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February 27, 2015

February 27, 2015

The Iran End Game | Commentary

By Richard Klass

It is clear we’re approaching an end game in nuclear negotiations between six world powers — the P5+1 — and Iran. Final negotiating maneuvers have commenced. Secretary of State John Kerry has said there will not be another extension beyond March 31 unless a political framework is in place. Reports from Iran hold that President Hassan Rouhani’s position will be precarious if there is no agreement. And the word from Israel is that the country will use its full strength to prevent any agreement that does not meet its unreasonable demands — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to the Congress on May 3.

If there is a negotiated agreement that is rejected, either in Congress or in Iran, it will be clear who bears the responsibility. But if no agreement is reached, it will matter greatly who is seen to be responsible. There is a good argument to be made that it is in the U.S. interest for any breakdown in negotiations to appear to be caused by Iranian intransigence.

How so?

If Iran walks away from the talks, Rouhani can claim to have stood up to “The Great Satan” and protected Iran’s civil nuclear energy program. That may be enough for him Iran’s new president to keep his job, and hold the IRGC and other hardliners at bay, and live to negotiate another day.

If the U.S. is seen as the cause of the negotiations failure, say, because Congress passes a bill requiring a contentious up-or-down vote on the agreement, the results are likely to be very different. Russia and China would surely move to increase commercial, and perhaps military, ties with Tehran. And our European partners, already planning trade ties, might soon follow suit. In short, the carefully constructed international sanctions regime would almost certainly weaken and possibly collapse. Severe strains might well develop within NATO at the same time unity on Ukraine is needed.

This would be even more true if Israeli objections were seen as the root cause, or if Congress was seen as acting on Israel’s behalf. Make no mistake — this issue goes beyond any perceived slight on the part of the Obama administration.Netanyahu’s proposed speech is dangerous.

And then what? In the aftermath of a failed deal, both sides will take a period of reassessment. Iran is unlikely to continue to accede to the current enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency inspections regime, so transparency will suffer immediately. Iran already retains the capability to develop nuclear weapons. In the event of a breakdown in negotiations, Iran’s nuclear program could shift from its current restrained state, to unfettered advancement. Limits on enrichment, centrifuges, and additional research and development would disappear. And without the support of our international partners, Iran would be free to move forward, to build a bomb if it so chooses, without the heavy burden of sanctions on its shoulders.

The path after a rejection of an Iranian nuclear agreement or of a failure to reach one is likely to be difficult, but just how difficult may depend largely on who is seen to have been responsible. The U.S. must hold strong with its negotiating partners, and should, under no circumstances, put itself in a position to have to argue against its own intransigence.

Retired Col. Richard Klass, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the National War College and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He flew more than 200 combat missions in Vietnam and served in the executive office of the president as a White House fellow. His awards include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart. He is a member of the Board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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February 26, 2015

Presidential Hopefuls Skirt FEC Rules | Rules of the Game

Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s political organization is opening a campaign office for him in Iowa. Ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is meeting with major donors and hosting dozens of fundraisers around the country. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former senator, secretary of State and first lady, is quietly hand-picking a team of high-level advisers to run her anticipated White House bid.

Yet, none of these presidential hopefuls has officially declared their candidacy or even announced plans to test the waters of a White House run. That’s given them free rein to raise money through a crazy quilt of campaign-style committees, from tax-exempt issue groups to personal leadership political action committees, unrestricted super PACs, foundations and political organizations. Oversight is scant and disclosure spotty.

With only a couple of exceptions, the nearly 20 hopefuls eyeing the Oval Office are “likely violating” Federal Election Commission regulations that impose strict limits on candidates testing the waters of a White House bid, said Paul Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. Ryan recently published a white paper dubbed, “’Testing the Waters’ and the Big Lie: How Prospective Presidential Candidates Evade Candidate Contributions While the FEC Looks the Other Way.”

FEC guidelines state clearly that candidates testing the viability of a presidential bid may not collect corporate or union money, and must cap donations at $2,700 per election. Money used to test the presidential waters must also be publicly reported once a candidate officially declares. “They are ignoring federal campaign finance laws,” Ryan said of Walker, Bush and a long list of other candidates.

Until they officially declare their candidacies, the presidential hopefuls in the field run little risk of drawing attention from the FEC, which is stalemated by partisan divisions and has done little to enforce the rules lately. The candidates have said they are complying with campaign finance regulations.

Still, from Bush’s unrestricted super PAC, which reportedly has set out to raise $100 million by March 31, to the nonprofit advocacy group backing Republican Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, the diverse committees operated by this election’s 2016 White House hopefuls raise myriad legal and regulatory questions.

Take the global foundation set up by former President Bill Clinton. The charity’s work fighting AIDS, hunger and poverty has been overshadowed by recent reports it has accepted millions in contributions from corporations and foreign governments. The foundation halted most foreign contributions while Hillary Rodham Clinton served as secretary of State, to avoid the appearance of corruption and conflicts of interest. Should it do the same as she mulls a White House bid?

For all the bad press its foreign contributions have generated, the Clinton Foundation has voluntarily disclosed its contributions. The same cannot be said of the tax-exempt advocacy groups backing such presidential hopefuls as Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another Republican.

The nonprofit backing Santorum has the same name — Patriot Voices — as his leadership PAC. It was ostensibly set up to advance issues Santorum cares about, but is run by his former aides and largely promotes and publicizes his activities. America Takes Action, a tax-exempt social welfare group, similarly promotes Huckabee’s issues and agenda. Both groups may collect contributions of any size from any source, and operate outside the campaign disclosure rules.

