Some States Battle Obama On Climate Change; Others Try To Address It

Some States Battle Obama On Climate Change; Others Try To Address It

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

NEWPORT, R.I. — In statehouses around the country, the battle is heating up to stop the climate change agenda of President Barack Obama.

But here in the Ocean State, Rhode Island state leaders are not pushing back against the president. They’re going even further than he has.

Whether addressing rising waters that can damage historically significant homes in Newport or reducing the amount of carbon pollution power plants pump into the air, officials in Rhode Island have decided they must act, whatever the feds might do.

Indeed, the debate in Washington may have devolved into a typical Beltway scrum about giving the president what he wants or asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stop him. But in places such as the state capitol in Providence, R.I., and Olympia, Wash., and Sacramento, Calif., state officials already are deploying strategies that could slow some of the impact of climate change.

“These threats are real to us — 21 municipalities out of 39 are coastal,” said Elizabeth Stone, who coordinates climate change policy for Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management. “Look at our coastline if we have one or three or five feet of sea-level rise by the end of this century — it’s quite drastic.”

The latest flash point is over the president’s push to reduce carbon pollution. On Oct. 23, the White House formally published its Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions. To reach mandated targets, states can work alone or with neighbors, modifying their mix of coal, natural gas and renewable energy. The goal: Cut power-sector carbon pollution by 32 percent from 2005 levels.

That same day, officials from 24 state governments pounced.

In a lawsuit before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the state officials contend Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has “vastly overstepped its authority” by “requiring the states to take part in this unlawful regime” that will “require massive and immediate efforts by state energy and environmental regulators.”

Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general and a leader of the state coalition, said he’s focused on the legality of the EPA’s action — not the broader issue of climate change.

“If this is an issue that is going to advance in the future, it should be undertaken by Congress — and we obviously haven’t seen that,” he said in an interview.

“In West Virginia, we are mindful that the consequences of this illegal action are severe,” he added. “There will be lost jobs, the potential for a real spike in electricity prices — and it may potentially put the reliability of the power grid at risk. But all of that is secondary to the core issue: Does the administration have legal authority to advance one of the most sweeping and radical regulations of our lifetime?”

In North Carolina, the Department of Environmental Quality has joined the lawsuit. Secretary Donald van der Vaart, appointed by a Republican governor, said in an interview the rule is illegal and that it will increase costs and cede control of the state’s power-generating system.

“The real question is, ‘Why would I support it?'” he said.

But for evidence that the split among the states is real, you only need to walk down the street from van der Vaart’s office.

There, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is not part of the 24-state coalition that van der Vaart’s office is. In a letter to state lawmakers this summer, Cooper said he was concerned that legal action against Obama’s plan “will risk North Carolina’s well-deserved reputation for protecting the quality of our air, recruiting businesses that produce cutting-edged technologies and offering leadership around the world on energy issues. … I encourage you to avoid the path of litigation.”

In Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi says in a statement that her state “will not stand by and allow these unlawful and heavy-handed utility regulations to trample our states’ rights and drastically increase electricity prices in Florida.”

Some local officials, however, don’t agree. Local governments in Broward County and South Miami last week joined with 18 state attorneys general and individual cities to support the EPA. In a filing opposing the 24-state coalition, those officials said the power plan “will help prevent and mitigate harms that climate change poses to human health and the environment.”

Added Broward County Mayor Tim Ryan: “It’s unfortunate that the state government is taking a position averse to the opinions and the best interests of Florida citizens.” The lifelong Democrat said the government needs to take action because “if we don’t act now, then our children’s and grandchildren’s futures in low-lying areas are jeopardized.”

Legal skirmishing aside, many states already are working on what are known as mitigation and adaptation strategies to reduce carbon emissions and to deal with heat waves, flooding, storm surges and other expected climate change impacts.

“Look, this is already happening,” said Rachel Cleetus, who oversees climate policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organization. “Despite the legal challenges, the states themselves are moving ahead, putting together compliance plans for the Clean Power Plan. The just-say-no strategy is losing steam.”

That was a reference to a pitch by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that states should think twice before submitting to comply with Obama’s power plan.

According to an assessment by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 16 states already are on a path to exceed the Obama administration’s carbon-cutting targets for 2030; a majority of states already have made significant progress toward the 2022 benchmarks also contained in the plan.

Rhode Island, for one, is well on the way to meeting the Clean Power Plan goals, as are other Northeastern states that form the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Along with other states, Rhode Island also has joined the effort to support the Obama administration in court.

Rhode Island has an executive-level climate change council to coordinate the activities of its state agencies. “Impacts from climate change are already being felt in Rhode Island, like elsewhere in New England. It requires action now, not just in the future,” according to a report from the council.

As with other Northeastern states, Rhode Island’s own goals to cut emissions are broader than the federal plan, targeting transportation, the heating sector and other emissions sources — not just power plants.

“We’ll be looking at significant cuts and pretty aggressive policy suggestions,” said Stone, from the state’s environmental department. She said Rhode Island is positioned to meet the Clean Power Plan goals.

And a reason why is something Pieter Roos sees more and more.

For Roos, executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation in this historic and picturesque coastal town, political debates over climate change are something of an abstraction.

Instead, he’s preparing to adapt — and his mission is a small slice of what Rhode Island in general is doing, which is a small slice of what many states around the country are doing.

“I’m not prepared to comment on the validity of the scientific evidence,” he said on a recent fall day as he pointed out the homes he oversees — some dating to the early 1700s — that now regularly flood. “I can only comment on the observed evidence, and that is that I see more water in basements.”

His challenge is one faced by preservationists around the country; they’ll gather next year in Newport for a new conference, Keeping History Above Water.

“I am not a scientist. I’m a museum director and a preservationist,” he said. “I can only deal with the issues that are coming up in front of me. … I don’t have time to pay attention to folks who think that climate change isn’t real.”

Photo: A lighthouse off Newport, R.I., as seen on Oct. 9, 2015. Residents and preservationists in Newport are concerned about the impact of climate change on sea levels in the surrounding waters. Even before the federal government came out with its climate-change plan, Rhode Island officials had a detailed plan to address it. (Chris Adams/McClatchy DC/TNS)

Obama Takes ‘A Sledgehammer’ To Cuba Embargo

Obama Takes ‘A Sledgehammer’ To Cuba Embargo

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — What is commonly known as the trade embargo on Cuba is still on the books, as it has been for some five decades.

But for companies from around the United States — whether a package-delivery firm from Tennessee, rice producers from Arkansas, a heavy-equipment maker from Illinois or a software developer from Washington state — the barriers to trade with the untapped market 90 miles from Florida are getting lower and lower.

The Obama administration on Friday announced it was moving to further change U.S.-Cuba trade rules, ushering in what experts called a major development that would significantly open the door to expanded business on the island.

It’s a continuation of the actions President Barack Obama and his administration have taken since December, when he announced a major thaw in the decades-long freeze with Cuba. But for American companies and the trade experts who work with them, the announced moves are a big boost in their hopes to _ someday _ have full and free trade with Cuba.

“There remains much of the embargo to be dismantled,” said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who estimated that maybe 40 percent of the embargo has been disrupted by the president’s regulatory actions.

Obama did not merely chip away at the embargo, Kavulich added. “He used a sledgehammer,” he said.

Kavulich considers the changes announced Friday to be “the most comprehensive trade and investment changes to the United States relationship with the Republic of Cuba in decades.”

The rules will be formally published and take effect Monday. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said they underscore “the administration’s commitment to promote constructive change for the Cuban people.”

“A stronger, more open U.S.-Cuba relationship has the potential to create economic opportunities for both Americans and Cubans alike,” he added in a statement. “By further easing these sanctions, the United States is helping to support the Cuban people in their effort to achieve the political and economic freedom necessary to build a democratic, prosperous and stable Cuba.”

The rules were greeted warmly by many business interests, who see greater leeway to boost sales and travel to Cuba. But they were instantly lambasted by some lawmakers, particularly those in South Florida who both represent and come from the Cuban-American community.

That said, the opposition to Obama’s Cuba opening hasn’t been able to stop the president. While experts on both sides of the issue say the embargo as now on the books is politically safe in the short term, there are administrative actions the president can _ and has _ taken to further his goals.

Among the most significant of Friday’s changes, as announced by the Treasury and Commerce departments, are those involving personal travel, personal remittances and business activity.

On travel: Earlier changes had permitted official government business and some educational and other activities. Now, a close relative also will be allowed to visit or accompany authorized travelers for additional educational activities, journalistic activity, professional research, religious activities and humanitarian projects.

On remittances to Cubans: Current rules said they could be no more than $2,000 per quarter. That limit will be removed entirely.

Easing restrictions on business activity by U.S. firms is among the most significant changes.

“The rules in January were important _ they established the precedent,” said Robert L. Muse, a Washington-based lawyer and expert on Cuba trade. “But it was more of a beachhead, and it was a bit murky. Now they are engaging the business community in a way that’s going to be interesting and important to them. It begins to give them some real commercial traction.”

