Congress takes aim to ‘reform’ tech-sector immigration, despite election-season GOP posturing

For all the election-season partisan squabbling and posturing we got last year over immigration reform — supposedly a one-party issue, if you’re among the GOP mainstream — the new Congress is now in session and everything is pretty much business as usual.

Take immigration reform as it pertains to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers. Last fall, it seemed like a cut-and-dried issue: The Democrats were for it and the Republicans were against it. Now, with everyone safely sworn in for the 114th Congress, the battle lines are a little different: Almost everyone is for it, except for a handful of Tea Party types, along with a few old-school GOP conservative holdouts.

A bipartisan group of senators is preparing to revive a stalled 2013 bill aimed at loosening the current threshold of 65,000 H-1B visas annually for immigrants working in the tech sector. It’s a move that’s supposed to alleviate an espoused shortage of labor among U.S. tech companies.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) heads up the PR team behind the Immigration Innovation Act — a bill that would increase the annual number of STEM visas from 65,000 to 115,000. According to The Hill, Hatch is joined by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in co-sponsoring the bill.

Hatch called the bill a “commonsense approach to ensuring that those who have come here to be educated in high-tech fields have the ability to stay here with their families and contribute to the economy and our society.”

But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the perennial, reliable opponent of the reform agenda, opposes the bill, saying it’s a veiled attempt at artificially cheapening the cost of labor for big U.S. tech companies, resulting in suppressed wages for an American tech labor pool that’s not as scant as the bill’s backers claim.

The data suggests that Sessions is onto something. Over the past year, you’ve probably noticed stories like this, this and this.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), meanwhile, is rattling the saber over the Obama administration’s unilateral action on immigration enforcement, but that appears to be a quid-pro-quo political stance that focuses on DHS funding, while ignoring the ramifications of the STEM bill before the Senate.

The Hill reported Tuesday that Boehner is threatening to caucus against funding the Department of Homeland Security unless President Obama revisits his executive action on immigration — a move intended mainly to force Obama into compromise on unrelated issues like military spending and the Keystone XL pipeline.

“[B]oth Obama and Republicans expressed an interest in finding common ground on areas like cybersecurity, trade and taxes, according to pool reports and readouts,” The Hill reported. “Republicans said they also pressed Obama on approving the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, which the president has vowed to veto, and sending up a new military authorization for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

No mention, though, of where the Speaker stands on the Senate’s efforts to open a new floodgate for foreign STEM workers.

Obamacare: Turning tax season into a feeding frenzy for ‘specialists’

If you watch TV, you may have seen a recent surge in advertising geared toward driving lower-to middle-class taxpayers to the offices of tax preparing specialists, who — so the ads tell us — are armed with expertise on how the Affordable Care Act will affect the tax-filing process — a process that, in years past, was relatively simple for millions of wage earners.

That’s because of Obamacare’s reliance on the tax code to enforce its mandatory-insurance requirement (and on the IRS to assess penalties). The law’s complex rules and conditions mean that people accustomed to doing their own taxes will face a lot of new questions on their 1040 forms.

Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle sees a cottage industry emerging from Obamacare’s new, labyrinthine rules:

If you [had] no income outside a modest salary, and not much in the way of potential deductions such as huge mortgage interest or state tax bills, then there was really no reason to use a tax preparer. Even the mathematically challenged should, with the aid of a calculator, be able to fill out their 1040EZ forms just fine. But Obamacare has introduced a significant level of complexity into the taxes of lower-middle-class wage earners. More of them are going to need an accountant to negotiate the process — or risk owing the government hundreds of dollars because they didn’t fill out the forms correctly.

The money doesn’t go to the government, of course, but in many ways this looks like a tax: Suddenly, people with simple incomes are going to need to pay a significant sum to keep themselves out of trouble with the IRS.

But for many, tax-preparing services may become harbingers of bad news: informing a lot of people who received Obamacare subsidies last year that they’ll have to pay some of that money back to the government.

“[T]he big Obamacare event of this year will not be the exchange enrollments, but tax season, when people who got too much in subsidies find out how much money they owe the government,” McArdle speculates. “Tax preparers, to judge from my Twitter feed, have been panicking for months. But now they face the Herculean job of communicating that panic to the public.”

This is the first tax year in which Obamacare’s penalties will be assessed; it’s also the first year for the IRS to step in as the enforcer of the healthcare law. The relative ease or difficulty of the tax season — especially for the many Americans who have been accustomed to taking the path of least resistance in filing their taxes and receiving refunds — may play a significant role in shaping the reform politics of GOP leaders in the new Republican-controlled Congress, who have vowed to overhaul and/or repeal the law.

Judge rebukes ‘irrational’ regulatory barriers to business ownership in Texas hairstylist case

A federal judge repudiated a Texas law that requires people who work as hairstylists to mount a series of regulatory hurdles, saying that the state cannot impose a single, uniform set of requirements on everyone who seeks to earn a living as a stylist or barber.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks said a Texas law that forced Senegalese hairstylist Isis Brantley to equip her Dallas-area hair-braiding school with costly sanitary redundancies (like multiple sinks) “does not make sense” because Brantley isn’t engaged in an endeavor that requires the traditional fixtures as a sanitary measure.

Brantley had attempted to teach the technique at a community center, but was blocked by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which informed her she did not meet the educational requirements to work in her field, and that state regulations required a minimum of five sinks at her place of business.

She went to court, arguing through her attorney that regulation just for regulation’s sake is unconstitutional. Brantley has been engaged in a struggle to deregulate the hair-care profession in Texas since her arrest in 1997 for braiding hair without a barber’s license. According to the Christian Science Monitor, she “helped change Texas law in 2007 to allow people to do that, but has been blocked in her attempts to establish a hair-braid school.”