And what about the unrestricted super PAC launched by Bush when he first signaled interest in a presidential campaign? Such PACs may collect unlimited donations as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates they back. Bush is not yet a declared candidate, which explains why he is reportedly raising money for the group. But in the event Bush announces a candidacy, Ryan argues the PAC should be barred from spending money on his behalf.

As for Walker, his aides told U.S. News & World Report that his political organization, Our American Revival, is promoting “an issue environment and platform” for 2016 candidates, not testing the waters for Walker’s potential presidential bid. The organization, while it does disclose its receipts to the IRS, may accept unlimited contributions from any source. A “testing-the-waters” committee as defined by the FEC would have to cap donations at no more than $2,700 per election.

GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is on a promotional tour sponsored by Sentinel, the Penguin Books subsidiary that published his book, “American Dreams.” The tour includes stops to sign books in Iowa and New Hampshire — a schedule that might raise questions if Rubio were a declared candidate.

In 2013, the Office of Congressional Ethics asked the full Ethics Committee to investigate whether then-Rep. Michele Bachmann’s book tour, paid for by the publisher of her book “Core of Conviction,” constituted an illegal in-kind contribution to her presidential campaign. The Ethics panel dropped the matter, but Bachmann remains under federal investigation amid various campaign finance allegations.

Only two White House hopefuls — Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. — have set up legitimate “testing the waters” committees that comply with FEC regulations, Ryan said. Graham’s “Security Through Strength” organization and Webb’s 2016 “Exploratory Committee” both accept contributions no larger than $2,700 per election.

“Sen. Graham and Sen. Webb appear to be complying with that requirement,” Ryan said. “And more than a dozen prospective presidential candidates appear to be ignoring it.”

Eliza Newlin Carney is a senior staff writer covering political money and election law for CQ Roll Call.

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2015 Is the Year to Put the Patient First | Commentary

By Alan Balch

President Barack Obama has rightfully been emphasizing the importance of “middle-class economics.” The middle class is the heart of America. But even as the economy picks up as our nation recovers from financial crisis, many hardworking families continue to struggle.

We at the National Patient Advocate Foundation believe any plan to rebuild our nation from “the middle out” must ensure that middle-class families are not subject to crippling medical debt — a problem that force millions of Americans to lose their health coverage, their homes, their good credit standing and their hard-won futures.

Medical emergencies are not predictable, therefore individuals and families are usually not prepared when they occur. Yet, when they strike, they quickly become all-consuming and often financially devastating. Today, more than 1 in 5 Americans under age 65 are having trouble paying medical bills. More than 60 percent of all bankruptcy filings now involve medical debt. And for the first time, the average cost of health care for the typical American family exceeds $22,000 annually.

Unexpected health care costs associated with significant conditions like cancer is putting a strain on middle-income Americans. Therefore, strengthening the middle class — and our nation as a whole — begins with ensuring access to care, while removing the looming shadow of financial hardship.

For nearly two decades our sister organization, the Patient Advocate Foundation, has battled for patient access to much needed care. To date, our case managers have provided direct services and support to more than 750,000 Americans facing chronic, debilitating and life-threatening illnesses. These patients come to us for help with a variety of issues related to their ability to access and afford recommended care. Each patient we help conveys a unique story of hardship and carries a deeply personal burden. When pieced together, these myriad tales — ranging from crippling medical debt to inadequate transportation to coverage denials — paint a startling picture.

Through our work in the trenches, we have a unique perspective on issues that touch the everyday lives of Americans.

In 2014, approximately 60 percent of PAF’s patient cases involved financial distress. This number demonstrates an unsettling theme that when it comes to health care, more often than not, our overall well-being is directly related to the depths of our pockets. Clearly we must do more to ensure affordable care to all. Policy initiatives that establish consumer protections for Americans facing debt, or far worse declaring bankruptcy, as a result of the cost of their medical treatment are an important first step.

America needs legislation that tangibly counteracts the disastrous effects of medical debt.

Congress can act quickly to assist middle-class patients by passing common-sense legislation that has enjoyed bipartisan support in years past.

Patients who are hit with an unexpected medical bill deserve an opportunity to settle their debt before it has a negative impact on their credit score. The Accuracy in Reporting Medical Debt Act has been introduced in three consecutive Congresses, and would allow patients a 120-day grace period to deal with debt collectors that contact them seeking payment on delinquent medical debt.

Patients who fully pay or settle a medical debt should not have their credit score harmed because of an event they could not control. Introduced in 2013, the Medical Debt Responsibility Act would prohibit a consumer reporting agency from making any report containing information related to a fully paid or settled medical debt, so patients can focus on getting healthy rather than worrying about their ability to secure housing, transportation, or credit.

Patients who are forced into bankruptcy because of medical debt deserve to move through the process as swiftly and painlessly as possible, so they can focus on their health. The Medical Bankruptcy Fairness Act of 2014 would have amended Title 11 of the United States Code to provide protection for medical debt homeowners, restore bankruptcy protections for individuals experiencing economic distress as caregivers to ill or disabled family members, and exempt from means-testing debtors whose financial problems were caused by serious medical problems.

These bills have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past, and would provide tremendous benefit to patients struggling with medical debt.

At some point, we are all patients. Therefore, lawmakers inherently understand the value of patient-centric reform. 2015 is a new year with a new opportunity to further improve our health care system. So let’s finally get back to basics and strengthen our health infrastructure for the people it is meant to serve: patients.

Dr. Alan Balch is CEO of National Patient Advocate Foundation.