Muse said that companies engaged in exporting authorized items to Cuba will be able to establish, maintain and operate physical premises in Cuba.

“Maintaining a presence is brand new — that’s the big further step they have taken here,” Muse said. “The intention is to bring American businesses to the island.”

An example, he said, would be an agricultural company allowed to export to Cuba that would now be able to establish a sales office on the island.

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Medical student Electo Rossel, 20, wearing a shirt with a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama, listens to music at the Malecon seafront outside the U.S. embassy (not pictured) in Havana, Cuba, in this file photo taken August 14, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/Files

Voting Machine Study Finds Problems, But Not Ones Easily Fixed

Voting Machine Study Finds Problems, But Not Ones Easily Fixed

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau, (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Finding that many of the nation’s voting machines are “perilously close” to the end of their useful life, a study of voting systems in all 50 states recommended a series of steps that could be undertaken before voters cast their ballots in coming years.

Estimating it as a $1 billion problem, the experts from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law said it likely was too late to replace equipment in most places before the 2016 election — although local officials should be preparing emergency paper ballots and taking other steps to minimize problems caused by failing machines.

Officials should already be looking ahead to 2020.

“One of the things that was really shocking to me is how far reaching it has become, and how few places have taken steps to replace their equipment,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

The center is a nonpartisan law and policy think tank and advocacy organization that “seeks to improve our systems of democracy and justice.”

The report — “America’s Voting Machines at Risk” — was based on a wide-ranging review of the nation’s election systems. It included interviews with more than 30 state and 80 local election officials across the country.

While some voting-machine problems have been written about locally, others had not, reflecting the reality that even national elections are handled on the local level.

In fact, broad problems in voting systems can go unnoticed for years — until there is a tight election.

Consider Florida and the presidential election of 2000, where the state’s hanging chads, high voter error rates and lost votes became central to the outcome and recounts that gripped the nation and put George W. Bush in the White House.

“Everything is at the local level,” Norden said. “So unless you have a Florida 2000 situation, you’re not getting national coverage of these individual problems, even if they’re becoming fairly common.

“In some ways, that’s the lesson of 2000,” he added. “There were plenty of warnings about punch-card machines before 2000, but they were reported locally. There were warnings from experts, but nobody was listening.”

As it stands, several battleground states have aging equipment.

According to Norden, 90 percent of counties in Ohio are using machines that will be at least 10 years old in November 2016. In Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, about half or more of counties have machines that will be 10 or more years old by November 2016.

The Brennan Center’s state numbers assume that equipment currently in use will not be replaced by 2016, although a very small number of counties or local jurisdictions could upgrade between the time they were surveyed and the elections.

One example of the kind of problem cited in the study: Until an upgrade last year, the voting system in Leon County, Fla., was more than 20 years old and still needed to use an old-fashioned — and slow — analog modem to transmit information. When he needed to replace those modems, voting systems manager Mark Earley turned to eBay.

“They were even hard to find on eBay,” Earley said in an interview with McClatchy. “The system was a great system, for as long as it lasted. But as that modem issued showed, it was nearing the end of its life.”

Although Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee, upgraded in time for the 2014 election, several other counties in the state are still on the same system Leon County previously used, Earley said.

The central problem is that unlike voting machines of previous eras, systems in place today were not designed to last for decades.

“No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years,” the report noted. And yet many of the voting machines today that are entering their teen years have not been properly maintained — perhaps being stored in moist conditions — or rely on outdated software.

According to the center, experts agree that the expected lifespan for core components of most voting machines purchased since 2000 is between 10 and 15 years.

In all, 43 states are using some machines that will be at least 10 years old in 2016. In 14 states, machines will be 15 or more years old.

And while officials in 31 states said they wanted to purchase new voting machines in the next five years, officials from 22 of those states said they did not know where they would get money to do so, the report said.

That said, systemic problems and aging machines don’t necessarily make for an immediate calamity.

“No one we talked to predicted there will be a vast meltdown of all, or even most, of the nation’s voting equipment in 2016,” it concluded. “Aging machines do not all fail at once on a single day.”

Photo: A study of voting systems in all 50 states recommended a series of steps that could be undertaken before voters cast their ballots in coming years. Rich Pix/Flickr

10 Years After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Is Vibrant But Wary

10 Years After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Is Vibrant But Wary

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

NEW ORLEANS — David Herzenberg is back in the city he once called home — back to the place that is blighted and dysfunctional and infuriating yet at the same time magical and musical and wonderfully distinctive.

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans and surrounding areas and forced away hundreds of thousands of residents, Herzenberg among them. Over the resulting decade, he went to Norfolk, Va.; and Charleston, S.C.; and Tacoma, Wash.

He is now hard at work in the Upper Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods hit hard when Katrina came ashore and the city’s levees failed, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans — with some neighborhoods under 10 or more feet of water. Although precise numbers aren’t available, at least 986 Louisiana residents died from drowning, injuries, heart conditions and other causes, nearly half of them 75 or older. More than 1 million people from the region were displaced — sometimes for weeks or months as they decided whether they could salvage their moldy, water-logged homes.

And while the most prominent images of Katrina were from New Orleans, the storm zone was far wider: From suburban areas such as St. Bernard Parish that were also inundated, to Mississippi, where the storm surge simply flattened coastal homes.

But today, in New Orleans, Herzenberg is back, as is the city around him.

For evidence you can ask the mayor, Mitch Landrieu, who talks of an “ascendant city” that has come back unevenly but has basically come back everywhere.

“You see kind of a mishmash,” he said in an interview at City Hall, down the street from two of the iconic images of Katrina destruction: the Superdome-turned-evacuation center and the Hyatt Regency hotel with its blown-out windows. “It’s not really a tale of two cities. Most of the city — in most of the neighborhoods — is moving back in the right direction.”

You can ask health, education, demographic and economic experts. They regularly catalog the progress the city has made, while also documenting some of the very serious problems that remain. Some of those are because of Katrina, but many existed long before the storm chugged its way across the Gulf of Mexico.

Or you can ask the residents. They live in neighborhoods pockmarked with poverty and still-abandoned properties; they drive over cracked, warped and pothole-filled streets to get to their homes.

But for many, it was a choice they made.

“Initially, I didn’t think I was coming back,” Herzenberg said on a sweltering August day as he oversaw a small crew of workers on the corner of Alvar and North Derbigny streets. His neighborhood contains both the famed, colorful houses of the post-Katrina Musicians’ Village and other, still vacant ones.

Herzenberg evacuated the city Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, one day before the storm’s Monday landfall. He left behind a Mid-City neighborhood and a home he sold during his post-Katrina, cross-country wanderings.

But New Orleans pulled on him, as it often does, and he choose to buy, rehab and move into the Ninth Ward — historically one of the city’s most-troubled areas. The house he bought was never completely rehabbed after the storm; the outside structure is sound, but inside there’s nothing but framing for walls yet to go up.

Herzenberg began his rehab project in June. He hopes that he and his 8-year-old son will able to move in this October.
He has also started a carpentry business in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit parts of the city.

“You’re talking to somebody who couldn’t have loved another city more than this one,” he said. “And sentimental crap aside, I also think it’s a fantastic opportunity — a great investment. If I could find 10 more houses in this area, I’d buy them in a heartbeat.”

“It’s taken me 10 years to get back,” he said. “But I am.”

The rest of the city is, too — sort of.

Drive around today and you’ll find those cracked streets and abandoned houses and vacant properties. Those things existed before Katrina, meaning the storm is only partly responsible for the decay still very much evident.

The Data Center, a research center that has exhaustively chronicled New Orleans’ rebirth, notes that the city’s poverty rate has risen to pre-Katrina levels “and is now a crushingly high 27 percent.” Violent crime rates are still roughly double national averages, despite a reduction from pre-Katrina levels.

Like the rest of the country, the city is also contending with the hangover of the Great Recession, which officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009 — coming right as the New Orleans’ economy was regaining its footing. The economy stalled here, as it did everywhere, but since then measures of job growth and business startups show an entrepreneurial spirit alive and well.

“Katrina was a major force in New Orleans, but it was not the only force,” said Allison Plyer, executive director of The Data Center. “The city was and it is growing much more strongly than it did pre-Katrina. We had a weak economy, pre-Katrina. The city was losing population. The region had very slow population growth. And now the economy is very strong — much stronger than the nation. So our economy was weak compared to the nation pre-Katrina, and now it’s strong compared to the nation.”

From his vantage point on the 34th floor of a downtown building, Michael Hecht leads the development group Greater New Orleans Inc. and is prepared with a list of economic accolades that show the city’s high rankings in start-ups per capita, education reform, favorable business climate and a host of other measures.

Looking out his windows, he can literally see the growth — where crisp and brightly colored housing developments, medical centers and retail operations spring from what once was New Orleans’ decay.

