Monday, November 30, 2015

Babykillers Speak Out Against the "Violence" of those who Object to Babykilling

from Buzzfeed
WASHINGTON — This week, abortion rights activists are going to use tough language and modern political tactics to make the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Friday into a political moment they say will put abortion opponents on the defensive after a year that has seen the latter score a number of political victories against legal and accessible abortion.

That means abortion rights supporters using the word “terrorism” to describe what happened in Colorado Springs. That means confronting anti-abortion Republicans and asking them about what activists call “a culture of violence” directed toward abortion providers And that means trying to engage Democratic allies in Washington to do the same — something that prominent Democrats like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz have already done — in the hopes, particularly, of turning a byzantine Senate vote as early as this week into a political opportunity for Democrats on the abortion issue.

The modern abortion rights movement has been infused with a new kind of political skill set born in the netroots left, the activist labor movement, and the tactical innovations of the Obama campaign. Listservs and email chains lit up in the abortion rights community almost immediately, and it didn’t take long for abortion rights activists to put resources on the ground to turn the tragedy into a moment they argue could turn Americans off to some of the more ugly rhetoric among abortion opponents — and put Republican presidential candidates in a tough spot.

The effort began less than 24 hours after the Colorado Springs standoff, which left three dead and a suspect who reportedly said “no more baby parts” after the shooting in police custody.

On Saturday morning in Greenfield, Iowa, activists from NARAL Pro-Choice America confronted Ted Cruz during a campaign stop over the Texas senator’s recent endorsement from Operation Rescue, a fringe anti-abortion group long known for violent rhetoric against abortion providers. Cruz touted the endorsement in a release last week and enthusiastically praised Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue. Newman, an American, is notorious among abortion rights supporters: Last month, Australia banned Newman from entering on a visa after pro–abortion rights politicians questioned writings critics say advocate violence against abortion providers.

Within hours of the shooting, top NARAL officials in Washington were in contact with their activist network to discuss the incident and early reports of a motive connected to Planned Parenthood and abortion. It was decided that Cruz would be asked to answer for his Newman endorsement with a question that referred to the shooting the previous day, drawing a line between the deaths in Colorado and the anti-abortion rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail. Two NARAL activists — one to ask the question, one to take a video of the whole thing — approached Cruz after an event at The Corner, a small café in across from Greenfield’s Adair County Courthouse.

“The Planned Parenthood attacks in Colorado yesterday were very upsetting,” began the activist, an Iowan who a NARAL spokesperson stressed was “not a professional tracker.”

“Does it make you rethink your endorsement by Troy Newman, who advocates murdering abortion care providers?” the activist continued.

Cruz shut the attempted viral moment down quick, telling the activist, “We’ll have a chance to visit with media shortly.” The Cruz campaign referred BuzzFeed News to public statements the candidate made on Colorado in other campaign appearances, including his call for prayers for the victims.

NARAL had been readying a case against Cruz over the Newman endorsement before the shooting, using its research shop to blast out facts on the Operation Rescue president and create a clamor on liberal news sites. And NARAL has been building an infrastructure in Iowa for months, readying a grassroots organization to keep abortion rights in the political conversation ahead of the February caucuses.

The rapid reaction reflects the willingness of NARAL — and others in the abortion rights movement — to lean into politics quickly in a way that abortion rights groups didn’t just a presidential cycle ago.

NARAL is run by Ilyse Hogue, a former top advocate at MoveOn.org, who was specifically selected to restore a pillar of the abortion rights movement and prepare it for the modern political age. As her activists were confronting Cruz in Iowa, Hogue was penning a Facebook post about Newman that was shared quickly and widely among the abortion rights left.

Newman and other anti-abortion leaders quickly condemned the Colorado shooting. On Sunday, Cruz cautioned against drawing conclusions from the Planned Parenthood shooting (and floated as an example the idea that the shooter was a transgender activist). Others have been quicker to define the shooting; former Gov. Mike Huckabee called it “domestic terrorism” that stands against the principles of the anti-abortion movement.

Abortion rights advocates contend those condemnations are a cynical attempt to put distance between Colorado Springs and mainstream anti-abortion rhetoric.

Hogue wrote that Newman was “using Operation Rescue to call for state-sanctioned execution of doctors who serve women — and then crying crocodile tears when someone takes that vision into their own hands.”

NARAL was in the midst of a campaign to push the Obama administration to investigate reported instances of vandalism and attempted arson at abortion provider sites as acts of domestic terrorism when the Colorado Springs shooting happened. On Wednesday, the group planned to deliver a nearly 60,000-signature petition to the Department of Justice calling for that investigation to begin. The petition now features mention of the Colorado Springs shooting and ties it directly to the surreptitiously recorded Planned Parenthood videos — which accuse the organization of selling aborted fetuses’ organs and tissues and include graphic descriptions — that have dogged that group for much of the year.

The word “terrorism” is important, activists told BuzzFeed News. They’re trying to make the case that anti-abortion rhetoric ties directly to abortion clinic vandalism, and, finally, to the Colorado shooting. “Terrorism” signals that the ideology behind the shooting was extreme in nature, activists said, and suggests a network of anti-abortion groups and advocates are helping to fuel violence.

Hogue said she knows a thorough investigation into the Colorado shooting is ongoing, and that details of the shooter and his motivations will continue to come out. But the deaths at a Planned Parenthood clinic are about more than one man’s acts, she told BuzzFeed News in an interview.

“The story is not about this one guy,” she said. “The story is about a really well-funded, really well-connected infrastructure that outlives any one candidate, any one guy, and creates a culture.”

Hogue is not speaking from the fringe of the abortion rights movement. Her line is, increasingly, the line people on the abortion rights side are taking, and next week it will be a core part of Democratic messaging on the Colorado shooting aimed at putting Republicans on their heels.

On Sunday, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz called the Colorado shooting “an act of terrorism” in a statement to reporters and said, “Those running for president and those of us in leadership roles in our country’s major political parties have an obligation to denounce these attacks and clearly say that violence and intimidation in the pursuit of ideology are not acceptable in America.”

A few hours later, Planned Parenthood vice president Dawn Laguens took a swing at her own version of the “crocodile tears” argument Hogue made. “It is offensive and outrageous that some politicians are now claiming this tragedy has nothing to do with the toxic environment they helped create,” she said in a statement. Laguens also directly called out Cruz for the Newman endorsement.

And on Sunday night, Martin O’Malley said in New Hampshire at the state party’s annual JJ dinner that the Planned Parenthood shooting was among shootings motivated by “intolerance, racism, and hate… acts of terror.”

This week promises a potential moment in Washington, where lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill on Monday and Senate Republicans are expected to take up a bill that includes defunding Planned Parenthood soon after.

The measure will require only 51 votes to pass in the upper chamber, because it’s part of the reconciliation package — a complicated legislative tool that doesn’t require a filibuster-proof majority. The politics are pretty much set: President Barack Obama will veto the bill, which also includes repealing parts of the Affordable Care Act. But a debate over Planned Parenthood funding so close to the shooting in Colorado gives Democrats a chance to turn the vote into a political cudgel.

House Democrats will likely call for dismantling the recently formed Planned Parenthood Select Committee — designed to investigate the videos — in the aftermath of the shooting. The Democratic members on the committee have so far been reluctant to make the shooting too political before law enforcement establishes a motive for the shooter, but that could change quickly after House Democrats hold their first weekly closed-door meeting after Thanksgiving break.

On Saturday, California Sen. Barbara Boxer previewed the anti–select-committee messaging in a statement to the press. Along with calling for new gun control laws, Boxer specifically singled out the committee as a political target.

“It is time to stop the demonizing and witch hunts against Planned Parenthood, its staff and patients, and the life-saving health care it provides to millions every day,” Boxer said. “Today, I am calling on Speaker Paul Ryan to disband the GOP’s special committee, which was set up only to continue this witch hunt against Planned Parenthood.”

The driving force behind next week’s political push over the Colorado shooting will be the more experienced, politically capable abortion rights movement. Planned Parenthood — whose rapid response and messaging operations were tested and improved by the debate over the videos — is run by Cecile Richards, who used to run America Votes, the well- (and secretly) funded group that attempted to remake Democratic politics by putting disparate liberal groups in the same room so they could act in a common direction. Overseeing rapid response for Planned Parenthood and coordinating many of the post-Colorado efforts for the group is Anita Dunn, a key member of the Obama campaign brain trust who is now a powerful political consultant. Dunn helped run the campaign that remade Democratic politics with a focus on digital innovation and sharp political messaging.