The order comes just as the political climate favoring bureaucratic barriers to entry for all manner of light trade-based professions may be shifting in the Lone Star State. In August, Republican Governor-elect Greg Abbot proposed an overhaul of the state’s licensure model for small businesses such as cosmetology, coaching, dog training and interior design.

“Texas should scale back its licensing laws considerably,” Abbott’s proposal asserts. “Doing so will create more opportunity for individuals and result in increased economic growth. For example, when Mississippi repealed its cosmetology license requirement for hair braiders and replaced it with a registration requirement, 300 new braiders registered with the state. Not only did they relocate from neighboring states, but also stopped working in Mississippi in secret and became open members of the economic community.

“… Requirements that otherwise limit the ability of qualified individuals to pursue their chosen career path are unnecessary and should not be adopted.”

Update: Connecticut Supreme Court rules teen must continue receiving treatment against her will

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a trial court ruling that forced a 17-year-old girl to continue receiving medical treatment she had attempted vehemently to refuse. The ruling also ensures the girl will continue to remain in state custody against her will.

The plaintiff, identified in court documents as “Cassandra C.,” objected so strongly to undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma that she ran away from home last fall after receiving two rounds of treatment, rebuffing doctors who recommended additional chemotherapy.

The Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) gained custody of “Cassandra C.” when she returned home and refused any more treatment. A court ordered the girl and her family to cooperate with the state and to submit to treatment. She appealed to the Supreme Court, but lost that appeal late Thursday.

Still in the custody of the DCF, “Cassandra C.” penned a Thursday opinion column for The Hartford Courant, written from the hospital she’s not allowed to leave. In the piece, she argues she’d rather take her chances with other methods of treatment than submit to the “nightmare” of state-mandated chemotherapy.

Here’s an excerpt:

[In December] I was admitted to the same room I’m in now, with someone sitting by my door 24/7. I could walk down the hallway as long as security was with me, but otherwise I couldn’t leave my room. I felt trapped.

After a week, they decided to force chemotherapy on me. I should have had the right to say no, but I didn’t. I was strapped to a bed by my wrists and ankles and sedated. I woke up in the recovery room with a port surgically placed in my chest. I was outraged and felt completely violated. My phone was taken away, the hospital phone was removed from my room and even the scissors I used for art were taken.

I have been locked in this hospital for a month, missing time from work, not being able to pay my bills. I couldn’t celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with my friends and family. I miss my cat and I miss fresh air. Having visitors is complicated, seeing my mom is limited, and I’ve not been able to see all of the people I’d like to. My friends are a major support; I need them. Finally, I was given an iPad. I can message my friends on Facebook, but it is nowhere near like calling a friend at night when I can’t sleep or hearing someone’s voice to cheer me up.

This experience has been a continuous nightmare. I want the right to make my medical decisions. It’s disgusting that I’m fighting for a right that I and anyone in my situation should already have. This is my life and my body, not DCF’s and not the state’s. I am a human — I should be able to decide if I do or don’t want chemotherapy. Whether I live 17 years or 100 years should not be anyone’s choice but mine.

The (optimistic) price tag of Obama’s free college plan

President Obama last week unveiled an ambitious plan to send everyone to two-year colleges for free, saying that going to school on the government’s dime should be an option for “everybody who’s willing to work for it.”

The administration initially refused to attach a cost estimate to such a plan, before reversing itself late Friday and offering a figure: $60 billion over 10 years. For now, that’s as much information as the president is willing to share, although his federal budget proposal, due in February, is expected to offer more detailed information.

Obama announced his free-school idea at a community college in Tennessee, whose state-level free-tuition program for high school seniors provided the blueprint for the White House’s version.

Under the president’s plan — called “America’s College Promise” — half-time students who are making “steady progress” toward a degree would receive two years of free school at a community college, so long as they maintain grade point averages of 2.5 or better.

In order for the plan to be available to students in a given state, that state would have to accept the yoke of federal match money.

“Obama is proposing a split responsibility between states and the federal government in which the feds offer 75 percent of the money to send students to community colleges, while the states put up the rest,” National Journal reported. “The design is, in part, a nod to states, which run the public college system, but it also could be read by some Republicans as a federal intrusion into states’ turf.”

States have varying degrees of success of prioritizing workforce development through their two-year college systems — and funding those programs through varying combinations of state funds and federal dollars. But the Obama administration’s plan doesn’t yet suggest a way for the federal government to cough up its 75 percent share — except, as National journal put it, “to ask Congress for the money.”

Critics instantly compared the plan to the existing federal student loan bubble, which they argue has done more to aggrandize universities and drive up tuition costs than help students afford to go to school. And it introduces some potential new problems.

“If [under the new proposal] a student falls into the extremely high drop-out rate for students, the government (and the taxpayers) don’t get the money back,” Reason’s Scott Shackford wrote Friday. “So the White House is promoting a program funded by taxpayers to subsidize — wait, I mean further subsidize — a system that has baked in an extremely high failure rate.

“[T]his program is not a subsidy for students. It’s a subsidy for faculty and college level administrative bloat… Community college presidents across the country are drooling.”

And then there’s the cost: $60 billion over 10 years, according to the White House. But before the president coughed up that figure, several media outlets had extrapolated, from Obama’s own promotional rhetoric, how much the plan is likely to cost: Try $34 billion per year.

“[T]he president’s announcement said that the plan could benefit as many as nine million students who could save an average of $3,800 per year,” The Weekly Standard wrote. “This would put the total cost at a little more than $34 billion… At $34 billion per year, taxpayers at least will be working for it, willing or not.”

Low unemployment rate obscures persistent problems in U.S. labor force

The U.S. unemployment rate inched down to an impressive 5.6 percent in December, continuing a trend that, on its surface, suggests a dramatic recovery in the labor force.

