Congress’ budget deal includes campaign finance provision aimed at shoring up the two-party establishment

In a budget deal so massive and hurried that it’s almost impossible anyone could have read it before voting on it, Congress included a provision that profoundly expands the amount of money single donors can contribute to political causes during an election cycle.

It’s a change that received no prior discussion or public acknowledgment, according to The Washington Post:

The provision — one of the most significant changes to the campaign finance system since the landmark McCain-Feingold measure — was written behind closed doors with no public debate. Instead, it surfaced at the last minute in the final pages of a 1,603-page spending bill, which Congress is rushing to pass to keep government operations from shutting down.

While leaders from both major parties wouldn’t comment to the Post on the provision, neither camp can claim the partisan high ground. The provision raises the limit on individual contributions for national party committees to three times the current amount.

It’s a move “heralded by party supporters, who said it would replenish the official Democratic and Republican organizations, which were left weakened by a 2002 ban on soft money and the subsequent rise of super PACs and other outside groups,” the Post observed.

In other words, it consolidates fundraising power for the two-party system, just as that system has been stung by the early signs of a changing, more populist political landscape.

“Republican and Democratic congressional leaders have entered into a Faustian bargain to return the massive corrupting contributions raised by federal officeholders for the national parties that Congress banned in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002,” one watchdog told the Post in an earlier report.

GOP Senate staffers going on Obamacare

To make a point about the perceived disconnect between elected elites and the rest of America, Republican Senators have all agreed to place their staffs not on the federal employee health benefits program, but under Obamacare instead.

Republican leaders behind the populist move have called for their Democratic counterparts to follow suit and force their staffs onto Obamacare, saying it’s not right for lawmakers to exempt staffers while the rest of the country grapples with the healthcare law.

“Washington should have to live under Obamacare just like everybody else until we repeal it,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who proposed the measure later approved by the Senate Republican Conference, said in a statement. “And we won’t be complicit in Obama’s illegal rule designed to protect Washington insiders.”

According to The Hill, the measure affects all staffers working for GOP senators: “The Republican policy applies to all staff regardless of whether they work in a personal, committee or leadership office. Cloakroom and other aides are also included.”

Even as it approved the measure, the GOP conference called on Senate Democrats to impose their own rules limiting staffers to buying healthcare through the Obamacare exchange. But for Democrats, that’s easier said than done.

“It’s a tricky issue for lawmakers who risk alienating staff by pushing them off the popular federal employee health plan,” The Hill observed.

Indeed, House Republicans voted against forcing staff onto the Obamacare exchanges last month, and it’s “unlikely,” according to the Washington Times, that Senate Democrats will adopt a similar resolution.

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made news last fall when reports surfaced that he’d exempted some of his staff from having to drop their federal health benefits in order to go on the Obamacare exchange.

Federal gun control may be dead for now, but some congressional Democrats eye a resurrection

The aspirations of federal gun control advocates came to nothing last year, and the murmurs of its bitter clingers provided only a marginal distraction during this year’s voting cycle — widely viewed as a referendum on President Obama’s agenda. Yet there are a few Democratic lawmakers who hope the 114th Congress revisits gun control legislation, however unpopular that choice might be.

Unsurprisingly, more than one of the gun control revivalists hail from Connecticut, site of the mass murder spectacle that kicked their agenda into high gear in late 2012. The lowest-hanging fruit, legislatively speaking, will be the promotion of a universal background check law.

“When you don’t pass background checks, it’s just much more likely that someone will get their hands on an illegal gun and use it to kill their neighbors or their classmates,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), recently told The Hill.

“… We know the chances of passing this legislation became a little bit less likely given November’s results, but we are not going to cease fighting until we remove the stain of Congress’s inaction from this town.”

Murphy’s fellow Connecticut Senator, Democrat Richard Blumenthal, echoed the “do-nothing Congress” trope.

“Congress’s failure to act makes it, in fact, an aider and abettor to those deaths that could be prevented,” he said.

Aware that they’ll be advocating a position that’s neither popular nor politically expedient, the Connecticut duo and a number of other Democrats nevertheless pledged this week to bring universal background check legislation back to a vote during the upcoming Congress.

“Background checks won’t stop everyone, but it’s our first line of defense,” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), told The Hill. “We need to expand it, we need to do it now.”

Illinois (again) seeks to make it a crime to record conversations with the police

Undeterred — perhaps even emboldened — by a state supreme court decision striking down an old law forbidding people from surreptitiously recording police encounters, the Illinois General Assembly has passed a slightly modified version of that same law, which now awaits a signature from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

According to the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), a free-market nonprofit, the new draft of the law is “nearly as bad as the old one.”

“The bill would make it a felony to surreptitiously record any ‘private conversation,’ which it defines as any ‘oral communication between 2 or more persons,’ where at least one person involved had a ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy,” IPI reported last week.

“When does the person you’re talking to have a reasonable expectation of privacy? The bill doesn’t say. And that’s not something an ordinary person can be expected to figure out.”

That’s an enormous grey area the state supreme court directly addressed when in struck down the old law in March.

