Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 20th, 2017

Worth watching: Rep. Adam Schiff on Russian interference

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Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2017 at 8:15 pm

The American presidency is shrinking before the world’s eyes

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Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post:

It is difficult to overestimate the geopolitical risks of this moment — or the (both disturbed and eager) global scrutiny now being given to the American president.

Aggression is growing along the westward reach of Russian influence and the southern boundary of Chinese influence. Intercontinental nuclear capacity may soon be in the hands of a mental pubescent in North Korea. In the Middle East, a hostile alliance of Russia and Shiite powers is ascendant; radical Sunnis have a territorial foothold and inspire strikes in Western cities; America’s traditional Sunni friends and allies feel devalued or abandoned; perhaps 500,000 Syrians are dead and millions of refugees suffer in conditions that incubate anger. Cyberterrorism and cyberespionage are exploiting and weaponizing our own technological dependence. Add to this a massive famine in East Africa, threatening the lives of 20 million people, and the picture of chaos is complete — until the next crisis breaks.

It is in this context that the diplomatic bloopers reel of the past few days has been played — the casual association of British intelligence with alleged surveillance at Trump Tower; the presidential tweets undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Asia trip; and the rude and childish treatment given the German chancellor. When President Trump and Angela Merkel sat together in the Oval Office, we were seeing the leader of the free world — and that guy pouting in public.

Every new administration has a shakeout period. But this assumes an ability to learn from mistakes. And this would require admitting mistakes. The spectacle of an American president blaming a Fox News commentator for a major diplomatic incident was another milestone in the miniaturization of the presidency.

An interested foreigner (friend or foe) must be a student of Trump’s temperament, which is just as bad as advertised. He is inexperienced, uninformed, easily provoked and supremely confident in his own judgment. His advantage is the choice of some serious, experienced advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. But success in their jobs depends on Trump’s listening skills.

Mere incompetence would be bad enough. But foreigners trying to understand the United States must now study (of all things) the intellectual influences of White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. His vision of a Western alliance of ethno-nationalist, right-wing populists against globalists, multiculturalists, Islamists and (fill in the blank with your preferred minority) is the administration’s most vivid and rhetorically ascendant foreign policy viewpoint. How does this affect the alliances of the previous dispensation? That is the background against which Trump’s peevishness is being viewed.

Foreigners see a president who has blamed his predecessor, in banana-republic style, of a serious crime, for which FBI Director James B. Comey testified Mondaythere is no evidence. They see an administration whose campaign activities are being actively investigated by the executive branch and Congress. If close Trump associates are directly connected to Russian hacking, foreigners will see the president engulfed in an impeachment crisis — the only constitutional mechanism that would remove the taint of larceny from the 2016 election.

And foreigners are seeing politics, not national security, in the driver’s seat of the administration. Tillerson was given the job of secretary of state, then denied his choice of deputy for political reasons, then ordered to make a 28 percent cut in the budget for diplomacy and development. Never mind that Tillerson has been left a diminished figure. Never mind that stability operations in Somalia and northern Nigeria — the recruiting grounds of Islamist terrorism — would likely be eliminated under the Trump budget. Never mind that programs to prevent famines would be slashed.

When asked if he was worried about cutting these programs during a famine, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney responded: “The president said specifically hundreds of times . . . I’m going to spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home. And that’s exactly what we’re doing with this budget.” The benighted cruelty of such a statement — assuming that the only way to help Americans is to let foreign children die — is remarkable, and typical. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2017 at 6:11 pm

We deserve some good news: Court Blocks Most of North Carolina GOP’s Legislative Coup, Including Election-Board Power Grab

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Mark Joseph Stern reports in Slate:

On Friday, a North Carolina state court ruled that most of the Republican-dominated Legislature’s December power grab—which stripped authority from the incoming Democratic governor—violated the state constitution. The three-judge panel found that the Legislature’s attempt to deny Gov. Roy Cooper control over the state election board violated the constitutional separation of powers, as did efforts to stack his administration with holdovers appointed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Presuming Republicans appeal, they face long odds at the liberal-leaning state Supreme Court, which previously blocked the election-board takeover.

