Wealth gap in America widens to record level, report says

WASHINGTON (TNS) — The wealth gap between middle- and upper-income households has widened to the highest level on record, says a new report.

Using the latest Federal Reserve data, the Pew Research Center said Wednesday that the median wealth for high-income families was $639,400 last year — up 7 percent from three years earlier on an inflation-adjusted basis.

For middle-income families, the median wealth — that is, assets minus debts — stood at $96,500 last year, unchanged from 2010.

The result is that the typical wealth of the nation’s upper-income households last year was nearly seven times that of middle-class ones. By Pew’s calculations, that is the biggest gap in the 30 years that the Fed has been collecting statistics from its Survey of Consumer Finances.

“The latest data reinforces the larger story of America’s middle-class household wealth stagnation over the past three decades,” Pew said. “The Great Recession destroyed a significant amount of middle-income and lower-income families’ wealth, and the economic ‘recovery’ has yet to be felt for them.”

In Pew’s definition, middle-income households are those earning between two-thirds and twice the median income, after adjusting for household size. The median marks the halfway point.

For example, a one-person household was categorized as middle income if its earnings last year were at least $22,000 but less than $66,000. For a four-person family to qualify as middle income, earnings would have to be at least $44,000 but less than $132,000.

Based on these thresholds, 46 percent of American households were classified as middle income last year. One-third were considered lower income, and 21 percent upper income.

Incomes represent wages and other earnings such as interest and profits, whereas wealth is the value of stocks and other assets such as homes and cars, minus debts.

The Pew data shows that lower-, middle- and upper-income households all have yet to recover the wealth lost in the Great Recession. But higher-earning families had the smallest percentage loss of wealth from 2007 to 2010. And these same households, thanks in good part to their disproportionately large stock holdings, recovered a substantial part of the lost wealth since then, while lower-income families made no pickup at all.

Seen over a longer period, the typical wealth of upper-income households in 2013 was about double what it was in 1983, after adjusting for inflation.

For middle-income households, there was practically no change in wealth over the 30-year period. The median wealth for the middle class was $94,300 in 1983. That peaked at $158,400 in 2007 and has since retreated to $96,500.

For lower-income households, wealth rose to a high of $19,100 in 2001, but has since fallen to $9,300 last year. Their median wealth was $11,400 in 1983.

–Don Lee
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Freed by Cuba, U.S. contractor Alan Gross says it’s ‘good to be home’

WASHINGTON (TNS) — U.S. contractor Alan Gross, released from Cuban captivity Wednesday, said he was grateful to the efforts of his family, lawmakers and the White House for securing his freedom, and supportive of President Barack Obama’s newly announced plan to normalize relations with Cuba.

“What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country, and thank you, President Obama, for everything you have done today and leading up to this day,” Gross told reporters in Washington.

Gaunt and with visibly broken front teeth, Gross remained upbeat, and said that the advocacy on his behalf by supporters across the country kept him encouraged despite weight loss and other health problems.

“It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten,” he said.

Gross was imprisoned in Cuba for five years for distributing communications equipment to the island’s Jewish population as a government contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 for “acts against the independence” of the island nation.

Gross praised Obama for his active role in negotiations, saying that “the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office.” He said he was encouraged by the president’s efforts to reset relations with Cuba, calling it a “game-changer which I support.”

“To me, Cubanos — or at least most Cubanos — are incredibly kind, generous and talented; it pains me to see them treated so unjustly as one consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies,” he said. “I truly hope that we can now get beyond those mutually belligerent policies.”

In a speech Wednesday, Obama said Gross’ release was the result of months of negotiation between U.S. and Cuban officials. He was released along with an American intelligence figure who had been imprisoned on the island for almost two decades, the president said. In exchange for that person’s freedom, the United States released the remaining three imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents of the so-called “Cuban Five.” The president said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds.

Family members had warned this month that Gross was in poor health, suffering from chronic pain and partial blindness. He had undertaken a hunger strike in April to protest the speed of the response to his case, and was unable to leave Cuba in June to visit his dying mother, they said.

Gross said Wednesday he was looking forward to reuniting with family members and recovering his health.

“I am incredibly blessed, finally, to have the freedom to resume a positive and constructive life,” he said.

–Matt Hansen
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Senate confirms Obama’s surgeon general pick despite gun control views

WASHINGTON (TNS) — The Senate confirmed President Barack Obama’s controversial choice for surgeon general Monday, a victory for the administration after GOP infighting gave Democrats the upper hand in the final stretch of the lame-duck Congress.

The 51-43 vote followed a drama-filled weekend session in which Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) forced senators to cancel plans and file into work as he tried to use a government funding bill as leverage to stop the president’s immigration policy.

But the strategy backfired: Not only did Congress clear the $1.1 trillion spending bill without restrictions on immigration policy, but Democrats used the rare Saturday session to speed up the confirmation process for nearly two dozen nominations that would have otherwise languished.

Vivek Murthy, the Harvard- and Yale-educated internist who is Obama’s choice for surgeon general, faced stiff opposition from the National Rifle Association over his support for stricter gun control laws.

But his confirmation, coming almost two years to the day after the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, allowed Democrats to wrap up their majority control of the Senate with a victory.

The Senate this week expects to clear more than 20 other nominees that had been bogged down in a political morass. The list includes some lifetime judicial appointments, bolstering Obama’s stamp on the courts.

The NRA on Monday reiterated its opposition to Murthy, whom it criticized for supporting a federal ban on sales of semiautomatic firearms.

“The NRA’s position hasn’t changed,” said spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.

Supporters have defended Murthy, saying that his views are not extreme and that most Americans support tougher gun control laws. They also argued that the nation needs a surgeon general at the forefront of the nation’s public health team, noting the recent Ebola crisis.

“We need a surgeon general right now,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leading advocate of gun restrictions. “Let’s agree to agree that Dr. Murthy is right — that gun violence is a problem that this country should be addressing, no matter what your view on how we get there. That’s something we all should be able to unite around.”

The Senate on Monday also was set to advance Obama’s choice of Sarah Saldana to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, over the objections of conservative Republicans protesting the president’s plan to defer deportations for up to 5 million immigrants here illegally.

Saldana and another nominee, Antony Blinken, tapped as deputy secretary of state, were expected to be confirmed Tuesday.

The current session of Congress has just days remaining; the House has already finished its work and left for the holidays.

Republicans are using procedural tools to slow down the confirmation process, forcing the Senate to stay at work.

–Lisa Mascaro
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Keystone XL pipeline may no longer make economic sense, experts say

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Amid the shouting on Capitol Hill, the wads of campaign cash and the activist careers shaped around the Keystone XL pipeline, the project at the flash point of America’s energy debate now confronts a problem bigger than politics.

It may no longer pencil out.