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February 25, 2015

Back to Basics: Keep ‘Em Separated | Commentary

By Michael Boland

A prediction: Within a week, the president will sign an appropriations bill extending funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Recently, a federal district court judge in Texas doused (but didn’t extinguish) the hottest populist political fire in America by finding the president violated federal procedural rules when the president issued the second of his two executive orders halting the deportation of undocumented persons. The Obama administration declared it would abide by the injunction and vowed to appeal to the 5th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.

Just prior to the congressional recess, the Senate was unable to debate a House-passed funding bill for DHS because Senate Democrats filibustered the “motion to proceed” over objections to provisions in the House bill vacating the president’s two executive orders on immigration policy.

It is also a setback for the Republican “anti-amnesty” caucus in Congress. The judiciary has the legal issues now, and that’s as it should be.

The “anti-amnesty” caucus ought to release its hostage — funding for programs to combat terrorism within the United States — and let the courts do their job. After all, the primary claim against the legality of President Barack Obama’s executive orders is that he usurped the power of Congress. Only Congress can appropriate; they ought to do their job, not the job of the judiciary.

Interestingly, the judge declared that the president violated the 1946 Administrative Procedure Act, rules which control how the Executive Branch may propose and establish regulations and which established a process for the federal courts to review agency decisions. The judge did not rule on the constitutional issues presented by the plaintiffs, the attorneys general of 26 states.

Will the self-proclaimed “constitutionalists” inside the Congress recognize that this judge’s decision is a victory for their cause, resetting our three co-equal branches of government back within their separate boundaries?

This judge’s decision is also an opening for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to use a procedural reform initiated by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to resolve the current Senate impasse peacefully.

In January of 2013, by a strong vote of 78-16 (with six not voting), the Senate adopted Senate Resolution 15, a rule applied only during the duration of the 113th Congress, to limit filibusters over the motion to proceed in order to allow the Senate to debate and vote upon a bill on its merits. Reid was the author of Senate Resolution 15. McConnell voted for it. Let’s call it “Reid’s rule.”

Today, we are five weeks into the 114th Congress, and Senate Resolution 15 expired in December.

McConnell, a master of Senate procedure, will revive Reid’s rule from two years ago, at least rhetorically, to change the attitude of the current Senate debate over whether to debate funding DHS for the balance of the current fiscal year.

Under Reid’s rule, the minority did not surrender its right to filibuster amendments on a bill or the final Senate passage of a bill; rather, the Senate structured itself to allow four hours of debate on a bill to proceed, with time equally divided, but disallowed the very filibuster battle Reid is waging today.

Will Reid now accept Reid’s rule?

Not incidentally, since the courts now have possession of the legal issues swirling around the president’s executive orders, it is also logical to foresee the current Senate voting to strike the House provisions blocking funding for the president’s executive orders at least as long as the judiciary’s injunction on those orders is in force.

If so, will the House pass the DHS bill without those provisions when it returns? By then, just days from today, the issue will change again.

Will the House shutdown funding for the domestic anti-terrorist agency now that the courts are in charge of the legal issues?


Michael Boland is the principal and founder of Dome Advisors.

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Can Members of Congress Shill for Constituents? | Commentary

By Jason Katz

Critics, pundits and average Americans love, even relish, attacking members of Congress for being “in the pocket” of “special interests.” Media coverage is replete with veiled and not so veiled accusations about selling votes for campaign contributions or donations to a member’s “favorite charity.” There have been a few members through the years who have been tagged for such malfeasance.

Enter the phenomenon of a member of Congress shilling for actual constituents. Is that fair or foul? Is it ethical for a like-minded group in one congressional district to bring pressure on a member to vote and conduct their duties in one manner or another? Perhaps not, but what if it is openly on behalf on another nation? One that is decidedly not an ally of the U.S.

Enter Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., for instance. I know Sherman and have for years. He is a fairly anonymous member and a fairly innocuous guy whom my former boss used to lovingly refer to as “the dweeb.” I even interviewed to be his district chief of staff, albeit so long ago, it was like another life. I do remember being a little disconcerted he seemed more interested in my ability to fundraise, rather than my expertise in public affairs or international relations.

Recently, a colleague sent me Sherman’s official and tax-payer funded email newsletter. The congressman’s newsletter began:

Dear Friend, I want to update you on my efforts to strengthen ties between the United States and Armenia. As a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I have focused on recognizing the Armenian Genocide, increasing aid to Armenia, Artsakh, and Javakh, and holding Azerbaijan accountable for its actions.

The headings comprised: Congressional Report on Armenia, Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Telephone Town Hall Meeting — Tuesday, April 21, Calling for Permanent Display of Armenian Genocide Orphan Rug In November of 2014, the White House displayed the Armenian Orphan Rug in an exhibit entitled “Thank you to the United States: Three Gifts to Presidents in Gratitude for American Generosity Abroad” at the White House Visitors Center, Aid for Armenia and Artsakh and Holding Azerbaijan Accountable and Increased Assistance to Javakh.

I wasn’t aware that California’s 30th Congressional District was nearly monolithically Armenian and/or of Armenian descent. According to the congressman’s statistics in 2006-2008: White-43 percent, Latino-41.2 percent, African American-3.4 percent, Asian-10.2 percent. And Artsakh? I believe, and so officially does the rest of the world, including the United States, that is the Nagorno-Karabkah region of Azerbaijan that is internationally recognized as illegally occupied by Armenia. As for Javakh, it is a region within Georgia with compact Armenian minority and subject to territorial claims by some more radical Armenians. Actually, many Armenians in Javakheti region of Georgia as it is properly called, carry Russian passports – an eerie and, perhaps not entirely unintentional reminder of Moscow’s recently discovered favorite excuse for invasions.