The court’s decision was fairly predictable given the North Carolina Constitution’s stringent separation-of-powers requirements. Article I of the state constitution declares that legislative and executive power “shall be forever separate and distinct from each other,” while Article III vests all of “the executive power … in the Governor” and commands that he or she must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

In reshaping the state election board, Republicans ran afoul of these decrees. As the court noted, the state board—which creates and enforces rules regarding voting and appoints members to the state’s 100 county election boards—is “housed in the executive branch.” The board’s composition reflects that fact. Traditionally, the state board consisted of five members—all appointed by the governor—with three from the governor’s party and two from the minority party. In turn, each county election board consisted of three members, with two from the governor’s party and one from the minority party. The structure of the board, in other words, ensured that the governor had a say in the state’s voting procedures. (And under GOP control, Republicans slashed early voting and purged thousands of minority voters from the rolls.)

In December, after McCrory conceded defeat, Republicans attempted to overhaul the boards to prevent Cooper from taking control over them. They passed a law merging the state election board with the State Ethics Commission, creating a “New State Board” with eight members. Under their law, the governor and Legislature would each select four members, and the board would require a supermajority of six votes to take any action. A Republican would chair the board in election years, and a Democrat would chair it in off-years. Each county board would be comprised of four members, two Democrats and two Republicans, and would require three votes to act.

Republicans, in other words, ensured that the state and county boards would be perpetually gridlocked. And this, the court explained on Friday, violates the Separation of Powers Clause. Because the board is “primarily executive in nature,” the court held unanimously, the governor “must have enough control over [the appointees] to perform his constitutional duty” to “faithfully execute the laws.” By creating constant deadlock, Republicans ensured that the governor “will have inadequate control” over the board, blocking him “from ensuring faithful execution of the laws.” Thus, the court struck down the law creating a new board, allowing Cooper to appoint Democrats who will reverse Republican-instituted voter suppression.

By a 2–1 vote, the court also blocked a provision of the GOP legislative coup that would’ve filled Cooper’s administration with McCrory-appointed holdovers. This amendment gave McCrory authority to convert temporary political jobs into permanent positions, preventing Cooper from choosing personnel for his own administration. Sure enough, McCrory spent his last two weeks in office converting nearly 1,000 political positions into permanent ones. So when Cooper entered office, the executive agencies typically controlled by the governor were filled with hostile Republicans who could not easily be replaced. The court once again found that this measure violated separation of powers by curbing Cooper’s ability to take care “that the laws are faithfully executed.”

Finally, by another 2–1 vote, the court upheld a new law . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2017 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Election, GOP, Government, Law

A jaw-dropping statement from Comey in the hearing

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From this report in the Washington Post by Ellen Nakashima, Karoun Demirjian and Devlin Barrett:

Comey repeatedly refused to answer whether specific individuals close to the president had fallen under suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, “so we don’t wind up smearing people” who may not be charged with a crime.

Has he no memory at all of Hillary “Reckless” Clinton? Doesn’t he recall making even one comment about a person who was not ever charged with a crime?

How can he possibly get away with saying that. Were there outbursts of unbelieving laughter when he spoke?

Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2017 at 5:10 pm

Trump’s rally today

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I wonder what he will say at the rally. Will he simply ignore and not mention today’s hearings? I don’t think he can do that, emotionally: he’s a counterpuncher. And to make bigger headlines than the hearings, he’s going to have to come out with one hell of a statement, which I imagine will be along the lines of his accusation that the previous president committed a felony while in office. (Why on earth, his supporters must be wondering, doesn’t he just give the FBI the evidence that convinced him that Obama had done it? Then the FBI could really get to work on it and arrest Obama!)

If one of Trump’s supporters says that Trump didn’t mean that Obama had tapped Trump’s phone, then the logical response is, “You told me that Trump was a straight talker. That he told it like it is. Looks like you’re not a straight talker.”

Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2017 at 5:00 pm

The general who went to war on suicide

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Ben Hattem reports in Politico:

On the evening of July 19, 2010, Major General Dana Pittard, the new commander of Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, got a call from the base’s 24-hour duty officer. A SWAT team had been sent to the house of a young sergeant named Robert Nichols. Nichols was inside with a gun, threatening to kill himself.

Pittard arrived at the soldier’s home just in time to see the soldier step out of the house, put the gun to his chest and fire. Neighbors and police crowded the street, but Pittard was the only officer from the Army base at the scene. He went home, where his boxes were still packed from his move 10 days before, feeling disturbed and helpless.

Nichols was the first of Pittard’s soldiers who died under his command at Fort Bliss. Others followed. A soldier from Fort Bliss’ 11th Air Defense Artillery brigade, which had recently returned from a tour in the Middle East, committed suicide. Another from the same brigade soon overdosed on prescription drugs.

The rash of deaths caught Pittard off guard. He knew that suicide was a growing concern for the military, which had spent millions of dollars to tackle the crisis and had issued dozens of reports—including a 350-page study that called suicides and deaths linked to high-risk behavior an “Army-wide problem.” But going in Pittard hadn’t planned to focus on the issue. That changed quickly. With suicides mounting at his base—a sprawling complex of 30,000 personnel, larger than Rhode Island—he realized he wanted to make stopping what he saw as preventable deaths a top priority.

He conferred with the brigade commanders. Then, he told his sergeant major, only half in jest, that they should put a moratorium on death at the base. “People laughed,” says Pittard, “but I said, ‘no, seriously, let’s look at the roots and causes and do all we can to make it preventable.’”

His solution had the hallmarks of a commander confronted with a stubborn enemy: decisive action and situational adaptability. Pittard aggressively expanded mental health services at the base. He increased the number of mental health staff, created new social spaces and nighttime services, treatment for substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder. And Pittard made the services available to all soldiers—whether or not there was any reason to believe they were at risk of killing themselves—because he believed everyone was vulnerable to suicide. It was a position that put him at odds with commonly held views in the Army, which tends to regard suicide as something that only a small number of abnormal soldiers are at risk of trying.

His belief was rooted in a personal struggle. He later made public, in a radically un-Army-like moment, something that could have seriously jeopardized a career that some say was destined for the upper echelons of the military: that he had sought mental health care for depression. People who worked at the fort say Pittard’s openness made it easier for soldiers to seek treatment. “I admired him sharing that story,” said Jamie Spanski, a staff sergeant who was stationed at Fort Bliss from 2012 until she left the Army in 2015. “No matter who you are or what rank you are, we’re all just human beings and sometimes you need help.”

And his efforts seemed to work. In 2010, Fort Bliss had 12 suicides, according to published media reports. The next year there were seven. In 2012, when the suicide rate for the Army as a whole peaked at 29.9 deaths per 100,000 people—Fort Bliss had five. It was the lowest suicide rate of any major Army installation in the world. The Defense Department touted Pittard’s accomplishments in news releases and internally; the Pentagon still highlights Fort Bliss’ example as one of the military’s most successful prevention programs.

Experts say the initiatives Pittard implemented at Fort Bliss demonstrate exactly the types of programs required for the Army to turn back its high rate of suicide. But four years after Pittard was transferred, many of the reforms he installed at Fort Bliss have been discontinued, and the base’s suicide rate has climbed again. And the high-ranking officials who pronounced suicide an Army-wide crisis—and who recognized Pittard for his success—haven’t adopted his approach.

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, called Pittard’s services a “model program.” But, she added, “these things have to be continued to be effective.”

Military suicides used to be rare. Throughout the 20th century, the suicide rate among active-duty service members was lower than the population at large. But after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the numbers began to climb. In 2006, for the first time, the Army’s suicide rate, routinely the highest among the branches of the armed services, surpassed that of the national population. By 2010, suicide had become a military crisis. That year, there were 163 suicides in the Army, an 87-percent increase from five years before.