While some activists bemoaned ongoing message coordination problems in the earliest moments after the Colorado Springs shooting and said the abortion rights movement still lacks the rapid across-the-board response of the modern gun control movement, they say their movement is uniquely poised to at least alter the political conversation around abortion rights in the weeks after the Colorado Springs shooting thanks to a new generation of leaders ready to fight hard on the political battlefields of the moment.

“The pro-choice movement is more networked, more politically savvy,” Hogue said. “This generation grew up in a much more rapid response-based climate.”

Abortion Lobby Back Edwards in Maryland's US Senate Race with $1 Million

from the Baltimore Sun
A powerful political group that helped elect Barbara A. Mikulski to the Senate nearly 30 years ago will spend $1 million in advertising for Rep. Donna F. Edwards' campaign to be her successor, helping to close an advertising gap with her better-funded opponent.

Emily's List, the Washington-based group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, will begin the Baltimore-focused campaign on Tuesday, a week after a poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore showed Rep. Chris Van Hollen with a double-digit lead in the race.

The investment is significant in part because it signals Emily's List plans to be a factor in the contest, helping Edwards raise her profile and compete for television air time. Van Hollen, who has more than 10 times the cash on hand, has already run three broadcast ads in Baltimore.

The group will spend $875,000 on cable and broadcast ads alone, plus another $146,000 on radio and digital spots. The ads will run over six weeks and will target African American women. The ad campaign is paid for through WOMEN VOTE!, the group’s super PAC, which spent more than $12 million in the 2014 election cycle.

"Donna Edwards knows what it’s like to struggle," a narrator says as the camera flashes through pictures of Edwards and her son. "But Donna overcame. She persevered. Then she put that backbone to work for us."

"Powerful interests don’t want Democrat Donna Edwards," the ad concludes. "That's a powerful reason why we do."

Though Emily's List is prohibited from coordinating with the Edwards campaign, the message is consistent with a major theme the congresswoman has been pitching on the campaign trail.

Edwards has stressed her progressive track record, her humble beginnings and also the historic significance of her potential election: She would be the first African American to represent Maryland in the Senate and the second black woman to serve in the chamber nationwide.

Van Hollen, meanwhile, has also touted his progressive bona fides, had picked up endorsements from many of the state's best-known Democrats, and has noted that more of his financial support has come from within the state itself. Earlier this year, Van Hollen pressed Edwards to commit to rejecting outside advertising in the contest, an offer the Edwards campaign refused.

Mikulski announced in March she would step down in 2017 after 30 years in the Senate, setting off a competitive contest for a rare open seat in Maryland.

The Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll -- the most recent in the race -- found that 45 percent of likely Democratic primary voters would support Van Hollen, compared with 31 percent for Edwards. The survey found Van Hollen leading Edwards two-to-one in the Baltimore region. The gap widened when Baltimore's suburban counties were included.

The state’s primary is set for April 26.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Has Corporate America Killed Off Small Business and the American Dream?

from The American Interest
The American financial system is failing small businesses. The Wall Street Journal has some eye-popping statistics:
The biggest banks in the U.S. are making far fewer loans to small businesses than they did a decade ago, ceding market share to alternative lenders that charge significantly higher rates.
Together, 10 of the largest banks issuing small loans to business lent $44.7 billion in 2014, down 38% from a peak of $72.5 billion in 2006, according to an analysis of the banks’ federal regulatory filings.

Through August, banks this year originated 43% of business loans of up to $1 million, down from 58% for all of 2009, according to PayNet Inc., a tracker of small business credit.

This matters much more than most people think.

New business start-ups are the lifeblood of the American economy, now more than ever. Even in normal times, small business is where most of the new jobs come from. It’s small businesses that revitalize neighborhoods, give poor people a chance to get ahead. And ultimately, it’s some of the small businesses of today that will become the innovative big firms of tomorrow.

But these aren’t normal times, and small business matters even more. We live in times when the old drivers of employment like big business, government, and the NGO sector are less and less effective at generating growth and prosperity. The collapse of employment in the manufacturing sector, and the steady pressure on white collar and clerical work driven by automation, means that established firms aren’t generating jobs as quickly. That’s driving wage stagnation and exacerbating inequality. And the new normal of slower job growth also means that many of the conventional career tracks in business and the professions aren’t as reliable a glide path to a comfortable middle class existence as they used to be.

Accelerating the formation of innovative new businesses is the only real way to address this problem in the long run. Millennials and their successors are going to have to create the jobs they want rather than hoping that corporate and government bureaucracies will provide them with lifelong careers.

This isn’t an impossible dream. Today labor costs are relatively low and information and communications technology are creating resources that smart and creative people can use to build new businesses. Harnessing the power of the internet and information technology to improve the lives of people around you is one of the greatest business opportunities of all time. But as a society, we are making it harder, not easier, for these creative new business ideas to emerge.

Part of the problem is that the natural response to the financial meltdown of 2008 has been to regulate against, rather than to regulate for. That is to say, the financial industry has been saddled with heavy costs and enormously complicated compliance regulations. And a greatly engorged bureaucracy in Washington continues to churn out new regulations in a cascading stream. Some regulation was clearly needed in the wake of the meltdown, but many of the consequences have been perverse. The higher regulatory overhead means that big banks (who can afford teams of lawyers, compliance officials and lobbyists) now enjoy even more advantages over small banks than they did before the crash. But the new policies also steer banks away from small loans to struggling new businesses. Those loans cost more to make than big loans to well known companies with long track records; the big banks want big loans to solid customers to help them bear the weight of the new regulatory superstructure the politicians and bureaucrats rigged up.

Again, some of this is inevitable, and the history of Western banking is in part the construction of more sophisticated forms of prudential regulation to allow financial systems to work at a greater scale in more complex environments. But what’s missing is a sense that the health of small business is essential to our economic well being, and that part of the work of effectively regulating the banking system is to ensure that small businesses and startups can access the credit they need under favorable conditions.

In past essays on the history of the American Dream, I’ve pointed out that in the 19th century the American ideal was the owner-occupied, single family farm. A substantial majority of Americans lived on their own farms during much of this time, enabling them to enjoy high living standards and personal independence and security. Throughout the first 125 years of American independence, government policy aimed to make it easier for Americans to achieve and live that dream. The Northwest Ordinance, the Louisiana Purchase, the Homestead Act, the promotion and regulation of railroads, the establishment of land grant colleges that taught scientific farming methods to the sons and daughters of farmers: all these polices (to say nothing of the use of federal troops in the Indian wars that opened land for settlers) were organized around the desire of ordinary Americans to own their own farm, and to escape the poverty and servile dependency of peasant life in Europe. America’s democratic aspirations expressed themselves in government policy aimed at enabling millions of ordinary Americans to live in their own way on their own land.

Late in the 19th century and continuing into the 20th, the advent of the industrial revolution made the family farm obsolete. Mechanized agriculture required larger investments than most single family farms could make, and farm prices fell to levels that depressed rural incomes. For decades American politics was rocked by the consequences of the decline of the family farm and the absence of an alternative version of the American Dream. Populists, socialists and anarchists assailed a rotten system; inequality grew. Many believed that the American system was doomed and that the Dream had vanished forever.

The crisis was resolved by the rise of the manufacturing and services economy of the 20th century, and a new version of the American Dream developed. In the 20th century, the single family home, lifetime employment and guaranteed retirement stood at the center of the American economy, American society and American politics. As is inevitable in a democratic society, government policy once again centered on assisting Americans who wanted to live the dream. From Social Security to the GI Bill and beyond, government policy shifted to meet the new realities. The financial system, with lots of prodding and support from government worked to inaugurate an era of cheap housing, rapid suburban expansion, and infrastructure for automobiles that got workers from their houses to their jobs.

We are now in what appears to be yet another transitional era. The old system works less and less well, but, as in the 1880s and 1890s, we aren’t yet sure what the new version of the Dream will be like.

