’t), it will have to work with individual states to ensure each has in place a plan for enforcing compliance. Some states with big-energy economies may attempt to nullify the rule through inaction.

“Like many rules under the Clean Air Act, the climate rule relies on states to write implementation plans and enforce them on the power sector,” The Hill reported last month.

“But some states, like Texas and North Dakota, have discussed whether to simply ignore the regulations and not write plans.”

Unintended consequence: Obamacare spurs more to postpone medical treatment

More Americans are delaying trips to the doctor than at any time since Gallup began tracking such a statistic, according to the tracking company’s most recent data.

The reason? Cost. Even as a (slightly) greater percentage of people have joined the ranks of the insured, more overall said they have delayed necessary medical care within the past 12 months. And the percentage of people who won’t go to the doctor — despite having insurance — has risen.

“Among Americans with varying types of medical coverage (including no coverage), uninsured Americans are still the most likely to report having put off medical treatment because of cost,” Gallup observed. “More than half of the uninsured (57%) have put off treatment, compared with 34% with private insurance and 22% with Medicare or Medicaid.”

So far, so good. Then, this: “However, the percentage of Americans with private health insurance who report putting off medical treatment because of cost has increased from 25% in 2013 to 34% in 2014.”

That is a massive increase in one year’s time.

Gallup is speculative about the reasons for this, but they’re pretty certain it has something to do with Obamacare and higher costs:

One of the goals of opening the government exchanges was to enable more Americans to get health insurance to help cover the costs of needed medical treatments. While many Americans have gained insurance, there has been no downturn in the percentage who say they have had to put off needed medical treatment because of cost. This may reflect high deductibles or copays that are part of the newly insured’s plans, although separate research has shown that most of the newly insured in 2014 are satisfied with their health coverage.

Variation in the pricing for medical treatments, not to mention differences in how much insurance plans cover, could be confusing Americans or making them fear a needed treatment is too expensive. And while the costs of medical procedures aren’t rising as rapidly as they once were, it is still too early to tell if that is an effect of the Affordable Care Act and how prices may change in the future.

Unsurprisingly, middle-income Americans — those stuck in the economic demographic between the wealthy and those who qualify for Obamacare-subsidized insurance plans — have had to adjust. Those with subsidies, meanwhile, are seeking medical treatment more readily.

Among households with annual incomes of less than $30,000, 35 percent reported delaying medical care due to its potential cost in the past 12 months — a drop of 43 percent versus the 2013 figure.

Yet the survey’s statistics for households in the $30,000 to $74,999 annual income bracket (and above) show the opposite: Middle-income households delayed going to the doctor 38 percent of the time in the past year, compared with 33 percent a year ago. Among households earning more than $75,000, the difference is even greater: 28 percent postponed medical care in the past 12 months, whereas only 17 percent reported delaying treatment when the same question was asked a year ago.

Some IRS employees in tax delinquency to receive bonuses

IRS employees whose delinquent tax debt is a result of “reasonable cause” instead of “willful neglect” will be eligible to receive the same one percent performance bonus as other employees, according to an internal memo from IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Koskinen informed IRS employees that they would be receiving this year’s bonus — down from last year’s 1.75 percent bonus — with the stipulation that delinquent employees would be eligible to receive their share, so long as they weren’t suspected of intentionally dodging their tax obligations to the federal government.

“Koskinen highlights a new policy for bonus eligibility ‘designed to protect the integrity’ of the [bonus] program,” Washington Examiner reported.

“It rules out bonuses for those who commit ‘willful failure to file any tax required under the Internal Revenue Service Code of 1986 on or before the required date (including extensions), unless the failure is due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect.'”

It’s not clear how the agency weighs each delinquent employee’s case to determine his or her motive for not paying taxes.

The U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration revealed in March that the IRS had paid out $2.8 million in bonuses to more than 2,800 employees who had “recent substantiated conduct issues resulting in disciplinary action” between 2010 and 2013, including more than $1 million to more than 1,100 employees who had “substantiated Federal tax compliance problems.”