As Congress’ six-year obsession with Keystone nears a climax, plunging oil prices have industry analysts questioning whether the plan to link Canadian tar sands with Gulf Coast refineries still makes economic sense.

It is now possible that pipeline backers could win their hard-fought battle for political approval yet never build the project.

With the GOP about to take control of both houses of Congress, backers of the pipeline say they are close to having a veto-proof majority for a bill that would order the Obama administration to give the project the federal permit required for pipelines that cross a U.S. border.

But “the political debate is not paralleled by the realities” in the market, said Sandy Fielden, director of energy analytics at Texas-based RBN Energy. “The economics of this project are becoming increasingly borderline.”

The problem is that extracting oil from tar sands is difficult and costly. Prices need to be relatively high to make the extra effort profitable.

For pipeline boosters, market conditions have turned gloomy as world oil prices have dropped to the lowest point in five years.

By some estimates, the price of oil already has dropped below what investors in Keystone would need to break even, and some analysts believe further drops are in store.

“The recent decline in (oil) prices has to give the sponsors some pause,” said Chris Lafakis, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics.

The prospect of abandoning the pipeline is something its Canadian builders and their supporters in Congress say they won’t even entertain. Keystone is a decadeslong investment that backers of the project say will not be changed by what they portray as a temporary glut in the oil market.

“We sign binding, long-term commercial agreements with our customers so they can reserve space to deliver the crude oil they need to their customers,” Mark Cooper, a spokesman for TransCanada Corp., which would own the pipeline, wrote in an email.

The oil shippers investing in the pipeline, Cooper wrote, “have a good understanding of what the market needs over time. They do not make decisions based on short-term views or changes in commodity prices.”

But some independent analysts say that’s overly optimistic, especially after Saudi Arabia announced over Thanksgiving that it will not slow its oil production in the face of declining prices, as it has often done.

Plunging prices have put oil firms around the world under stress, placing smaller operations in danger of bankruptcy. Canadian firms were already under pressure from the boom in production by the U.S. shale-oil industry; the Saudi move squeezed them further.

The market shift has put TransCanada in the position of a real estate developer vying to build a skyscraper during the depths of the mortgage crisis. And while the Keystone investors are big enough to endure years of losses on the pipeline, that was never their plan.

Even at the Manhattan Institute, a free market-oriented think tank with little patience for the arguments made by pipeline opponents, questions are emerging about whether Keystone still deserves star billing in the energy debate.

“I’m for cheap, abundant, reliable energy. Period,” said Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the conservative group. “This is not ideological. This is about what the economics say. … The project is clearly very challenged right now.”

“The symbolism has outstripped the reality,” Bryce said. “Both sides have decided we are going to fight over this, regardless of the big picture now emerging with oil prices.”

Republicans say they will push for approval of the pipeline when they take full control of Congress in January, regardless of market conditions. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) a longtime crusader for the project, said the pipeline’s diminishing potential in the energy marketplace is beside the point.

“Oil prices and prices at the pump should have no bearing on support for an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline,” he said.

The Obama administration, Inhofe said, has used the permitting process “as a political game and is simultaneously preventing American businesses from pursuing a project that would aid economic opportunity.”

Matt Badiali, an oil industry analyst at Baltimore-based Stransberry Research, said he suspects the pipeline ultimately will get built. But he said he is confounded by the continued hype around Keystone, which he said would do nothing to help keep down the price of energy in the U.S.

“It has just become something for the two sides that have been disagreeing for however many years to keep hammering on each other,” he said.

–Evan Halper
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Poll: Majority of Americans say CIA interrogation methods were justified

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Just over half of Americans say they believe the interrogation methods the CIA used against terrorism suspects in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, polling data released Monday showed.

About 30 percent said they believed the tactics were unjustified, and the remaining 20 percent said they did not know, according to the survey by the Pew Research Center.

Opinion on the CIA’s torture of its prisoners differs notably by partisanship. Democrats were split, the poll found, with liberals much more likely to say that the CIA’s tactics were not justified. Republicans across the board said the interrogations were justified.

President Barack Obama banned the CIA’s use of methods such as waterboarding, extended sleep deprivation and beatings, which had been authorized under President George W. Bush. Obama and other Democratic elected officials have referred to the CIA’s actions as “torture.”

Most Republican elected officials have defended the CIA’s actions, with the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and has denounced what the CIA did as a violation of American values.

By 56 percent to 28 percent, those polled said they believed the CIA’s tactics had produced intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) insists that was not the case, and the committee report on the CIA’s actions that was released last week goes to great lengths to support her assertion.

On that question, too, a sharp partisan gap exists, with Republicans by 73 percent to 15 percent saying they believed that the interrogations helped prevent attacks, and Democrats split almost evenly, with 43 percent saying they did produce intelligence that helped prevent attacks and 40 percent saying they did not.

The poll was taken Thursday through Sunday after the release of the report, which sharply criticized the CIA’s actions. According to the poll, Americans were evenly divided over whether the intelligence panel was right to release its report, with 42 percent saying it was and 43 percent saying no.

On the question of whether the CIA’s acts were justified, 76 percent of people who identified themselves as Republicans said yes, and only 12 percent said no. Self-identified Democrats split, with 37 percent saying the interrogation tactics were justified and 46 percent saying they were not. Among liberal Democrats, 65 percent said the CIA’s actions were not justified, but among moderate and conservative Democrats, only 32 percent said so. A plurality of independents, 49 percent, sided with the CIA, and 30 percent said the agency’s actions were not justified.

Americans younger than 50 were less likely to side with the CIA than older Americans. Just over 40 percent of Americans younger than 50 called the CIA’s methods justified, but 60 percent of those 50 and older did so.

The age gap may account for another divide the poll found: Those who said they closely followed the news about the release of the Senate report, about one-quarter of the population, sided with the CIA, 59 percent to 34 percent. Among those who did not pay such close attention, the ratio was 49 percent to 27 percent. The population of people who closely follow news tends to skew older.

Whites were somewhat more likely than blacks or Latinos to call the tactics justified, with 57 percent of whites siding with the CIA, compared with 42 percent of blacks and 43 percent of Latinos. Similarly, men (57 percent) were more likely to say the CIA’s actions were justified than were women (46 percent).

The Pew poll surveyed 1,001 Americans ages 18 and older. The margin of error is 3.6 percentage points in either direction.

–David Lauter
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Jeb Bush to ‘actively explore’ presidential run

(TNS) — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced Tuesday that he has decided to “actively explore” a 2016 presidential run and will create a political action committee next month to help “facilitate conversations with citizens across America.”

“The PAC’s purpose will be to support leaders, ideas and policies that will expand opportunity and prosperity for all Americans,” wrote Bush in a Facebook post. “In the coming months, I hope to visit with many of you and have a conversation about restoring the promise of America.”

