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“Five Days Of Togetherness”: Congress’ Holiday To-Do List Will Never Be Finished

The House of Representatives is back in session this week and facing a laundry list of issues that were not dealt with in the first 11 months of the year. The House plans to be in session for two weeks, sending members home for the rest of the year on Friday, Dec. 13. Friday the 13th; that seems like a bad omen. And it may, indeed, be a very unlucky day for the nation if the House really does adjourn for the year.

The Senate, on the other hand, is not back in session until Dec. 9 and plans to stay in town until Dec. 20. For everyone keeping track, that means the two chambers will only be in town at the same time for five “working” days.

If the Congress had been doing its job all year, this scheduling mismatch might not be such a problem. But it hasn’t. Not a single regular appropriations bill funding a government department or agency for the coming fiscal year has passed the Senate. The House has passed four of 12 required spending bills. Even if there was no other business to do, Congress could not complete the remaining work to fund government for the rest of fiscal year 2014 in a single week of “togetherness” in Washington.

And there is other business to do. The conference of the House and Senate Budget Committees, the result of the deal that ended the government shutdown, has apparently made progress in the last week, but hopes are not high for any real solution to the long-term budget problems facing the nation. A narrow agreement to set spending limits that will replace sequestration with other revenue or cuts for the next two years may be better than nothing … or it may not. The devil is always in the details and we don’t know the details yet. The deadline for those negotiations to conclude is also Friday the 13th, but that deadline has no real teeth since the current continuing resolution to keep the government funded doesn’t expire until Jan. 15 of next year.

The bill setting policy for the Department of Defense, a bill that has been successfully passed and signed into law every year for more than 50 years, has not been passed by the Senate. The House finished its work in June. This bill was on the Senate floor when Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., brought up the resolution that finally granted the Senate majority the so-called “nuclear option,” changing Senate procedure to allow most executive branch and judicial nominations to be resolved with a simple majority vote.

And speaking of confirmations, that brings up another deadline. The Senate needs to confirm a new chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System by Jan. 31, 2014, the expiration of Chairman Ben Bernanke’s term.

But that’s not all Congress has on its “must pass” list. The current farm bill extension expired on Sept. 30, but that doesn’t have much impact. Nutrition programs continue, crop insurance never expires. But on Jan. 1, taxpayers meet the dreaded “dairy cliff.” This is when the administration, because of 60-year old laws aggies refuse to repeal, will have to take us back to 1950s era dairy policy and guarantee milk producers artificially high prices resulting in as much as $8 per gallon milk on a grocery store shelf near you. (Of course, another alternative is that Congress could simply repeal the outdated law and allow the market to set milk prices. But we know that is too logical of an action for this Congress to take).

The fiscal cliff deal made a permanent fix for the encroaching alternative minimum tax, but another hardy perennial, the Medicare doctor payment fix, was left out. This would reduce the payments to doctors under Medicare. While it was adopted as a budget control measure, it’s been legislatively “fixed” each year. That issue looms.

Also, there’s the tax extenders package. That’s the cat and dog mix of various special interest tax breaks benefitting everyone from NASCAR track owners to liquor distillers that gets tacked on to moving pieces of legislation every year. Except this year there doesn’t seem to be moving legislation to hitch the caboose to.

Remember, the House and the Senate currently plan to be together in Washington for only five days in December. Perhaps they will have a burst of efficiency and effectiveness by Dec. 20, but I’m not holding my breath.

 

By: Ryan Alexander, U. S. News and World Report, December 3, 2013

December 9, 2013 Posted by | Congress | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Tortured Logic Of Enhanced Interrogation

Did torture work? This is the question everyone is asking after Osama bin Laden’s death and the revelation that his fate was sealed by the identification of a courier whose nom de guerre emerged from the interrogation of top al Qaeda operatives who were known to have been subjected to waterboarding and similar techniques. “Did brutal interrogations produce the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?” a May 3 New York Timesstory asked.

This is hardly the first time we’ve had this debate. In 2006, my team of interrogators in Iraq located local al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by identifying and following one of his spiritual advisors, Abu Abd al-Rahman. Eric Maddox, a U.S. Army interrogator, found Saddam Husseinby similar means, identifying his former bodyguards. It’s these little pieces of information that form the mosaic that gradually leads to a breakthrough. But how best to get those little pieces?