So why would the Congressman’s newsletter, again at tax payer expense, be devoted exclusively Armenian issues? Why is any member so concerned with a foreign nation that has by anyone’s account, save their own, become a vassal state of the Russian Federation? In fact, Armenia recently turned away from the West by joining Mr. Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union — the counter to the European Union. Armenian borders and airspace are even patrolled by the Russian military. The Armenian president, Serge Sargysan, was recently quoted expressing his warm and fuzzy feelings toward his close ally Iran and the Mullahs. Further, why would a member of U.S. Congress go so far to offend not one, but two of America’s most important regional allies, Azerbaijan and Georgia?

So, really, Armenia is not an important nation to the U.S. Indispensable to the Iranians and Russians? Absolutely. That said, I assume Sherman has a significant Armenian-American community in his district. He should represent their interests — as long as those interests do not go directly against those of our nation as a whole.

This all begs a question I have posed for years: What is the responsibility of a member of Congress? Is it a member’s responsibility to his/her constituents, no matter the allegiances of those constituents? Or do members of Congress have a dual role … one to represent all of their constituents, not just a loud and boisterous and, yes, generous group, but also to represent the best interests of the United States of America?
Jason Katz is the principal of TSG, LLC, a consultancy that advises foreign governments, NGOs and corporations in the realms of strategic communications, politics and policy. He is also the former head of Public Affairs and Public Relations for the American Jewish Committee, based in Los Angeles.

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A Common-Sense Medicare Solution: Site-Neutral Payment Reform | Commentary

By Barry Brooks

Imagine this basic scenario: You are out of milk. You could go to your local convenience store and purchase a gallon for $3. But instead, you drive 25 miles to buy the identical gallon of milk for $5 at a large chain grocery store.

If this sounds absurd, that’s because it is. However it’s analogous to current health care payment policies that allow significantly higher reimbursements for health care services provided in certain settings, when identical, more convenient, and less expensive care in alternative settings exists.

After years of ostensibly trying to reign in unnecessary healthcare spending and maintain Medicare sustainability for future generations, misguided policies on site of service reimbursement have perversely been doing the exact opposite. Medicare continues to pay more for services provided in Hospital Outpatient Departments (HOPDs) ranging from blood work to radiology to chemotherapy administration while other doctors and facilities in the community providing the same services are paid far less. This unfortunate practice for Medicare has increased healthcare costs by billions and simultaneously forced more cost-efficient community providers into hospital settings, which drives costs higher still.

Earlier this month, we were pleased to see President Barack Obama’s FY2016 budget proposal recommend incentives to encourage the delivery of efficient care in the most appropriate ambulatory setting. In his proposal, the President states, “Evidence suggests that in recent years, billing of many ambulatory services has been shifting from physicians’ offices to the usually higher paid hospital outpatient department setting, increasing Medicare spending and beneficiary cost-sharing.”

The White House estimates this reform alone could save $29.5 billion over 10 years.

Under current Medicare policy, for example, a colonoscopy that costs $625 in the office setting is reimbursed more than double that amount – $1,383 – when performed in an HOPD. An MRI scan to diagnose or monitor a patient’s disease progression costs $600 at a community-based imaging facility, but totals $900 or more when conducted by an identical scanner in a hospital radiology suite.

It’s not just Medicare; this problem extends to private insurers as well. The National Institute for Health Reform studied private insurance claims of nearly 600,000 workers and found that increased HOPD spending is leading to overall spending growth among privately and publicly insured individuals because of higher prices charged by hospitals.

Most troubling of all, data reveals that these disparities adversely impact patients. Data from researchers at Milliman show that patients receiving cancer treatments in HOPDs spend $650 more in out-of-pocket copayments compared to patients receiving community-based cancer care.

The negative result of these policies goes beyond the fiscal impact. Particularly in rural areas, many patients are losing access to their trusted healthcare providers due to closure and consolidation of community-based healthcare centers as they are forced to join hospitals. This trend is directly attributable to lower reimbursements for physician-run healthcare practices. Since 2008, 313 independent cancer centers have closed their doors and 544 have entered into contractual relationships with larger hospital centers merely to keep their doors open.

Closures are only one troubling byproduct of payment disparities. Another is the perverse higher reimbursement incentive that encourages hospitals to buy up physician practices in order to increase their profits. They buy the practice, change the name on the door and double the prices. While the hospitals win, everyone else loses. Unfair payment policies have put independent physician practices nationwide in a position in which selling to hospitals is their only option.

The solution is clear — neutralize payments across sites of service. Pay the same fee for the same service regardless of where it is performed. This policy reform has the bipartisan support of lawmakers, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission and a broad group of health care stakeholders including providers, insurers and consumers.

To advance such reforms in cancer care, Congress should adopt a policy to secure site-neutral payments to keep costs down for seniors fighting cancer, Medicare and taxpayers. Specifically, Congress should create a level playing field in Medicare payments for outpatient cancer-care services. This would preserve patient access to high-quality, cost-effective care in the community setting and help stem the tide of hospital acquisitions of community cancer clinics.

As Obama and bipartisan leaders in Congress call for the delivery of efficient care in the most appropriate setting, we urge them to advance policy changes to establish parity across sites of service in health care. We owe our patients, taxpayers and the nation’s health care system common sense solutions that protect patient choice and reduce costs.