For several months, Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush, has said he had been weighing a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Tuesday’s announcement was also published by the 61-year-old Bush on Twitter, and comes a day after he spoke at the commencement ceremony for the University of South Carolina — an early presidential primary state.

Although establishment Republicans consider Bush a top-tier candidate, he has drawn right-wing ire for supporting comprehensive immigration reform and Common Core, the national education standards for K-12 students that are being implemented in dozens of states.

Throughout the 2014 election cycle, Bush headlined fundraisers for Republicans and made several campaign appearances.

Earlier this month, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a close Bush ally, announced he would not run for president.

–Kurtis Lee
Los Angeles Times

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Supreme Court permits ‘reasonable mistakes’ by police in searches

WASHINGTON (TNS) — The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a North Carolina car search, in an 8-1 decision that provides more wiggle room for law enforcement officers who make a “reasonable” mistake about the law.

With conservative and liberal justices all but united, the court ruled that the 2009 search was permissible even though the Surry County Sheriff’s Office sergeant who conducted it erred in thinking the car violated state law governing warning brake lights.

“To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the sole dissenter, arguing that the decision means “further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.”

The 4th Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that a search might be permissible if the officer makes a reasonable factual mistake. Roberts cited the example Monday of an officer stopping a motorist for traveling alone in an HOV lane, only to discover that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat.

The case decided Monday extended the same kind of reasoning to different kinds of mistakes, dealing with the law.

“Reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion,” Roberts wrote.

Underscoring the case’s broader significance, 19 states filed a brief siding with North Carolina.

The case grew out of a police stop on the morning of April 29, 2009, when Sgt. Matt Darisse of Surry County pulled over a Ford Escort on Interstate 77 near Dobson, North Carolina, about 90 miles north of Charlotte. Darisse had begun following the car because he thought the driver looked “stiff and nervous.”

Darisse thought he had reason to pull the car over and subsequently search it when he noticed that only one of its brake lights went on while the car slowed. At the time, Darisse said he thought North Carolina law required that cars have two working brake lights; the North Carolina Court of Appeals later ruled Darisse was wrong.

The driver, who was not involved in the case decided Monday, and the car’s owner, Nicholas Brady Heien, did not object to a search. Following a search of about 40 minutes, Darisse found in the side compartment of a duffle bag a sandwich bag containing cocaine.

Heien pleaded guilty, while reserving the right to appeal.

“Only by refusing to excuse such mistakes can officers be properly deterred from engaging in such overly ambitious readings of the traffic code, at the expense of individual liberty,” Stanford Law School professor Jeffrey L. Fisher wrote in a brief filed on Heien’s behalf.

The court’s majority, though, reasoned that law enforcement officers sometimes must act quickly, even in cases where the law’s technical specifications may be hard to come by.

“A law prohibiting ‘vehicles’ in the park either covers Segways or not,” Robert noted as an example, “but an officer will nevertheless have to make a quick decision on the law the first time one whizzes by.”

Heien, now 26, was released from prison in 2012, state records show.

–Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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Incoming Senate intelligence chief plans ‘real time’ scrutiny of CIA

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Sen. Richard Burr says he plans a new approach to keeping close tabs on the nation’s spy agencies when he becomes chairman of the Senate committee that’s charged with making sure the intelligence community operates within the law.

“We’re going to focus on real time oversight, so nobody can ever say again that they forgot or they weren’t briefed or they didn’t know,” Burr said. “Because we’re going to be intense with every (intelligence) agency. What they did over the past six to eight weeks. What they plan to do over the next six to eight. We’re getting inside their metrics that they use.”

Burr’s comment was a veiled criticism of Democratic lawmakers, who said they didn’t know the details of the CIA’s abuse of detainees before they commissioned the report, which was five years in the making, even though the agency said it briefed them. The committee, still under the leadership of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, released a summary of the CIA torture report last week. Burr takes the gavel from Feinstein in January.

The 59-year-old Burr, who has background in business, has been a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence since 2007. Before he was elected to the Senate in 2004, he served for five terms in the House of Representatives and was a member of the chamber’s Intelligence panel. But now he will join the “gang of eight,” the elite group that gets special briefings on the most highly classified matters. It is made up of the chairman and minority party vice chairman of the House and Senate Intelligence panels, plus the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.

“It’s easy to get lured into thinking you’re part of the intelligence community instead of a watchdog,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office. “The whole country really relies on these Intelligence committee members, especially the chairmen, as a watchdog. If they don’t do the job, agencies could be out of control.”

Joseph Wippl, a former CIA officer in the National Clandestine Service and the agency’s former director of Congressional Affairs, said he thought Burr’s approach to oversight was a good idea.

“The advantage of real time oversight is that the Congress knows what the intelligence community is doing and assisting it any way that it can to achieve the results, and also to say, ‘Excuse me, guys. That’s not going to work,'” said Wippl, director of Graduate Studies at the Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.

The committee, he added, “can also be a little bit of a conscience.”

Burr steps in as leader at a time when its members have been publicly divided over the CIA torture report, a legally and morally troubling account prepared by Democratic members and staff that revealed a gruesome history of agency efforts to squeeze terrorist suspects for information. Like most Republicans on the committee, Burr said it was full of errors and was political in nature.

The two-term senator voted in April to release the summary of the torture report to the Obama administration for redaction and release, even though he said at the time that it was flawed and biased. He said he wanted to “give the American people the opportunity to make their own judgments.”

Burr also takes over at a time when tension is high between the CIA and its congressional overseers as a result of the CIA’s intrusion into computers that the Senate Intelligence Committee used to compile the torture report.

He said on Tuesday that he doesn’t plan to hold hearings on it. Burr also doesn’t expect that partisan differences over the report will undo the committee’s bipartisan nature. Since it meets almost entirely in secret, members don’t necessarily feel compelled to toe a party line.

“I think the committee will be fine,” Burr said in a short interview at the Capitol on Tuesday. “This is a big split, but most of the differences have been shared for the last several years, not just today. The reality is we’ve got a mission in the committee. I think Dianne understands that, the members understand that. But we’re going to reiterate exactly what our oversight role is.”

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), a committee member, also said he thought bipartisanship would survive.

“The intelligence community, but for this particular issue, is one of the most bipartisan, nonpartisan things I do here,” he said.

“We’re truly bipartisan,” Feinstein said in an interview.

–Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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Supreme Court turns down Arizona appeal to limit abortion drugs

WASHINGTON (TNS) — The Supreme Court on Monday turned down Arizona’s bid to limit how doctors prescribe drugs that are commonly used in early abortions.

The justices in an unsigned order dismissed an appeal from Arizona state lawyers and let stand a lower court ruling that blocked the abortion regulation from taking effect.

The court’s action is the latest showing the justices are skeptical of strict new state regulations on abortion, or at least unwilling to confront the issue now.