Over time, we will start to get a clearer vision of what a prosperous information based economy will look like, but one thing is already clear: version 3.0 of the American Dream is going to depend much more on small business. The family owned business, perhaps operating out of the single family home, is likely to play a larger role in the new economy. As the ‘big box’ economy of traditional factory and big businesses continues to shed jobs as it becomes more efficient, more Americans are going to have to make their livings outside the old system. Even if the ‘single family firm’ does not replace the single family farm as the foundation of American national life, family owned businesses will need to play a major role in the information economy that is beginning to emerge.

We will need a credit system that is better at helping small businesses get launched, an educational system that builds entrepreneurial character rather than churning out bureaucratic functionaries and docile factory workers, and regulatory systems that encourage and support rather than discourage and inhibit the formation of new businesses—and new types of businesses.

Forward-thinking politicians, and the think tankers who want to help them, need to put the financial problems of small business at the top of their agenda. Just as the 19th century developed an agenda to help people own farms, and the 20th century developed ways of allowing more people to build homes and get higher education, the 21st century needs to develop regulatory fixes and policy initiatives that help people start and operate small businesses.

It’s a measure of how badly our priorities are out of whack that, as of now, things are headed in the wrong direction. It is easier than ever to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to fund a BA and graduate education program that will leave students with no marketable skills and a lifetime of debt. It was so easy to get home mortgages during the last bubble that flipping Miami condos became a national sport. But when it comes to financing the next wave of American growth and the future of the middle class, our financial system is coming up short.
- Walter Russell Mead, "Getting to the Next American Dream"

Friday, November 27, 2015

GOPe Plots the Nomination...

...I'll get you, Donald Trump!

from The Hill
The Republican establishment is nearing full-blown panic about Donald Trump.

The demise of Trump’s candidacy has been predicted by centrist Republicans and the media alike virtually since the day it began. But there is no empirical evidence at all to suggest it is happening.

Last month, the liberal ThinkProgress collated more than 30 predictions of the business mogul’s imminent demise. One typical example was The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, who discerned “the beginning of the end of Trump” in mid-July, soon after the mogul criticized the Vietnam War record of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Despite all that, Trump has led the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average in a virtually unbroken spell for four months. The only person to briefly wrest the lead away from him, Dr. Ben Carson, appears to be fading. And numerous polls show Trump drawing double the support of his closest establishment-friendly rival, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

Add to all this the fact that Trump’s lead over the rest of the GOP field has expanded since the terrorist attacks in Paris, and it becomes clear why anxiety among his many Republican critics is reaching new heights.

“He has a real shot at this. He is the clear front-runner,” said Ron Bonjean, a consultant and former aide to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.

Adding that “months ago, we all discounted Trump as a candidate,” Bonjean now acknowledged that it seems “safe to assume that he is going to continue with this strong momentum right into Iowa.”

The Iowa caucuses are set for Feb. 1, a little over two months away. Voters tend to pay less attention to politics over the holiday season than at other times, a trend that makes dramatic shifts in the race less likely during that period.

Only one more televised debate will take place before the end of the year, on Dec. 15 in Las Vegas. Beyond that, there will be only one more such clash, in January, four days before the caucuses.

“The media has twisted and turned through a number of different positions where they tried to explain that it was just a fad — the summer of Trump,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “Well, it’s lasted all fall. There is a realization that you are not going to wake up tomorrow and he’s going to vanish.”

Robinson, who is not affiliated with any candidate, was scathing toward those GOP centrists who assert that Trump will be unable to translate his polling support into votes because of a weak ground game.

“That is the wishful thinking of the establishment,” he said. “That is what they tell themselves so they can sleep at night. The truth is, Trump has one of the better ground operations in Iowa. Will he turn out every single person who shows up at his rallies? No. But if he turns out a fraction, he will roll over the field.”

Trump’s critics within the GOP are now coming to believe that an air war — that is, negative TV advertising — is more likely to deliver results than anything else. They note that a $1 million campaign in Iowa by the conservative Club for Growth appeared to put some dent in Trump’s numbers. (It also drew the threat of legal action from the candidate.)

A super-PAC backing the presidential candidacy of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is already targeting the business mogul. On Nov. 20, The Wall Street Journal reported that Liz Mair, a well-known Republican operative, was planning a “guerrilla campaign” against Trump. A memo prepared by Mair’s organization, Trump Card LLC, stated that “in the absence of our efforts, Trump is exceedingly unlikely to implode or be forced out of the race.”

Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP strategist who has agreed to help produce TV ads for Mair’s group if it raises funding, told The Hill, “I expected that the other candidates and campaigns would by now have stepped up to knock down Trump’s numbers, and I was wrong. Unlike Donald Trump, I will admit when I have made an error.”

But Wilson added that capsizing the businessman’s chances at this point would require a significant financial effort.

“It’s going to need a sustained commitment from people who need to understand that if you hand the Republican nomination to Donald Trump, you hand the White House to Hillary Clinton,” he said.

Some experts still contend that Trump will fall of his own accord, or that his current poll ratings will prove deceptive. Statistician Nate Silver, of the FiveThirtyEight website, has argued that the majority of voters only make their decisions much closer to polling time.

Others have cited the 2012 cycle, when several Republican candidates’ stars rose and faded, to suggest that Trump will lose altitude before the first votes are cast.

Silver’s thesis seems to rest on the idea that late-deciding voters will make completely different choices than those who have already tuned in to the process — a supposition that may be true but is unproven for now.

As for 2012, while it is true that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) was leading the RCP average at the equivalent point to now, that was to be a relatively short-lived phenomenon, just as earlier boomlets for candidates such as then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and businessman Herman Cain had proved to be.

In fact, the consistency of Trump’s polling performance this cycle has more in common with the steady showing of eventual 2012 nominee Mitt Romney than anyone else.

Other anti-Trump forces within the GOP hold out hope that as the field winnows, the whole dynamic of the race will shift, with primary voters coalescing around a different option.

But none of that is guaranteed. Trump remains as bullishly confident as ever. And Republican insiders know the hour is getting late.

“If Trump is not your cup of tea, it’s time to bring your own coffee pot out and start brewing something,” said Robinson.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Szeliga Leading in the Maryland Republican Senate Candidate Race

Kathy Szeliga holds a slight edge in the Republican primary race for Senate, as candidates hope to harness the momentum from the party's gubernatorial win last year in replacing retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

The Republicans running for the job have received less attention, largely because they face a steeper climb in the general election in deeply Democratic Maryland. Szeliga, a Baltimore County Republican and the House of Delegates Minority Whip, leads the field with 15 percent of likely GOP voters.

All others are in single digits.

The candidates are competing for the seat left open by Mikulski's retirement in 2017 — a primary race that has been considered among the most competitive in the country. Mikulski, 79, shocked the state's political apparatus in March by announcing she would step down after four decades in Congress.

Republicans are hoping that GOP Gov. Larry Hogan's surprise win last year has cleared a path for others — despite the Democrats' two-to-one advantage in voter registration. Several have declared or are considering a run for the party's nomination.

Szeliga, who announced her candidacy this month, has worked quickly to coalesce the support of the state's Republican powers.

Richard Douglas, a former Pentagon official who ran for the GOP Senate nomination in 2012, trails Szeliga with 9 percent of likely GOP primary voters surveyed. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who is considering a campaign, is supported by 8 percent.

Nearly 6 in 10 Republican voters in Maryland have not yet chosen a candidate, the poll found.

Maryland's primary ballot will include candidates for president, but that won't necessarily mean a boost in turnout.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tearing Down America's Best and Brightest

...has always been the the Left's most effective strategy.

Government Makes More Promises that it Won't Keep to Governor Hogan

from the Baltimore Sun
WASHINGTON -- Refugees from Syria undergo an "extraordinary thorough and comprehensive" screening process that is "multi-layered and intensive" senior officials in the Obama administration wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan in a letter this week.

"We want to emphasize that no one has a right to be resettled in the United States as a refuge," according to the five-page letter, which was obtained Saturday by The Baltimore Sun. "If the expert screener fails to be satisfied…the applicant will not be resettled in the United States."

The letter, the latest effort by the Obama administration to ease concerns about Syrian refugees following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, was signed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. It was dated Friday.

Hogan has joined a group of mostly Republican governors requesting that the federal government halt the resettlement of additional refugees. Hogan asked for resettlements to be stopped until the U.S. government can provide assurances refugees are thoroughly vetted.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford also participated in a phone call Tuesday on the issue with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

Prior to the Paris attacks, the Obama administration had vowed to increase the number of refugees to 10,000 from roughly 2,000 this year -- a response to pressure from relief organizations and others that the U.S. government wasn’t doing enough to help address the crisis.