It is a population that is especially vulnerable: Many service members return from combat with some degree of post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury, both of which can contribute to depression and suicidal thoughts. Easy access to guns, which prove fatal much more often than other means of attempting suicide, may exacerbate the problem.

The Army struggled to respond to the surge in suicides. [But obviously it did not struggle very hard at all, since it effectively ignores and then cancels programs that work. – LG]

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Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2017 at 1:57 pm

The problem of corporations controlling Congress: Filing Taxes Could Be Free and Simple. But H&R Block and Intuit Are Still Lobbying Against It.

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Jessica Huseman reports in ProPublica:

Here’s how preparing your taxes could work: You sit down, review a prefilled filing from the government. If it’s accurate, you sign it. If it’s not, you fix it or ignore it altogether and prepare your return yourself. It’s your choice. You might not have to pay for an accountant, or fiddle for hours with complex software. It could all be over in minutes.

It’s already like that in parts of Europe. And it would not be particularly difficult to give U.S. taxpayers the same option. After all, the government already gets earnings information from employers.

But as ProPublica has detailed again and again, Intuit — the makers of TurboTax — and H&R Block have lobbied for years to derail any move toward such a system. And they continued in 2016.

Intuit spent more than $2 million lobbying last year, much of it spent on legislation that would permanently bar the government from offering taxpayers prefilled returns. H&R Block spent $3 million, also directing some of their efforts towards the bill. Among the 60 co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill: then congressman and now Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

The bill, called the Free File Act of 2016, looks on the surface to be consumer-friendly. It makes permanent a public-private partnership in which 13 private tax preparation companies — called the “Free File Alliance” —have offered free online tax filings to lower- and middle-income families. The Free File Alliance include both Intuit and H&R Block.

But the legislation would also permanently bar the IRS from offering its own free alternative.

Intuit has repeatedly warned investors about the prospect of government-prepared returns. “We anticipate that governmental encroachment at both the federal and state levels may present a continued competitive threat to our business for the foreseeable future,” Intuit said in its latest corporate filings.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., offered a bill last year that would have actually allowed the government to start offering prefill tax returns. While Intuit did not lobby against Warren’s bill — presumably because the legislation had little chance of success — tax giant H&R Block did. (H&R Block did not respond to a request for comment.)

Neither Warren’s bill nor the Free File Act made it out of committee.

Very few of those eligible for the industry’s no-charge filing program actually use it, perhaps because the system is confusing and pushes people toward paid products.

While the Free File Alliance says 70 percent of U.S. taxpayers can use the service, less than 2 percent of all individual tax returns were filed through the program in last year, according to a National Taxpayer Advocate’s report to Congress.

“Let’s call the so-called Free File Alliance what it really is — a front for tax prep companies who use it as a gateway to sell expensive products no one would even need if we’d just made it easier for people to pay their taxes,” said Warren in a statement to ProPublica. Warren’s office put out a report on the issue last year that repeatedly cited our coverage.

In an emailed statement the Free File Alliance’s executive director, Tim Hugo, said that the alliance does not automatically push paid products to those that use the Free File program but the taxpayer does “have the option of ‘opting in’ to receive additional information and offers from the tax preparation company they have selected.”

He said that the lack of awareness of the program is “unfortunate,” and placed blame on the IRS. While the tax agency previously had a large budget to advertise the Free File program, “today that budget is $0, making it difficult to reach the general public,” he said.

In response to Warren’s bill, the Free File Alliance warned in press release that allowing the IRS to prep returns would create “a tremendous and potentially harmful conflict of interest for the American people by enshrining the roles of tax preparer, tax collector, tax auditor and tax enforcer in one entity.” . . .

Continue reading.

Congress has as its mission representing and protecting the public. They too frequently fail in that mission.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 March 2017 at 1:02 pm

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