That report also benignly suggested the agency look into crafting a policy that might exclude employees with disciplinary problems or unpaid taxes from receiving performance bonuses.

Researchers: The U.S. doesn’t have a STEM worker shortage

Academics who’ve examined the U.S. tech lobby’s claim that the nation needs a relaxed policy on imported tech-sector labor have pretty much decided that there isn’t anything approaching a domestic labor shortage — in “any way, shape or form.”

In fact, according to Rutgers-based public policy professor Hal Salzman, the only way the U.S. tech sector can describe its labor pool as “deficient” is by framing its argument in terms of cost — not of supply.

“There’s no evidence of any way, shape or form that there’s a shortage in the conventional sense,” Salzman told Bloomberg. “They may not be able to find them at the price they want. But I’m not sure that qualifies as a shortage, any more than my not being able to find a half-priced TV.”

And therein lies the motive: scooping cheap labor over available domestic labor in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career paths. It’s a motive that academics and economists have been trying to highlight — if anyone’s listening.

In July, a group of policy professors (including Salzman) co-authored an opinion column for USA Today excoriating Bill Gates and other Silicon Valley corporate moguls for essentially fabricating the idea that the U.S. is experiencing a critical STEM labor shortage.

“The tech industry’s promotion of expanded temporary visas (such as the H-1B) and green cards is driven by its desire for cheap, young and immobile labor,” that piece observed.

“… IT industry leaders have spent lavishly on lobbying to promote their STEM shortage claims among legislators. The only problem is that the evidence contradicts their self-interested claims.”

Salzman repeated that point this month, telling Bloomberg that “[i]t seems pretty clear that the industry just wants lower-cost labor.”

Interestingly, when Bloomberg asked Facebook — a noted corporate advocate for relaxed immigration law — for a comment about the perceived STEM labor shortage, the company… well, it toed the company line.

“We look forward to hearing more specifics about the President’s plan and how it will impact the skills gap that threatens the competitiveness of the tech sector,” Facebook replied.

Obamacare premium costs to soar higher in 2015

Is anyone surprised, at this point, by yet another story about health insurance premium costs increasing under Obamacare?

According to projections from Healthcare.gov, Obamacare premiums will increase next year by an average of 18 percent for those who purchase the least-expensive (and least robust) tier of coverage through the federal healthcare exchange. That estimate was calculated using the largest market in each of the 34 states that use Healthcare.gov — instead of a state-run exchange — as a customer portal for Obamacare.

Investor’s Business Daily offers this helpful graph to illustrate the changes in each of those markets:

HCGOV_2015

Investor’s Business Daily

Only nine of the Healthcare.gov states can expect to see average premium prices fall or remain level next year, with the largest savings — 38.6 percent — in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, market. Contrast that with the five states that will see premiums increase by more than 38.6 percent, as well as with the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, market — which is expected to see average premium costs double.

In some markets, catastrophic coverage plans are beginning to cannibalize the bronze tier, Obamacare’s next-highest level of coverage, according to IBD.

“In 17 of these markets, the lowest-priced catastrophic plan in 2015 won’t be even 10% cheaper than the lowest-cost unsubsidized bronze option and will offer limited savings — at best,” IBD reported.

“In seven cities, there’s effectively no catastrophic option because the cheapest one costs more than the low-cost bronze plan.”

Lawsuit zeroes in on documents that could link White House to IRS scandal

A plaintiff in one of the ongoing lawsuits against the Internal Revenue Service has learned of the existence of thousands of documents that reportedly tie the Obama administration directly to the political discrimination scandal involving the tax agency’s targeting of conservative nonprofit groups.

The plaintiff, conservative nonprofit Cause of Action, was informed recently by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration that approximately 2,500 such documents exist, and that it could gain access to some of them in early December — once the IG’s office has finished poring through them to determine their relevancy, according to Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard:

In an email from the Justice Department’s tax office, an official revealed the high number of documents, suggesting that the White House was hip deep in probes of taxpayers, likely including conservatives and Tea Party groups associated with the IRS scandal.