Barry Brooks, M.D., is chairman of the Pharmacy & Therapeutics Committee at The US Oncology Network.

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February 24, 2015

K Street Donors Make Early White House Picks | K Street Files

They’re not billionaire industrialists poised to bankroll millions in the 2016 campaign, but K Street still matters to the crop of aspiring presidential candidates.

Lobbyists are tapping long-established networks of donors to help their favored White House contenders rack up early money.

Full story

Keystone Process Tells Tale of Two Houses | Procedural Politics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Boehner signs the Keystone bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Do you remember Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California promising last fall to return the new Congress to the regular order? The initial test came on the first major bill in the well of both houses, the Keystone XL Pipeline Act. Whereas the Senate produced a veritable gusher of amendments with all hands at the wellhead, the House reverted to a narrowly-constricted flow tube controlled by a few valve masters.

Identical House and Senate pipeline bills were introduced on the opening day of the new Congress by two North Dakota Republicans, Rep. Kevin Cramer and Sen. John Hoeven. Both measures were placed on a fast track to the floor the first week of the session. But that’s where the similarities ended. Full story

Congress Should Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | Commentary

By Steve Barker

Recently, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell traveled to Northwest Alaska to discuss multiple public lands issues, including President Barack Obama’s recent recommendation that Congress protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, the highest level of conservation protection possible for America’s public lands. ANWR is one of the most pristine and beautiful places on Earth. The recommended protections ensure this area will continue to provide wild and remarkable recreation opportunities that inspire our businesses and consumers. And while many more Americans will have the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, ANWR stands on equal ground with these spectacular, long-protected areas.

Natural resource leaders recognize the wisdom of the administration’s move. Former Deputy Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes stated, “This is a day many of us have fought for and worked for, and it’s an important step on the road to the more balanced natural resources policy we so desperately need.”

The outdoor recreation economy depends on getting people outside, which in turn means conserving and protecting public lands for activities such as camping, trail sports, snow sports, bicycling, water sports, hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing. Each year, the outdoor industry supports more than 6 million American jobs, generates $646 billion in direct consumer spending and contributes $80 billion in federal, state and local taxes. In Alaska, outdoor recreation generates $9.5 billion in consumer spending, supports 92,000 jobs and generates $711 million in state and local tax revenue.

Over the past several years, I have taken more than 24 industry executives on trips north of the Brooks Range and into ANWR. We have rafted wild rivers, fished for Arctic char and seen polar bears, brown bears, wolves and musk ox. We have watched the wildlife spectacle of thousands of caribou moving past our camps as they migrate to their calving grounds on the coastal plain. Without exception, each one of us regarded the trip as a life-changing experience and has devoted time and resources to protecting recreation assets like this one for our grandchildren.

As business leaders, the health of our industry depends on land and water that are protected for people to enjoy America’s beautiful natural landscapes, pursue healthy and active lifestyles and use our products to have the best experience possible. The president’s proposal meets those goals.

This is the first wilderness protection any president has recommended to Congress for a refuge since 1974. Besides providing home to polar bears, caribou and birds that migrate from six continents, the Arctic Refuge is home to and provides sustenance for the Gwich’in people. By offering protection of this ecosystem and tourism destination, Obama and Jewell have done the right thing, and I thank them. Preservation of ANWR is far more than a conservation legacy opportunity, it is a gift to all Americans for generations to come.

Steve Barker is interim executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association.

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February 23, 2015

Solving the Password Problem | Commentary

By Michael Jones

Cybercrime is metastacizing. Hackers stole 900 million financial and personal records in 2014 alone, and hacking now costs consumers and companies $375-575 billion annually. That’s putting pressure on both parties to act, but Congress hasn’t yet been able to pass a cybersecurity bill. President Barack Obama’s proposal to require businesses to share information on hacking threats with the Department of Homeland Security has raised both political and privacy issues, and drawn opposition from conservatives, business and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But even if such a bill passed, information sharing would not have stopped high-profile cyberattacks on Anthem, Sony Pictures, Target, Home Depot, banks in 30 countries including JP Morgan Chase, or others. The glaring cybersecurity problem today is our password practices, which have become dysfunctional. Most security breaches involve weak or stolen login credentials.

Passwords are a weakness for Congress’ own cybersecurity, too. According to Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., co-chairman of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, the number of daily cyberattacks on congressional networks is “huge.” Congressional staff computers have sophisticated firewalls, but even the best technologies can’t protect them against bad practices of humans, such as password reuse and sharing. Recently, the House started requiring regular password changes and instituted mandatory information security training for any staffer with a House network user name and password.

Some, such as bank and insurance regulator Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, propose scrapping the password system altogether. But there is a way to fix it.

Passwords originated half a century ago, when a few research institutions had one precious computer, and the few people who had access to it needed just one keyword to remember. Today, hundreds of millions of us have dozens of accounts each. In an effort to make billions of passwords distinct and safer from hackers, we’re making them more and more complex and less and less memorable.

The less memorable passwords are, the less secure they are. Continually resetting passwords we can’t remember makes us more vulnerable. So does storing them on a computer or in a drawer. One place they are safe from hackers is stored in your brain, provided you can get them out when you need them.

My field of memory research has learned much about how humans encode, store and retrieve information committed to memory. It has evolved excellent computer simulation models that predict how likely a person is to recall information, and can help select words that are optimal for later recall by specific people.