The president has said he remains committed to that figure, despite legislation approved by the House this week that would require the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take a more active role in screening refugees. That proposal appears unlikely to advance in the Senate.

In the letter, Kerry and Johnson detail the multi-step process refugee applicants must submit to before being considered for resettlement. That process can take as long as two years to complete, and is far more rigorous than those employed in Europe.

"Applicants for refugee admission are screened more carefully than any other type of traveler to the United States," the letter read. "We have tremendous faith in this system's ability to detect, investigate and disrupt terrorist plotting in this country, as it has done repeatedly."

About 70,000 refugees will be resettled in the United States this year. Between 2010 and 2014, Maryland took in 6,700 refugees, with Baltimore taking the largest share.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Maryland Opts Out of Federal Jihadi Protection Program

from the Baltimore Sun
Gov. Larry Hogan asked the Obama administration Tuesday to halt any resettling of refugees from the Syrian civil war in Maryland until it is certain they pose no threat to public safety.

Hogan issued his statement one day after he declined to join more than 20 other Republican governors in taking steps to keep such refugees out of their states. He said Monday he would wait and make a "reasoned and careful" decision.

The governor's statement Tuesday, couched as a request rather than a demand, was more measured in tone than those of many of his GOP peers – some of whom vowed to block any resettlement of refugees in their states.

"As governor of Maryland, the safety and security of Marylanders remains my first priority," Hogan said. "Following the terrorist attacks on Paris just four days ago, and after careful consideration, I am now requesting that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety."

While governors can protest the settlement of refugees in their states, they have little power to block such action. The courts have held that immigration falls under the authority of the federal government, and U.S. law gives the president broad powers to admit refugees.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Baltimore's 300+

from the Baltimore SUn
With Saturday's fatal stabbing of a 27-year-old man in West Baltimore and fatal shooting of a 22-year-old in Westport, the city's annual homicide count passed 300 for the first time since 1999, pushing the city across a deadly threshold once considered a relic of the past.

The latest killings continued a surge of violence — more than a killing per day — that began in late April after Freddie Gray's death and the accompanying unrest.

The spate of violence, along with the city's population decline over time, now has Baltimore poised to hit another sobering milestone: the deadliest year on a per-capita basis. That is an abrupt turnaround from 2011, when city leaders were encouraged by the first drop below 200 homicides since the 1970s.

"Unless we come together as an entire community we are just going to continue to watch this happen," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has found herself waking up in the middle of the night to check her phone for reports of another homicide. "It weighs on my mind every waking minute and it weighs on my mind when I'm asleep."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who was a teenager in Baltimore in the 1990s, said the pace of violence drove him into public service.

"I'm so sick of this," the 31-year-old Scott said at the scene of a recent killing in his Northeast Baltimore district as homicide detectives scoured the block.

"I'm disappointed in all of us in Baltimore ... from leadership on down, that we have allowed ourselves as a city to fall back to the reason why I got into this work — to not allow these children to live through what I lived through as a child," he said.

Gov. Larry Hogan called the spike "atrocious" and a "horrible situation" that must be solved. "Baltimore City is just out of control with respect to the murder rate," Hogan said in a recent WBAL radio appearance.

Shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday, police were called to the 3200 block of W. Baltimore St., where they found the victim suffering from multiple stab wounds. He was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center but died, police said.

The man, who was not identified, had been stabbed around the corner in the first block of N. Abington Ave. before running or walking to Baltimore Street, where he collapsed, police said.

The scene was mostly deserted as dusk fell Saturday. Three children stood behind crime tape and bickered briefly before wandering off. An officer dropped evidence markers at the scene. One marked "H" stood by a pool of blood in the street while the officer took photographs.

The killing was the fifth this year within a block of the intersection of Baltimore and Hilton streets.

The city's 301st homicide of the year followed within a few hours. At about 9:15 p.m., officers went to the 2500 block of Annapolis Road in the Westport neighborhood where they found a 22-year-old man who had been shot in the chest, police said. He died shortly after.

Earlier Saturday, police announced the city's 298th and 299th homicides. Police said 32-year-old Tavon Allen of the 5300 block of Jamestown Court died Friday after being shot Nov. 4 in the first block of N. Bentalou St. in West Baltimore. And a 31-year-old man who was shot in the chest late Friday in the 1200 block of N. Caroline St. in the Oliver neighborhood died at Johns Hopkins Hospital, police said.

Baltimore's 2015 homicide rate currently sits at 47 per 100,000 people, second only to the rate in St. Louis, which has also seen a steep spike in gun violence this year. Total shootings in Baltimore are up nearly 80 percent over the comparable period last year, while other types of crime, including robbery and burglary, have also increased.

Efforts to combat the street crime come as the Department of Justice continues an investigation into allegations of brutality and other issues within the Baltimore Police Department. Meanwhile, the city is bracing for the first of six trials for the police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death; it is scheduled to begin Nov. 30.

Officials have struggled to identify the cause of the spike in homicides. Earlier in the year, police and federal law enforcement officials speculated that the looting of drugs from pharmacies during the April 27 rioting may have played a role by disrupting street markets. But with the violence continuing, police Commissioner Kevin Davis said it now appears there is a widespread perception by criminals that the time is ripe to settle scores.

Questions have also been raised about whether a slowdown by police contributed to the spike, because arrests plummeted in the weeks after the six officers were charged in the Gray case. But police are quick to note that gun seizures have increased.

Davis said that while the rate of killings has quickened, old patterns of violence remain to blame.

"There is no randomness associated with these murders," Davis said of the majority of this year's killings. "They're gang-related, they're retaliatory in nature, and they center around drug disputes. And unfortunately, where there are drugs, there's money; and where there is money, there are guns."

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, through aides, has declined interview requests about the deadly year, citing a judge's gag order in the Gray case. In September, she discounted a connection between the unrest and the spike in gun violence, saying it was a cyclical uptick caused by years of "failed policies."

In a prepared statement last week, Mosby said she was taking a "holistic approach to address the systemic issues that present obstacles in the effective prosecution of crime," in hopes of encouraging more witnesses to come forward and "take a stand against violence."

Meanwhile, the Police Department's once-vaunted homicide unit has closed just 31 percent of this year's cases, which, if it continues, would be one of the lowest marks on record.

At the homicide unit's offices, there is a stark reminder of the problem. Victims' names are listed on a large white board, under the squad of detectives assigned to each killing. In late October, a second board was added to accommodate the swelling caseload.

John Skinner, a Towson University criminology professor who spent more than 20 years in the Baltimore Police Department — including as a second-in-command under former commissioners Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Anthony W. Batts — said the murder rate dropped in previous years as a result of good working relationships among law enforcement leaders and the community. Those bonds, which were already deteriorating, were dealt a major blow in the spring.

"As we emerge from that, we're already in this vicious cycle of retaliatory violence that creates a pattern that is really hard to break," he said. "I don't think the unrest happened arbitrarily. I think it's these breakdowns that were forming for quite some time and there was tremendous pressure."

This year's victims include James Gaylord, a 71-year-old retiree who was one of five people shot in a spray of bullets outside a busy Motor Vehicle Administration office in Northwest Baltimore; Arnesha Bowers, a 16-year-old who was raped by alleged gang members and set on fire in her home in Northeast Baltimore; and Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne, 31, and her 7-year-old son, Kester Browne, who were killed in Southwest Baltimore.

This month, the killing of 24-year-old Kendal Fenwick, a father of three who police believe may have been killed by neighborhood drug dealers after he tried to build a fence to keep them away from his property, made national headlines.

"I just wish it would stop, all the senseless killing. It's too much," said Vonda Best, 58, who watched from the window of her home in late October as her son, Damien, was shot multiple times on a Northeast Baltimore street by a hooded figure standing above him. Days later at his candlelight vigil, someone opened fire and wounded an attendee.

Best, who has lived in Baltimore all her life, said the violence this year has been unbearable. "Even before it happened to my son, I was thinking about it and praying on it," she said.

"They're robbing people of their loved ones, just killing each other," Best said of the young men she believes are responsible for much of the violence. "How can their hearts be so cold? So young, with such cold hearts."