But, of course, that 5.6 percent figure is a product of its context: December’s jobs numbers also revealed that there are more qualified people who aren’t participating in the U.S. workforce than at any time in the nation’s history.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 92,898,000 Americans over the age of 15 are not working — and aren’t looking for work. That’s an enormous chunk for a country with a population of 320 million — a figure that encompasses everyone, including those aged 15 and under who don’t factor in the BLS’ definition of eligible job-seekers.

Stated differently, the labor force participation rate for December matched the 35-year low of 62.7 percent it achieved in September of last year, after crawling up to 62.9 percent in November.

In addition, wages took a hit in the December report.

“Job quality,” reported CNBC, “did not fare well either, with wages actually declining for the month by 5 cents an hour, pulling the annualized gain down to 1.7 percent.” The seasonal surge of retail hiring that attends the Christmas shopping surge “did nothing to help the retail trade… with the Labor Department reporting little change in payrolls after a jump in November.”

The bottom line: Even though the unemployment rate fell to a remarkable 5.6 percent, it did so because the proportion of people who seek employment to those who find it continues to look robust as everyone else bails out of the job-seeking pool.

Or, as CNBC flatly put it, “[t]he total number of employed Americans increased by 111,000, while the actual size of the labor force declined by 273,000.”

Boehner says he’s the most ‘anti-establishment’ speaker in GOP history

Just one day after retaliating against a pair of upstart GOP House members who led an unsuccessful bid to derail his campaign for a third term as Speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) attempted to repair his poor rapport with conservatives by declaring himself “the most anti-establishment Speaker” in the party’s history.

“During my years here when I voted, I had the eighth-most conservative voting record in the Congress, and it does pain me to be described as spineless or a ‘squish,’” Boehner told the press Thursday.

“But what pains me the most is when they describe me as the ‘establishment.’ I’m the most anti-establishment Speaker we’ve ever had.”

The self-described iconoclast on Monday won 216 House votes to attain his third term as speaker of the House, in the process quelling a minor conservative rebellion from within his own party. Although widely reported as a historically significant uprising, the move to oust Boehner came down to just 25 GOP House members — only twelve of whom voted for Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), the second-place candidate.

Boehner essentially punished Webster and one of Webster’s conservative allies, Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.), ensuring that both House incumbents would be locked out of returning to their positions on the influential House Rules Committee.

The speaker described that move as a necessary byproduct of a “family conversation” he initiated among party leaders to correct “a situation… where we had to constitute the Rules Committee because of some of the activities on the floor.” He hinted, though, that Webster and Nugent could find themselves back on the Rules Committee in the future, but did not elaborate on what it would take for that to happen.

Meanwhile, pundits anticipate that Boehner and the GOP establishment of which he’s (apparently) not a member aren’t done taking out their revenge on conservative upstart House members who seek to play a larger role in Congress’ power structure.

“GOP officials have already doled out some punishments, but it is clear that the revenge games have just begun,” The Hill reported Thursday:

Boehner’s initial retaliation is being cheered by some of his allies who’ve been urging him to ditch his nice-guy reputation.

“There is revenge and then there is a word called ‘consequences,’” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a former Republican leader in the Georgia statehouse who serves on Boehner’s Steering Committee, which is responsible for appointing chairmen. If you have a child that does something he knows is wrong, and you send him to his room, is that revenge?”

Well, it would be revenge… if Boehner were doing all this to protect the GOP establishment.

But Boehner now says he’s not part of that establishment… so, obviously, “revenge” must be the furthest thing from his mind.

Puzzler: White House says Obama veto threat on Keystone is actually GOP obstructionism

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest had an interesting, if confusing, take Tuesday on how the Obama administration perceives its role in reaching bipartisan consensus with the Republican-controlled Congress.

Asked whether President Obama’s threat to veto the Republican-backed Keystone XL Pipeline bill isn’t simply an example of Obama’s own reluctance to find common ground with GOP lawmakers, Earnest found a way to make the Republicans the guilty party — even though it would be Obama doing the vetoing.

“[M]aybe it raises questions about the willingness of Republicans to actually cooperate with this administration, when you consider [that] the very first bill that’s introduced in the United States Senate [in the 114th Congress] is one the Republicans know the president opposes,” said Earnest at Tuesday press briefing.

Blaming someone else for what you do rarely makes sense. It makes even less sense when you’re the president. It makes less sense still when the topic at hand isn’t even a party-line issue.

“The Keystone Pipeline bill was supported by a bipartisan group of 59 senators in a vote in November 2014,” CNS News observed Tuesday. “This was not a purely partisan effort.

“… It is quite the logical leap for the White House to claim that President Obama’s repeated actions ignoring, bypassing, and confronting Congress since the midterm elections show anything but openness or a willingness to compromise.”

Sharpton’s bizarre retort to the newspaper that accused him of race-shaming shakedowns

Al Sharpton explained this week that a recent story accusing his nonprofit of blackmailing companies by threatening them with accusations of racism simply isn’t true.

The reason? According to Sharpton, the company that owns the New York Post — the news outlet that first reported on his alleged shakedown tactics — gives money to his nonprofit… just like everybody else.

So that means if Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns the Post, gives Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) a contribution, any story the Post runs that questions his fundraising tactics amounts to nothing more than an abrogation of its parent company’s intellectual honesty… or something like that.

Amazingly, Sharpton actually spoke to conservative website The Daily Caller when it contacted him for an explanation.

“Sharpton’s central defense was that News Corp. — the company that owns the New York Post — also fills his coffers,” The DC surmised.

Some highlights from The DC’s interview with Sharpton:

“I am not going to let them get around the fact that their company has been involved, has donated money, had us on their board of diversity.”

“Why are they doing it?” he [Sharpton] asked. “Are they being shaken down?”