That’s useful for data security engineers, and I’m now collaborating with one to build a new password system. It draws on decades of lab research on optimizing human memory, much of it funded by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation. The new system will have the ubiquitous “password strength” meter, but also a “memorability” meter. It will generate memorable combinations of words that are personally relevant and meaningful for users, but appear random to anyone else, making them memorable and much harder to steal.

Besides passwords, there are other intractable cybersecurity problems that scientists who study human psychology and behavior can help solve. For example, spam/phishing filters mechanically search for suspicious individual key words, but not for typical spam narratives, so spam slips the net and lands in your inbox. Algorithms designed to resolve disputes between online buyers and sellers can’t distinguish between “liar buyers” with a bogus complaint and truthful ones with a legitimate complaint. Applying models from linguistics, memory and cognitive science, and teaching computers how to comprehend patterns of meaning rather than just pick out words or numbers, can help make these structures smarter and more secure.

This field of teaching computers to think more like humans is called cognitive computing. It has been incubating for about a decade now, and is likely to generate big breakthroughs that we’ll all be using before long, including better passwords, and many new ways to find meaning in the torrent of digital data rapidly headed our way.

Lab research into human cognition is directly enabling advances in cognitive computing, which can help stem the rising tide of cybercrime, and help make the benefits of the Big Data revolution available and meaningful for everyone. That makes it a smart investment for taxpayers. Whether or not Congress can pass an information-sharing bill, if it wants to do something effective about cybersecurity, it can fund this research.

Michael Jones, PhD, is Associate Professor of Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Informatics at Indiana University.

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A Buzz in Congress: Congress Needs to Investigate EPA’s Anti-Farmer, Pseudo-Science Agenda | Commentary

By Paul Driessen

Washington will soon be abuzz with debates over honeybees. President Barack Obama has commissioned a “pollinator task force,” and a federal honeybees strategy is expected any day now. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency appears to be preparing its own regulations to “protect” bees.

Farm state representatives need to follow this closely, or they could find their constituents getting steamrolled by junk science. To please an increasingly noisy band of loyal activists, the White House has positioned itself to bypass congressional committees that have jurisdiction over these issues, and impose sweeping pesticide restrictions that ignore potential damages to farmers, consumers — and honeybees. Full story

February 19, 2015

How to Save Ukraine: Accelerate NATO Military Modernization

By Benjamin Jensen

Despite the new “ceasefire,” current diplomatic approaches to deterring Russian aggression in Ukraine are a failure. While sanctions are destroying the Russian economy, they are not stopping the Kremlin from supporting rebels, deploying troops along Ukraine’s border or exercising their strategic nuclear force posture. Vladimir Putin prefers playing chess to the popular American board game Monopoly. His inner circle is interested in re-establishing a sphere of influence and a strategic buffer. They are betting that by the time Western sanctions “work,” Ukraine will be a failed state in the Russian orbit and NATO a hollow alliance.

Re-establishing security in Europe requires a bold new plan: accelerating NATO force modernization initiatives in Eastern Europe and immediately delivering its surplus Cold War equipment to Ukraine. The plan is simple and sends a clear signal. NATO member states back Ukrainian independence and have the military capabilities to deter future conventional conflict. The plan requires Congressional committee action. The next National Defense Authorization Act should include language that fast tracks foreign military sales for Eastern European members of NATO. These countries need firm guarantees the United States is committed to NATO and willing to replenish weapons stockpiles they send to defend Ukrainian sovereignty.

There is historical precedent for using NATO equipment to resupply an ally in the middle of a conflict. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the United States military launched Operation Nickel Grass, airlifting more than 22,000 tons of military equipment, including stockpiles from depots in Europe, to Israel. The move was not without risk, leaving NATO conventional defenses significantly weakened in the event of a crisis with the Warsaw Pact. Yet, decision makers at the time correctly calculated that the Soviet’s would not capitalize on the situation before America replenished the stockpiles.

In the current crisis, the United States will again have to play a leadership role, using is edge in military logistics to help deliver the equipment to Kiev while fast tracking foreign military sales required to replace Soviet era weapons. The Ukrainian Freedom Support Act authorizes the U.S. president to address Ukraine’s persistent requests for weapon, highlighting the need for anti-tank weapons, drones and radar systems. Congress can build on this act with an expanded initiative that helps NATO partners replace Soviet era equipment with more up to date American systems.

Through Armed Services Committee hearings in the lead up to the National Defense Authorization, Congress can require the secretaries of State and Defense to assess the state of NATO forces with an eye towards sending old systems to Ukraine, as well as require testimony on actions taken to support overall NATO force modernization plans. Both moves send a clear signal to the White House: take NATO and the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act seriously.

This plan provides Ukrainians weapons they know how to use, as opposed to training them on new systems they are unfamiliar with operating or sustaining. Many Eastern European NATO members still have large stockpiles of Soviet weapons that could be a force multiplier in the Ukrainian conflict. This includes large inventories of anti-tank weapons, artillery systems and even combat aircraft — all platforms the Ukrainians desperately need to hold the line against further Russian advances. Poland has more than 2,000 RPG-7 anti-tank systems and 1,000 SWD Sniper rifles that match current Ukrainian requests. They also have surplus T-72 tanks. Bulgaria has more than 80 combat jets and helicopters it is looking to replace.

Second, the plan offers the United States a cost-effective path for accelerating force modernization plans in Eastern European NATO members. It reassures allies and is consistent with NATO’s 2014 Wales Declaration to bolster alliance defense capabilities. The plan complements efforts to deter Russian including the recent announcement that six new bases will be set up alongside a 5,000-strong “spearhead” reaction force.