“Katrina turned everybody into an entrepreneur,” he said, adding: “There is something going on here with entrepreneurship. It’s not just marketing hype.”

Overall, the city has regained 79 percent of its pre-Katrina population. The census stood at 485,000 in 2000, dropped to an estimated 230,000 in 2006, and was back to 384,000 by 2014, according to the Data Center. The broader metropolitan area is back to 93 percent of its pre-Katrina, 2000 population of 1.3 million people.

But concerns remain — and among the biggest are those levees and flood walls that bracket canals throughout the city.

It was those levees and walls that failed. They have since been fortified by $14.5 billion in federal and state money, and experts say the protection they provide is substantially stronger than it was. But the city needs to be vigilant about maintaining the system.

Asked if she was confident about the levee flood walls that tower above her backyard, Juanita Doyle — who lives in the Lakeview section of New Orleans — said: “Do I get to laugh?”

Elsewhere, in the shadow of the London Avenue Canal levee, Sidney St. Martin remains optimistic about the town he was forced to temporarily leave. But he remains wary about the flood wall directly behind his Warrington Drive home.

St. Martin’s house was five down from the London Avenue Canal breach; it was pushed off its slab. His family had left town the day before the storm and ended up living in Jackson, Miss., for four years.

For three of those years, St. Martin and his wife debated whether to come home. He had a good education job in Jackson.
“But I was never happy,” St. Martin said.

And he had a deep connection to his hometown; his mother was even director of the city’s sewerage and water board, which worked to drain the flood waters from New Orleans. During his exile in Jackson, St. Martin drove home — about three hours each way — every two or three weeks.

He had been one of those men who never cried, he said. But he cried about what had become of his home and his hometown.
Eventually, St. Martin and his wife rebuilt their home and moved back.

Warrington Drive is still incomplete. Vacant, overgrown lots compete with empty Katrina-damaged homes as well as those that have been rebuilt. On the corner of Warrington and Mirabeau Avenue, a plaque commemorates the levee breach. A few house up, an open-air display shows images of the flood and diagrams of the levee failures; the Levee Exhibit Hall and Garden, as it’s called, is run by an organization dedicated to educating the public about Katrina.

St. Martin has a small role in the endeavor: One night a week, he waters the exhibit’s flower garden.

As for the repaired levee walls looming behind him: “Am I confident? No,” he said. “If they broke, would I be surprised? No.”

But he deals with it. It’s a small price to pay for coming home.

“You fight the devil you know,” St. Martin said. “California, you have earthquakes. The Midwest, tornadoes. At least with hurricanes, you have a few days to leave.”

Asked if he thought his fellow citizens actually would leave if and when the next big storm approaches, Landrieu, the mayor, said he feels good they would. Even so, he acknowledges the tight spot he’s in.

“If you don’t sound an alarm, people say you didn’t warn them,” said Landrieu, who was lieutenant governor when Katrina hit and who comes from a prominent New Orleans political family (his father Moon was a former mayor and U.S. Cabinet official; his sister Mary was in the U.S. Senate). “If you sound it too much, they say, ‘I won’t listen to you.'”

He also feels good about his city’s prospects — despite readily acknowledging the problems that remain.

“You cannot reconstruct a complete city that’s been destroyed in 10 years,” he said. “Even though, aspirationally, you would hope that you can do that, it just really, really, really takes a while to build a city that’s going to stand for the ages.”

Photo: David Herzenberg is at work Aug. 11, 2015, rehabbing a house he recently bought in the city’s Ninth Ward, one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina. Forced out by Katrina, Herzenberg spent a decade away from the city before returning this summer. He has also started a business, helping fuel the city’s rapid economic growth. He hopes to move into the house in October. (Chris Adams/McClatchy DC/TNS)

Bill To Boost Trade With Cuba Faces Long Odds, Despite Win

Bill To Boost Trade With Cuba Faces Long Odds, Despite Win

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Legislation designed to boost agricultural trade with Cuba passed out of a Senate committee last week, joining a separate bill that would ease restrictions on travel to the island.

But for those interested in a return to full trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, the actions last week represent only a sliver of hope that the mood of Congress is thawing as much as President Barack Obama would like.

“I’m more optimistic that the pressure is increasing to do something in Congress,” said Carl Meacham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who serves as director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But what happens because of that pressure is dependent on a range of issues — from the attitude of Senate leadership to the dynamics of presidential politics, he said. And then the measures will have to go through the House of Representatives as well.

“And I don’t see the House going the way of the Senate,” Meacham said.

The legislation last week was sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and represents one of the strategies lawmakers are employing to boost trade with Cuba.

In December, leaders in the U.S. and Cuba announced a thawing of relations between the two nations after decades of limited trade, travel and diplomacy. While some aspects of trade and travel with the island nation have been loosened, many other restrictions remain.

Lawmakers are pushing to free travel and trade, while others — led by South Florida lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate — have marshaled forces into a camp dedicated to seeing current restrictions stay put.

The Heitkamp legislation could thread the needle between pro- and anti-change forces, Meacham said.

Her legislation, which was attached to an appropriations bill, would ease a legal prohibition on providing credit for exports to Cuba. That, Heitkamp said, is the biggest barrier that North Dakota and other farm states face when trying to export to the island nation.

“As the U.S. normalizes relations with Cuba, we need to make sure American farmers are able to access that market,” she said in a statement.

The legislation would modify current law by lifting the ban on private banks and companies offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba. Currently, U.S. exports to Cuba require cash payments up front.

The legislation was introduced with Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas, who represents the views of many farm state lawmakers of both parties in seeing trade with Cuba as a potential market for their states’ goods.

Meacham, who just returned from a trip to Cuba, said the push for agriculture trade highlights the ability of U.S. farmers to efficiently help feed the Cuban people, and the fact that a lot of agricultural states are represented by Republicans.

“I think it’s an indication that the assumed Republican opposition to normalization is fast crumbling,” he said. “Travel and agriculture are where you are finding the most converts now.”

But the strategy of attaching legislation to appropriations bills might merely represent a strategy for pro-normalization lawmakers who don’t ultimately have the support they need to pass more ambitious legislation to completely end the trade embargo with Cuba.

In the congressional appropriations process, bills that make it through the House or the Senate with amendments intact still have to go to a House-Senate conference committee, where differences are hammered out. And even if there are pro-Cuba normalization measures on Senate bills, there are anti-Cuba normalization measures on House bills.

“Depending on the political will of each side, these riders could start canceling each other out,” said Jason I. Poblete, a former Republican congressional staffer who is an international regulatory lawyer with Poblete Tamargo LLP.

Asked about the Senate action, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, noted action at both the committee level and on the House floor to roll back the Obama Cuba opening.

“Time will tell whether the U.S. Senate, including its three Cuban-American members that fiercely oppose President Obama’s Cuba policy, will have an opportunity to vote on those few provisions inserted into one Senate appropriations bill,” he said in a statement to McClatchy. “The House is on record solidly rejecting President Obama’s Cuba policy, but we have yet to hear from the full Senate.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: The Cuban national flag is seen raised over their new embassy in Washington July 20, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Farmers Resist EPA Rule To Promote Clean Waters

Farmers Resist EPA Rule To Promote Clean Waters

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Farm interests are pushing against a recently finalized federal water rule after an analysis by a trade group concluded that the rule “creates even more risk and uncertainty” for those who work the land.

Opponents in Congress are trying to rework and sharply limit the impact of what was known initially as the “Waters of the United States” rule, which was designed to help federal officials clarify and simplify which bodies of water fall under the control of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

While those efforts have broad support in Congress, they might not have enough to override a presidential veto, sending the rule to the courts.

The rule is important to farmers, since it has the potential to change how they manage their land — requiring permits, for example, if activities would affect covered areas. It was finalized last month after more than a year of controversy and touted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers as an important step toward keeping the nation’s waters clean.

From the start, though, farmers said it went too far. And late last week, the American Farm Bureau Federation completed its analysis of the rule, finding that the complicated final version “is even broader than the proposed rule.”

One example is the rule’s definition of tributaries, which the federation said is so expansive that “land features may be deemed to be tributaries… even if they are invisible to the landowner and even if they no longer exist on the landscape.”

Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said that “anybody who moves dirt in order to do their business is going to be affected.” He also has problems with how the EPA handled the rulemaking process, saying the agency embarked on a political campaign to discredit those opposed to the rule and abused the law that governs rulemaking.

The EPA and proponents of the water rule say the complaints by farmers and others were thoroughly hashed out during months of public comment and hearings, and that the claims of overreach are wildly inflated.

That said, the options are limited for farm interests, homebuilders and other industries that have come out against the rule.

The House passed a bill in May that would roll back the rule, and a similar bill last week passed out of a committee in the Senate. That bill now moves to the full Senate.

But there, it faces stiff odds. Although Republicans control the Senate and dozens of senators are listed as co-sponsors for one of the competing anti-water rule bills, “It’s unlikely there will be a veto-proof majority,” Hurst said.