In October, the court blocked Texas from enforcing part of a new abortion law that would have required all abortion clinics to meet the standards of an ambulatory surgical center. Lawyers for the clinics said this rule, if enforced, would have closed most of the state’s remaining abortion facilities.

In the past decade, women seeking an early abortion have increasingly relied on drugs rather than surgery. Doctors have prescribed two drugs — mifepristone and misoprostol — which taken together can bring about an abortion during the first nine weeks of a pregnancy.

In 2012, however, anti-abortion lawmakers in Arizona adopted a law requiring doctors to follow the “protocol” set by the Food and Drug Administration when it approved these drugs. They said they did so to “protect women from the dangerous and potentially deadly off-label use of abortion-inducing drugs.”

Under the Arizona law, doctors could have prescribed the drugs up to only seven weeks of a pregnancy. And the product label called for prescribing far more of the first drug — mifepristone — than is commonly used now.

Medical experts say such off-label use of a drug is common and reflects the latest available information about how a medication is best used.

The Planned Parenthood Federation and an Arizona doctor went to court to challenge the new state restrictions. They contended the law put an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions.

They noted that medication is used in about 41 percent of first-trimester abortions, and the Arizona law, if enforced, would require women in parts of the state to make multiple visits to a clinic that was hundreds of miles away. The law would also prevent women from using drugs if they discovered they were already seven weeks pregnant.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Arizona’s law from taking effect in June. “Arizona has presented no evidence whatsoever that law furthers any interest in women’s health,” wrote Judge William Fletcher.

Arizona’s Attorney General Thomas Horne appealed and argued the law left women with the option of obtaining a surgical abortion.

But without comment, the court said it would not hear the case of Humble v. Planned Parenthood.

“The court did the right thing today but this dangerous and misguided law should never have been passed in the first place,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

Arizona’s lawyers said similar measures are in effect in Texas and Ohio.

–David G. Savage
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Senate committee votes to authorize fight against Islamic State

WASHINGTON (TNS) — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday narrowly approved the first formal authorization for the Obama administration’s 5-month-old military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

By a party-line 10-8 vote, the Democratic-led panel authorized U.S. airstrikes and other military operations against the Sunni extremists and associated groups for up to three years.

The panel also barred the use of U.S. combat troops, except in specific circumstances.

The vote on a proposal by the committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), reflected the desire of lawmakers to begin playing a role in a war that is expected to continue for years.

Since the U.S. involvement began in August, U.S. aircraft have launched more than 1,000 strikes against the militants. President Barack Obama has authorized sending about 3,100 military advisers to assist Iraqi security forces.

Democrats on the committee and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have sought to set limits on U.S. involvement in the hope of preventing the campaign from expanding into another grueling Middle Eastern war.

Although lawmakers agreed on the need to convey a unified message to America’s allies and adversaries alike, the deliberations underscored divisions between the parties.

At least on this issue, the Obama administration is closer in the debate to Republican lawmakers, most of whom contend that Congress shouldn’t try to limit whether ground forces are deployed, where the war is fought, or which militant groups are targeted.

Setting limits on ground forces in the authorization “is not the way to go,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said.

The Senate probably won’t approve the legislation until next year, after Republicans take control of the chamber and review the issue. But the vote showed where lawmakers stand.

Although Democrats were eager to put themselves on record as opposing another open-ended war, the limits they set were flexible. Some critics contended that they were too elastic and that many military actions could be justified under the approved language.

The legislation says ground troops could be used to collect intelligence, support airstrikes, carry out planning or provide “other forms of advice and assistance to forces fighting (Islamic State) in Iraq or Syria.”

The legislation also says the next administration could seek an extension of the three-year time limit.

Menendez said the goal was not to tie the hands of Obama and his successor, but to get Congress into the decision-making on the war. The goal of the authorization is to “create checks and balances on the commander in chief as is envisioned by the founders,” he said.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is expected to take over the committee in January, said he was not ready to support an authorization until he received more specific answers about how the administration intended to wage war.

With the bill, the committee is “rushing to make something legal, as if that makes us relevant,” he said.

Administration officials, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, have told the committee that they are eager for a congressional authorization. But they also contended they don’t believe they need such legal approval.

Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, predicted that the sides are close enough that they should be able to work out an agreement, probably with fairly permissive terms, early next year.

–Paul Richter
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Under new bill, states would report police-triggered deaths to attorney general

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Spurred by the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting and other recent cases of deadly encounters involving police, Congress in its final hours of work for the year passed legislation requiring states to report deaths of people arrested or detained by police to the attorney general.

The measure requires states that receive federal aid for crime control, law enforcement assistance and other programs to report on a quarterly basis the death of anyone in police custody. It imposes penalties for states that don’t comply. It also requires the Justice Department to use the information to come up with proposals to reduce the number of such deaths.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) referred to a Wall Street Journal story last week that concluded it was virtually impossible to come up with the number of people who died in police custody. The Journal report said it identified at least 550 deaths among 105 of the nation’s top police agencies from 2007 to 2012 that were not reported in the FBI database, and that there is wide disparity between several federal agencies that try to keep track of such deaths.

“It seems like such a simple matter to require adequate information to be collected,” Durbin said in a speech Thursday on the Senate floor.

The House passed the measure last year but the Senate did not take it up until late Wednesday, when it was passed through a unanimous consent agreement. It now heads to President Barack Obama for his signature.

On Aug. 9, Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, 18. A St. Louis County grand jury did not indict Wilson, and the Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation of the shooting. It is also probing the death Eric Garner, who died while police in New York were trying to arrest him.

Both cases have prompted demonstrations around the country, including a walkout by congressional staffers Thursday. About 150 gathered briefly on the steps leading to the east entrance of the Capitol. After a short prayer, they held their hands aloft in silence, reminiscent of the “hands up” action taken by demonstrators in Ferguson and elsewhere.

–Chuck Raasch
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Breaking down the ‘cromnibus’ vote

WASHINGTON (TNS) — The House passed the cromnibus Thursday night 219-206, with 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats voting for the bill and 67 Republicans and 139 Democrats voting against it. While the vote was close, the breakdown split along familiar lines. But there were some interesting trends and deviations in the vote.

Leadership

Republican leadership all voted for the bill, with Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina all voting for the bill. Democrats, however, split. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California opposed the legislation, but Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina voted for it.

Appropriators

Each Republican on the Appropriations Committee voted in favor of the cromnibus, but nine of the panel’s 22 Democrats voted “no.” Many of them are counted among the staunchest progressives in the caucus: Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Barbara Lee of California. The committee’s top Democrat, Nita M. Lowey of New York, voted in favor of the measure despite her disappointment with many of the policy riders. Perhaps the biggest surprise “yes” vote from Appropriations Democrats came from Homeland Security subcommittee ranking member David E. Price of North Carolina, who told reporters the day before that he would be voting “no” because the cromnibus contained a short-term extension of DHS funding.