Signaling a willingness to uphold the current international order and reassuring key allies has benefits that reach beyond Europe. Reading Ukraine as simply a European security issue is a deeply flawed exercise. U.S. allies are watching. A failure to support a country under attack by a mix of proxy supported rebels and top-tier Russian military without uniforms shows the U.S. is unwilling to defend the territorial integrity of states. With one move, the United States can check Russian advances in Ukraine and reassure its allies. In the short-term Ukraine receives the military assistance it desperately needs. Over the long-term, a modernized military in NATO front-line states offers an expanded conventional deterrent to future Russian aggression.

Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D. is a scholar-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and runs the Advanced Studies Program for the USMC Command and Staff College.

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Parsing the Difference Between Conventional and Dynamic Scoring | Commentary

By Robert G. Lynch

The new rule adopted by the House of Representatives earlier this year requiring the use of dynamic scoring for certain types of legislation seems, at first glance, like an elegant solution to a complex budgetary issue: how to take into account the effects of proposed legislation on economic growth and the feedback effects of that growth on the budget. Yet upon close inspection, the uncertainty and biases inherent in the assumptions of the macro models that underpin dynamic scoring render the exercise largely unworkable.

Factoring in the consequences of future economic growth due to tax reform enacted in major legislation — the essence of dynamic scoring as envisioned by the House — makes sense in theory. So, too, does its theoretical use on the spending side of the ledger for big legislative initiatives such as public infrastructure investment, or investment in early childhood education. After all, if dynamic scoring were done across the board using agreed upon, accurate, non-partisan macroeconomic models then we would presumably have a better bead on the future costs and benefits of current legislation.

But the first problem with dynamic scoring is this: The economics profession today simply does not have the capabilities and tools it needs to do dynamic scoring well. We do not know how to accurately measure the growth effects of many policies. Current macroeconomic modeling, upon which dynamic scoring depends, is unsophisticated and inaccurate. The theoretical models are built upon less than rigorous, evidence-based assumptions. And the political biases that can be built into these models leaves them subject to easy manipulation.

Here’s just one of many cases in point. Back in 2003, the Joint Committee on Taxation experimented with dynamic scoring, using three different macroeconomic models with multiple sets of assumptions to come up with five different predictions, as well as the non-dynamic conventional score, about the revenue impacts of the House version of tax cut legislation that year. Twelve years later, we know the most accurate prediction was the conventional scoring method used by both the JCT and Congressional Budget Office.

The reasons? All the macro models failed to predict the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and their dynamically scored rosy revenue estimates missed by miles the actual revenue outcomes.

Conventional scoring assumes that legislation will have no effect on economic growth, calculating only how much revenue will be lost or gained by a tax change or spending proposal, although this method does take into account many changes in individual economic behavior. The evidence required for conventional scoring is well understood by economists and is rigorously empirical. The method lacks predictive power with respect to economic growth, but such prowess is only impressive if done well — an impossible task given the state of the prediction art..

Indeed, macro model-based dynamic scoring as proposed by the House ignores well-documented facts about economic growth- and revenue-inducing spending proposals grounded in decades of data-driven empirical analysis. Investing more in policies to raise academic achievement and narrow education-achievement gaps between children of wealthy families and other children could boost economic growth and revenue significantly, as I detail in my recent paper, “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Improving U.S. Educational Outcomes.” The same has been documented about much infrastructure spending or investment in early childhood education.

The new House rule for dynamic scoring would miss these benefits outright because it only applies, essentially, to tax legislation. And even if dynamic scoring were applied to major spending proposals the level of precision would be poor because the macro models required for dynamic scoring do not accurately incorporate the evidence of the growth effects of public investment. And then there’s the non-trivial cost of doing dynamic scoring. It’s expensive, takes time and would require regularly updated baseline economic assumptions — three things CBO and JCT neither can afford to do nor has the time to do.

The bottom line: economists at the two scoring arms of Congress just aren’t able to produce robust dynamic scores of proposed legislation because the macro models aren’t good enough to accurately estimate economic growth and the revenue consequences of that growth. It’s a fact and we need to deal with it.

Robert G. Lynch is a visiting fellow at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and the Everett E. Nuttle Professor of Economics at Washington College. His areas of specialization include human capital, public policy, public finance and income inequality.

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Payday Loans Entrap the Most Vulnerable | Commentary

By Galen Carey

As our economy continues to improve, there is a crushing weight holding many back: payday loans. While state and local leaders have taken up the cause in certain jurisdictions, this is a national problem that requires Congress to act. Unscrupulous lenders lure those who are already facing financial hardship into a debt trap from which it is very difficult to escape.

Drawn by slick marketing, desperate borrowers are induced to accept unfavorable terms they may not fully understand. The cost of a typical payday loan exceeds 300 percent annual percentage rate. By requiring full repayment from the next paycheck, payday lenders virtually guarantee that the borrower will be forced to ask for a new loan, with additional fees and interest, to pay back the old one.

This violates the underwriting standards applied to virtually every other type of loan. Payday loans perpetuate a cycle of debt, poverty and misery.

Three quarters of the fees payday lenders bring in come from borrowers, mostly low income, who have taken out 10 or more loans in a single year. More than half of all payday loans are renewed or rolled over so many times that consumers wind up repaying at least twice the amount they originally borrowed.

We have just come through the busiest season for payday lenders. Their ads promise an easy solution to the pressure of unbudgeted holiday expenses.

Parents understandably want to buy their children Christmas presents, and the lure of readily accessible extra cash masks a real threat to their financial health.