The White House said in April that if the bill to kill the EPA rule passes Congress, President Barack Obama would veto it.

That leaves the courts and advocates on both sides of the issue expecting farm or other industries to sue to stop the EPA from enforcing the rule. But how long such lawsuits may take to wind through the courts — or whether the rule will be suspended while the courts determine its fate — is unclear.

For those reasons, one advocate of the rule, Jon Devine, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he thinks the anti-rule forces will get nowhere.

“I think this is an effort doomed — fortunately — to fail,” he said. “I am extremely confident that claims the agencies protected too much will not win.”

The rule was proposed by the agencies to simplify and clarify the Clean Water Act. That law covers rivers, lakes and year-round wetlands. But the law is less clear about some streams that dry up part of the year, or about wetlands that wet only in the spring.

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: AgriLife Today via Flickr

Rubio Has Built A Nationwide Money Machine

Rubio Has Built A Nationwide Money Machine

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is likely to announce his candidacy for president this month, already has built an operation that brought in cash from all corners of the nation and banked more money than similar congressional fundraising operations.

It’s a good start for the Florida Republican if he expects to compete in a crowded GOP field whose first contests will come ten months from now in Iowa and New Hampshire.

So far, most of the attention on fundraising has centered on former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has ambitious goals to collect big establishment money and is presumed to be in position to lap the field in the money race.

Rubio is playing a different game, experts say: He won’t have to match Bush but will need to bring in enough big money to show that he’s a credible candidate.

The first-term senator’s fundraising committees took in $14 million in 2013 and 2014, during which time Rubio had no election himself.

While much of that money already has gone out in support for other candidates and for more fundraising, consulting, and other expenses, the breadth and scope of his two-year haul demonstrates an ability to raise substantial money — something that will help as his presidential campaign begins.

Rubio has three separate fundraising vehicles: his regular Senate campaign committee; what’s known as a leadership political action committee, which raises and spends money often to help other candidates; and a joint committee that takes in contributions and funnels them either to the Senate fund or the leadership PAC.

Bush and those working on his behalf, according to various media reports, had an audacious goal to raise $100 million in the first quarter of 2015. That’s a figure that could scare off potential competitors and lock up key Republican donors.

Asked about the $100 million figure, Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger wrote in an email: “Some passionate GOP finance leaders who are supporting Governor Bush’s political efforts offered up that number, and we are very flattered but our actual, more pragmatic fundraising goals are far more modest.”

Whatever Bush’s totals, Rubio wouldn’t be expected to match them — only to show that he’s capable of connecting with donors and raising money, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks political money.

“Between now and Iowa, I don’t think the expectations for a Marco Rubio are the same as for the presumed front-runner, Bush,” Krumholz said. “Rubio needs to prove he has the fundraising prowess to be competitive, and to say, ‘I’m serious, I’m capable of energizing and broadening my base.’ He needs to create buzz and excitement — and it would be a big boost if it’s accompanied by a major sum of money.”

Rubio has more than held his own against two Senate colleagues who are also running or expected to: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Rubio and Paul were elected in 2010, Cruz in 2012 — so none of the three had active re-election races during the most recent two-year cycle, ending December 31, 2014.

But looking at the combined contributions into the senators’ three fundraising operations — all have Senate, leadership, and joint committees — Rubio pulled in the most: $14 million. Paul had $10 million, and Cruz $8.5 million, according to Federal Election Commission data for 2013-14.

While that money can be used to help the three prepare for presidential campaigns, it is also used for many other purposes — including contributions to fellow politicians in 2014. But campaign finance experts say it demonstrates the senators’ ability to raise substantial money.

Rubio has one of the top joint fundraising committees and one of the top leadership PACs in Congress.

Further, he’s shown the ability to raise money from throughout the country.

“The broad geographic diversity means he’s been laying the groundwork, conducting strategic fundraising, and outreach to build his name recognition,” Krumholz said.

Of itemized individual contributions to Rubio’s three committees, the biggest source is Florida — at 42 percent — but every state is represented. He took in 16 percent of those contributions from California; eight percent from Texas; four percent each from New York and Illinois; and three percent each from Virginia and Massachusetts.

The contributions range from more than three million dollars from Florida to less than two thousand dollars rom Alaska.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Rubio On Immigration: I’ve Learned My Lesson

Rubio On Immigration: I’ve Learned My Lesson

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

OXON HILL, Md. — Senator Marco Rubio of Florida delighted a gathering of conservative activists from around the country Friday morning, saying America doesn’t owe him anything but that he owes a “debt to America that I will never be able to repay.”

Before a mostly full ballroom at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, the Republican and potential presidential candidate recounted his personal history, one that took his parents — with little money, no connections and limited education — from Cuba to South Florida.

“Less than four decades later, all four of their children live the lives and the dreams that my parents once had for themselves,” Rubio told the gathering. “For me, America isn’t just a country. It’s the place that literally changed the history of my family.”

“The fact that the son of a bartender and a maid that worked in a hotel is sitting on the stage with you today,” he added later, “that’s why America is special.”

Rubio also worked to confront one of the most damaging — at least from the perspective of this audience — episodes in his young political career: the 2013 debate over immigration.

“Well, it wasn’t very popular. I don’t know if you know that from some of the folks here,” he quipped, to widespread chuckles.

The possible path to 2016 is tricky and tight for Rubio, once a darling of the nation’s conservatives but now viewed skeptically by many. Despite one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, Rubio lost many of his conservative fans when he pushed a bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s immigration system that made it through the Senate in 2013 but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Rubio said he’d learned from 2013.

He acknowledged that there are millions of people who’ve lived in the U.S. for years and haven’t broken laws except for those on immigration.

“What I’ve learned is you can’t even have a conversation about that until people believe and know — not just believe, but it’s proven to them — that future illegal immigration will be controlled,” he said. “That is the single biggest lesson of the last two years”

In attendance were the heavyweights of today’s GOP, as well as the thought leaders, pundits and conservatives Rubio needs to reach and persuade in order to be a viable contender in 2016. Nearly all the potential presidential Republican contenders appeared at the event.

In his six-minute opening and a question and answer session with Sean Hannity of Fox News, the first-term senator from West Miami excited the crowd several times.

He pointed barbs at the Obama administration, and brought laughter with several lines — a couple joking about selling books he’s written.

In discussing his plans to revamp American higher education, Rubio talked about his own education debt: “I owed over $100,000 in student loans, which I paid off with the proceeds of my book —  now available on paperback, if you’re interested.”

Talking about his long-term political plans, he said, “I don’t want to be in politics my whole life. I want to serve our country and I’d like to do some other things. Like maybe own an NFL team or something. I don’t know. I’d have to sell a lot of books for that.”

Addressing both foreign policy and domestic themes, Rubio riffed on several “imagine” statements — conjuring what a new direction for the nation could bring.

Imagine if we repealed and replaced Obamacare, he said to applause.

“Imagine if we had leaders that understood that the family, not government, is the most important organization in society,” he said to more applause.

“Imagine if our laws protected innocent human life, from conception to natural death,” he said to even bigger applause.

Finally, to both applause and raucous laughter: “Imagine if we had a president who doesn’t travel the world bad-mouthing America. After all, that’s the U.N.’s job.”

Hannity proclaimed him a “great conservative, Tea Party senator,” and Rubio hit the themes the crowd loved. He also dinged, in one-word answers, the current occupant of the White House and one who’d likely be in Rubio’s way if he decides to run.

One-word answer on Barack Obama: “Failed.”

And Hillary Clinton: “Yesterday.”

Photo: Activists call for immigration reform outside of Senator Marco Rubio’s office December 10, 2014 (Rafael Gomez/Flickr)

As Cuba Policy Moves Forward, Chief Critic Rubio Faces Stiff Odds Reversing It

As Cuba Policy Moves Forward, Chief Critic Rubio Faces Stiff Odds Reversing It

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In December, just hours after the White House abruptly changed course in the nation’s relationship with Cuba, Senator Marco Rubio laid down his marker.

“I intend to use every tool at our disposal in the majority to unravel as many of these changes as possible,” he said Dec. 17.

It’s now February — and despite congressional hearings and ongoing pressure on the administration, it’s not clear that Rubio and other opponents can undo what the president already did.

Rubio is perhaps the nation’s most prominent lawmaker on the Cuba issue. He’s a Cuban-American, a member of the Senate’s Republican majority and a potential presidential candidate. And he represents Florida, Cuba’s closest U.S. neighbor.

But according to Cuba experts, Rubio might have little ability to reverse Obama’s changes. And Rubio might have realized that.

That doesn’t mean Congress — and Rubio — can’t curtail the administration’s long-term plans. Congress clearly has authority over some aspects of the new Cuba policy, and congressional leaders beyond Rubio are skeptical of the president’s plans.