No victim got more attention than No. 88 — Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal injury suffered in the back of a police transport van. His death on April 19 led to weeks of protests, with looting and rioting breaking out the day of his funeral. Mosby stunned many in Baltimore and around the nation when, on May 1, she announced charges ranging from misconduct to second degree murder against the six officers.

Baltimore had seen more than 300 homicides just twice in its history prior to 1990, when it had hundreds of thousands more residents. With crack cocaine fueling violence around the country, the city tallied that many victims every year of the 1990s, peaking at 353 in 1993.

The city's population loss, in large part driven by a sharp decline in blue-collar jobs, deepened. Reducing the number of killings to fewer than 300 homicides became a symbolic goal for a city eager for a turnaround.

Martin O'Malley rode an anti-crime platform to the position of mayor in 1999, and vowed to cut the number of victims to 175. In his first year, the homicide rate fell below 300, to 261. O'Malley and his hand-picked police commissioner, Edward T. Norris, who had helped drive down crime in New York City, celebrated the milestone by sharing a shot of Irish moonshine whiskey.

Arrests soared during that period, and by 2007 city leaders were again fretting about the symbolic milestone of 300, as the homicide count rose. Bealefeld, a veteran police officer, was installed as commissioner by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon in July of that year, and worked to reduce the number of arrests by focusing on guns and targeting violent repeat offenders.

In 2011, the city had 197 homicides, the first time in 40 years that it recorded fewer than 200.

"Everybody was equally focused on the extraction of these very, very violent offenders during that time period," said Skinner, the retired police commander. "You extract enough of those individuals, and it begins to prevent this cycle of retaliation that I think is occurring right now."

Bealefeld stepped down the next year, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed Batts, a reform-minded commissioner from the West Coast. Batts sought to address complaints that police were still too aggressive, while overhauling the agency's structure and approach to fighting crime.

Shootings rose for the first time in six years in 2013, but last year killings were cut in half in West Baltimore, driving a decline an overall.

Through the first four months of 2015, the number of homicides was on par with recent years. Then came the unrest. While international attention was focused on protests and a looted CVS store in West Baltimore, shootings across the city were erupting.

Forty-two people were killed in May, the most in a month since 1990. In July, 45 people were slain.


Rawlings-Blake dismissed Batts in July, citing his leadership as a distraction amid the mounting homicides. Rawlings-Blake later bowed out of the mayoral race.

Last year, the city spent $200,000 to roll out the heralded Ceasefire program in West Baltimore, after Rawlings-Blake personally wooed nationally known criminologist David Kennedy, who had tried to implement the program in the late 1990s but failed. But this year, the Police Department's Western District leads the city in killings and shootings.

As of Nov. 7, homicides there were up 189 percent compared to last year, and nonfatal shootings were up 107 percent.

In late July, police announced they were partnering with federal authorities on an initiative called "B-FED" to collaborate and investigate those behind the violence. In the city's "War Room," where the partners work cases, officials said they had identified 238 "top trigger pullers" in the city, and were aiming to take them off the streets.

Rawlings-Blake said she wants Baltimore residents to know that "we are not giving in to the violence." But she also acknowledged that the city faces an "uphill battle," as criminals enjoy "unfettered access" to guns on city streets and the Police Department faces challenges to closing cases.

"I feel that when we have this list of high-value targets, that we would be able to make more progress," she said.

Scott, who works with the 300 Men March movement to mentor young men and reduce killings, said the focus on the unrest may have created a perception that police were backing off, emboldening criminals to act out.

"We have a perfect storm of bad that is creating a perfect environment for these unfortunate cowardly acts of homicide," he said. "People are losing their lives and we have to figure out how that should be the No. 1 thing we are talking about."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

128+ Murdered in Paris

from the NY Times
SINONE, Iraq — The Islamic State claimed responsibility on Saturday for the catastrophic attacks in the French capital, calling them “the first of the storm” and mocking France as a “capital of prostitution and obscenity,” according to statements released in multiple languages on one of the terror group’s encrypted messaging accounts.

The remarks came in a communiqué published in Arabic, English and French on the Islamic State’s Telegram account and then distributed via their supporters on Twitter, according to a transcript provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist propaganda.

An earlier statement was released but was deemed unlikely to be authentic because of anomalies in the language used, as well as an error in a date provided, according to experts on jihadist propaganda.

The statement was released on the same Telegram channel that was used to claim responsibility for the crash of a Russian jet over the Sinai Peninsula two weeks ago, killing 224 people. As in that case, it made the announcement in multiple languages and audio recordings.

President François Hollande of France said on Saturday that the Islamic State was responsible Analysts said that the nature of the attacks was more in keeping with actions of the Islamic State than with those of Al Qaeda, and the timing and extent of the celebration expressed online by the group’s supporters added weight to the claim.

“Eight brothers, wrapped in explosive belts and armed with machine rifles, targeted sites that were accurately chosen in the heart of the capital of France,” the group said in the statement, “including the Stade de France during the match between the Crusader German and French teams, where the fool of France, François Hollande, was present.”

“Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State,” the statement added, referring to the attacks at the Bataclan concert hall and several districts in Paris.

The style of the attack was in line with the Islamic State’s tactic of indiscriminate killings and goes against Al Qaeda’s guidelines. In a 2013 directive, the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, stated that Qaeda operatives should avoid attacks that could inadvertently cause the death of Muslim civilians and noncombatant women or children.

He argued that targeting markets, for example, was unadvisable because innocent Muslims might accidentally be killed.

Although Qaeda branches have deviated from these guidelines on numerous occasions, their attacks reflect more carefully defined targeting, as was the case in the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in January, when cartoonists were singled out and defined as legitimate targets because of what the group considered to be blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.

A Dutch fighter for Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria commented on the distinction in a series of posts on Twitter.

“Al-Qaeda focuses mostly on political & military targets instead of civilians. That’s why this could be an IS attack,” wrote the fighter, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Saeed Al-Halabi.

In addition to the claim of responsibility, the celebrations by Islamic State supporters online were such that the SITE monitoring group, said it could suggest the Islamic State’s’s involvement.

“The extent of the celebration far exceeded past online rallying by I.S. supporters,” SITE said in an analysis. “The way I.S. supporters have embraced this attack appears much more coordinated at a much earlier stage than massive reactions to past attacks.”

NIMBY's Can Kill Green Projects, Too

from WBOC
CUMBERLAND, Md. (AP) - The Allegany County Board of Zoning Appeals is rejecting an application for a wind farm in western Maryland.

The board voted unanimously Friday to deny an application from Dans Mountain Windforce LLC for variances and a special exception needed for the 17-turbine project.

The project was first proposed in 2001 as a 25-turbine wind farm.

Opponents had said the turbines on Dans Mountain near Cumberland would have adversely affected property values and public health.

The Maryland Public Service Commission has given the developer until the end of next year to start construction.

The project would have been the first wind farm in Allegany County. Three wind farms are operating in neighboring Garrett County.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Socialist Message

Right about the problem, but kills the golden goose to solve it
Even communist philosopher Slavoj Zizek would agree that Totalitarianism is NOT the answer...
...the hegemonic discourse of modernity has two forms of existence in which its inner tension ("contradiction") is externalized: capitalism, its logic of the integrated excess, of the system reproducing itself through constant self-revolutionizing, and the bureaucratic "totalitarianism" conceptualized in different guises as the rule of technology, of instrumental reason, of biopolitics, as the "administered world." How, precisely, do these two aspects relate to each other? We should not succumb to the temptation of reducing capitalism to a mere form of appearance of the more fundamental ontological attitude of technological domination; we should rather insist, in the Marxian mode, that the capitalist logic of integrating the surplus into the functioning of the system is the fundamental fact. Stalinist "totalitarianism" was the capitalist logic of self-propelling productivity liberated from its capitalist form, which is why it failed: Stalinism was the symptom of capitalism. Stalinism involved the matrix of general intellect, of the planned transparency of social life, of total productive mobilization- and its violent purges and paranoia were a kind of a "return of the repressed," the "irrationality" inherent to the project of a totally organized "administered society." This means the two levels, precisely insofar as they are two sides of the same coin, are ultimately incompatible: there is no metalanguage enabling us to translate the logic of domination back into the capitalist reproduction-through-excess, or vice versa.