The reality is that a short-term loan almost always creates a debt that the borrower cannot repay in two weeks. Interest and fee payments balloon while the principal remains unpaid. The debt burden often continues long after the Christmas toys have been broken and discarded.

Last October, the National Association of Evangelicals addressed the devastating impact of payday loans with a resolution calling for an end to predatory lending. We are asking churches, charities, employers and government agencies to work together to help our members, neighbors and co-workers in ways that do not exploit them and lead to further misery. Other religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention, have made similar appeals.

The Bible prohibits usury, exploitation and oppression of those in need, and there is growing evidence that payday loans, as they are currently structured, often violate biblical justice. Predatory lenders who oppress the poor incur the wrath of God (Exodus 22:21-27). They should apply their expertise and resources to developing stronger communities rather than tearing them down.

Every family needs a rainy day fund to cover unexpected expenses from time to time. Churches should teach the spiritual disciplines of tithing and saving that position members to provide for themselves and generously care for others when special needs arise. It is our responsibility as neighbors and as churches to save and give generously, to provide the neediest among us with every possible opportunity to achieve and succeed. Churches, charities and employers should support households in their communities in times of crisis so as to prevent neighbors from being drawn into long-term debt.

In 2006, Congress passed bipartisan legislation capping the rates on loans issued to service-members at 36 percent annual interest. We need similar leadership from Congress today so that all Americans are protected from financial predators. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency established to monitor the increasingly complex array of financial products offered to the American public, plans to unveil a new rule in coming months. We hope the bureau thoroughly investigates the payday industry and establishes just regulations and that Congress supports this process. State agencies should do the same. We need common sense guidelines such as requiring that loans be made at reasonable interest rates, and based on the borrower’s ability to actually repay.

Credit can change lives. It can be a source of opportunity or cause of devastation. How we use and safeguard this powerful tool is our choice. Caring for and lifting up our neighbors is our responsibility.

Galen Carey is vice president of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals. 

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Obama’s War on Arctic Energy | Commentary

By David Hunt

After long delays, the Obama administration has finally made a decision on its Arctic policy and focus on the development of the vast amounts of natural resources that encircle Alaska. Several decisions actually.

Unfortunately, they took a step in the wrong direction for the nation’s goals for self-sufficiency, economic growth and national security.

Rather than solidify our national security by expanding our country’s diverse energy portfolio and opening up several areas of the energy-rich Arctic region to exploration and production, the administration, with leadership of the Arctic Council just a few months away, chose to set a bad example by closing off much of this territory via a recent series of puzzling announcements that will be at the center of debate at next month’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, according to Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

First, the president issued an executive order creating a steering committee on U.S. Arctic policy that excluded Alaskan natives and officials — you got that right, there were not any Alaskans on the Arctic policy steering committee. Then, the administration asked Congress to designate several parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a wilderness area, putting the land off-limits for drilling and violating multiple agreements and promises that Washington had previously made to Alaska. Days later, the Interior Department unveiled a draft of its proposed leasing program for offshore waters between 2017 and 2022 — and did not include several portions of the Arctic’s resources-rich Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, restricting access to some of the world’s most prolific reserves of oil and natural gas. Not to be lost is the multiple-year delay in permitting and approving energy development in existing leases held in both seas.

This chain of proclamations shows just how out-of-touch the president continues to be on the significance of this influential part of the world. Newer, more efficient shipping routes, combined with potential world class untapped oil and natural gas resources, has made the Arctic an emerging hotbed for control of international affairs. But while many countries have moved quickly to leave their mark in the region, America, to date, has not.

Even though Alaskan oil was instrumental in helping the U.S. undo the Soviet Union back in the 1980s, the administration remains oddly in the dark about the geopolitical importance of the Arctic. This region’s significance, however, is not lost on the Russians, who have launched a large-scale militarization that includes a 6,000-solider permanent military force in the northwest Murmansk region, new radar and guidance system capabilities, and nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers. Russia is also engaged in Arctic territorial disputes with Canada, sidestepping the United Nations in the process while drawing up somber memories of the Cold War.

With Russia shaken by tumbling crude oil prices — a global market trend led by America’s new role as an oil and gas leader with an abundance of energy and a decreasing need for imports — now is the time for the president to open more exploration and production in yet to-be-tapped regions. Such a maneuver would have helped to hamper Russia’s military advancement in the Arctic, while creating jobs here at home and further improving our national security. After all, it grows increasingly harder — and costly — to maintain a colossal military presence when oil prices, the Russian economy’s bread and butter, stays low.

Instead, the president has acted to restrict access to some of the most resources-rich sectors of the world. The damaging impact of his decisions are far reaching. They impede our ability to learn significant maritime information. They reduce our navigation and border security capabilities. And they obstruct our ability to grow our energy infrastructure, which would keep us moderately reliant on foreign rivals such as OPEC for oil. The results will be to lead us deeper into debt and help fund our greatest adversaries.

As both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will highlight in upcoming hearings, there is still time for the administration to right this wrong and jettison overly prescriptive regulations that stifle innovation and are counter to our geopolitical interest in regions such as the Arctic. This would help us utilize all available resources to counter rivals such as Russia and boost our ongoing energy boom in the lower 48 states, which has made the U.S. more self-sufficient and secure than ever before.

It can be done. All it takes is advancing policy aimed at improving our infrastructure and safeguarding our borders rather than progressing misguided agendas that benefit our rivals.

David Hunt is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a former security adviser to the FBI. He served as counterterrorism coordinator for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul.

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