In requesting a delay in the delivery date of the documents, Justice told Cause of Action, “The agency [Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration] has located 2,500 potentially responsive documents and anticipates being able to finish processing 2,000 of these pages by the December 1 date. It needs the additional two weeks to deal with the last 500 pages to determine if they are responsive and make any necessary withholdings.”

Cause of Action is one of a number of conservative groups that sued the IRS following revelations that the agency had held up conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status, while simultaneously green-lighting similar applications from moderate and liberal nonprofits.

A similar lawsuit, filed by Texas-based conservative outfit True the Vote, was thrown out by a federal court in late October. True the Vote is considering an appeal, even as the Cause of Action case appears to be gaining fresh momentum.

HHS may start reassigning your Obamacare plan every year without your consent

Lost amid the recent hubbub over the Obamacare numbers-fudging scandal is this interesting bit of news you can use: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is considering a rules change that would allow it to drop and reassign your Obamacare plan during each year’s enrollment period, unless you expressly renew the same coverage (assuming it’s available) for another year.

In other words, if you have an Obamacare plan and you want to keep it, you’d have to tell the government that — or the government could “demote” your policy to the lowest-cost plan in that same coverage tier when it’s time to re-enroll.

“We are considering alternative options for re-enrollment, under which consumers who take no action might be defaulted into a lower cost plan rather than their current plan,” HHS explained in its fact sheet for Obamacare benefit “parameters.”

That basically amounts to yet another version of government pulling the rug out from under those who’ve bought in to its promises of better, more stable coverage under Obamacare.

“If You Like Your Obamacare Health Plan, You Can Keep It, If HHS Doesn’t Pick a New One For You,” Reason intoned in a headline late last week:

It’s not just auto-reenrollment. It’s auto-reassignment, at least for those who pick that option. Basically, if you like your plan, but don’t go out of your way to intentionally re-enroll, the kind and wise folks at HHS or state health exchanges might just pick a new plan — perhaps with different doctors, clinics, cost structures, and benefit options — for you. And if you want to switch back? Good luck once open enrollment is closed. There’s always next year.

On the bright side, customers might be afforded the option of choosing whether to participate in such an auto-reassignment program, although it’s not clear that many of them would understand the ramifications of doing so.

If adopted, the change would take effect in 2016.

HHS admits Obamacare optimism based on smoke and mirrors

Last week, the Internet lit up with reports that the White House had managed to dress up last year’s Obamacare enrollment performance by finagling the numbers to include dental-only sign-ups — a sleight of hand that added 400,000 policies to its optimistic total.

Without the inclusion of that number, total enrollment last year would have fallen short of its target of 7 million customers.

Throughout the summer, HHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) had boasted that Obamacare had enrolled 8 million new policies. CMS director Marilyn Tavenner later walked back that claim, testifying in September that the number had been inflated by, oh, about 700,000.

Now, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell has fallen on the sword, only a couple of days after Bloomberg revealed the dental-insurance legerdemain.

Well, she didn’t exactly tackle the numbers lie head-on. But Burwell did at least acknowledge the administration had made a “mistake,” sending this tweet after the dental coverage story began circulating on the Web:

More IRS employee hijinks: out-of-date tax records, lax enforcement of second-job policy

Working for the IRS must have its perks. According to a recent audit from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), the agency isn’t doing much to enforce its policy on clearing employees to hold second jobs that don’t present conflicts of interests.

Maybe that’s a good thing for the IRS, because if it did uniformly enforce its own policy, it would have to pull its employee info from a database that’s severely out of date and inaccurate.

The TIGTA review — titled “Controls Over Outside Employment Are Not Sufficient to Prevent or Detect Conflicts of Interest” — finds that half of the employees who held second jobs or pursued business ventures in 2011 “did not obtain documented approval, as required by Department of the Treasury regulations and IRS policies.”