…“I am not prepared to do anything but to say that Rupert Murdoch has given, through News Corp, money to us and that we’re on the board, on their, have been on their diversity board. I am going to force you to use the quote I give you because that is the only quote I am giving you.”

Sharpton called back moments later with more quotes, albeit interspersed with his fixation on the alleged News Corp donations.

But when pressed for detailed comment about other businesses that shower their largesse on the National Action Network, he threatened to hang up again.

“Let’s end this because you playing games,” he thundered.

…The reverend [Sharpton] seemed to find it exculpatory that a good chunk of the [Post] article alleged influence peddling, rather than explicit race hustles.

According to the New York Daily News, Sharpton earns $241,000 a year for directing NAN.

In its original story, the Post had outlined a number of instances in which Sharpton, both personally and through his nonprofit, allegedly used the threat of bad publicity (through insinuations of racism) to coax contributions from corporations that otherwise have no business with Sharpton or his outfit.

“For more than a decade,” wrote the Post, “corporations have shelled out thousands of dollars in donations and consulting fees to Sharpton’s National Action Network. What they get in return is the reverend’s supposed sway in the black community or, more often, his silence.”

Sharpton now says the Post and Murdoch are hypocrites for donating to his network while writing articles critical of his methods.

An alternate take might be that Murdoch — like many of NAN’s other alleged corporate targets — might simply have gotten fed up with being blackmailed. And, as luck would have it, Murdoch just so happens to own a New York newspaper where a bombshell story about Sharpton would make for very interesting reading.

Boehner moves to punish conservative upstarts after securing speakership

A day following his election to a third term as speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) set about to punish members of a small group of conservative dissenting lawmakers who had cast votes against him.

Boehner locked two House lawmakers — Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and Richard Nugent (R-Fla.) — out of the House Rules Committee, and GOP establishment leaders hinted that Boehner could follow up with further committee assignments intended to strip like-minded conservative House members of their power within the caucus.

Webster emerged as the alternative candidate for the speaker’s gavel to generate the greatest consensus, but still managed to earn only 12 votes in Monday’s roll-call vote. Boehner received 216 votes.

POLITICO offered this synopsis of Boehner’s “revenge” tactic:

The reason for demoting the two Florida Republicans was simple: Webster ran against Boehner for speaker, distributing fliers outlining his candidacy and talking about how he would better adhere to the House rules than the Ohio Republican. Nugent supported his fellow Floridian in the quixotic endeavor, which garnered the support of 12 lawmakers. Webster didn’t even give Boehner a heads-up that he was running, although leadership was aware early Tuesday morning that it could happen.

With Webster openly offering himself as an alternative to Boehner, the GOP leadership thought seats on the Rules Committee were a plum that the pair no longer deserved. It didn’t take more than a few hours for Webster — a legendary former Florida statehouse speaker and state Senate majority leader — and Nugent to find themselves on the outside of a power structure they were once very much a part of.

Boehner himself described his approach to consolidating the House GOP caucus as having a “family conversation” about partisan unity, and even hinted that Webster and Nugent could find themselves back on the Rules Committee at some point — presumably after accepting the establishment bridle.

“We had a situation yesterday where we had to constitute the Rules Committee because of some of the activities on the floor,” Boehner told the press on Tuesday. “Two of our members weren’t put back on the Committee immediately.

“We’re going to have a family conversation… about bringing our team together. And I expect those conversations for the next couple of days will continue, and we’ll come to a decision about how we go forward.”

State removes 17-year-old from home, forces her into chemotherapy

A 17-year-old Connecticut girl was so adamant about declining treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma that she reportedly ran away from home in order to avoid a state-mandated round of chemotherapy. Now, she’s in the custody of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), thanks to a judge’s order.

According to CBS Connecticut, the unnamed minor — referred to as “Cassandra C.” in court documents — initially refused treatment after her diagnosis in September, and her mother supported that decision.

Then the DCF intervened, petitioning for a court order granting the department temporary custody and forcing her mother “to cooperate with medical care administered to her daughter under DCF supervision.”

From CBS Connecticut:

“Following a hearing at which Cassandra’s doctors testified, the trial court ordered that she be removed from her home and that she remain in DCF’s care and custody,” read court documents. “The court also authorized DCF to make all necessary medical decisions on Cassandra’s behalf.”

… Cassandra and her mother claim that Connecticut’s common law and public policy dictate that DCF cannot force Cassandra to receive medical treatment over her knowing and informed objection and over the knowing and informed objection of her mother, according to the court documents.

The girl’s family is appealing the court order. Their attorney, Michael S. Taylor, told local media that the state’s forcible treatment was a violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

“It’s a question of fundamental constitutional rights — the right to have a say over what happens to your body — and the right to say to the government ‘you can’t control what happens to my body,'” Taylor told WTIC-TV.

“That really ought to be up to Cassandra. It ought not to be for the state to jump in and say ‘well, regardless of your decision, we think we know better.'”

The family is set for a Jan. 8 hearing before the Connecticut Supreme Court. Until then, Cassandra C. remains in the custody of the DCF and continues to receive the treatment to which she and her family object.

Then: Harvard wonks supported Obamacare. Now: Harvard faculty outraged that Obamacare applies to them

It’s not often you see a headline like this in The New York Times: “Health Care Fixes Backed by Harvard’s Experts Now Roil Its Faculty.”

During the law’s development phase, policy wonks at the hoary Ivy League school were among the Affordable Care Act’s most influential and ardent supporters. Now, the Harvard professors whose healthcare plans have been affected by the law’s very real expansion of healthcare costs are, as The Times puts it, “in an uproar.”