For his part, Rubio is letting the administration make its case — and also watching as Cuba makes demands that he said could make normalization untenable.

In an interview with McClatchy this week, Rubio said President Barack Obama has “exceeded his authority” with already-announced moves.

“I think many of the changes that he’s made run counter to existing legislation, which I believe makes it illegal,” Rubio said. “We’ve made that case, but obviously this is a case we want to prove. But ultimately it’s going to wind up in the court system.”

Those changes really are just the first step in the Cuban opening. Up next will be the establishment of an embassy in Havana, as well as the confirmation of an ambassador.

Asked whether there were enough votes in the Senate to deny confirmation to an ambassador, Rubio said, “Well, there are multiple ways to stop an ambassador nomination, and I reserve the right to use all of them. … I can tell you for certain that no matter who they nominate I will not be supportive of and will do everything I can to try to stop the nomination of an ambassador to an embassy that’s not a real embassy.”

The opening to Cuba is a complicated, multipronged effort. Already, the Treasury and Commerce departments have relaxed rules on some travel to Cuba, loosened restrictions on financial transactions between the United States and the island nation, and allowed for U.S. exports of certain products.

Rubio said some of those changes — such as increased telecommunications exports to Cuba — are specifically prohibited under current statutes and will not withstand legal challenges.

The White House disagreed. National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that all changes were “looked at closely by administration lawyers and all actions were taken in the context of what could legally be done.”

According to experts on Cuba, stopping the actions the administration already has taken will be difficult, even with the Republicans in control of both sides of Congress.

“I think he’s in a bit of a bind,” said Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va. “I think he knows there’s not a legislative means to reverse what President Obama did.”

Rubio might be “planting a flag,” Peters added. “But in terms of action, I don’t think there’s anything he can do about it. President Obama acted clearly within his authority, and Congress can’t stop it.”

Last week, Rubio kicked off a trio of hearings — one in the Senate, two in the House of Representatives — in which opponents of the president’s plans laid out a case that the Obama administration was taken advantage of in negotiating its new policy. Rubio emphasized ongoing human rights abuses and political detentions on the island, as well as demands Cuban President Raul Castro has made as a condition for normalization.

Rubio’s hearing, experts said, helped frame the upcoming debate and could slow the administration’s plans.

“There was this level of irrational exuberance from proponents of the new policy, but Congress hadn’t had a say yet,” said Jason I. Poblete, a former Republican congressional staffer and an international regulatory lawyer with Poblete Tamargo LLP who supports the sanctions on Cuba but said he has been critical of both parties and prior administrations for their Cuba policies. “Now they are having a say.”

But having a say and reversing the policy are two different things — although Rubio will have an outsized role in the debate.

“People take what he has to say very seriously,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

But the president has substantial executive power on his side. “He can open an embassy, he can liberalize travel restrictions, he can increase the amount of money that people living in America can send to Cuba,” West said. “There’s very little Senator Rubio can do about those things.”

Rubio “has the ability to stop the parts of the initiative that require congressional approval, like ending the embargo,” West said. “What he can’t block is opening an embassy.”

Beyond that are the big issues of freeing travel between the two countries and ending the embargo that has cut off Cuba from most trade with the United States. Legislation already has been introduced in Congress to accomplish both of those goals, though experts say Rubio and his allies have significant ability to sway the debate.

In an interview with the CBS News program 60 Minutes, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) expressed opposition to the president’s plans, and Boehner was skeptical that the most ambitious of them — such as repealing the trade embargo with Cuba — would go anywhere. Asked whether the trade embargo would stay in place, Boehner said, “I would think so.”

Carl Meacham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who’s now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said that while support for the trade embargo is on the decline nationally, Rubio’s position as a voice for the Cuban exile community means its voice will be heard. A recent national poll by the Pew Research Center found two-thirds of respondents favored ending the embargo.

But whether the voice of the Cuban-American community will steer enough votes in Congress is unclear. Democrats are generally unified in a pro-change position — with at least one major, influential detractor in Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey — while Republicans are more fractured, Meacham said.

The ultimate level of support that Rubio can expect for his position is hard to pin down, thanks to libertarian-leaning Republicans and those from agriculture states that would benefit from new markets.

“I really think Republicans are split on this issue,” Meacham said. “And those Republicans who support the president’s decision on this should not be ignored.”

Of all the potential changes to the relationship with Cuba, Meacham said Obama is able to change one-third of them on his own. The other two-thirds fall under the jurisdiction of Congress.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Audit: FEMA Mishandled Florida Hurricane Payments

Audit: FEMA Mishandled Florida Hurricane Payments

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Some ten years after the winds died down, federal officials are still cleaning up after a flurry of hurricanes hit Florida in 2004 and 2005, with a new federal audit saying the Federal Emergency Management Agency might have paid cities for damages that insurance should have covered.

The audit by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, found that the quality of FEMA’s insurance reviews in Florida was so lacking the agency can’t ensure it didn’t pay for damages that a private insurer should have covered.

FEMA also improperly waived the need for communities to buy insurance to protect against future disasters. That means FEMA and federal taxpayers might be on the hook to cover damages from the next hurricanes. According to the audit, FEMA stands to lose up to $1 billion in future Florida disasters because of these improper insurance waivers.

While the payments in question revolve around damages incurred by cities and other government entities, the issue isn’t with them or with the Florida insurance company that handled the claims. The issue is with FEMA.

“FEMA needs to be checking that the communities are allowing the insurance companies to pay for the portion they should be covering,” John Kelly, an inspector general official who oversaw the report on FEMA’s Florida payments, said in an interview. “It is FEMA’s responsibility to make sure tax dollars are being spent properly. It’s critical that FEMA start applying its regulations correctly and consistently.”

That’s doubly important, he said, since some of the FEMA employees involved in Florida reviews have moved on to other disasters, such as the superstorm Sandy that hit New York and New Jersey.

“We need to make sure the same problems don’t perpetuate themselves,” Kelly said.

While up to $177 million in payments are at issue, Kelly said, Florida cities “are not going to lose a penny.” The private insurer, however, could be found to be liable for additional payments, he said.

The 2004-2005 hurricanes — Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina, Wilma — ravaged the state, resulting in $4.4 billion in what is known as “public assistance funding” to help local governments recover. It covers activities such as debris removal as well as the repair, replacement or restoration of disaster-damaged facilities.

In some cases, FEMA’s insurance specialists determined that insurance was not available to cover specific damages. Some of those cases involved disagreements over what a policy should or shouldn’t cover: If a ball field was damaged, for example, does the insurance cover only damage to the ground — or also to the fences, scoreboard and bleachers? Those are some of the kinds of issues at play in the insurance reviews, Kelly said.

In most cases, however, the inspector general found that FEMA reviewers could not support their “no insurance” decisions. They either incorrectly arrived at the decisions or had no support to justify them — often because paperwork was incomplete or missing.

The inspector general reviewed only a sample of the 2,088 projects at issue; those projects received a total of $177 million from FEMA. But in its review of the projects, the inspector general “concluded that FEMA could not have completed a valid insurance assessment with the documentation available. We conclude that FEMA has little assurance that its insurance specialists properly” handled the $177 million in FEMA-approved damages.

The inspector general is calling on FEMA to conduct a review of all projects — large and small — associated with the insurance company and recover any additional money the insurance company should have covered.

In a statement, FEMA press secretary Susan Hendrick said the agency “is on track to respond to the report’s findings and recommendations in late March of 2015.”

The insurance company was not named in the inspector general’s report, since the report was about FEMA’s actions, not the insurer’s or the cities’. But the company was the Florida Municipal Insurance Trust, which provides insurance services for more than 600 public entities in the state and is part of the Florida League of Cities.

Eric Hartwell, deputy general counsel for the Florida League of Cities, said that federal officials approached them around 2010 to review claims from the 2004-05 hurricanes and that they worked with cities, the state and FEMA to do so.

“When we found something that should have been paid, we paid it,” he said. “But there were cases in which there was no coverage.”

At one time, the trust earmarked $25 million to handle claims stemming from the FEMA review, but that earmark no longer exists, as the trust believes that all legitimate claims against it have been paid, Hartwell said.

“We have reviewed everything that has been identified,” he said. “For everything that has been identified and everything they brought forward — yes, we did a fair review.”

Photo: “orangejack” via Flickr

Rubio’s Machine Is Tops In Raising Money, But Not In Sharing It

Rubio’s Machine Is Tops In Raising Money, But Not In Sharing It

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — For Marco Rubio and his leadership political action committee, a lot of money comes in. But when it comes to supporting his fellow candidates, not a lot goes out.

Rubio, a Republican senator from West Miami, Fla., and a potential presidential candidate in 2016, controls a leadership PAC that topped all others this past election cycle, bringing in more money than nearly 300 similar fundraising outfits in Congress, according to an analysis of federal campaign records.

Reclaim America PAC, Rubio’s committee, collected about $3.8 million for the 2014 midterm elections, according to Federal Election Commission filings through late November. It spent just under $4 million, ranking No. 2, just behind the leadership PAC for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), a former vice -presidential candidate.