The key question here concerns the relationship between the two excesses: the economic excess/surplus integrated into the capitalist machine as the force that drives it into permanent self-revolutionizing and the political excess of power-exercise inherent to modern power (the constitutive excess of representation over the represented: the legitimate state power responsible to its subjects is supplemented by the obscene message of unconditional exercise of Power-laws do not really bind me, I can do to you whatever I want, I can treat you as guilty if I decide to, I can destroy you if I say so).
- Slavoj Zizek, "Jacques Lacan's Four Discourses"

Not a Single Ballot Cast, but the Fix is Already In!

from the AP
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hillary Rodham Clinton has locked up public support from half the Democratic Party insiders who get to cast ballots at the party's national convention.

Their backing gives Clinton a commanding advantage over her rivals for the Democratic nomination for president.

Clinton's margin over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is striking.

Not only is it big, but it comes months before primary voters head to the polls.

The Associated Press contacted all 712 people known as superdelegates, and more than 80 percent responded.

They were asked which candidate they plan to support at the convention next summer.

Clinton got endorsements from 359, while Sanders was endorsed by eight. Two superdelegates supported O'Malley, and the rest were uncommitted.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Do You REALLY Believe that the Fed is Considering Raising Rates?

The report from once-uncharted monetary territory: there’s little to be scared of.

Less Than Zero

Now that Sweden and Switzerland have shown that negative benchmark interest rates don’t necessarily result in flights to cash, asset bubbles or banking strains, the global giants of central banking may be more willing to embrace sub-zero borrowing costs the next time their economies slide.

“There’s a very real chance unorthodoxy becomes the new orthodoxy,” said Alan Ruskin, global head of Group-of-10 currency strategy at Deutsche Bank AG in New York.

While financial markets are focused on the Federal Reserve’s looming rate increase, policy makers and economists are already changing their attitude toward negative rates.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi is open to reducing the rate he charges banks to leave money in his coffers overnight further into negative territory. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has also revised his thinking to say the U.K. benchmark could fall below 0.5 percent if needed having previously worried deeper cuts would roil money markets.

Meantime, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said last week that “if circumstances were to change” then “potentially anything, including negative interest rates, would be on the table.” One of her policy-setting colleagues has already advocated them for next year.

Plumbing new depths the next time economies stumble would continue the pattern of the past few decades in which each of the peaks and troughs in rates were more often than not lower than in the previous business cycle.

Back in 1984, Fed Chair Paul Volcker lifted the federal funds rate to 11.75 percent before cutting it to 5.88 percent two years later. By contrast, the last expansion saw the benchmark top out at just 5.75 percent before being cut to near zero.

Reasons for the pattern include the success in squeezing inflation out of economies that had been plagued by double-digit price gains in the early 1980s. The decline in volatility gave officials more room to try to stoke demand and, critics would say, asset bubbles.

A glut of savings also played a part. along with the the argument that the natural rate of interest, the level at which inflation is stable and output at trend, has been in decline for decades.

The aim of negative rates is to spur spending and lending by penalizing savers and banks sitting on cash. It also helps that they tend to weaken currencies.

Sweden’s key rate is already minus 0.35 percent and Switzerland’s is minus 0.75 percent. The ECB’s deposit rate is minus 0.2 percent and may be cut further next month, while Denmark’s is minus 0.75 percent.

Lower Peaks

Central bankers are already signaling when they do lift rates they will do so by less than last time, preserving the trend of lower peaks. The median estimate of Fed policy makers is for the long-run neutral fed funds rate to be 3.5 percent. Carney talks of raising rates in a “limited and gradual” way.

Richard Barwell, an economist at BNP Paribas Asset Management, argues that policy makers will still hope to use regulatory tools more next time their economies are in trouble, reducing the need for monetary stimulus. It’s also premature to say that rates will be lower than in the past, he said.

Ruskin nevertheless holds out the possibility that leading central banks will go negative next time and even that the ECB’s deposit rate may not see positive territory again.

“It’s not even clear you’re going to get zero at the peak of the cycle in Europe,” he said.

“One hopes U.S. rates will be meaningfully positive in the next cycle, but that can’t be taken for granted in Europe.”
I know I'm not convinced.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Jeb Bush Wins the Bob Dole Endorsement!

from NBC News
Jeb Bush picked up a highly-touted endorsement Wednesday. Former U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole announced his support of the former Florida Governor.

Announced on Veteran's Day, Dole will also serve as national veterans chairman for the Bush campaign.

Dole told NBC News that he likes "nearly all" of the candidates, but "we need someone with experience."

"I have determined that Jeb Bush is the most qualified. Jeb has the proven leadership skills and executive experience needed to fix the problems facing our country - from the anemic economy to America's weakened standing among world leaders," Dole further explained in a statement released by the Bush campaign.

Dole has a storied relationship with the Bush family.

He ran against Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, not once but twice, seeking the Republican nomination in 1980 and 1988. In 1996, when he finally won the nod, he ran against Bill Clinton -- the husband of likely 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The 41st president, in a diary entry published in a new biography by Jon Meacham, once called Dole "a son of a bitch." Relations between the two men improved during the elder Bush's presidency.

The former WWII veteran was President George W. Bush's co-chair of the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors.

The endorsement of Dole, who has long been a fixture in Republican politics, is a stark contrast, however, to the younger generation of Republicans who have backed Sen. Marco Rubio, a candidate who has focused his entire campaign around being the next generation of Republican politics.
Wow, the Bob Dole endorsement. Irrelevancy never served power better...

Kathy Szeliga Enters the Maryland Senate Race for Barbara Mikulski's Empty Seat

From the Dagger and Kathy Szeliga for Maryland:
Today, I announced my candidacy to be the next United States Senator from Maryland. We have a paralyzed government incapable of solving even our most basic needs. I for one can no longer standby waiting for those we’ve sent to Washington to solve our problems, because they haven’t. And I’m not naïve enough to think I can just ride into the Senate on a white horse and do it all by myself. It’s going to take a lot of new people who aren’t professional politicians to step up – average citizens with college degrees and others without. Goodness knows, they can’t be any worse than the gang running things now!

Deep in our hearts, most of us – regardless of political preferences – believe in the promise of America and the power of the American Dream. We are agents of change motivated by our love of God, family, state and country. We want to rediscover a way of life as it used to be; when things really did work.

I want to serve in the US Senate to champion those forgotten Americans who are decent, responsible citizens yearning for the opportunity to work hard, pay the bills, raise a family, live a full life and yes, dream again what we seem to be losing – the American dream.

Keeping the People in the Dark in the People's Republic of Maryland

from the Baltimore Sun
Maryland received a D grade on its "report card" for government transparency and accountability issued Monday by a leading watchdog organization.

While the state did not fare well in the grading by the Center for Public Integrity, it had plenty of company in the D range. A tough grader, the center issued only one grade of C (Alaska), two of C-minus (California and Connecticut), and no As or Bs. Eleven states received a grade of F.

Maryland scored 64 out of 100 points, putting it 23rd among the states on the center's transparency scale.

“This report card looks at the fundamental issues of ethics and access to information, transparency, and accountability to the people – it is Government 101,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “While Maryland is making progress on these fronts, there is much more work to be done.”

Maryland received its worst grades in the categories of internal auditing, public access to information, state pension fund management and ethics enforcement -- each rated an F.

The state scored its highest grade, a C-plus for its budget processes. Procurement, lobbying disclosure and electoral oversight earned Cs. Five other categories ranked between C-minus and D-minus.

Bevan-Dangel noted that the low score of Maryland's laws on public information, which the center ranked 41st in the country, did not take into account an extensive reform bill that passed the General Assembly in the spring and took effect Oct. 1.

The center pointed to the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act in Maryland as a case study in how the state's secretive procedures hurt government operations. It noted that contracts for the computer systems that failed when the insurance agency was rolled out in 2013 were awarded without competitive bidding or the customary review.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Another Expensive Feel-Good Regulatory Failure

from the Baltimore Sun
Millions of dollars later, Maryland has officially decided that its 15-year effort to store and catalog the "fingerprints" of thousands of handguns was a failure.

Since 2000, the state required that gun manufacturers fire every handgun to be sold here and send the spent bullet casing to authorities. The idea was to build a database of "ballistic fingerprints" to help solve future crimes.