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted in November (“overwhelmingly,” The Times observes) to stop the cost increases from taking effect. But that vote came too late to do any good. The increases aren’t as dramatic as those that have affected so many others: Annual deductibles under the new plan are an amazingly low $250 for individuals and $750 for families, and a visit to the doctor costs $20 out of pocket. Outpatient costs are capped at $1,500 (for an individual) and $4,500 (for a family), once the patient has reached those figures by paying a 10 percent share of the cost of treatment.

But that still represents a change significant enough to anger the faculty.

Here’s a highlight:

[S]ome ideas that looked good to academia in theory are now causing consternation. In 2009, while Congress was considering the health care legislation, Dr. Alan M. Garber — then a Stanford professor and now the provost of Harvard — led a group of economists who sent an open letter to Mr. Obama endorsing cost-control features of the bill. They praised the Cadillac tax as a way to rein in health costs and premiums.

… In an interview, Dr. Garber acknowledged that Harvard employees would face greater cost-sharing, but he defended the changes. “Cost-sharing, if done appropriately, can slow the growth of health spending,” he said. “We need to be prepared for the very real possibility that health expenditure growth will take off again.”

But Jerry R. Green, a professor of economics and a former provost who has been on the Harvard faculty for more than four decades, said the new out-of-pocket costs could lead people to defer medical care or diagnostic tests, causing more serious illnesses and costly complications in the future.

“It’s equivalent to taxing the sick,” Professor Green said. “I don’t think there’s any government in the world that would tax the sick.”

Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpan Faust, along with some faculty apologists, are waving off the controversy by stressing that cost sharing, while new and unpleasant, is a good and inevitable feature of a law that purports, over the long term, to be “affordable.”

Harvard’s own experts are in the process of urgently data-crunching, and a fresh debate is now raging over the relative merits of cost sharing against the university’s claim that higher-out-of-pocket payments are warranted.

But another new “feature” of Obamacare is affecting Harvard employees’ range of treatment options — ironically limiting their ability to avail themselves of Harvard-affiliated hospital care in the process:

Some Harvard employees have said they will gladly accept a narrower network of health care providers if it lowers their costs. But Harvard’s ability to create such networks is complicated by the fact that some of Boston’s best-known, most expensive hospitals are affiliated with Harvard Medical School. To create a network of high-value providers, Harvard would probably need to exclude some of its own teaching hospitals, or discourage their use.

“Harvard employees want access to everything,” said Dr. Barbara J. McNeil, the head of the health care policy department at Harvard Medical School and a member of the benefits committee. “They don’t want to be restricted in what institutions they can get care from.”

Who knew that Harvard employees would want the same things everybody else wants?

McConnell invokes kinder, gentler image for GOP-led Congress

New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is indicating he’ll attempt to steer his party in a benign direction as his leadership style helps shape public perceptions of the GOP — and its presidential nominee’s chances — heading into the 2016 election cycle.

McConnell told The Washington Post he is admonishing elected leaders within his own party not to be “scary” as the GOP takes majority control of both the House and Senate.

McConnell sounded much like a member of the opposing team in his Sunday interview with The Post, identifying with Democratic Party detractors who attempted throughout the 2014 election season to identify Republican candidates as partisan extremists.

“I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome,” he said. “I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority.”

He went on to set forth a rationale that appears to view the party’s bid for the White House in 2016 as a test of the GOP’s ability to demonstrate an abundance of caution.

“Now in charge at both ends of the Capitol, Republicans aim to avoid the worst excesses of the past four years and make sure the public isn’t fearful of the GOP’s course,” The Post helpfully explains:

“There would be nothing frightening about adding a Republican president to that governing majority,” McConnell said, explaining how he wants voters to view the party on the eve of the 2016 election. “I think that’s the single best thing we can do, is to not mess up the playing field, if you will, for whoever the nominee ultimately is.”

McConnell’s evident strategy to avoid scaring off mainstream America between now and 2016 almost perfectly embodies what Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) described as Republican “defeatism” in 2013, back when the party was still evaluating its losses in the 2012 elections.

“My biggest surprise has been the defeatism among some Republicans here,” Cruz had said in a lengthy interview with Rare. “There was such a strong sense of confusion about November’s loss, and many believed we had to retrench and there was no way to stop the president and Democrats from running the table.

“… Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I think Republicans win when we stand for clear principles and draw strong contrasts with the other party. If we make clear that Republicans are fighting for jobs and to protect high-quality health care against Democrats wedded to an ideological dream of government-controlled healthcare, I think we will win. But the only way this happens is if a massive grassroots army makes its voice heard, and demands of our elected officials that they stand up and fight.”

That’s a lot more appealing than McConnell’s “don’t be scary” strategy, which instead comes off making the GOP seem like a creepy, single, middle-aged guy who won’t stop hanging around the playground when the kids get out of school.

Sharyl Attkisson sues the DOJ for alleged computer hacks

Sharyl Attkisson, the former CBS News investigative reporter whose Benghazi coverage got too ambitious for the network to support, is suing the Obama administration’s Justice Department for the illegal role she claims the DOJ played in hacking her computers and spying on her information-gathering activity.

Fox News reported Monday that Attkisson is suing the DOJ for $35 million in damages, saying she wants to demonstrate that victims of illegal government spying should have avenues to strike back.

“I just think it’s important to send a message that people shouldn’t be victimized and throw up their hands and think there’s nothing they can do and they’re powerless,” she said. The DOJ has repeatedly denied any involvement in hacking Attkisson’s computers or spying on her.

CBS News confirmed in August of 2013 that Attkisson’s equipment had been hacked, but made a point of not blaming the Feds:

Evidence suggests this party performed all access remotely using Attkisson’s accounts. While no malicious code was found, forensic analysis revealed an intruder had executed commands that appeared to involve search and exfiltration of data. This party also used sophisticated methods to remove all possible indications of unauthorized activity, and alter system times to cause further confusion. CBS News is taking steps to identify the responsible party and their method of access.