Such checks are part of agency policy to ensure that “the IRS has controls in place to provide reasonable assurance that outside employment requests are documented and reviewed for conflicts with employees’ official duties.”

In addition, the audit found that 93 percent of the IRS’s database, which contains records that track employees’ outside work requests, is out of date. It also notes that the agency does not even document all the requests its employees submit.

“Improving controls will be important because TIGTA identified current and former IRS employees with both actual and potential conflicts of interest,” the review explains.

“One employee pled guilty to engaging in a criminal conflict of interest for accessing taxpayer information for the purpose of conducting a private tax and accounting business, 44 IRS employees prepared tax returns for compensation (a prohibited practice), and TIGTA’s analysis identified 20 employees with a high risk of potential conflicts of interest who received outside income without documented approval. For example, four employees operated businesses with annual gross receipts ranging from more than $500,000 to more than $7 million, and six employees had wages of more than $50,000 from outside of the IRS. Significant outside income could impact the employee’s effectiveness on the job.”

The lesson: If you want to hold down two jobs and you’re concerned about how they might conflict, just make sure that your primary employer is the IRS.

Court action may set precedent for future cellphone snooping attempts by law enforcement

It may not represent a sea change in the way police justify their use of a controversial cellular surveillance technique, but a judge’s action in North Carolina last week might have laid the groundwork in establishing how far law enforcement is willing to go to exploit the technology in the future.

Over the objections of local law enforcement, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Richard Boner, of the 26th Judicial Circuit in North Carolina, unsealed a trove of court documents that outline how police had used StingRay-type devices to scoop up evidence from criminal suspects’ cellphones.

StingRay-type devices are capable of simulating a cell tower within a given radius, redirecting individuals’ cell phones away from their service provider’s nearest tower location and connecting directly with those users’ phones. The U.S. Department of Justice maintains that police do not need a warrant to do this, so long as they don’t listen in on actual conversations.

Boner released 529 court documents relating to StingRay use since 2006 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, following a petition from The Charlotte Observer to make the documents public.

“Senior Deputy City Attorney Judith Emken said during that period, police applied for court orders giving them permission to deploy the device, generically called a cell-site simulator,” the Observer reported.

“Court officials, however, did not file the records in the clerk’s office. Instead, police detectives kept copies in investigative files, which are not open to public inspection.

“The arrangement violated the fundamental principle that American courts should be open and transparent, said Linda Lye, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.”

The police have demonstrated a strong inclination to keep their methods secret when it comes to the use of StingRays and similar devices. “[L]ocal cops have lied to courts (at the direction of the United States Marshals Service) about the use of such technology,” ArsTechnica observed last week.

“Not only can stingrays be used to determine a phone’s location, but they can also intercept calls and text messages. While they do target specific phones, they also sweep up cell data of innocents nearby who have no idea that such data collection is taking place.”

Scientists not in agreement on whether humans shape climate

The scientific community is more or less evenly split on whether human beings play a significant role in shaping the Earth’s ever-changing climate, according to one recent survey.

That’s a far cry from the “97 percent” of scientists the Obama administration continually invokes as advocating an anthropocentric view of climate change.

A survey conducted by Purdue University found scientists split in their opinions on the cause of so-called climate change, with fifty percent attributing changes to human activities. The remainder was further split into those who believe humans and nature are both equally shaping the climate, those who believe nature does that job on its own, and those who believe there’s not enough evidence to tell.

None of those surveyed indicated that “climate change” is not occurring.

“Contrary to the repeated insistence of both climate alarmists and the media, scientists do not all agree on the standard climate alarmism talking points,” The Washington Free Beacon observed in its story on the survey.

“A Purdue University scholar, surveying scientists in the agricultural sector including climatologists, found surprising disagreement on humanity’s role in climate change. These findings, though contrary to popular narrative on climate change, are unsurprising to anyone familiar with the prevalence of dissent in the scientific community.”