Texas GOP

While more than 70 percent of the GOP members who voted Thursday supported the legislation, only seven Texas Republicans endorsed the legislation. John Culberson, John Carter and Kay Granger, who are all appropriations cardinals, voted for the bill, as did Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, incoming-Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry and Kevin Brady.

Louie Gohmert, Ted Poe, Sam Johnson, Joe L. Barton, Randy Weber, incoming-Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores, Randy Neugebauer, Pete Olson, Kenny Marchant, Roger Williams, Michael Burgess, Blake Farenthold and Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith all voted against it.

Outgoing-Reps. Ralph Hall and Steve Stockman did not vote, nor did Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling.

Miscellaneous

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.): Departing members of Congress have little to lose if they aren’t gunning for other jobs in politics or some political comeback, but many of the fiscally conservative House Democrats who lost re-election in November didn’t feel compelled to change their voting behaviors now that they were no longer fighting to keep their seats. In one of the biggest surprises of the night, Rahall joined with more liberal factions of the caucus and voted against the cromnibus, a position he might not have taken had the bill come up earlier in the election cycle.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.): While Pelosi was railing against the cromnibus and trying to use her leverage for a better deal — bucking the White House, with whom she has typically had a good relationship, in the process — she had plenty of allies by her side. But Miller, Pelosi’s closest confidante and counselor, ultimately voted “yes.” It likely had to do with the fact that the underlying spending package included an amendment related to pensions, which he had helped facilitate. But it was a striking moment for Miller to break away from Pelosi: It was the retiring congressman’s second-to-last vote as a member of the House.

Reps. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.) and G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.): The incoming chairs of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, respectively, had to prove their progressive bonafides in this vote, which quickly escalated into an “us” versus “them” paradigm. They each voted “no.”

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.): Progressive outside groups worked themselves up into a frenzy when it looked like Himes was on the short-list to be the next chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. A former Goldman Sachs investment banker, he’s been scrutinized for having close ties with Wall Street and taking substantial campaign contributions from the financial sector. His vote in favor of the cromnibus might be put into liberal activists’ files, as it was perceived by those on the left as a cave to big banks, given the policy rider to roll back portions of “Dodd-Frank.” Jamie Dimon, the CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, was even making calls to House Democrats to shore up support for the bill.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.): It was Yoho’s bill that would block the executive action on immigration that was passed last week by the House, and perhaps that was the key to his support of the cromnibus overall. Yoho has consistently been one of the more conservative voices in the House. But leadership giving him a vote on his bill might have placated his desires.

Reps. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.) and Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.): These two lawmakers were responsible for helping GOP leadership clear the procedural hurdle on Thursday morning that was necessary to bring the cromnibus up for full consideration later in the day. Bentivolio, who lost his re-election bid, changed his vote on the rule at the very last minute despite boos from his peers, telling CQ Roll Call later that he wanted a chance to vote “no” on the cromnibus later. Stutzman, meanwhile, released a statement saying he agreed to vote against the rule because leadership promised him the cromnibus was dead and a short-term continuing resolution would be brought to the floor in its place. Both voted “no” in the end.

–Matt Fuller and Emma Dumain
CQ Roll Call

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(Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.)

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Study finds summer jobs seem to lower teens’ violent crime rate

PHILADELPHIA (TNS) — A summer jobs program for teenagers appears to cut the rate of violent crime, according to a new study by a University of Pennsylvania researcher.

And not because the youths were too busy working to break the law. Those who were randomly chosen to get the eight-week positions were arrested for violent offenses 43 percent fewer times than their peers, and most of that difference occurred during the 13 months after the jobs were finished.

The findings by Sara B. Heller, an assistant professor of criminology at Penn, were reported last week in the journal Science. Teens in the study were generally from lower-income families, and one-fifth of them had previously been arrested.

Heller, who conducted the study in Chicago in cooperation with the city government, said it was not entirely clear why the summer jobs seemed to have a lingering positive impact after they concluded, at the end of summer in 2012.

One factor may have been “soft skills” learned on the job, such as conflict resolution and self-control, said Heller, who came to Penn from the University of Chicago in 2013. Each youth was partnered with a mentor, who may have helped teach those skills, she said, calling the results “surprising and really exciting.”

“We don’t have a lot of success stories for reducing violence among disadvantaged youths,” she said.

Indeed, there is scant evidence that teen jobs programs can have a lasting impact on crime, said Dan Bloom, a policy area director for MDRC, a New York-based nonprofit policy research group. A few programs have been found to lower crime rates but they had a residential component and were costly, he said.

The Chicago program, dubbed One Summer Plus, cost less than $3,000 per youth, said Evelyn Diaz, commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, which oversaw it. Of that total, about half went toward the teen’s wages ($8.25 an hour — the minimum in Illinois — for 25 hours a week) and the rest went toward paying the mentors and administrative costs, she said.

“You just don’t expect for a short-term, relatively low-cost program to have such enduring effects,” Diaz said.

Bloom, who was not involved with the Chicago research, said he would want to see additional research to make sure that such programs reduce crime, but he said that Heller’s study was well-designed and that its findings promising.

“It’s always better to replicate a finding like this, but this is already a lot more than we knew before,” Bloom said.

He also credited the administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a willingness to see whether the program was effective. Heller, the study author, said the same. “There are some policymakers who are afraid of finding out if programs they like don’t work,” she said.

The 730 teens who were offered jobs were picked at random from among 1,634 applicants. Their number of arrests for violent crimes was slightly lower than that of the remaining 904 teens while the jobs lasted, but the difference did not become statistically significant until six months into the study — three months after the jobs were completed.

From there, the gap continued to widen. At 16 months, police data revealed 5.1 arrests for violent crimes per 100 youths who were offered jobs, compared with 9.1 violent-crime arrests per 100 teens who were not.

Heller said that the results may underestimate the impact of the jobs program, as a quarter of the teens who were offered jobs did not accept them, though some of those teens found other jobs on their own.

Some of the teens who were not offered jobs also found employment on their own, but Heller said she did not yet know how many. She said the number was likely to be low, citing a past study that found just 9 percent of African-American teens were employed. Of the teens in the study, 95 percent were black.

Heller said it was too soon to perform a full analysis of whether the program paid for itself, as she would need to know whether the program yielded any long-term effects on employment, among other factors. Still, she said, early evidence suggests that the program’s price tag may already be outweighed by such benefits as reduced costs to the justice system and less suffering by victims.

The jobs program did not appear to have an impact on the rates of nonviolent crimes. Heller said the reason might be that although the jobs may have taught teens to resolve conflicts, those other types of offenses do not involve conflict.