But the system — plagued by technological problems — never solved a single case. Now the hundreds of thousands of accumulated casings could be sold for scrap.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat whose administration pushed for the database to fulfill a campaign promise. "It's a little unfortunate, in that logic and common sense suggest that it would be a good crime-fighting tool."

The database "was a waste," said Frank Sloane, owner of Pasadena Gun & Pawn in Anne Arundel County. "There's things that they could have done that would have made sense. This didn't make any sense."

In a old fallout shelter beneath Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville, the state has amassed more than 300,000 bullet casings, one from each new handgun sold here since the law took effect. They fill three cavernous rooms secured by a common combination lock.

Each casing was meticulously stamped with a bar code, sealed in its own envelope and filed in boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. Forensic scientists photographed the casings in hopes the system would someday identify the owner of a gun fired at a crime scene. The system cost an estimated $5 million to set up and operate over the years.

But the computerized system designed to sort and match the images never worked as envisioned. In 2007, the state stopped bothering to take the photographs, though hundreds of thousands more casings kept piling up in the fallout shelter.

The ballistic fingerprinting law was repealed effective Oct. 1, ending the requirement that spent casings be sent in. The General Assembly, in repealing the law, authorized the state police to sell off its inventory for scrap.

The science behind the system is valid. The scratches etched onto a casing can be matched to the gun that fired it, mapping a so-called fingerprint to the gun. The Maryland system was an expanded version of the successful but more limited federal National Integrated Ballistic Information Network started in the 1990s. It catalogs casings only from crime scenes and from guns confiscated by police. Maryland's unwieldy version collected the fingerprint from every single handgun sold in the state.

Worse, the system Maryland bought created images so imprecise that when an investigator submitted a crime scene casing, the database software would sometimes spit out hundreds of matches. The state sued the manufacturer in 2009 for $1.9 million, settling three years later for $390,000.

Zach Suber, a supervisor and forensic scientist for the Maryland State Police, says the process "could have been tweaked" to make it more effective. It's still possible, Suber says, that the collection of casings could have greater forensic value in the future.

That's because, on average, most guns used in crimes were bought nearly 15 years prior, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. By the time they end up on the street, they've often been stolen and resold illegally.

So the oldest ballistic fingerprints in Maryland's collection are just now reaching the age where the guns they identify may be falling into a criminal's hands, Suber said. He said the state police have no immediate plans to turn the collection into scrap metal, as the legislature suggested.

New York followed Maryland's lead and created a similar database, but that state pulled funding for the project in 2012 when it, too, had no success.

By then, it had been clear for years that the efforts weren't working. In 2008, the Department of Justice asked the National Research Council to study the value in creating a national ballistics database with fingerprints from every gun. Researchers, after reviewing the Maryland and New York programs, concluded that such an endeavor would be impractical and a waste of money.

There have been 26 instances in the past 15 years in which Maryland's cache of spent casings helped investigators in some fashion, but in each case investigators already knew the gun for which they were looking, state police said.

The first case came in 2004, when Prince George's County investigators thought the gun used in a homicide outside a Popeye's restaurant in Oxon Hill was bought by the suspect's girlfriend a month earlier.

Investigators pulled the casing from the gun the girlfriend purchased and matched it to the crime scene. But the case against Robert Garner relied more on eyewitness statements and other circumstantial evidence that put him at the scene of the shooting. Garner, who was ultimately convicted, had already been arrested and charged by the time investigators tapped into the ballistic fingerprinting database, according to state police records.

Just last week, Suber said, investigators on three different cases asked for help from the stash of spent casings. Montgomery County detectives thought a particular stolen gun might have been used in a homicide, even though they hadn't found the gun yet. In Baltimore, detectives looking into two separate murders asked for similar help.

The results aren't in, but in all three cases, investigators already suspected that a certain gun was used. Lawmakers had hoped the database would work the other way, pointing the way to a gun used in a crime.

By 2004, when Maryland officials calculated an ineffective system had already cost the state $2.4 million, some legislators tried unsuccessfully to repeal the ballistic fingerprinting law. Repeal efforts in 2005 and 2014 also failed.

"It's probably the best bill I've had," said Sen. Ed Reilly, a Republican from Anne Arundel County, who sponsored the bill that passed this year. He said prior efforts failed because a key committee chairman would not bring it to a vote.

That chairman, former state Sen. Brian Frosh, a Democrat, is now Maryland's attorney general. His successor as chairman, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat, let the bill come up for a vote.

Frosh said he was open to repealing the law several times during his tenure, most recently in 2013, but he said police argued that the system still had potential.

"It's fair to look at it after 15 years and see how effective it was," Frosh said. "I don't have a problem abandoning it."

In the fall of 2014, state police issued a report that showed the program had solved no crimes and was costing more than ever. A sweeping gun-control law passed in 2013 — and the surge in gun sales that resulted — created a backlog and state police had to hire eight people just to organize the nearly 60,000 bullet casings sent in that year. In the report, police again suggested the program had merit.

But by the time repealing it came up for a hearing again, Zirkin said, no one defended the program.

"If there was any evidence whatsoever — any evidence — that this was helpful in solving crimes, we wouldn't have touched it," Zirkin said. "The police came in and said it was useless. No one contradicted that."

The state spent several hundred thousand dollars a year managing the bullet casings, officials say, which would put the lifetime cost of the project at roughly $5 million.

For more than a decade, meanwhile, the state police have fielded complaints that manufacturers were needlessly firing off rounds from brand-new guns.

"It drove the gun collectors nuts," Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said. "It's like a car. As soon as you drive it off the lot, it loses value."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Eco-Justice Warriors Gone Wild!

from the Wall Street Journal
At 6:30 a.m. on April 24, 2012, federal agents, wearing Kevlar vests and with guns drawn, raided my home in Katy, Texas, with a warrant for my arrest. This was as shocking to me as it would be for any normal, law-abiding citizen.

I’m not a drug dealer, violent criminal or money launderer. I’m an engineer. In 2010 I helped stop the BP oil spill after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig left a damaged well spilling crude directly into the Gulf of Mexico.

On the morning of the raid I left early for work, so I was not at home when it occurred. My wife was alone and had to deal with the shock of a squad of FBI agents ripping through our home. We’ve seen it a hundred times on “Law and Order.” They raced through our house and badgered and interrogated my wife.

Later that morning, after a frantic call from my wife, I drove to a local police station to surrender. As bad as that day was, I had no idea what was about to happen. I didn’t realize I had become a central focus of the Justice Department’s investigation into the BP oil spill. For the next three and a half years, a Justice task force was dedicated to putting me in jail.

What had I done to merit this? I had worked as hard as I knew how for nearly 90 straight days to help stop the Deepwater Horizon spill. Plugging the well, as fast as possible, was the focus of my life.

Looking back now at the Justice Department’s conduct, I realize that I made one egregious error: I naïvely believed that the task force simply wanted the truth. I was certain that once it had the full record of my actions, everything would be fine, and the trauma my family and I had gone through would end.

I was in for a rude awakening. Facts were not what the investigators wanted. They wanted a conviction. They wanted to prove to the public that their lengthy, expensive investigation was successful. And success meant conviction. I had banked on the truth saving me, but the truth was not enough.

I grew up fishing and duck hunting with my father in the marshes and coastal waters of Louisiana. I knew from the time I was in the eighth grade that I wanted to be an engineer. So when I was asked to help stop the spill, I was honored and deeply motivated. This was what I had prepared my whole life to do. I believed I could make a difference for my industry and home state.

And we succeeded. Lost in the aftermath of recriminations and lawsuits is the fact that the team charged with stopping the biggest offshore oil disaster in history did its job as fast and effectively as it knew how. This doesn’t in any way minimize the tragedy or the mistakes that allowed the spill to happen.

Nearly two years after the successful capping of the well, I was charged in May 2012 with two felony counts of obstruction of justice—potentially exposing me to up to 40 years in federal prison. My only previous exposure to the judicial system had been a speeding ticket. I didn’t even know what a grand jury was.

My case centered on the fact that I had deleted from my iPhone two extended text-message conversations, one of which was almost entirely personal; the other included personal texts as well as material related to our efforts to kill the well. I acknowledged from day one that I had deleted the texts. Any information related to our work, including flow-rate simulations, was fully addressed in the thousands of emails and documents I gave investigators. I was proud of my work, and I wanted anyone who was interested to have the full record of everything I did. I turned over more than 10,000 records, including files, memos and emails.