…[August 2, 2013] Friday’s announcement comes on the heels of last month’s revelation that the Justice Department had seized the emails and phone records of Fox News correspondent James Rosen.

To be clear, the federal government has not been accused in the intrusion of Attkisson’s computer; CBS News is continuing to work to identify the responsible party.

Attkisson alleges in the suit that she also was monitored through a hacked Skype account, potentially allowing the perpetrator to listen to her spoken conversation.

Attkisson voluntarily quit working for CBS early last year, following a prolonged conflict with her network peers to bring to air a number of reports she had cultivated during her investigation of the terror attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Lybia.

California may ban ‘Redskins’ as mascot name statewide

A California assemblyman has drafted a bill that aims to ban the use of the “Redskins” moniker from use at all of the state’s public schools.

Louis Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville, introduced the bill in early December in order to “phase out that particular derogatory term,” according to the San Jose Mercury News. Alejo titled the bill the “California Racial Mascots Act,” but it targets only the “Redskins” appellation.

From the bill:

This bill would establish the California Racial Mascots Act, which would prohibit public schools from using the term Redskins as a school or athletic team name, mascot, or nickname beginning January 1, 2017, subject to specified exceptions. The bill would also provide that this prohibition may not be waived by the State Board of Education. To the extent that this prohibition would impose additional duties on schools, the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.

According to the Mercury News, there are four high schools (Calaveras, Chowchilla, Gustine and Tulare) in the state that use “Redskins” as their mascots; two others recently changed their mascot names from “Redskins” to “Red Hawks.”

Unsurprisingly, people close to the remaining “Redskins” schools aren’t enthused.

“Tulare Union Redskins are part of a long and proud tradition dating back to 1890,” Tulare district superintendent Sarah Koligian told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Our school has worked closely with our local Indian tribes to include them in the discussion regarding how the Tulare Union Redskin depicts both pride and respect.”

According to The Fresno Bee, Alejo’s bill marks the third attempt in 14 years to institute some kind of statewide ban on “Indian-themed” mascots. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill banning the use of Indian-associated mascot names in 2004.

Unpopular with Arizona GOP, McCain eyes Tea Party ‘purge’ to ease 2016 campaign

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is so disliked by his conservative GOP home base that he may have to purge party leadership at the local level, one party official at a time, in order to shore up his campaign to win another nomination in the 2016 primary election.

According to POLITICO, the Tea Party has become too entrenched in Arizona’s Republican leadership for McCain to make headway — unless his team undertakes an “aggressive and systematic campaign to reshape the state GOP apparatus by ridding it of conservative firebrands and replacing them with steadfast allies.”

From POLITICO:

Team McCain’s goal? Unseat conservative activists who hold obscure, but influential, local party offices.

Under the byzantine rules of Arizona Republican Party politics, these elected officials, known as precinct committeemen, vote for local party chairmen. The chairmen, in turn, determine how state and local GOP funds are spent, which candidates are promoted in an election year, and which political issues are highlighted — all matters of central concern for McCain heading into 2016, when the threat of a primary looms.

Prior to Aug. 26, when the races for the party offices were held, the vast majority of the 3,925 precinct slots were filled by people McCain’s team considered opponents. Now, after an influx of candidates were recruited by the senator’s allies, around 40 percent of those offices — 1,531 to be exact — will be held by people McCain’s team regards as friendly. They will have the power to vote down hostile Republican chairmen in each of their respective localities.

Why would McCain regard the Tea Party or fundamental conservatives as a political obstacle? Because Arizona’s conservatives have made it clear they don’t want McCain as their Senate nominee — and, within the state’s GOP machine, they’re a majority.

You may remember this pair of stories from a year ago, when McCain was censured not only by the Maricopa County Republicans, but also the state GOP. A March poll found that Arizonans, on the whole, aren’t exactly happy with him. A Citizens United poll found, one month later, that a majority of Arizona Republicans literally preferred anyone else to McCain in 2016.

Obamacare continues to reshape hiring practices, earnings for small businesses

Most observers expected the Affordable Care Act to effect a profound shift in the way many businesses approached building a workforce, thanks to requirements that created new costs for employers who retain full-time, benefits-eligible staff.

A year into its operation, Obamacare is doing just that.

According to USA Today, industries that typically rely on low-skilled, low-wage employees for their front-line staffing needs have hired more part-time employees and cut the number of full-timers, a tactic intended to point the part-timers toward the federal- and state-managed insurance marketplaces. Under Obamacare, businesses with 100 or more full-time employees (a number that drops to 50 in 2016) must provide most of those employees with health insurance — or pay the Obamacare penalty.

“A majority of small businesses say the Affordable Care Act already has hurt their profits, forcing them to reduce or postpone investment, withhold raises or trim other types of benefits, according to a new survey by the top small-business trade group,” reports USA Today.

“… Businesses with fewer than 100 employees also already have felt some impact from the health law, says a new survey by the National Federation of Independent Business [NFIB], a small-business trade group. Those that provide health insurance now must offer coverage for mental health and other services — unless they’re grandfathered under existing plans — boosting premiums, says Kevin Kuhlman, NFIB director of federal policy.”

NFIB surveyed 900 small businesses and found that 42 percent had seen increases of at least 10 percent in their health plan costs in 2014. Accordingly, 26 percent said they were planning either to free or reduce their employees’ pay.

When Al Sharpton goes race shaming, he doesn’t aim low

It’s so familiar that you could probably follow the playbook yourself, if you lacked the scruples: Find a major company or personality, verify that they don’t employ a percentage of minorities (or other identity group) that reflects that group’s presence in the general population, and then leverage that information to extract from the company or personality you targeted mea culpas and pre-emptive donations to your nonprofit organization.