–Tom Avril
The Philadelphia Inquirer

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‘Distracted walkers’ are major concern for cities and states

WASHINGTON (TNS) — They walk in front of cars, and into tree limbs and street signs. They fall off curbs and bridges into wet cement and creek beds. They are distracted walkers who, while calling or texting on mobile phones, have suffered cuts and bruises, sustained serious head injuries or even been killed.

As many cities and states promote walkable neighborhoods, in part to attract more young people, some also are levying fines on distracted walkers and lowering speed limits to make streets gentler for the inattentive.

Pedestrian injuries due to cellphone use are up 35 percent since 2010, according to federal emergency room data reviewed by Stateline, and some researchers blame at least 10 percent of the 78,000 pedestrian injuries in the U.S. in 2012 on mobile device distraction. The federal Fatality Analysis Reporting system attributes about a half-dozen pedestrians deaths a year to “portable electronic devices,” including phones and music players.

To reduce the number of injuries and deaths associated with distracted walking, Utah and New Jersey have experimented with fines for texting in dangerous walking situations. And New York state has lowered speed limits in New York City, in part to make traffic less dangerous for distracted walkers.

“The policy issue is that we have to design streets for the way people actually behave, and behavior is changing,” said Noah Budnick, chief policy officer for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group based in New York City. “If you’re looking at a phone when you’re walking around, that shouldn’t mean death. So we have to design forgiving streets.”

New York state had to approve lower speed limits for the city, including a new speed limit of 20 mph in Central Park, and a 25-mph speed limit in the rest of the city unless otherwise posted. The city has also been blocking off more streets to make safer pedestrian plazas. A woman in Queens was killed by a bus in 2012 while talking on a phone as she ran across an intersection in downtown Flushing, an area targeted for pedestrian improvements.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who has acknowledged that distracted walking is a factor in increased pedestrian deaths and injuries, this year awarded grants totaling $1.6 million to Louisville, New York City and Philadelphia for safety programs. “We’ve got to encourage people to have an awareness that this problem is a real problem,” Foxx said last year.

Pedestrian injuries reached 78,000 in 2012, the highest number since 2001, according to the National Highway Traffic Administration. The number of pedestrian deaths, about 4,700 in 2012, has been increasing since 2009, after falling for several years before that.

Some jurisdictions are targeting distracted walking. In Utah, the state transit authority approved a $50 fine for distracted walking near commuter rail. Fort Lee, New Jersey, used existing jaywalking laws to crack down on people using phones while walking into traffic.

Philadelphia tried to publicize the dangers in 2012 by jokingly marking off sidewalk “e-lanes” reserved for texting walkers on April Fools’ Day. “We know that many, many people are using the sidewalks, looking at their iPhones, BlackBerrys, other electronic devices and they’re quite distracted by those devices, bumping into people,” deadpanned Mayor Michael Nutter in a video, as a distracted walker knocked his microphone away.

But many pedestrians interviewed by the city seemed to like the idea and took it seriously.

“As a user, it’ll keep most of those Bozos out of my way,” one onlooker said.

“I’m a severe texter and walker, so I don’t know if I can quit on my own,” another said.

Minnesota, Utah, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington state have also included pedestrian safety in programs that, like New York City’s, aim to make all traffic deaths a thing of the past.

Some of the money comes for these programs from federal sources, like the $25 million in transportation funds for New York City that will, among other things, widen sidewalks near subway stations in Harlem.

San Francisco is pledging $50 million in local, state and federal funds for its similar Walk First program. The city will scrutinize “high injury corridors” and proposed improvements such as pedestrian refuge islands and raised crosswalks. The program acknowledges the problem of distracted walkers: “Whether (or not) they are using mobile devices… the City’s goal is to improve safety for all types of road users.”

The combination of distracted walking and distracted driving is commonly blamed for the recent increase in pedestrian deaths, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, which asked states to comment for a recent report.

“Many states agree this is an important issue, although supportive data other than occasional anecdotes are sparse,” the report concluded.

–Tim Henderson
Stateline.org

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How are federal dollars divided among states?

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Benefits for Americans, chiefly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, dominate the federal spending that gets transferred to states through grants, contracts and other programs.

But among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, there are stark differences in how the billions of dollars spent on these and other initiatives are distributed, according to new data compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts (which also funds Stateline).

A Stateline analysis of the data shows that some states that receive a relatively small share of federal spending in a given category rely on it heavily.

Vermont, for example, is just 45th among the states and the District of Columbia in grant spending received, at $1.88 billion. But that sum represents a fourth of the federal spending it receives overall. Kansas, meanwhile, gets roughly the same dollar amount in grants as Vermont. But that sum is just 8 percent of the state’s federal spending because of the state’s heavy reliance on retirement benefits, which comprise more than 40 percent of its share of federal spending.

The variations are even more pronounced in states that receive extremely high levels of federal spending overall, because of their sheer size. California, for instance, receives more than $100 billion in retirement spending; the next-closest state is Florida, with nearly $77 billion. But even California’s huge sum represents just a third of its overall federal spending, where for Florida, it’s 40 percent. California is either the top or second-highest recipient of federal dollars in each of the five categories below.

Overall, the federal government spent more than $3 trillion in the states last year. The spending is spread across five broad categories:

  • Retirement benefits such as Social Security, veterans benefits and disability.
  • Nonretirement benefits such as Medicare, food stamps and unemployment insurance.
  • Grants that cover Medicaid, transportation, education, housing and other programs.
  • Contracts for purchases of goods and services, half of which involve the military.
  • Salaries and wages, including civilian and military personnel.

Each state’s mix of federal spending matters in how it advocates for its interests in Congress, a reality more critical during times of budget cuts or other disruptions in Washington — like concern over sequestration and the federal government shutdown last fall.

Some states get more federal dollars in certain categories thanks to simple demographics. Florida, for example, gets the second-highest dollar amount of retirement benefits, behind only California. Others owe their advantage to economic realities: The top five recipients in contracts, for example, are government- and defense-heavy Virginia, California, Texas, Maryland and the District.

As an example of the variation, the report points to Alaska and Louisiana, where federal spending was equivalent to 18 percent of each state’s gross domestic product last year. But in Louisiana, federal salaries and wages were equal to 1.4 percent of the state’s GDP; in Alaska, it was 4.4 percent. As a result, the report said, “Alaska’s economy would likely be more affected than Louisiana’s by federal salary and wage cuts.”

Different states emerge as most reliant on certain types of federal spending. For retirement benefits, Oregon, Arkansas and New Hampshire all receive more than 41 percent of their federal spending from that category. On the other end are Virginia, Alaska and the District, receiving a fourth or less of their federal spending in that category.

In nonretirement benefits, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey receive more than a third of their federal funding in that category. Again at the other end are Alaska, Virginia and the District, with 15 percent or less.