But that’s taking into account all spending — and on one key measure, Rubio’s leadership PAC doesn’t rank nearly so high.

Rubio’s leadership committee spent $645,255 on contributions to other federal candidates or expenditures on their behalf. Among 298 PACs classified as similar to Rubio’s, Reclaim America ranked 10th in the such spending.

It ranked No. 254 in the percentage of its money spent that way.

Compare that with the leadership PACs just above and below Rubio’s on spending: The leadership PAC for Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) spent $654,500 on other candidates — 65 percent of its total outlays.

The leadership PAC for Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) spent $631,250 on other candidates — 74 percent of its total outlays.

Rubio’s spent 16 percent on colleagues’ races, according to a McClatchy analysis of FEC data. The analysis examined records for all qualified congressional leadership PACs and calculated direct contributions to other federal candidates, and what are known as “independent expenditures” on behalf of those candidates. The average among all leadership PACs in the analysis was 48 percent.

Instead of contributions to other candidates — a typical expense for such committees — Rubio’s PAC spent the majority of its money on fundraising, strategy, research and other expenses not directly listed as supporting his fellow politicians running for office.

They are, however, expenses that could help support a presidential candidacy.

In doing so, Rubio is following a “very common, time-honored, bipartisan tradition,” according to Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign finance issues.

Leadership PACs, she said, allow candidates to operate in “stealth mode,” traveling the country and building name recognition before they start presidential candidacies.

“The PAC is investing in itself, investing in building up its donor list, investing in its own organization,” Krumholz said.

Even factoring in the independent expenditures, she said, “He’s still spent more on his own strategy and research and on fundraising and media than he did on other candidates. When does campaigning for Cory Gardner stop and campaigning for Marco Rubio’s presidential run start?”

Gardner, a U.S. representative from Colorado, was one of the challengers running for the U.S. Senate who received help from Rubio. Others included state Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa and U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas. All three won.

Krumholz’s group assigned spending categories to leadership PAC expenditures. They show that Reclaim America had spent more than $1 million on strategy and research this past election cycle, more than any other leadership PAC. Overall, the administrative, fundraising and strategy expenses for the PAC combined to equal 58 percent of the expenditures it tracked, the center’s numbers available as of last week show.

Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, another nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks campaign finance spending, found that the leadership PACs of possible presidential contenders — including Rubio — weren’t big spenders on other candidates this cycle, spending less than $1 of every $5 they raised that way.

Leadership PAC s generally attempt to curry favor with other lawmakers, hoping to win support for legislation or other political aspirations. They come with rousing names that often convey a sense that all’s not quite apple pie in America: Restore America, Save America, Strengthen America, Takin’ Back America and Win Back America.

For lawmakers running for president, giving money to politicians in key states can give access to the power brokers who might influence the presidential nominating contest, Allison said.

“By giving money to politicians in early primary states, a presidential hopeful is looking to win their support,” Allison said. “It’s a way to basically get your name out in those states, and it’s good advertising for 2016.”

“If you’re in Iowa and you have the endorsement of Joni Ernst, that’s a huge endorsement,” Allison said. “It could sway some of the state’s voters.”

Ernst is the incoming Republican senator from Iowa whom Rubio endorsed while she was still engaged in a tough primary battle. Not only did he go to Iowa to campaign with her just before her June primary, his PAC paid for ads in that race as well.

Ernst went on to victory in the primary, and then won a surprisingly easy battle in the general election. She took the seat from a Democrat — Tom Harkin, who is retiring — and beat a sitting congressman who had been considered the favorite early in the contest.

“Joni was very appreciative of all the help and support Sen. Rubio gave during the campaign,” said Ashlee Rich Stephenson, a senior strategist for Ernst. “He brought a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement to Iowa during his visits.”

Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, said the senator decided early on that he wanted to target a handful of high-profile races where he thought he could have an impact. He didn’t want to spread his money too thinly.

Conant also said Rubio had played a big part in helping candidates raise money for their own campaigns, often by appearing at events or other fundraisers. Rubio and the PAC helped raise more than $3 million for candidates, he said.

In addition to the contributions and independent expenditures, Reclaim American spent money on strategy, fundraising and other expenses.

Of the Rubio PAC’s $4 million in spending, about $528,000 is listed for independent expenditures on behalf of other candidates — helping Ernst, for example, with telemarketing, online ads, research, direct mail and a $150,770 media buy.

The spending of $116,837 is listed as contributions to other politicians, including Republican candidates Ernst, Cotton, Gardner, Scott Brown in New Hampshire, Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Terri Lynn Land in Michigan.

The majority of the Rubio PAC expenditures have gone for general fundraising and consulting expenses.

According to FEC filings, expenditures dealing with some kind of “PAC strategic consulting” or “PAC fundraising consulting” or similar labels totaled $1.6 million.

More than $1 million was for PAC expenditures not neatly categorized, such as those for office rent and expenses, computer purchases and $5,250 for “PAC gifts-Christmas tree ornaments” from the U.S. Senate gift shop.

The PAC is one of three main fundraising vehicles for Rubio, who also has his Senate campaign committee and a joint committee that takes in contributions and funnels them either to the Senate fund or the leadership PAC. Combined, the three committees took in $13.7 million in contributions this cycle.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

As Controversial EPA Water Rule Looms, GOP Prepares An Assault

As Controversial EPA Water Rule Looms, GOP Prepares An Assault

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — While the politics of climate change were at the top of the president’s agenda this week, a different environmental proposal is heading to a showdown between Republicans and the White House, in part due to strong pressure from Kentucky farm interests and lawmakers.

The issue is the proposed “Waters of the United States” rule, which was announced earlier this year in an attempt to simplify and clarify which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act and which ones aren’t.

But the Obama administration’s attempt at clarity has instead brought anger and confusion from many of the nation’s farm interests, as well as Republicans in Congress — who until last week were powerless to do anything about it.

Now, however, both Kentucky senators are on record with their Republican colleagues in opposing the proposal. The Republican-led House already voted to derail the measure, which comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Friday marked the final day that the public could formally submit comments on the proposed regulation, and the EPA was deluged with more than 250,000 comments as of Friday morning. Now the EPA and the Army Corps will move toward finalizing the rule, something that is expected to happen next year.

But in Congress, newly empowered Republicans are going to try to stop that.

In the Senate, Republicans have agreed with House colleagues on their desire to derail the water proposal, but lacked the votes to do anything about it.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who will assume the job of majority leader in January, now has the control to advance bills similar to one introduced earlier this year that would prohibit the administration from finalizing its water rule.

Although it didn’t go anywhere in the Senate this session, the bill picked up 38 co-sponsors, all Republicans. That included McConnell and Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, as well as Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is expected to be the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

If the Senate does seek to derail the rule, it could result in a veto showdown with the Obama administration.

Inhofe wrote a piece for an Oklahoma newspaper this week reiterating that the EPA should withdraw the rule. And McConnell, though spokesman Robert Steurer, indicated a desire to rein in the EPA, including through appropriations.

“The leader has co-sponsored several measures this Congress that seek to restrain the out-of-control EPA proposed regulations, including WOTUS, but they have been blocked by Senate Democrats,” Steurer said, referring to the “Waters of the U.S.” rule. “Next year, he will support efforts to harness proposals like these by restricting funding to agencies like the EPA through the appropriation process.”

The switch in political power dismays advocates for the rule.

“Now they’re in a position to throw their weight around more,” said Judy Lyons, chairwoman of the Kentucky chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. “I am concerned about the change in politics because I think everything from the EPA is now going to be under assault.”

Lyons, from Louisville, Ky., submitted one of the hundreds of thousands of comments on the rule received by the EPA. She urged the agency and Army Corps to finalize the rule so that the protections offered by the Clean Water Act are “strong and clearly enforceable.”

The water rule proposal seeks to clarify what is covered by the Clean Water Act — whether certain streams that dry up part of the year, for example, should be covered along with traditional rivers, streams and lakes.

It’s a reaction, in part, to two U.S. Supreme Court cases that addressed EPA’s water oversight.

The Obama administration and environmental groups have strongly pushed the rule, arguing that it would help keep rivers, lakes and other waterways healthy. But agriculture and other industry groups just as strongly oppose the plan, saying it represents a massive overreach by the federal government that would curtail farm activity.

In Kentucky, organizations from state-level agriculture groups to county-level farm bureaus have submitted comments to the EPA opposing the rule.

The Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation issued an “action alert” urging members to submit comments because the rule “would create confusion rather than clarity” and could “lead to farmers facing increased frivolous litigation over what are considered ‘normal’ agricultural practices.”

The Kentucky Farm Bureau planned to submit comments to the EPA Friday.