In exchange, you’ll shut up about their institutional “racism”… for now.

If you’ve watched Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton operate, you know how this works — probably well enough to do it yourself.

The New York Post took a closer look at how Sharpton has played this game over the years. Going down the list of companies who’ve been shamed into parting with a few dollars — presumably to pay to have the spotlight to focus elsewhere — one thing becomes clear: Sharpton ain’t aiming for the small check.

Here’s how the Post sets up its story:

Anheuser-Busch gave him six figures, Colgate-Palmolive shelled out $50,000 and Macy’s and Pfizer have contributed thousands to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s charity.

Almost 50 companies — including PepsiCo, General Motors, Wal-Mart, FedEx, Continental Airlines, Johnson & Johnson and Chase — and some labor unions sponsored Sharpton’s National Action Network annual conference in April.

Terrified of negative publicity, fearful of a consumer boycott or eager to make nice with the civil-rights activist, CEOs write checks, critics say, to NAN and Sharpton — who brandishes the buying power of African-American consumers. In some cases, they hire him as a consultant.

The cash flows even as the US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn has been conducting a grand-jury investigation of NAN’s finances.

What happens when a big company puts him off, or tells him to take a hike? GM reportedly spurned Sharpton’s National Action Network for several years in a row, declining to make a donation. In 2006, Sharpton threatened a boycott after a black-owned GM dealership in New York City closed.

GM wrote NAN a $5,000 check, then another one. NAN now calls GM, according to the Post, a “worthy” company.

Sharpton’s organization did something similar to DaimlerChrysler in the early 2000s. And Honda. And Burger King. And Pepsi.

They all pay. It doesn’t just buy them an absence of potential bad publicity; it also buys them an ally in the culture wars — an ally that’s only useful operating in the toxic identity-politics climate he has helped preserve.

“Sharpton sticks up for his corporate patrons,” the Post remarks, citing Sharpton’s reversals and changes of heart, once the money starts flowing to NAN.

NAN is a nonprofit organization, and it’s under investigation for allegedly failing to file financial reports with the State of New York and the U.S. government pertaining to the payroll taxes of its employees — in consecutive fiscal years. Sharpton has defended the nonprofit’s handling of these kinds of problems by saying he’s not the best administrator and that his passions and abilities lie elsewhere.

The nanny state isn’t likely to go away in 2015

A look back at a highlight reel of 2014’s most dispiriting anecdotes of nanny-state failures and overzealous applications of laws and policies doesn’t offer much hope for a freer, more sensible 2015.

Reason recently ran down 10 of the worst examples of “zero tolerance” policies gone wrong this past year, and it’s rife with instance after instance of mindless servitude to bureaucracy. Many of these examples involve kids who’ve suffered because adults have abrogated their individual powers of judgment and discretion — often in the name of guarding against some unlikely worst-case scenario.

There’s the kid in Minnesota who had to stand outside in her swimsuit in freezing temperatures because the grown-ups were scared to make an exception to a school policy:

After the fire alarm went off in Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, everyone evacuated, including Kayona Hagen-Tietza, 14, who had been swimming in the gym pool and didn’t have time to change. School policy forbids teachers from having students in the car, so she stood outside, barefoot, for 10 minutes in 5-degree weather until a teacher obtained “permission” to let her sit in her car just this once.

Then there’s the Canadian school bus driver who, in a weather crisis, was fired for putting the well-being of her charges ahead of the rulebook:

On a day when the wind chill dipped to -34 Fahrenheit, school bus driver Kendra Lindon’s bus broke down. Knowing it could take a long time for a replacement to arrive — and that kids would be waiting outside till it did — she picked up the few children on her route (including her son) in her SUV. A neighbor noticed two kids sitting in the cargo hold without seat belts and called the bus company. She was promptly fired.

Thank God for tattletales and busybodies.

Then there’s the kid who got a jump start on defacing his permanent record when he made the mistake of … twirling his pencil. Again, another busybody (this time a fellow student) is allegedly to thank for escalating a non-event into something memorable:

Ethan Chaplin, 13, was twirling his pencil, which made the child sitting behind him feel “threatened or uncomfortable.” That’s all it took for the Vernon, New Jersey, school to send Chaplin for a 5-hour physical and psych evaluation. His urine was tested and blood drawn. “We never know what’s percolating in the mind of children, okay?” the superintendent, Charles Maranzano, said. “When they demonstrate behaviors that raise red flags, we must do our duty.”

There’s plenty more where these came from: kids who can’t share lunches, kids who aren’t allowed to wear sunscreen (they could drink it!) and beloved, elderly substitute teachers who get canned for being friends with a lot of children on Facebook.

Gandhi is credited — perhaps unduly — with advising people to “be the change” they wish to see in the world. Regardless, it’s good advice — because it’s pretty much the only civil way to ensure that the nanny state and its servants become more marginal players in society than they were in 2014.

Michigan mandates drug testing for some welfare recipients

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has signed off on a legislative measure that will implement mandatory drug testing for certain recipients of government benefits, making the state the latest among a growing handful to place state-level qualifiers on its administration of federal welfare programs.

Snyder, a Republican, signed off on the “suspicion-based” drug testing measure Dec. 26, saying the one-year pilot program should “help ensure recipients get the wrap-around services they need to overcome drug addiction and lead successful lives.”

According to the Detroit Free Press, the measure will require “welfare recipients or applicants suspected of drug use” to submit to drug testing; those who refuse will become ineligible to continue receiving benefits for a six-month period.

Those who test positive will be referred to treatment programs.

According to the law, the pilot program is to be implemented in three “or more” counties, with the Michigan Department of Human Services field employees determining whether applicants and recipients qualify as “suspicious.”