With the help of a forensic expert, I succeeded in recovering nearly all of the deleted text messages. I then voluntarily gave them to the Justice Department in September 2011, long before the indictment was returned. I certainly had meant no harm and thought that would be the end of it. I was wrong.

More challenges awaited. In spring 2013 my defense team discovered that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence supporting my innocence. All three members of the Justice Department task force who had pursued me so relentlessly then withdrew from the case. So we started over in August 2013 with a new Justice Department team.

In late 2013 the case finally went to trial and I was acquitted on one charge of obstruction of justice. Although I was found guilty on the other charge, my attorneys and I soon learned that the jury forewoman had committed misconduct by introducing into the jury deliberations prejudicial, extraneous information overheard in a courthouse elevator about other BP cases. Based on this misconduct, a federal judge threw out the corrupted verdict and an appeals court affirmed that the verdict could not stand. The verdict was set aside and a new trial was ordered.

The case continued to grind on for two more years. Then to my surprise this fall, on the eve of my new trial, prosecutors offered a way to end the madness. They would drop all felony charges and acknowledge that I was not guilty of obstruction of justice. I would not pay a dollar in fines or serve a day in jail. I would plead guilty to a minor misdemeanor for deleting a set of text messages without BP’s permission—something I had acknowledged doing from the very beginning.

My initial instinct was to decline the offer. As minor as the misdemeanor charge may be, it is dispiriting that I should have to accept anything other than an apology. I did my job with honor and professionalism. I served the public’s best interests. For this, I was hounded for four years and threatened with up to four decades in a federal penitentiary. I agreed to this resolution on Friday to put this matter behind me—to protect myself and my family from any further entanglement with the criminal-justice system.

The dangers of a misguided, out-of-control Justice Department task force go far beyond my case. My life was turned upside down, but I will recover. What worries me more is the chilling impact this type of government overreach could have on first responders to future disasters. Will they rush in to help as I did? Or will they decline to get involved for fear of prosecution years later? If they do engage, will they spend all of their energy trying to solve the problem? Or will they be looking over their shoulders and building a record to protect themselves for the day the Justice Department comes calling?

The Persecution of the Warmists Begins...

William Holden Hunt, "The Scapegoat"

from the Wall Street Journal
Sheldon Whitehouse got his man. The Rhode Island Senator has been lobbying for prosecutions of oil and gas companies over climate change, and New York Attorney General and progressive activist Eric Schneiderman has now obliged by opening a subpoena assault on Exxon Mobil. This marks a dangerous new escalation of the left’s attempt to stamp out all disagreement on global-warming science and policy.

Progressives have been losing the political debate over climate change, failing to pass cap and trade even when Democrats had a supermajority in Congress. So they have turned to the force of the state through President Obama’s executive diktats and now with the threat of prosecution. This assault won’t stop with Exxon. Climate change is the new religion on the left, and progressives are going to treat heretics like Cromwell did Catholics.

We mention Mr. Whitehouse because he has been the lead Cromwell in calling for the use of the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute, a law created to prosecute the mafia, to bring civil cases against companies that fund climate research of which he disapproves. After we called him out in a recent editorial, Mr. Whitehouse denounced us on the Senate floor and compared everyone who disagrees with him to tobacco companies.

The tobacco analogy is instructive, though not in the way Mr. Whitehouse intends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. The harm from tobacco is manifest and has been for decades. These columns have always acknowledged this reality, albeit that it’s also a legal product that individuals can choose to use at their own risk.

When government in the 1990s forced tobacco companies to pay for the Medicaid costs of smoking-related diseases, the result was to make politicians business partners with the Marlboro Man in steering hundreds of billions of dollars in smoking revenues to federal and state coffers. Mr. Whitehouse may covet a similar revenue gusher in the oil patch.

But regarding climate change, there isn’t a single death anywhere in the world that can be proven to result from an increase in global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels, never mind fuels marketed specifically by Exxon. If human use of fossil fuels is responsible for deaths, then prosecutors should go after Al Gore for flying private jets and Mr. Obama for taking credit for the shale-drilling boom. Even the corrupt American tort system still requires some evidence of harm and specific cause.

This may explain why we’re told that Mr. Schneiderman doesn’t see how he can prove harm from fossil fuels. So instead of RICO he appears to be focused on the Martin Act, the appalling New York state law enacted in 1921 to prosecute stock-sale boiler rooms. The Martin Act doesn’t require prosecutors to prove intent to defraud, which is why it was a favorite tool of the Empire State’s disgraced former AG Eliot Spitzer.

The law also doesn’t require the AG to prove that any particular Exxon investor was harmed and he doesn’t need probable cause to commence an investigation. So Mr. Schneiderman seems to be searching for anything from the Exxon files to suggest the company knew more than it was telling investors about the risks of climate change. He’s demanding Exxon’s documents on climate research from 1977 to 2015, including how the research was used in business projections, how it was described to investors and the public, and how the company communicated on this topic with outside groups such as trade associations.

The Schneiderman investigation follows recent reports in the progressive website Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times suggesting that Exxon scientists have known for years that doom is at hand but have not shared this information with the public. The press reports selectively quote from internal Exxon documents to make their case. Exxon has responded by posting quoted documents in their entirety on its website to allow the public to judge.

For example, the L.A. Times characterized an Exxon employee’s presentation to the board in 1989 as reporting that “scientists generally agreed gases released by burning fossil fuels could raise global temperatures significantly.” But the newspaper didn’t quote the part where the Exxon employee noted, “In spite of the rush by participants in the greenhouse debate to declare that the science has demonstrated the existence” of an increase in the natural greenhouse effect due to human activities, “I do not believe such is the case.”

Even with the fearsome power of the Martin Act, this investigation appears built for media consumption more than courtroom success. There are no “facts” about the eventual extent and impact of climate change that Exxon or anyone else can hide, because inside or outside the company there are only estimates based largely on computer models.

And if the Exxon files reveal various competing conjectures, even in New York it still isn’t illegal to conduct scientific research. Exxon says its scientists have published more than 50 papers on climate-related research in peer-reviewed publications. Exxon has also been explicit in its financial disclosures that the politics of climate change poses potential risks to investors.

By the way, in 2013 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reduced the lower end of its forecasted range of global temperature increases due to carbon emissions. Will Mr. Schneiderman subpoena the U.N. to find out when officials first learned that climate change might not be as dramatic as they expected?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Let the Red Ink Flow Double-Fast!

from Investors Business Daily
$18,532,338,091,711.00: That was the national debt late Thursday. The feds couldn't wait to start bingeing once Congress lifted the debt ceiling and canceled spending caps. A week earlier, the debt stood at roughly $18.1 trillion. What happened?

Economist David Malpass of Encima Global was the first to alert us to the sudden surge in borrowing. On Tuesday, the national debt skyrocketed by $339.1 billion. In one day! It's the most borrowing in one day for all of American history, according to USA Today.

It came just 24 hours after President Obama signed into law the suspension of the debt limit. No wonder Wall Street celebrated the budget-busting deal — $339 billion is a lot of money in fees for selling government bonds.

The borrowing blitz may also help explain why the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury hit a five-year high on Friday. That, of course, means that the cost of financing our debt just got more expensive. Interest on the debt is becoming one of the most expensive line items in our federal budget.

Most of this one-day borrowing came from the delay in issuing new debt in order to stay under the old debt ceiling. So once the cork was popped off, the pent-up borrowing shot up.

It's also important to understand that Congress didn't just raise the debt ceiling, which is bad enough. The new law allows unlimited Treasury borrowing for the next 18 months "as necessary to fund a government commitment." In other words, a credit card without limits.

This means that we are operating for the next 18 months or so with no debt ceiling at all. A Republican Congress has given Obama unlimited borrowing authority. The sad fact is that we now have not one, but two big-spending parties in Washington.

Meanwhile, Obama keeps celebrating how his policies have caused the deficit to tumble. Really?

Federal spending is now expected to rise by $500 billion in two years — 2015 and 2016. It now looks as though Obama policies will have caused the debt to nearly double to just under $20 trillion in his eight years in office. The average family's share of this debt bomb is closing in on $225,000.

And to think Obama once called George W. Bush America's most fiscally irresponsible president.