The grants category presents a mixed picture as well: Vermont, New York and Alaska receive more than a quarter of their federal spending in that category. Florida, Kansas and Virginia are the bottom three, receiving less than 10 percent of their federal dollars this way.

The rankings reverse, however, when it comes to the salaries and wages and contracts categories. Washington, D.C., for instance, gets more than 44 percent of its federal spending from pay to federal employees, followed by Hawaii at nearly a third and Alaska at one-fourth. Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut, meanwhile, get less than 5 percent of their federal spending in this category.

Virginia and the District each receive more than third of their federal spending in the form of contracts, followed by Maryland at 28 percent. For the bottom three states, Oregon, Arkansas and Delaware, the share coming from contracts is less than 4 percent.

–Jake Grovum
Stateline.org

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‘The Ebola fighters’ honored by Time as person of the year

(TNS) — Time magazine, as is its yearly tradition, has named a person of the year, and this year it chose multiple persons: those who are helping to fight the spread of Ebola around the world.

“The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight. For tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to boost its defenses, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving,” Time’s editor wrote.

Nina Pham, an American nurse from Dallas who caught the disease after treating the man who was the first person diagnosed with Ebola on American soil, said she was proud to be a part of Time’s coverage.

It’s not the first time Time has chosen to honor a group rather than an individual: The Protester, the Peacemakers and the Good Samaritans, among others, have been chosen in past years.

The other 2014 finalists for Time’s Person of the Year were Roger Goodell, Taylor Swift, the Ferguson protesters, Vladimir Putin, Jack Ma, Tim Cook and Masoud Barzani.

–Julie Westfall
Los Angeles Times

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Detroit’s bankruptcy over; emergency manager resigning

DETROIT (TNS) — The city of Detroit’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy will end Wednesday, setting in motion a sweeping plan to slash $7 billion in debt and reinvest $1.4 billion over 10 years to improve city services.

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr told reporters that the final paperwork required to allow the city to emerge from bankruptcy will be completed by the end of the day Wednesday.

Judge Steven Rhodes approved the city’s restructuring plan in November, giving the city the authority to implement the grand bargain to help reduce pension cuts, preserve the Detroit Institute of Arts and start improving basic services.

The end of the bankruptcy also marks the end of Orr’s tenure. His resignation will take effect when the city emerges from bankruptcy Wednesday.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity and very fortunate for the outcome,” Orr said. “The reality is the city is moving forward and that gives me a great deal of pride and satisfaction.”

Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Orr in March 2013 to take over the city’s operations. Orr, a Washington, D.C., bankruptcy attorney, authorized the bankruptcy on July 18, 2013, and led restructuring talks with creditors.

“It’s truly historic,” Snyder said Wednesday. “It really happened because of great partnerships, of people working together.”

He added: “This has been an extremely difficult and hard process for many people, but people worked together. We have the city poised for a new chapter.”

Mayor Mike Duggan welcomed Orr’s exit. The mayor and City Council will regain control of the city following Orr’s exit, but they will report to a state oversight board called the Financial Review Commission.

The commission will have the power to reject Detroit’s spending and borrowing over the next decade.

“We’re better off today than we were 18 months ago,” City Council member Gabe Leland said.

–Nathan Bomey and Matt Helms
Detroit Free Press

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Stuart Rothenberg: Mary Landrieu’s loss and the end of ticket splitting

(TNS) — Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s defeat in the Dec. 6 runoff certainly was no surprise. If anything, it seemed inevitable since the evening of Nov. 4, when it became clear a Republican rout was underway and Democrats would lose control of the Senate.

But the veteran Democrat’s defeat is another reminder we have entered a period of parliamentary elections, where the parties stand for starkly different ideological agendas and where ticket-splitting, which follows from individual evaluations apart from party, is relatively rare.

In the end, the “Landrieu brand” in Louisiana did not matter any more than the Pryor brand mattered in Arkansas or the Begich brand mattered in Alaska. Party labels mattered far more than the individual names of the candidates. Voters in all three states saw the incumbents’ Democratic label, and that made their decisions easy.

I wrote about this dynamic in a column in March 2011, but I wasn’t entirely sure whether the trend, which I called “increasingly partisan nature of American voting,” would continue. It has.

The new reality of congressional campaigns doesn’t mean candidates can’t ever swim against the national tide. Some will, because each election cycle, and each race, is different. But political reporters and handicappers must now evaluate individual contests within the context of our increasingly ideological politics.

The defeat of more pragmatic Democrats — particularly in the South, but nationally as well — makes parliamentary voting more likely in the years ahead — just as the disappearance of more liberal Republicans has. The more each party is seen as representing an uncompromising ideology and certain constituencies, the more straight-ticket voting we will see.

The Democratic Party has become defined as the party of Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Al Franken of Minnesota, just as the GOP has become defined as the party of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Because of this, partisan voters in blue states will be increasingly hesitant to elect Republicans to the Senate, just as partisan voters in red states will be more and more reluctant to send Democrats to the Senate.

Of course, both parties still have a handful of more moderate senators — North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Maine Republican Susan Collins are obvious examples — as well as more pragmatic ideologues (for example, New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell).

But increasingly, the parties have followed ideological agendas that more often than not define their members. The growth of ideological media, both on cable television and the Internet, has added to this political polarization.

The change in our parties and our politics created particular problems for Landrieu this time, since she always based her re-election strategy on turning out liberal African-Americans and getting enough support from moderates and whites in the business community. As my colleague Nathan Gonzales noted at the end of September and again two days after the elections, Landrieu has had a terrible time with whites, and particularly white men, this cycle.

But if the Louisiana senator’s defeat demonstrated a long-term trend over which she had little or no control, the campaign also was a poster child of what is wrong with today’s campaigns.

Over the past few cycles, the party committees and many campaigns have embraced the notion of the permanent campaign. Campaigns begin the day after elections and campaign rhetoric and messaging that once built slowly over time now lasts for at least a year and a half. Everything and anything is campaign fodder, no matter how little impact it may have on the voters and no matter how ridiculous the rhetoric.

The Landrieu campaign, along with help from the Louisiana Democratic Party, was perhaps the best example of this. I am still not convinced that the folks in Landrieu’s press operation weren’t paid by the number of releases they sent out.

The press releases clearly had little impact on voters. Nobody cared about newspaper endorsements in the race or about what an Indiana Democratic senator thought about Landrieu’s performance in the Senate. The November elections and last week’s balloting make that abundantly clear.

Yet, I’m not optimistic that other campaigns will take the hint and substitute quality for sheer quantity.

Most of the things that campaigns do have little or no effect on the outcomes of their races. I only wish that most campaigns — and all journalists — would remember that.

–Stuart Rothenberg
CQ Roll Call

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(Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. Read more on the Rothenblog, blogs.rollcall.com/rothenblog.)