From the final version of the bill:

(3) Upon initial application and at annual redetermination, the department shall screen family independence program applicants and recipients for suspicion of substance abuse using an empirically validated substance abuse screening tool.

(4) If the results of the substance abuse screening gives the department a reasonable suspicion to believe that the applicant or recipient has engaged in the use of a controlled substance, the applicant or recipient is required to take a substance abuse test.

Legislative Democrats oppose the program, as does the American Civil Liberties Union. Some outside observers have questioned the relevance or effectiveness of attaching drug screening to welfare programs, emphasizing the low number of people who’ve actually failed drug tests in states where similar programs have been implemented.

Soldier’s Hawaii wedding plans scuttled so Obama can play through

SPECIAL/The Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course is in Kaneohe, Hawaii.

It’s the Starbucks salute all over again.

The presidential entourage is in Hawaii to ensure a safe and happy Christmas vacation for the Obama family, and part of the job entails keeping strangers away from the commander in chief. When it comes to the president’s golf time, we’ve seen in the past how seriously they take their jobs.

This time around, Barack Obama’s Hawaiian golf outing forced a pair of U.S. Army captains who’d planned on getting married at the Kaneohe Kipper Golf Course to change their plans at the last minute.

From Bloomberg News:

Natalie Heimel and her fiancé, Edward Mallue Jr., a pair of captains in the Army, were walking from their wedding rehearsal on Saturday at the 16th tee box at Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course in Hawaii when they were informed they’d have to move their wedding, scheduled for the next day.

President Barack Obama wanted to play through.

… “It was kind of ironic they got the letter from them and then, within hours, they were told they had to be moved due to him,” Jamie McCarthy, Mallue’s sister, said in an interview. “It was emotional, especially for her — she’s the bride and in less than 24 hours they had to change everything they had planned.”

If all that looks familiar to you, there’s a reason: the president inconvenienced a bunch of wealthy people (were any of them DNC donors?) at Martha’s Vineyard earlier this year when his golf game took precedence over everyone else’s leisure sport at the Vineyard Golf Club. There was even frisking right on the course.

In either case, there’s really nothing to see here:

IRS says it will be crippled by budget cuts; don’t believe it

Last week, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told the press his agency would face severe limitations in the face of a $346 million budget cut, saying “at some point, we’re going to set a new American record for the number of years in a row we get a budget cut.”

“We’re well beyond cutting out any fat,” Koskinen said. “And we’re now into cutting, as people say, muscle headed toward bone.”

But trimming the beast’s budget by $346 million is more like shaving its back than taking an axe to flesh and bone.

Reason’s J.D. Tucille described Koskinen’s mild threat of delayed customer service and long waits for tax returns as “an all-hands-on-deck spin on IRS cuts,” pointing out that less customer service might actually be a benefit — since it gives the IRS fewer opportunities to screw up:

[T]hat might not be so horrible an outcome, given that IRS assistance involved giving taxpayers bad advice 22 percent of the time back in 1987, 41 percent of the time in 1989, 22 percent of the time in 2002, and 43 percent of the time in 2003. And no matter the advice dispensed by the tax collectors themselves, taxpayers are on the hook for getting it right.

… But it’s not just the call center taking a hit. Koskinen warns that a leaner IRS will collect less revenue.

Well, cry me a river. While I have a dream that someday wind will blow through the broken windows of the Capitol Building and chase trash around the abandoned hallways, this minor budget trim is unlikely to do the job. Federal government receipts are currently at 17.3 percent of GDP (XLS), expected to rise to 18.3 percent next year, and 19 percent in 2018.

Congress’ relatively tame IRS budget is hardly a reprimand for an outfit that, as National Review observes, sets the standard for federal agencies “in thrall to a culture of criminality.”

“None of these [IRS scandal] criminals has been punished,” wrote the Review’s Kevin D. Williamson. “[T]he maddening fact is that Lois Lerner is enjoying a six-figure pension at the expense of the very taxpayers against whom she conducted a corrupt political jihad.”

This is an agency that doesn’t blink when it asks for more money. It does its work with public funds, ostensibly — as all government agencies must claim — for the good of the people whom its serves.

“Given the alternatives,” wrote Tucille, “a few cuts to an IRS that may be at its least dangerous when it’s illegitimately targeting political groups isn’t all that frightening a prospect.”

GOP implicates Obama Pentagon nominee in stolen document scandal

Congressional Republicans are alleging that Alissa Starzak, President Obama’s nominee to serve as general counsel for the U.S. Army, may have played a role in stealing the “Panetta Review,” a batch of classified CIA documents outlining the treatment of terror detainees.

If true, the motive in illegally accessing the documents presumably has to do with damage control. Fox News reported that staffers with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the CIA had “reached explicit agreement on the procedures to be followed if any congressional staffers wanted to access or print CIA documents and take them away,” according to sources.

Here’s more from Fox:

According to this agreement, the desired documents were to be routed to CIA personnel, who would review them and redact sections where necessary; only thereafter, the rules specified, could Starzak and [fellow SSCI staffer Dan] Jones remove such documents from “The Cave,” the non-descript CIA office space provided to the SSCI staff just outside Washington, D.C.

Starzak was nominated to the general counsel post over the summer, but her nomination expired earlier this month. It’s not clear whether Starzak’s nomination will be re-submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee in the next Congress. Fox attempted to ask presumed Committee Chairman-in-waiting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about it, but a handler told the outlet McCain was traveling and would not be available for comment.

Both Jones and Starzak took orders in their SSCI roles from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who maintains their alleged interception of classified intelligence material was no big deal.

“Feinstein has long asserted that her staffers did nothing wrong,” reported Fox. “‘To be clear, the committee staff did not “hack” into CIA computers to obtain these documents, as has been suggested in the press,'” she said after the scandal broke earlier this year.