Current and former U.S. officials and their supporters have been quick to argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” and waterboarding led to the identification of the courier’s alias, which started U.S. intelligence down the road to bin Laden. The day after the al Qaeda leader’s death was announced, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the House Homeland Security Committee chair, told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that “For those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information [from waterboarding] that directly led us to bin Laden.” John Yoo, the former U.S. Justice Department official who drafted the George W. Bush administration’s legal rationales for officially sanctioned torture, repeated the claim and praised“Bush’s interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week’s actionable intelligence.” The torture bandwagon has started to kick into high gear. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In fact, the information about the existence of a courier working for bin Laden was provided by several detainees, not just waterboarded al Qaeda operatives Kalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi — we had one detainee in Iraq who provided information about a courier in 2006. The key pieces of information, however, were the courier’s real name and location. His family name was first uncovered by CIA assets in Pakistan through other sources. The NSA subsequently figured out his full real name and location from an intercepted phone call. Waterboarding had nothing to do with it.

Moreover, common sense dictates that all high-ranking leaders have couriers — and their nicknames do little to lead us to them. This is because many members of al Qaeda change names or take on a nom de guerre after joining for both operational security and cultural reasons. The names are often historically relevant figures in the history of Islam, like the Prophet Mohamed’s first follower, Abu Bakr. Think of it as the equivalent of a boxer taking on a nickname like “The Bruiser.”

Understanding these cultural nuances is just one critical skill interrogators must have to be effective. The other is an understanding of the social science behind interrogations, which tells us that torture has an extremely negative effect on memory. An interrogator needs timely and accurate intelligence information, not just made-up babble.

What torture has proven is exactly what experienced interrogators have said all along: First, when tortured, detainees will give only the minimum amount of information necessary to stop the pain. No interrogator should ever be hoping to extract the least amount of information. Second, under coercion, detainees give misleading information that wastes time and resources — a false nickname, for example. Finally, it’s impossible to know what information the detainee would have disclosed under non-coercive interrogations.

But to understand the question “Does torture work?” one must also define “work.” If we include all the long-term negative consequences of torture, that answer becomes very clear. Those consequences include the fact that torture handed al Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool, a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense’s interrogators in Iraq who questioned foreign fighters about why they had come there to fight. (I have first-hand knowledge of this information because I oversaw many of these interrogations and was briefed on the aggregate results.) In addition, future detainees will be unwilling to cooperate from the onset of an interrogation because they view all Americans as torturers. I heard this repeatedly in Iraq, where some detainees accused us of being the same as the guards at Abu Ghraib.

The more you think about, the less sense torture makes. U.S. allies will become unwilling to conduct joint operations if they are concerned about how detainees will be treated in U.S. custody (an argument made by the 9/11 Commission, among others). And future enemies will use our actions as justification to torture American captives. Torture also lowers our ethical standards to those of our enemies, an ugly shift that spreads like a virus throughout the Armed Services; witness the abuses of Abu Ghraib or the recent murders of civilians in Afghanistan.

Most importantly, we should be talking about the morality of torture, not its efficacy. When the U.S. infantry becomes bogged down in a tough battle, they don’t turn to chemical weapons even though they are extremely effective. The reason they don’t is because such weapons are illegal and immoral.

During the Revolutionary War, one top general made the point that torture was inconsistent with the fundamental beliefs of our founding fathers. “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to insure any [prisoner] … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require,” he wrote to his troops in the Northern Expeditionary Force in the first year of the war. The general in question was George Washington. There’s a reason we pledge to believe in “liberty and justice for all” and not “liberty and security for all”: It’s because we place our values and principles higher than we place our security. When we cease to do so, we forfeit our right to be called Americans.

We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. American interrogators safely guided us through World War II without the use of torture, fighting an enemy and interrogating prisoners every bit as brutal and dedicated as the members of al Qaeda. Our interrogators continue to prove time and time again that they are smart enough to outwit al Qaeda’s best and brightest. No one should ever doubt that we have the mental and ethical fortitude to win this war — and to do it without lowering ourselves to the level of our foes.

By: Matthew Alexander, Foreign Policy, May 4, 2011

May 6, 2011 Posted by | 911, Democracy, Foreign Policy, GITMO, Government, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Ideology, Middle East, Military Intervention, National Security, Neo-Cons, Pentagon, Politics, President Obama, Right Wing, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“I’m Not A Politician So Let Me Be Perfectly Clear”: Raise America’s Taxes!