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Obamacare adviser apologizes to lawmakers for controversial comments: ‘I behaved badly’

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor who worked on the Affordable Care Act, apologized to members of Congress on Tuesday for a series of controversial comments he made about the law, which Republicans have seized on to attack the healthcare legislation.

“I behaved badly, and I will have to live with that,” Gruber told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “But my own inexcusable arrogance is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act. The ACA is a milestone accomplishment for our nation that already has provided millions of Americans with health insurance.”

Gruber, an economist who advised the White House during the development of the law in 2009 and 2010, was captured in a series of videos speaking disparagingly about voters and the development of the measure.

In one video, he said passage of the law was only possible because of the “stupidity” of the American voter.

In another, he suggested that residents of states that rely on the federal government to operate insurance marketplaces are not eligible for tax subsidies, a key tool in the law that allows millions of Americans to buy health coverage on these marketplaces.

The comments have become a cause celebre for Republicans, who have labeled Gruber an architect of the law, a characterization he disputed Tuesday.

Gruber’s comments have also given ammunition to a legal challenge to the tax credits.

There is widespread agreement among the law’s architects that it allows all low- and moderate-income Americans to receive the tax credits whether they live in states that are operating their own insurance marketplace or live in states that rely on the federal government’s.

But critics assert that language in the law suggests the credits should be limited to state-run marketplaces. The Supreme Court is now considering a lawsuit that could take away credits from millions of Americans in states that do not operate their own marketplaces.

Gruber said Tuesday he does not believe that the credits should be limited.

“I have a long-standing and well-documented belief that healthcare reform legislation in general, and the ACA in particular, must include mechanisms for residents in all states to obtain tax credits,” he said, noting that the economic models he developed assumed these credits would be available everywhere.

Gruber also noted that contrary to his earlier statements, the law was not developed secretly. “Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of these policies, but it is completely clear that these issues were debated thoroughly during the drafting and passage of the ACA,” he said.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and other Republicans nevertheless kept up their attacks on Gruber for what Issa termed “arrogance and deceptions surrounding the passage and implementation of Obamacare.”

–Noam N. Levey
Tribune Washington Bureau

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Workers lose fair-pay case over hours spent in security screenings

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Workers need not be paid for the time they are required to spend in line for security screenings, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a victory for Amazon and other retailers.

In a 9-0 decision, the justices rejected a fair-pay lawsuit brought by warehouse workers in Nevada who package and ship products for Amazon.

The workers argued they deserved extra pay because they had to spend as much as 25 minutes at the end of each day going through a security screening designed to prevent thefts.

Federal law says employers must pay workers a minimum wage and for overtime, but only for the time they are engaged in the “principal activity” of their jobs, not for the time of coming and going to their work sites.

But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled for the Nevada warehouse workers on the grounds they were required to stand in line for the security screening. This added time to their work days, and it was done for the benefit for the employer, the appeals court said last year.

This decision triggered several class-action lawsuits brought by workers seeking back pay from Amazon, Apple, CVS and other retailers who rely on warehouse and distributors.

But the Supreme Court took up the company’s appeal and reversed the 9th Circuit’s ruling. Federal law covers only the “productive work that the employee is employed to perform,” Justice Clarence Thomas said in the case of Integrity Staffing Solutions vs. Busk.

“Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo security screenings, but to retrieve products from warehouse shelves and package those products for shipment to Amazon customers.”

The workers need not be paid, Thomas said, because their principal work does not include “the employees’ time spent waiting to undergo… security screenings.”

Earlier this year, the high court also said federal law does not require paying workers for the time they spend putting on or taking off special clothing.

–David G. Savage
Tribune Washington Bureau

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CIA brutalized terror suspects for little intelligence gain, Senate panel finds

WASHINGTON (TNS) — The CIA’s use of torture failed to gain any intelligence on imminent terrorist threats, didn’t lead to any high-level terrorists (including Osama bin Laden), produced fabricated information and was far more brutal than the agency portrayed to policymakers and the public, according to a long-awaited Senate report released Tuesday.

In a foreword to the document, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said for the first time that CIA personnel had broken U.S. law and violated international treaties against torture, charges that weren’t in the report’s conclusions.

“CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations and our values,” she wrote. “It is my personal conclusion, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured.”

The findings by the Democratic-led committee painted a portrait of the nation’s premier espionage agency pursuing a cruel, ineffective and money-wasting interrogation operation that produced intelligence that could have been found elsewhere, whose results the CIA misrepresented to its political masters and the American public, and that seriously damaged the United States’ international standing.

It appeared unlikely, however, that the report would lead to reopening a Justice Department criminal investigation, which was shut down in 2012, into CIA officials and contractors who were involved in the program, in which suspected al-Qaida terrorists were abducted overseas and interrogated in secret “black site” prisons while being subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Findings of the report include:

  • The agency assigned unqualified personnel to run the secret prisons where it held, in often-inhuman conditions, at least 119 detainees, at least two of whom died. Some were beaten, deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, sometimes with their hands shackled over their heads, and subjected to unauthorized interrogation methods, including death threats.
  • At least 26 detainees were wrongfully imprisoned.
  • Multiple detainees who were subjected to the interrogation techniques and kept in extended isolation developed “psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation.”
  • The CIA may have subjected more detainees to waterboarding than just the three who it’s publicly admitted underwent the simulated drowning procedure.
  • Former President George W. Bush, who signed a secret order authorizing the detention program a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, wasn’t filled in on the interrogation techniques until 2006, although someone in the White House canceled a CIA briefing that was planned for him in 2002.
  • The CIA paid more than $80 million to a firm founded by two psychologists who were contracted, despite a lack of qualifications, to design the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and interrogated some of the agency’s most valuable detainees.

In an emailed statement summarizing a response it provided to the committee last year, the CIA acknowledged that the value of some of the intelligence collected during the program had been exaggerated. But it defended the program’s effectiveness in breaking up terrorist plots and providing information on al-Qaida that’s still valuable.

“Interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives,” CIA Director John Brennan said in a statement, referring to enhanced interrogation techniques. “The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qaida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

President Barack Obama, who’d previously described the CIA’s interrogation methods as torture, didn’t use the term in a statement that also indicated his administration doesn’t intend to reopen the criminal investigation into one of the darkest chapters in the U.S. war on terrorism.

Instead, he repeated a theme he’s sounded before, saying he hoped that the report “can help us leave these (interrogation) techniques where they belong — to the past.”

While praising the personnel of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies for the sacrifices they’ve made to keep the nation secure, Obama said some of the actions taken after 9/11 were “contrary to our values” and that he’d ordered them stopped when he took office.

The report “reinforces my long-held view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests,” he continued. “Moreover, these techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.”

–Jonathan S. Landay and Marisa Taylor
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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(Hannah Allam, Anita Kumar and Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.)

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(c)2014 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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