“The court ruled that the law was overbroad and violated the First Amendment right to free speech because it prohibited recording and publishing speech that was obviously not private at all, such as ‘a loud argument on the street,’ ‘a political debate in a park’ and ‘the public interactions of police officers with citizens,'” IPI reported at the time.

Now, though, the revamped law’s vagueness appears to have been crafted precisely in order to discourage citizens from taking any chances by presuming their encounters with police meet the threshold of surpassing law enforcement’s “reasonable expectation” of privacy.

At least the state’s lawmakers aren’t shy about their position: The new bill passed the Illinois Senate on a 46-4-1 vote; it sailed through the state’s House of Representatives by a margin of 106-7.

Gruber and government have a long, friendly history predating Obama and the Affordable Care Act

Call it the stupidity of the American voter. Too-honest Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber has been accepting public funds for his policy expertise for a long time: far longer than Obamacare — or even Obama himself, for that matter — has spent time on the national stage.

Gruber — an MIT economist whose boasts about Obamacare’s complexity being one of its strengths have recently vindicated much of the criticism aimed at the Affordable Care Act’s passage — didn’t just begin receiving government pay for services rendered during the Obama administration. He’s been at this since President Bill Clinton was in office.

“For the $2.2 million MIT economist Jonathan Gruber has been paid by the federal government since 2000,” CNS News reported Tuesday, “he collected $516,000 during Clinton’s presidency, $1,248,000 during the Bush administration, and $452,600 after President Barack Obama took office.”

After serving under Clinton as an assistant secretary for economic policy in the Treasury department, Gruber began a series of paid-witness gigs for the feds, serving as a compensated expert witness on behalf of the Department of Justice. By the time Clinton left office, Gruber had received a combined $516,000 for five court testimonials.

He went on to receive more than $1.2 million under George W. Bush, racking up 11 more expert witness gigs — the least-lucrative of which paid him $13,500. Most of his testimony served the government’s ongoing regulatory campaign against Big Tobacco, according to CNS.

Gruber testified Tuesday before the House Oversight Committee on the extent to which his now-viral Obamacare revelations reflect the way in which the healthcare law was sold not only to the public, but to the lawmakers who passed it on a partisan vote. He sort of owned up to his condescension. But, then again, nobody was telling him he had to pay back the money he’d been paid.

“I am not an expert on politics, and my tone implied that I was, which is wrong,” he said. “In other cases, I simply made insulting and mean comments that are totally uncalled for in any situation. I sincerely apologize both for conjecturing with a tone of expertise, and for doing so in such a disparaging fashion. It is never appropriate to try to make oneself seem more important or smarter by demeaning others.”

Wisconsin police chief asks people to volunteer to have their homes searched for guns

The chief of police of Beloit, Wisconsin, is asking local residents to voluntarily allow law enforcement to search their homes for firearms, evidently in an effort to raise awareness of “gun violence” — an issue he believes to pose a threat “as serious as the Ebola virus.”

Beloit Police Chief Norm Jacobs is spearheading the new home-search program in order to help homeowners locate guns “they didn’t know were in their own homes,” according to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR).

It’s also designed to coax people into viewing “gun violence” as a public health epidemic in a fashion similar to the way the media portrays other public health issues.

“Gun violence is as serious as the Ebola virus is being represented in the media, and we should fight it using the tools that we’ve learned from our health providers,” Jacobs told WPR.

Jacobs also said the police might be able to locate “toy guns” that had somehow been modified into lethal weapons.

“Maybe we’ll find a toy gun that’s been altered by a youngster in the house — and we know the tragedies that can occur there on occasion,” he said.

WPR reports that Beloit (population 36,000) has endured seven homicides this year in which guns allegedly were used.

‘Independent’ Senate candidate Greg Orman was funded by Democratic PAC (and ended up losing anyway)

Few people ever bought the idea that Greg Orman, the candidate who lost last month’s general election for a Kansas Senate seat to Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, was the “independent” he claimed to be. Vice President Joe Biden even swept in at the 11th hour before Election Day to virtually remove all doubt.

But newly filed campaign finance reports reveal that Orman was receiving a lot of money, albeit indirectly, from the Senate Majority PAC. As the name might suggest, that’s a PAC with pretty close ties to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

From The Kansas City Star Sunday:

Campaign reports filed late last week revealed that key Democrats funneled money to Greg Orman’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in Kansas.

A political committee known as the Senate Majority PAC run by former advisers to Majority Leader Harry Reid sent about $1.5 million to two other campaign committees that were backing Orman’s campaign.

By law, Orman and his campaign could not have been involved in the transaction.

The money exchange was secret until last week’s reports because they were made on or after Oct. 16, meaning they didn’t have to be disclosed until last week. Political interests often exploit that loophole to keep some transactions secret until after the election.

The report goes on to state that Reid’s camp didn’t want Orman to appear to be as partisan, ahead of the election, as he actually was and that they “didn’t want to fuel the idea that Democrats were backing Orman.”

That strategy was supposed to leave Orman free to continue campaigning on the promise that he’d keep an open mind and caucus with whichever party would better represent Kansans’ interests in Washington, D.C.

In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. With Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) losing her runoff race late last week, the party composition for the incoming 114th Congress stands at 54 Republicans to 46 Democrats.

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.