President Obama in his speech on Wednesday confronted a topic that is harder to address seriously in public than sex or flatulence: America needs higher taxes.

That ugly truth looms over today’s budget battles, but politicians have mostly preferred to run from reality. Mr. Obama’s speech was excellent not only for its content but also because he didn’t insult our intelligence.

There is no single reason for today’s budget mess, but it’s worth remembering that the last time our budget was in the black was in the Clinton administration. That’s a broad hint that one sensible way to overcome our difficulties would be to revert to tax rates more or less as they were under President Clinton. That single step would solve three-quarters of the deficit for the next five years or so.

Paradoxically, nothing makes the need for a tax increase more clear than the Republican budget proposal crafted by Representative Paul Ryan. The Republicans propose slashing spending far more than the public would probably accept — even dismantling Medicare — and rely on economic assumptions that are not merely rosy, but preposterous.

Yet even so, the Republican plan shows continuing budget deficits until the 2030s. In short, we can’t plausibly slash our way back to solid fiscal ground. We need more revenue.

Kudos to Mr. Obama for boldly stating that truth in his speech — even if he did focus only on taxes for the very wealthiest. I also thought he was right to say that we need spending cuts — including in our defense budget. Mr. Obama didn’t say so, but the United States accounts for almost as much military spending as the entire rest of the world put together.

As I see it, there are three fallacies common in today’s budget discussions:

 • Republicans are the party of responsible financial stewardship, struggling to put America on a sound footing.

 In truth, both parties have been wildly irresponsible, but in cycles. Democrats were more irresponsible in the 1960s, the two parties both seemed care-free in the ’70s and ’80s, and since then the Republicans have been staggeringly reckless.

After the Clinton administration began paying down America’s debt, Republicans passed the Bush tax cuts, waded into a trillion-dollar war in Iraq, and approved an unfunded prescription medicine benefit — all by borrowing from China. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney scoffed that “deficits don’t matter.”

This borrow-and-spend Republican history makes it galling when Republicans now assert that deficits are the only thing that matter — and call for drastic spending cuts, two-thirds of which would harm low-income and moderate-income Americans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To pay for tax cuts heaped largely on the wealthiest Americans, Republicans in effect would gut Medicare and slash jobs programs, family planning and college scholarships. Instead of spreading opportunity, federal policy would cap it.

 • Low tax rates are essential to create incentives for economic growth: a tax increase would stifle the economy.

 It’s true that, in general, higher taxes tend to reduce incentives. But this seems a weak effect, often overwhelmed by other factors.

Were Americans really lazier in the 1950s, when marginal tax rates peaked at more than 90 percent? Are people in high-tax states like Massachusetts more lackadaisical than folks in a state like Florida that has no personal income tax at all?

Tax increases can also send a message of prudence that stimulates economic growth. The Clinton tax increase of 1993 was followed by a golden period of high growth, while the Bush tax cuts were followed by an anemic economy.

 • We can’t afford Medicare.

 It’s true that America faces a basic problem with rapidly rising health care costs. But the Republican plan does nothing serious to address health care spending, other than stop paying bills. Indeed, Medicare is cheaper to administer than private health insurance (2 percent to 6 percent administrative costs, depending on who does the math, compared with about 12 percent for private plans). So the Republican plan might add to health care spending rather than curb it.

The real challenge is to control health care inflation. Nobody is certain how to do that, but the Obama health care law is testing some plausible ideas. These include rigorous research on which procedures work and which don’t. Why pay for surgery on enlarged prostates if certain kinds of patients turn out to be better with no treatment at all?

Ever since Walter Mondale publicly committed hara-kiri in 1984 by telling voters that he would raise their taxes, politicians have run from fiscal reality. As baby boomers age and require Social Security and Medicare, escapism will no longer suffice. We need to have a frank national discussion of painful steps ahead, and since I’m not a politician, let me be perfectly clear: raise my taxes!

By: Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, April 13, 2011 

April 16, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Governors, Health Care Costs, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Medicare, Middle Class, Pentagon, Politics, President Obama, Rep Paul Ryan, Republicans, Tax Increases, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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