“To me, there’s just too much ambiguity in the rule,” said Joe Cain, who tracks federal issues for the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation. “Rather than creating the clarity that they mention, it really creates a lot more confusion. And it could lead to a huge expansion of federal oversight.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation is also pushing hard against the rule nationally, and even had a countdown clock on its website Friday to spur more comments.

While the Clean Water Act exempts routine farming practices from certain permits, that exemption is filled with enough loopholes and limitations of its own that farm practices are effectively hamstrung by EPA authority, the bureau says. The new rule would “make it more difficult to farm or change a farming operation to remain competitive and profitable.”

The EPA has said those fears are overblown, and has rebutted what its administrator said is “a growing list of misunderstandings” about the rule. The EPA, in its assessments, projects that the new rule would result in a 3 percent increase in jurisdiction. But farm groups say that seriously undercounts waters that could become covered.

Photo: Wing-Chi Poon via Wikimedia Commons

Boom In Shipments Of Turtles Overseas Could Lead To Protective Measures

Boom In Shipments Of Turtles Overseas Could Lead To Protective Measures

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is proposing a new level of protection for certain freshwater turtles, concerned that a massive increase in overseas demand for the reptiles could hurt their long-term prospects.

The proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service involves four species: the Florida softshell, the smooth softshell, the spiny softshell and the common snapping turtle.

While none of the four species is at risk of extinction, federal officials and biologists say that a booming international trade in turtles had prompted concerns about the animals’ long-term survival. And existing laws, which vary from state to state, have not been completely successful in preventing the unauthorized collection and trade of the turtles, officials said.

“These turtles are suffering declines in large part because they are being collected in the wild and shipped overseas for food or pets or medicine,” said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation group that petitioned federal officials for the protective status. “Turtles are slow to mature, and their populations depend on having large adults. That’s what the turtle trappers are catching.”

According to Adkins Giese, turtle shells are used in traditional Chinese medicine, which ascribes great power to the turtle to purify the blood, cure diseases and bestow longevity or virility.

In its official proposal to list the turtles, the Fish and Wildlife Service documented a massive increase in softshell turtle exports over the past few years.

Among the Florida softshell, exports of live turtles were up 71 percent from 2009 to 2011, the most recent year included; a total of 367,629 live Florida softshell turtles were exported that year.

Common snapping turtles saw exports jump 24 percent — to 811,717 — over the same period. Exports of spiny softshell turtles, as well as snapping turtle meat, were also up.

Those numbers come from U.S. export records and are likely low, given that the Florida and other softshell turtles aren’t now listed, and so exporters aren’t legally required to declare turtle shipments by species. It’s also unclear how much of the trade is of turtles caught in the wild or of those raised on turtle farms, as many in Florida are.

“We don’t know how much is farm stock versus wild,” said Clifton Horton, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. “This listing may help us get this information as well.”

And there’s no question smugglers are doing whatever it takes to get the turtles outside the United States. Federal officials have been involved in cases in recent months where traders attempted to spirit out protected turtles — including a man in Detroit in August who federal officials said was caught with 51 turtles stuffed inside his pants as he entered Canada. Those weren’t Florida or other softshell turtles.

The Florida softshell turtle is found in all parts of the state, as well as in South Carolina, Georgia and southern Alabama. The harvest of them in Florida primarily comes from the southern part of the state and goes on year-round.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the capture of live freshwater turtles is tightly controlled, with a limit of one turtle per person per day from the wild for noncommercial use. According to the state, freshwater turtles can only be “taken by hand, dip net, minnow seine or baited hook,” and taking turtles with bucket traps or snares — or shooting them — is not allowed.

The action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service involves listing the turtles in a special appendix to an international treaty aimed at protecting species from the negative effects of over-harvest for international trade. The listing includes animals that officials say are in need of international trade controls; U.S. officials want to list the four turtles to better monitor existing trade and ensure that it is legal.

Once an animal is listed, any international trade — live species, parts, products — will require a special permit signifying the animal was caught properly, according to state laws, and that it is being shipped humanely. Shipments of a listed animal will receive greater scrutiny than ones of a non-listed animal.

The permit process also will give federal officials insight into how many wild turtles are actually leaving the United States — information that could help officials manage the species’ long-term survival. The proposal is open to public comments before it is finalized.

Photo via WikiCommons

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As Clean Water Act Ages, Washington State Groups Spar Over Its Meaning

As Clean Water Act Ages, Washington State Groups Spar Over Its Meaning

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — The nation’s primary law to keep its waters clean has a birthday Saturday — but any celebration will have to compete with a contentious battle over what the law actually means.

At issue is a proposal intended to clarify what waterways are and aren’t covered by the Clean Water Act, which dates to 1972. But that so-called “Waters of the United States” proposed rule has turned contentious, with federal officials receiving more than 200,000 comments from citizens and organizations nationwide.

Among those are environmentalists and agricultural groups from Washington state, who represent the sharp divide nationwide on the rule.

Ask the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, and the rule is an “egregious effort to illegally empower” the federal government, allowing it to “seize control over private property without just compensation.”

Officials with the state of Washington, meanwhile, support the rule, which is still in the proposal stage as comments stream in from people around the country.

“We are welcoming of the rule,” said Stephen Bernath, a water quality program policy adviser with the Washington state Department of Ecology. The department said the proposed rule should clarify the extent of the Clean Water Act jurisdiction — exactly the intent of the rule — and that it will be helpful.

It’s not perfect, the state added, and officials expect to offer some suggestions of their own to clarify things further. But for the most part, department spokeswomen Sandy Howard said, “We do not believe the rule will change fundamentally how we do business in our state.”

The Clean Water Act passed Congress in 1972, becoming law Oct. 18, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

At the time, according to an EPA account of the act, municipal and household wastes flowed untreated into rivers, lakes and streams; industrial chemicals were dumped into waterways, two-thirds of which were unsafe for swimming or fishing.

The act has since cleaned up many of the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams; far more are acceptable for swimming and fishing.

But the EPA said there is much work yet to be done. And one thing on its plate is the proposed water rule.

The water rule proposal seeks to clarify what is covered by the Clean Water Act — whether certain streams that dry up part of the year, for example, should be covered along with traditional rivers, streams and lakes. The rule was proposed by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It’s a reaction, in part, to two U.S. Supreme Court cases from the 2000s that addressed EPA’s water oversight.

The proposal, which EPA expects to finalize next year, is strongly pushed by the Obama administration and environmental groups, who say it would help keep rivers, lakes and other waterways healthy. But agriculture and other industry groups just as strongly oppose the plan, saying it represents a massive overreach by the federal government that would curtail farm activity.

For Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, the rule that sought clarity instead brought confusion.

“I fear this could have far-reaching impacts that are exactly the opposite of what the EPA is intending,” said Field, who is from Yakima, Wash.

For cattle ranchers, he said, that means an intermittent stream running through grazing areas could come under the jurisdiction of the EPA and be subject to Clean Water Act permitting requirements.

“This is a heavy-handed, top-down attempt to have a one-size-fits-all solution that’s not understood by anybody in the regulated community,” he said.

His official comments to the EPA call on the agency to immediately withdraw the rule.

The Washington Farm Bureau, in its comments, said it “strongly opposes these over-reaching proposals as they can, as drafted, be read to fundamentally expand” federal authority.

“Though our primary concern is the impact on agriculture, potential problems with this rule extend far beyond agriculture,” the Washington Farm Bureau wrote in its official comments to the EPA. “Every roadside ditch on every homeowner’s property, including every simple act of landscaping, spraying or mowing, could become subject to potential Clean Water Act regulations.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation is likewise pushing hard against the rule nationally. While the Clean Water Act exempts routine farming practices from certain permits, that exemption is filled with enough exemptions and limitations of its own that farm practices are effectively hamstrung by EPA authority, the bureau says; the new rule would “make it more difficult to farm or change a farming operation to remain competitive and profitable.”

The EPA has said those fears are overblown, and has rebutted what its administrator said is “a growing list of misunderstandings” about the rule. The EPA, in its assessments, projects that the new rule would result in a 3 percent increase in jurisdiction; farm groups say that seriously undercounts waters that could become covered.

For environmentalists such as Janet Alderton, the rule is both necessary and workable.

Alderton, whose career was as a cell biologist for the University of California, Berkeley, retired to Deer Harbor, a community on the San Juan Islands in Washington state’s far northwest corner.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful area — lots of water, and our islands are a really important nursery for young salmon,” said Alderton, who is vice president of Friends of the San Juans. “If we don’t have clean water along our shorelines then the salmon in the region would be even more impacted.”

Alderton submitted one of nearly 219,000 comments from people who have weighed in to the EPA on the rule; the agency recently extended its comments on the rule until Nov. 14, saying it needed more time to consider new scientific evidence on its proposal.

For her part, Alderton urged the federal government to finalize the rule as soon as possible.

“Follow the science that shows how water bodies are interconnected,” she wrote, “and fully protect all of the waterways that have important connections to one another. I urge you to continue to stand up to special interests that oppose these important — and popular — clean water protections.”

Photo: J. Stephen Conn via Flickr

EPA Faces Backlash In Trying To Regulate Wetlands That Often Aren’t Wet

EPA Faces Backlash In Trying To Regulate Wetlands That Often Aren’t Wet

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau

SMYRNA, Del. — When is a ditch just a ditch? And when is a plot of woodland without a stitch of visible water actually a “water of the U.S.”?

For federal officials working on regulations to clarify what the 42-year-old Clean Water Act really means, the debate is more than a simple “is-the-ditch-half-full-or-half-empty” exercise.

It’s become a flash point in the debate between environmental regulators and property owners, with farmers particularly hoping to persuade the federal government to pull the so-called “Waters of the U.S.” rule.

The Clean Water Act requires permits for developing waters under its jurisdiction, or discharging into them. That makes the rule — which regulators hope to complete by next spring — of vital importance to farmers and to landowners in general.

“The more we look at the rule the more it really concerns us,” said Charles Shinn, director of government and community affairs at the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said: “This is a very expansive rule.”

But in the eyes of Mark Biddle, who helps oversee wetlands management at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the confusion — and the conflict — comes when the public tries to get its head around science that to him is pretty clear-cut.

On a warm day last month, Biddle poked around a wooded area in the northern part of his tiny state. As he walked over dry and sometimes crunchy leaves, he explained that the slight depression in the wooded land was known as a “Delmarva bay.” In ancient lore, it’s known as a “whale wallow;” legend has it that primeval whales, stranded on high ground when waters receded, thrashed about enough to depress the earth.

“A landowner comes in here, he’ll say, ‘It’s not a wetland — it’s not wet!’ ” Biddle said.

How to treat these Delmarva bays is partly the issue in the mid-Atlantic region. Other regions have their own non-wet wetlands that could come under the rule’s jurisdiction.

Walking through the Delmarva bay, Biddle pointed to telltale signs of this not-so-obvious wetland: the base of trees, covered with green moss that stops at what was the water line; the leaves, dry on top yet soft and damp underneath; a northern green frog.

“It fills pretty much every spring,” he said of the bay. There are some species — the marbled salamander for one — that couldn’t survive without the wetland.

The water in this particular Delmarva bay drains toward the huge Delaware Bay a couple of miles away.

The “Waters of the U.S.” rule was proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It is intended to clarify which waters come under the powers of the 1972 Clean Water Act and which ones don’t.

Rivers, lakes, and year-round wetlands are obvious; other waters have long vexed regulators, and two U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 2000s muddled things further.

The proposed rule by the EPA and Corps of Engineers is intended to take the standards laid out by the high court and, as they say, clear the waters.

If that was the intent, it didn’t work.

Shinn, of the Florida Farm Bureau, said that although the rule is designed to clarify standards set by the Supreme Court, it still would default to a case-by-case determination as to whether a water or wetlands formation is isolated — therefore not covered — or whether it has a significant nexus to the nearby lakes or rivers that clearly are covered.

“Once you open up these cases, where does it stop?” Shinn said. “They fall back on whether something has the potential to impact downstream water. You can say that for any drop of water that lands anywhere. Does it have the potential? Well, yeah.”

Shinn said the EPA has taken what “was black and white and added in a whole lot of gray.”

Photo: MCT/Chris Adams

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EPA Chief Defends Power Plant Rule Against GOP Charges Of Overreach

EPA Chief Defends Power Plant Rule Against GOP Charges Of Overreach

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday strongly defended the approach and legitimacy of an Obama administration power plant rule that Republicans attacked as regulatory overreach and Democrats said was vital.

In a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule proposed last month will remove hundreds of millions of tons of carbon and hundreds of thousands of tons of other harmful air pollutants from the emissions of existing power plants that now taint the nation’s skies, boosting the health of American citizens and of the planet in general.

“The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction are clear,” McCarthy told the panel in what was her first time testifying on the power plant rule. “We must act.”

But the rule is contentious, tied up in coal-country politics and the ongoing debate over climate change. In coal-heavy states such as Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky, citizens, politicians and industry groups have attacked the rule as a major disruption to their economies — part of what they say is President Barack Obama’s “war on coal.”

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), a committee member, said that the concerns of coal states _ as well as others _ have been ignored as the EPA barrels ahead with its proposal.

“In fact, the administrator refuses to listen to the thousands of Americans who will be impacted by this rule,” he said. “The EPA administrator has refused to go out and visit folks in coal country whose lives the agency is upending. The EPA administrator won’t hold a public hearing in Wyoming — won’t hold a public hearing in Kentucky.”

In general, Republicans pushed McCarthy and the administration hard, saying that the EPA didn’t take enough input before releasing the rule and that it overstepped its legal authority in doing so. Beyond that, they said the whole rationale for the rule was flawed — that the science on climate change and global warming was unsettled and often contradictory.

Democrats responded that the rule-making process was elaborate and ongoing. As it stands, the rule is still in process, with a public comment period that runs through October and public hearings next week in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington. They said that the legal authority for the proposal was well-established and that the overwhelming number of experts on climate change said it was time to act.

The rule at issue was released last month by the Obama administration and is designed to substantially reduce carbon pollution in the nation — a process that could shutter older coal-fired power plants and spur development of more wind and other alternative energy sources. It requires that states develop plans to lower carbon pollution by specified amounts.

The testimony from the current head of the EPA also came a month after four former administrators of the agency — all of them appointed by Republican presidents — appeared before a Senate panel and said that climate change is real and that the federal government has the responsibility and the legal authority to combat it.

While that session was somewhat out of the ordinary, most of Wednesday’s session fell along traditional party lines. Republican senators bashed the proposal as unnecessary and burdensome and Democratic ones said it was both vital and legitimate.

During opening statements, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) bluntly laid out his objections.

“The proposed rule is a breathtaking regulatory overreach,” he said. “It is a job-killer. It is based on questionable science. It is of dubious legality under the Clean Air Act. It amounts to an end run against Congress. It is inflexible. It would have no effect on the climate and is therefore pointless, and it is punitive.”

Responded Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and the committee’s chairwoman: “Well outside of that, you love it?”

And joked Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont: “So you’re leaning yes, it that right, Roger?”

Photo: haglundc via Flickr

VA’s Health Care System: Problems Undo Years Of Progress

VA’s Health Care System: Problems Undo Years Of Progress

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Wanted: A heath care system “uniquely positioned to lead the country in making … positive changes in the way health care is delivered.”

It’s not likely that the Department of Veterans Affairs will be getting many takers on that anytime soon.

But just four months ago, that was the assessment the head of the VA’s health care system offered in an article for a publication that serves health care professionals working in government health services.

At the time, it was a plausible claim: The VA had spent years overcoming shortcomings in its health care system to emerge in the 2000s as a well-regarded health system. It had problems — many of them flagged over the years by government auditors and inspectors general — and it was prone to exaggeration in touting its successes.

But reviewers inside and outside the VA had thoroughly examined what was the largest integrated health care system in the nation and deemed it more than adequate.

“It’s good,” Katherine Watkins, a researcher for the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank, said of the VA’s mental health system, which she analyzed for a 2011 report. “For mental health care, the VA is doing as well or better than the private sector. And in some areas, it is doing 10 times better.”

The VA’s strengths have been in aggressively creating a unified, integrated system. It generally does well in making sure veterans get needed medications and with other types of ongoing, routine care. Its electronic records on patients allow it to closely track patient care.

That a health system derided by critics in both parties, slammed by its internal auditor, criticized by the Government Accountability Office and subject to vitriolic attacks by the very veterans it is intended to serve could get such positive reviews from a serious researcher reflects the conundrum that is the VA health system over the past generation.

In the past two decades, the VA’s health system had remade itself, boosting outpatient and preventive care into a growing network that included hospitals, outpatient clinics and other facilities. It de-emphasized inpatient care and sought to boost mental health care.

Today, the system has 151 medical centers, 820 community clinics, 300 Vet Centers that offer counseling, and a range of other rehabilitation, residential and other care centers. While the number of veterans in the nation has gradually declined in the five years through 2012, the number of veterans enrolled in the health care system and the number of patients both increased by 12 percent or more.

In a nation of about 22 million veterans, not all are part of the VA health system; in 2012, 8.8 million were enrolled and 6.3 million were patients, according to VA planning documents.

For those veterans who do get into the system — because of their disability levels, prison-of-war status, income or other factors — there is widespread satisfaction. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, a national survey run by an independent organization that allows comparisons over time and among different sectors of the economy, regularly asks veterans about their experience

On a 100-point scale, VA’s most recent score for inpatients was 84 — four points higher than the score for inpatients in private-sector hospitals. For VA outpatients, the score was 82, just one point below the private-sector score. Those numbers are from 2013.

As Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said on CBS over the weekend: “The truth is that when people get into the VA, the quality of care is good. The problem that we have to address is access to the system and waiting lines.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons