Tough Slog Ahead In Congress For No Child Rewrite

Tough Slog Ahead In Congress For No Child Rewrite

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander earlier this month announced a symbolic breakthrough in the decadelong ideological wrangling over how to rewrite the nation’s chief education law.

Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate committee working to renew the law known as No Child Left Behind, agreed to scrap his own proposed bill in favor of a new version he would craft with Murray, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Yet the promise of a bipartisan first draft — and quickening momentum that Congress may pass a reauthorization that is seven years overdue — has only heightened the political fissures.
Leaders of three national civil rights organizations on Feb. 10 said they will oppose any reauthorization that they say would shortchange students who are nonwhite, poor, English learners or otherwise disadvantaged.

The next day, a House committee passed a No Child bill modeled on a version the Republican-controlled House passed in 2013 without a single Democratic vote. The White House opposes the House bill, in part because it could divert federal Title 1 money earmarked for poor students to wealthier districts.

Meanwhile, opponents of annual standardized testing, led by teachers unions and some parents, are lobbying to roll back what they call “overuse and misuse” of test scores as a proxy for education quality. Instead, the National Education Association, for one, is asking the federal government to adopt a new “accountability system” that tracks access to counselors, advanced courses, qualified teachers and other elements that can influence a student’s success in school.

But business and civil rights groups and school superintendents are stepping up their support of the testing regime. Last month, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and four other organizations wrote Alexander and Murray calling annual assessments an “absolute necessity.” They urged Congress to keep the current schedule of math and reading tests each year from third to eighth grades and once in high school.

Much of the political swirl is centered on Alexander and Murray. The son of two educators, Alexander served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. Since taking the helm of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in January, Alexander has zeroed in on reauthorizing No Child, officially called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Murray once taught preschool in Bothell, Wash., before running for Congress. She has made boosting education spending, especially for prekindergarten children, a legislative hallmark.

Though Murray’s party lost majority control of the Senate in the November elections, Alexander needs to sway at least six Democrats behind his No Child legislation in order to gain 60 votes needed to ward off a filibuster.

Any accord between Alexander and Murray, however, would have to reconcile their clashing views on the federal government’s role in education.

Murray believes the federal government — which put up $61 billion, or 10 percent, of the cost of educating public elementary and secondary students in fiscal 2012 — has the right to demand accountability from local schools. The federal government, she said recently, “has an important and unique role to play” to ensure quality education, particularly for lower-achieving students.

Murray opposes scaling back the number of mandatory federal tests. They total 17 tests, including one science assessment in elementary, middle and high school, spread out over ten years. Those are on top of exams imposed by states or school districts, including those required for graduation.

The House version of No Child Left Behind also would keep the current testing schedule, with support from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

Many teachers, however, are skeptical that the testing regiment has had much to do with the slow but steady rise in scores on standardized math and reading tests over the past decade.
Stephen Miller, vice president of the Washington Education Association, believes overuse of tests has subverted the very reasons President Lyndon Johnson signed an education law in 1965: to equalize access to good public education for all American children.

Miller contends the focus and preparations for tests on core subjects like math and science have crowded out physical education, music and other programs that most help lagging students stay engaged in school.

“We’ve been testing too much and not teaching enough,” said Miller, a former Bellevue School District social-studies teacher in Washington state.

Before Alexander agreed to let Murray co-author the No Child bill, he floated the option of leaving decisions on testing up to the states. That alarmed testing advocates, who say tracking progress for specific groups of students is possible only with annual testing.

“The Alexander draft would actually allow districts to have their own set of tests, so a student who was proficient in Spokane might not be proficient in Seattle, or vice versa,” said Chad Aldeman, associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting firm.

Another flashpoint is the Obama administration’s push to link test scores to teacher evaluations.

Randy Dorn, Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction, said the controversy over teacher evaluations has been “blown out of proportion.” Dorn said discerning principals can identify good teachers after 15 minutes of observations. He said that should be the main basis of grading any teacher.

Nonetheless, Dorn said, test scores also reveal something about teachers’ contributions, and they “should be an indicator” used in overall evaluations.

Murray has echoed similar views. Speaking at a HELP committee hearing in January, she said gauging teachers’ quality should be based on different measurements. But Murray said she was wary of using those measurements as “the sole factor in setting salaries or using testing as the sole indicator in an evaluation.”

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

Patty Murray Switches Senate Committees To Work On Family Issues

Patty Murray Switches Senate Committees To Work On Family Issues

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON 00 U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is one of the most forceful advocates in Congress for Americans on the middle rung of the economic ladder, or lower.

So it’s been an open secret for months that Murray (D-WA) hoped to swap her chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa when he relinquished the gavel of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has wide jurisdiction on issues affecting working-class families.

When the 114th Congress begins Tuesday, Murray will take over Harkin’s committee seat. But because of the November elections, she will be the ranking Democrat, not chairwoman.

That likely will make it even harder for Murray to make progress on her priorities, many of which Republicans oppose on fiscal or ideological grounds. Among them are expanding access to taxpayer-funded preschools, raising the minimum wage and restoring contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act that was stripped out by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

“The reality we know is that we now have a Republican-controlled Senate and House,” Murray said in an interview. “That doesn’t mean I’m not going to fight for it.”

Murray’s best shot at an accord in the health and education committee might be reauthorizing the elementary- and secondary-education law signed by President George W. Bush called No Child Left Behind. The law, which has been awaiting renewal since 2007, mandated testing to ensure that every public-school student in the nation was performing at grade level on math and English by the 2013-14 academic year.

Less 50 percent of American students have met that goal. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Education has granted waivers from the federal law to virtually every state.

Murray said she hopes to forge a compromise education act with Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the incoming committee chairman. Working in their favor, Murray said, is that congressional Democrats and Republicans “all agree it’s a broken law.”

Murray is a former preschool teacher and PTA president who served on a school board.

Alexander is a son of a high-school principal and a preschool teacher and was secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.

Murray and Alexander will have to bridge a deep partisan divide on how much say — if any — the federal government should have in securing a good public education for every child. In 2013, the Republican-led House and the Democrat-controlled Senate education committee passed competing education bills almost entirely along party lines. Alexander objected to the Senate bill as creating a “national school board.”

Neither party, however, has proposed overturning the current requirement for annual standardized testing in grades three to eight and testing once in high school. Relying on test scores as a proxy for teacher quality remains controversial among some educators and their unions.

Diane Ravitch, former undersecretary of education under Alexander who later turned against testing, said No Child Left Behind made the federal government an arbiter of school quality and has been a “disaster.”

“Today there is a tremendous and growing anti-testing movement in every state in this nation,” said Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University. Murray and Alexander should “eliminate the federal role in overtesting students.”

Murray defended standardized testing, saying it “has a critical role to play” in gauging student learning and helping teachers “assess if what they are doing is right.”

Nonetheless, Murray believes testing for accountability can go too far.

Suspected test tampering at Seattle’s Beacon Hill International School, Murray said, could be an example of how overzealous reliance on testing sometimes backfires. Seattle Public Schools this summer invalidated Beacon Hill students’ scores on state tests after discovering excessive erasures that converted wrong answers into correct ones.

In Seattle, high test scores can earn principals thousands of dollars in bonuses and qualify teachers for higher-paying positions as mentors for their peers. The district is hoping a handwriting expert can identify who was responsible for the alterations.

Inflexible and unrealistically high standards for test scores, Murray said, can create “such tremendous pressure that the outcomes could be things like what we’re seeing” at Beacon Hill.

Murray conceded it would be difficult to secure federal spending for one of her chief ambitions, universal preschool. Seattle voters in November approved higher property taxes to pay for city-subsidized preschool, and New York City in 2014 began offering free, full-day classes for 4-year-olds.

But there “is a huge hole at the federal level,” said Murray, who believes early-childhood education is a necessary investment for a competitive global economy.

Murray also said she would seek advice on how to advance a bill introduced by Harkin and other Democrats in 2013 to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in February estimated that could cost jobs for 500,000 low-wage workers as employers cut back. That would be offset by $31 billion in higher earnings by 2016, for a net gain of $2 billion in real income.

That economic argument still wasn’t enough for Democrats to get the minimum-wage bill passed in this Congress, said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.

Despite a push by Murray and her Democratic colleagues, Congress in 2014 also did not renew extended unemployment benefits for people out of work for more than six months, said Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

High Court Weighs When Workday Ends In Amazon Case

High Court Weighs When Workday Ends In Amazon Case

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — The federal Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted to ensure “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

But when does the workday end for warehouse workers forced to wait nearly a half-hour after quitting time to be checked for any pilfered merchandise?

That was the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday in a case filed by two former workers at Amazon warehouses in Nevada that could redefine what constitutes paid labor.

The legal question presented to the sometimes skeptical justices was whether waiting to clear security screening was an “integral and indispensable” part of the job, thus subject to pay. A ruling in the workers’ favor could sharply limit activities employers can require just before or after work off the clock, such as closing out cash registers at casinos and stores.

The original complaint was filed in 2010 against Integrity Staffing Solutions, which provides contract workers to Seattle-based Amazon and other vendors.

To prevail, the attorneys for workers Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro will have to sway the court’s conservative justices, who repeatedly honed in on whether time spent waiting to exit a building amounted to “principal” work.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito in particular pushed back against arguments by Mark Thierman, the workers’ attorney, that the security searches were Amazon’s way of safeguarding its inventory and were mandated for the company’s benefit. That, Thierman said, makes the wait centrally linked to the job.

Roberts rejected that reasoning.

“No one’s principal activity is going through security screening,” he said.

Paul Clement, a former U.S. Solicitor General and attorney for Integrity, told the justices that passing through metal detectors was classic before- or after-shift activity that has been established through case law as exempt from pay.

Two circuit courts previously ruled against New York nuclear-plant workers and Miami airport-construction workers who had sought pay for time spent reaching their work sites, which included passing through radiation detectors or taking a shuttle bus from the tarmac.

Clement argued the Amazon case was similarly about coming and going to actual work.

“Work of consequence is not checking in and checking out,” Clement said. “Nobody gets paid to go through security all day.”

The federal government, which has scores of employees who must go through physical security checks regularly, sided with Integrity. Curtis Gannon, assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, appeared before the justices for 10 minutes.

At the time of the original complaint in 2010, the workers claimed it took 25 minutes a day — adding up to an extra day of work each month — to leave the Amazon warehouses in a single-file line alongside hundreds of other workers.

During the holiday season, staffing in the mammoth warehouses can swell to several thousand people.

Since then, according to both Amazon and Thierman, wait times for screening have been reduced to just several minutes.

The original lawsuit was tossed out by the U.S. District Court in Nevada. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed it, saying the merchandise checks were done for Integrity’s benefit and were a necessary part of the workers’ duties.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned Clement whether it was irrelevant that because of a shortage of security checkers and lack of staggered shifts, “what could be a five-minute process turns out to be 25 minutes, 25 minutes of workers’ time.”

Clement replied “the pure length of time of something” does not change it to an activity subject to compensation under labor laws.F

Justice Elena Kagan forcefully countered Clement’s argument that security checks were nothing more than simple “egress.” Clement distinguished Amazon from another case where a circuit court ruled that butchers who had to sharpen their knives before starting work were engaged in indispensable activity and thus should be paid.

Kagan said the security measures were in fact an integral part of Amazon’s operations.

“I mean, what makes it Amazon? It’s a system of inventory control that betters everybody else in the business,” she said. “And what’s really important to Amazon is that it knows where every toothbrush in the warehouse is.”

Thierman said the workers’ time sacrifice for Amazon’s anti-theft policy was not trivial.”It’s work because you’re told to do it,” he said.

Speaking to reporters on court steps after the arguments, Thierman acknowledged the original complaint would not apply to Amazon today because the company has shortened screening time to minimal minutes that would not trigger questions of overtime pay.

Still, Thierman said a legal ruling was needed to keep Amazon and other employers in check.

Otherwise, “they’d go back to their old ways,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they?”

The Supreme Court’s new term began this week. A decision on the case could come any time before the term ends around June.

AFP Photo/Emmanuel Dunand

Airlines Offer Only Partial Picture Of Animal Safety On Flights

Airlines Offer Only Partial Picture Of Animal Safety On Flights

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Harley was the bulldog’s name. He was pronounced dead at baggage claim at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last year despite a passenger’s attempt at cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Two months later, a mixed-breed Rottweiler arrived lifeless at Sea-Tac in his chewed-out kennel, dead of what later was diagnosed as aspiration pneumonia. And at Logan International Airport in Boston, a male cat named Daunte twice escaped from his kennel before he could be loaded into the cargo hold; he was found the next day after a ramp vehicle had struck him dead.

The three were among at least 62 animals that died, were injured or lost since 2010 while being flown aboard Alaska Airlines, a tally that makes the Seattle-based company one of the nation’s leading carriers in recent years for reported pet casualties.

Only Delta, the nation’s busiest airline, with six times Alaska’s passenger traffic, reported more incidents, 74, to the U.S. Department of Transportation during the same period. But for 2013 and for the first seven months of this year, Alaska topped the casualty rankings.

The reasons for Alaska’s number of victims are unclear. The company suspects it may handle more than its share of animals. Alaska is practically the house airline in its namesake state, where residents have few alternatives for shipping their pets long distances.

Alaska, the nation’s ninth-largest carrier by passenger traffic, has one of the industry’s most pet-friendly policies. It offers “Fur-st Class Care” for most small domesticated pets, including potbellied pigs, birds, hamsters, turtles and nonvenomous snakes, either in the passenger cabin or in the plane’s climate-controlled cargo hold. Several domestic carriers, including JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and US Airways, do not accept even dogs or cats as cargo.

Alaska also is one of few airlines to accept snub-nosed dogs, breeds that are more susceptible to heatstroke and respiratory issues.

Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for Alaska, said the company ferries about 80,000 pets annually, virtually all of them without a hitch. She said Alaska employees are specially trained and follow strict federal guidelines to ensure safety.

“Transporting pets, whether in the cabin or as checked baggage in our cargo hold, to us is just like transporting a family member,” she said.

In all, Alaska and other U.S. carriers count several dozen animal injuries, losses or deaths annually — a minuscule fraction of the estimated several hundred thousand animals transported by air.

In the vast majority of incidents, pets suffer unexplained deaths or hurt themselves while attempting to escape their kennels. Airlines are rarely found to be at fault.

The Transportation Department figures, however, capture only a partial safety picture. That’s because the federal agency currently requires tracking only for household pets. That exempts scores of other animals, including those bound for pet stores or research labs.

Starting Jan. 1, the department will require airlines to fill in some — but not all — of the missing data. That’s when airlines for the first time will have to report the total number of animals they handle, finally making it possible to calculate complaint rates.

More significant, the agency expanded incident-reporting requirements to include not only all warm-and coldblooded household pets, but dogs and cats shipped by breeders and suppliers to retailers and researchers.

The rule changes come four years after the Animal Legal Defense Fund petitioned the agency to close loopholes it said camouflaged the true extent of risks to animals. Three U.S. senators, including Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), also urged the department to expand incident reports to animals that aren’t pets.

The National Association of Biomedical Research opposed the proposed rules as an “unnecessary” burden and cost to carriers, breeders and research facilities. Airlines for America, whose members include Alaska and most other major airlines as well as UPS and FedEx, lodged similar objections.

The Transportation Department finally decided to exempt commercial shipments of animals other than dogs and cats from reporting requirements. That was a setback for animal-welfare organizations that had argued to include, for example, monkeys and other primates bound for laboratories.

Animal-welfare experts generally consider flying inherently stressful, and they recommend against cargo flights.

Carter Dillard, director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), said numerous variables make it difficult to draw conclusions about any one airline’s safety record. The animals’ health, total length of trip, extreme temperatures and other factors can play a role.

ALDF’s original petition for expanded mandatory reporting was triggered by the August 2010 death of seven puppies shipped by a breeder in Tulsa, Okla., during a heat wave. But because the dogs were classified as a commercial shipment, American Airlines did not have to record the fatalities.

Dillard contends that the Transporation Department adopted a selective definition for animals to appease carriers, research institutes and universities.

“The whole point is to get a complete picture of the risks to animals,” he said.

Flying has been shown to be particularly hazardous to short-nosed or snub-nosed dogs. The breeds, which include French and English bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers and Shih Tzus, by Alaska’s calculations accounted for nearly 40 percent of its 16 pet deaths during the past two years.

United Airlines accepts short-nosed breeds as checked baggage, but Delta and American Airlines do not. Egan said Alaska is reviewing its policy on such breeds.

Mary Beth Melchior, founder of Where is Jack?, a pet travel safety-advocacy group in Miami Beach, Fla., said Alaska and its competitors can do more to avert potential harm. One way would be to refuse pets as cargo if they seem unfit to fly.

Another way, she said, would be to better train baggage and cargo workers, who in some cases are employed by outside contractors.
Your pets in flight

Your dog, cat, rabbit or other household pet can fly with you — but not on all airlines, not to all destinations and not at all times. So check your carrier’s policy on whether it accepts pets in the passenger cabin only or in the baggage compartment, whether pets can fly international routes, or in hot or cold months.

Animal-welfare experts generally advise against transporting pets by plane. If you must, here’s how you can ease the stress of flying:

––Check whether you need a health certificate and a rabies-vaccination certificate from a vet. Document requirements vary by states and other destinations.

––Animals flying in the passenger cabin must be small enough to stow their kennels under the seat.

––Avoid connecting flights and don’t travel during times of extreme temperatures.

––Sedation is not recommended, as it can cause problems for animals in high altitudes.

––Make sure the kennel is large enough for the animal to stand up straight and turn around.

––Kennels should be well-built and escape-proof.

Photo: Shyb via Flickr

Ex-Aide Accuses McMorris Rodgers, Staff Of Possibly Lying, And Smearing Him

Ex-Aide Accuses McMorris Rodgers, Staff Of Possibly Lying, And Smearing Him

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Breaking a six-month silence, a former aide who was fingered for allegedly filing an ethics complaint against U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), lashed out Monday, accusing the Republican and her staff of falsely smearing his name and possibly lying to congressional investigators.

Todd Winer, McMorris Rodgers’ former communications director, said by phone he did not instigate the complaint and spoke to investigators merely as a witness.

The interview came after Winer sent a four-page email to The Seattle Times and other media outlets debunking what he called his former boss’s “fantasy” story that she and her staff broke no congressional rules by allegedly mixing official and campaign money and activities.

Winer also claimed the House Committee on Ethics was expanding its inquiry beyond the initial focus to include “efforts to intimidate and punish” him for cooperating with investigators.

He said he met with ethics committee investigators for the third time this past week. He said he expects the ethics panel to take the case to the next step by convening an investigative subcommittee — which has subpoena powers — after the midterm elections to ascertain whether McMorris Rodgers broke any federal rules.

In March, the ethics committee deferred opening a formal investigation and instead appointed two lawmakers to continue reviewing the complaints. That decision came three months after an independent watchdog agency, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), referred the case to the ethics committee after finding “substantial reasons” to believe violations occurred.

The OCE concluded, among other things, that McMorris Rodgers may have violated ethics rules by using her taxpayer-funded office staff and budget for her 2012 re-election campaign as well as her successful run that year as chair of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 GOP leadership slot.

The ethics committee’s move, however, did not preclude impaneling an investigative subcommittee later that could lead to ethics charges or sanctions.

McMorris Rodgers, through her attorney, Elliott Berke, has denied any wrongdoing and predicted the case — which he said was based on “frivolous allegations from a single source” — would eventually be dismissed.

On Monday, Berke issued a statement saying, “We are sorry to see more frivolous allegations and information from the same source. From the beginning the Congresswoman and her staff have fully cooperated with the Ethics Committee and will continue to do so should it have more questions.”

Winer was let go as McMorris Rodgers’ communications director in January 2013. In February 2014, McMorris Rodgers disclosed the ethics complaint as it was about to be made public by the ethics committee. An aide to McMorris Rodgers named Winer as the source of the complaint, though that information was not public.

Winer worked as communications director for Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador before leaving recently for reasons he declined to specify.

Winer accused McMorris Rodgers’ office of spreading deliberate lies about him to damage his reputation. He also singled out her chief of staff, Jeremy Deutsch, as someone who “instigated nearly all of the violations” cited in the OCE report.

Photo: Republican Conference via Flickr

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Washington State Man Seeks His Gay Partner’s Federal Benefits

Washington State Man Seeks His Gay Partner’s Federal Benefits

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — The ceremony was meticulously planned, befitting a wedding where one of the grooms is a self-professed Virgo with obsessive-compulsive leanings.

A roving Austin Powers impersonator posed for photos with guests as a pair of dolphin ice sculptures glistened. A singer, dressed as Adam Sandler from the movie The Wedding Singer, crooned “Grow Old With You” as the couple walked down parallel aisles. After the vows, 24 monarch butterflies fluttered away while a party bus idled outside to haul any over-imbibed guests back home.

That 2003 union of Joe Krumbach and Jerry Hatcher, however, was missing one crucial detail: a marriage certificate that was legal. The ceremony — officiated by a rabbi and witnessed by more than 200 guests at Salty’s restaurant in West Seattle — took place long before Washington state voters approved same-sex marriages beginning Dec. 6, 2012. Instead, Krumbach and Hatcher could only register as domestic partners.

That distinction today has become a legal hitch in Krumbach’s $80,000 claim against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Hatcher, a decorated Vietnam veteran, died in 2008. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2013 that denying federal benefits to same-sex married couples was unconstitutional, Krumbach applied for retroactive survivor’s benefits as Hatcher’s widower.

Earlier this month, the VA again rejected Krumbach’s claim for so-called dependency and indemnity compensation. The tax-free money is paid to survivors of service members who die on duty or who were disabled from service-related causes. Hatcher, who died of liver disease, was declared 100 percent disabled because of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

The reason for the denial, the VA said, is that Hatcher died four years before Washington legalized same-sex marriage. The couple never got a chance to get hitched again, or have their domestic partnership automatically rolled over to marriage this June under the new state law.

Krumbach acknowledges his might be a quixotic fight, but he believes the VA’s ruling smacks of injustice. He and Hatcher committed to each other to the full extent allowed them at the time, and Krumbach says he’s being financially penalized for being gay.

“If I had a vagina, and my name was Josephine, this would not be a discussion,” the Vashon resident said. “What is the definition of marriage? It’s a contract.”

On Aug. 18, Lambda Legal, a national advocacy group for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people, filed a petition seeking to overturn a recent VA directive on how to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. In a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., Lambda accuses the VA of discrimination by limiting benefits to gay couples only if they live and married in a state where same-sex marriages are legal. That policy excludes couples who marry in a state where it is legal but live elsewhere.

Lambda filed the petition on behalf of the American Military Partner Association, a support network for LGBT service members and their families.

Susan Sommer, an attorney for Lambda Legal, said the petition likely won’t apply to Krumbach’s case. Hatcher’s death, she said, eliminated the chance to convert the couple’s status to legally married.

Krumbach, who turns 48 this week, insists his case has merit. He holds to Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith that the shift to justice is inexorable. All the same, Krumbach concedes that for him and Hatcher, the world may have changed a little too late.

It was only in 2006 that Washington State Supreme Court upheld the ban on gay marriages under the state’s 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, concluding that the Legislature was “entitled to believe that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples furthers procreation, essential to the survival of the human race.”

Today Washington and 18 other states have legalized same-sex marriages. Three more recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships. Yet a majority of Americans still live in states that define marriage as between a man and a woman, according to Third Way, a nonprofit policy group that promotes moderate political agendas.

“I cannot help but wonder how many ‘me’s’ there are out there,” Krumbach said.

Krumbach spent more than two decades working as a mortgage lender and is past president of Seattle Mortgage Bankers Association. A detail hound (“I don’t do sloppy”), he can recall the smallest memories of his 19 years with Hatcher, whom he called an ancient soul.

They met in 1989 at the now-shuttered Ritz Cafe on Capitol Hill after Hatcher “rescued me from someone who wasn’t going to take no for an answer.” Krumbach had recently moved to Seattle after attending Washington State University. Hatcher was a 41-year-old Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and the Army Commendation for Valor. He had co-owned Dante’s, a bar and restaurant in the University District.

Krumbach said he is waging a moral, not financial, battle. Hatcher fought for his country, and Krumbach believes the country owes him on Hatcher’s behalf. He wants the right to be buried next to Hatcher in Arlington National Cemetery. The $80,000 would come in handy, too, as Krumbach has not earned a regular paycheck since being laid off as a loan officer at Evergreen Home Loans in 2011.

Most of all, Krumbach said he’s challenging a flawed system so others won’t have to.

“Every wave starts with a ripple. If in (Jerry’s) name I can make it better for the next guy, I have succeeded.”

Photo: Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

Colorado, Washington Senators Seek Uniform U.S. Guidelines On Recreational Pot

Colorado, Washington Senators Seek Uniform U.S. Guidelines On Recreational Pot

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Spurred by the recent Interior Department decision to block the use of federal irrigation water to cultivate marijuana, the four U.S. senators from Washington and Colorado want the White House to direct federal agencies to adopt uniform guidelines impacting recreational pot.

In a letter Monday to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the lawmakers said the water ruling conflicts with earlier guidelines issued by the Justice and Treasury departments that seek to enforce the federal ban on marijuana only selectively.

The appeal is signed by Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington and Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado. All four are Democrats and represent the two states that have legalized and regulated the recreational sale of marijuana.

The letter is part of an effort to prod Congress to eventually amend the federal Controlled Substances Act to allow states to operate legal marijuana markets — and remove the possibility of federal prosecution on a range of activities related to selling and using pot.

Both the Justice and Treasury departments have issued memorandums outlining how they would apply prosecutorial discretion to marijuana violations. Among their priorities will be to keep kids away from pot, go after gangs and cartels, prevent drugged driving and maintain the ban on marijuana possession or use on federal property.

In May, however, Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation announced it would not allow its facilities or water to be used for marijuana cultivation. The agency, which provides water to local irrigation districts, said it would report known instances where federal water was being used to grow pot plants.

The bureau’s differing interpretation of its legal duty under the Controlled Substances Act, the lawmakers said, made it incumbent on the Obama administration to ensure consistency.

“We believe it is appropriate for the White House to assume a central and coordinating role for this governmentwide approach,” the lawmakers wrote.

Alison Holcomb, the criminal justice director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and an author of Washington’s marijuana law, said clear directives from the White House would help stave off potential conflicts.

For instance, Washington law directs that 1 percent of the excise tax slapped on pot sales goes to the University of Washington and Washington State University to research the short- and long-term effects of marijuana use.

But under federal law, researchers could not handle samples of Washington-grown pot without risking prosecution. Currently, all marijuana federally approved for research must come from a government-contracted farm at the University of Mississippi.

In addition, Holcomb said, it’s possible federal highway funds could be jeopardized if marijuana is transported on federally funded roads. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law that withheld 5 percent of federal highway funds from states whose minimum drinking ages were under 21, the federal requirement.

AFP Photo/Frederic J. Brown

2 Washington State Congress Members Lecture Tech Giants On Gender Equality

2 Washington State Congress Members Lecture Tech Giants On Gender Equality

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Congress is hardly a bastion of diversity. The Senate is 93 percent white. The Republicans in the House don’t have a single African-American or Asian-American member. And men in both chambers outnumber women 4 to 1.

So what were Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) doing at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, D.C., last week?

Telling Microsoft and other tech titans to build up their ranks of women.

Cantwell and DelBene, were the lone lawmakers to appear at the five-day event, Microsoft’s annual global fest for networking. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) was invited, but canceled at the last minute because of a conflict with scheduled congressional votes.

At a Women in Tech panel, Cantwell noted that a record 20 of the 100 U.S. senators are women. That’s the same as their share among software developers and tech executives. The lack of female perspective, Cantwell said, is a serious shortage in an economy where women make 85 percent of the spending decisions.

Cantwell drew a sharp contrast between the sexes — at least in politics.

“We have a saying in the Senate: When the TV cameras are on, there are two kinds of senators. There are those who immediately check their hair and makeup … and then there are the women.

“I think women are more interested in getting things done than claiming credit,” said Cantwell, who before running for the Senate was senior vice president at RealNetworks, the Seattle-based Internet audio-streaming pioneer.

Cantwell said women’s increased presence in the Capitol was responsible for key legislation, including boosting funding to the National Institutes of Health for research on women’s health issues and the 2013 passage of the Violence Against Women Act to toughen penalties for domestic batterers.

Yet, Cantwell said, women are often underestimated.

She talked of last year’s budget agreement negotiated between Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The deal helped set the overall 2014 spending levels, a dispute that earlier had triggered last October’s 16-day federal government shutdown.

For that achievement, Ryan was “lauded on TV as maybe the next presidential candidate,” Cantwell said at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

But when it came to the 5-foot Murray, “the only thing they talked about was her stature, which just shows you that we don’t always get all the credit.”

“I think it is very important for women to stand up and take credit,” she said.

DelBene, a former Microsoft executive whose husband, Kurt DelBene, retired last year as head of Microsoft’s Office division, spoke briefly at an earlier reception at the conference.

Aaron Schmidt, DelBene’s chief of staff, said she discussed the importance of diversity to innovation. Assembling people of different skills and background, DelBene said, will fuel creativity as computing migrates away from desktop PCs to tablets, smartphones, and new devices.

If Cantwell and DelBene’s message needs to be heard anywhere, it might well be in Silicon Valley and other tech corridors. The industry, dominated by mostly young men, has come under fire for both the dearth of women and for sometimes overtly misogynistic culture.

Only a quarter of computer and math jobs in the country are held by women, according to 2013 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Women account for 24.4 percent of Microsoft’s U.S. employees. At Google, 17 percent of technical workers worldwide are female.

The imbalance partly reflects that women are less likely to pursue studies in relevant fields. In 2012, for example, women earned only 18 percent of the 48,000 bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer sciences by American colleges.

The share of women who earned master’s degrees in computer sciences was higher, nearly 28 percent, according to the National Science Foundation. But about half of those were awarded to foreign students, not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

AFP Photo / Markku Ruottinen

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Democratic Lawmakers Move To Upend Ruling On Birth Control

Democratic Lawmakers Move To Upend Ruling On Birth Control

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Taking up advice from Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., congressional Democrats Wednesday introduced legislation to get around the court’s decision last month to exempt private corporations from having to provide coverage for birth-control pills and devices that violate the companies’ religious beliefs.

The companion bills — the Senate version co-authored by Patty Murray of Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado — are perhaps the sharpest pushback against judicial authority since the 2010 Citizen United ruling that green-lighted unlimited independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.

The Murray-Udall bill would address the court’s June 30 opinion that Hobby Lobby Stores and other closely-held for-profit companies can opt out of providing contraceptive coverage. Birth control coverage without co-pays is among mandatory preventive services that employers must provide under the federal Affordable Care Act.

A companion bill in the House is being introduced by Representatives Louise Slaughter and Jerrold Nadler of New York, and Diana DeGette of Colorado.

Democrats said they are channeling widespread anger and fear that the ruling will embolden employers to deny coverage for vaccines, HIV treatment and other services that violate their values.

In January, Murray, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state and 17 other Senate Democrats filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court to argue that secular for-profit companies had no right to impose their owners’ religious beliefs on people on their payrolls.

“Women across the country are outraged” that CEOs can interfere with health-care decisions, Murray said at a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol, where she was flanked by lawmakers and reproductive-rights advocates.

Women are “tired of being targeted and are looking to Congress to right this wrong by the Supreme Court,” Murray said.

Justice Roberts himself suggested a legislative remedy during oral arguments in March. Roberts pushed back against Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s argument that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act that prohibited the government from “substantially burden(ing) a person’s exercise of religion” was never intended to apply to for-profit corporations.

“Well, if Congress feels as strongly about this as you suggest, they can always pass an exemption,” Roberts said.

Murray said the bill had support from about 40 senators, all Democrats. The legislation would ban employers from refusing coverage for any benefits guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act. It also specifies that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not grounds for such refusal.

Hobby Lobby, a family-owned national craft-store chain, objected to coverage for emergency contraceptives known as morning-after pills. The company argued the pills, sold under brand names Plan B and ella, worked by aborting fertilized eggs. However, researchers believe the pills prevent conception by keeping the egg and sperm from meeting.

A second, Christian family-owned company, Conestoga Wood Specialties, made the same challenge.

In a 5-4 opinion, the justices said requiring such coverage created substantial burden on the companies’ religious liberty.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said her group was mobilizing women across the country. Richards said women use contraceptives for medical reasons as well as to guard against pregnancies, and denying them coverage was gender discrimination.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the Obama administration allowed “reasonable” exemptions under the health-care law for churches and religious nonprofits. But private corporations, she said, deserve no such accommodation, and their owners’ personal beliefs should not impinge on their workers’ rights.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

White House Holds Summit On Work-Life Balance

White House Holds Summit On Work-Life Balance

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Monday hosted its first White House Summit on Working Families, part of a national dialogue about how to update workplace policies for modern families that is already reshaping wage and work laws across the country.

The summit brought together academics, executives, labor leaders, and others on ways to encourage cultural and political shifts to enable employees to earn sustainable wages and to better juggle the clashing demands between work and home.

The daylong event, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., was meant to help fuse a patchwork of local, state, and federal rules and laws into broader national strategy. The focus on working families also is a key part of the Democrats’ agenda heading into the 2014 midterm elections this November.

Among Monday’s speakers was Makini Howell, an owner of Plum Restaurants, which operates several vegan eateries in Seattle. Howell said Seattle’s new $15-an-hour minimum wage ordinance and mandatory paid sick leave rules are a part of a compact that can benefit both employers and employees.

Employers “can care about the advancement of working families and still make a profit,” Howell said, to big cheers from the audience. “If you have a worker that dedicates five, 10 years of their lives to my success … why not pay a sick day?”

High-powered working parents offered candid stories about ways they balanced their professional and personal lives — or not.

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, recalled sitting in a business meeting 28 years ago, two weeks away from her due date and in desperate need of a bathroom break. The workplace back then wasn’t much hospitable for pregnant women, so Jarrett fibbed about her reason for bolting from the room.

Jarrett rued that the United States remains almost a sole exception around the world in lacking mandatory paid maternity leave. A survey of 185 countries and territories by a United Nations agency last month found that only two other governments — Oman and Papua New Guinea — do not pay a portion of a new mother’s lost income or require employers to do so.

Mark Weinberger, Chairman and Chief Executive of EY, a global accounting and professional services firm once known as Ernst & Young, said he once bailed out of a business dinner in China in order to keep a promise to be with his daughter during her driver’s exam.

Weinberger believes it’s imperative for businesses to embrace policies that help retain committed employees. He said 60 percent of EY’s worldwide workforce of 180,000 are members of Generation Y, people mostly in their 20s. Nearly 40 percent of those millennials, Weinberger said, would leave an employer that isn’t flexible about schedules, family leaves, and other matters.

Weinberger said such wishes transcend gender.

“Women don’t want to be singled out, and men don’t want to be left out,” he said.

The summit was sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Labor, and the White House Council on Women and Girls.

It follows a series of actions by the Obama administration and Democrats to promote, among other issues, higher minimum wages, pay parity for women and universal preschool.

In February, Obama signed an executive order to raise the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 an hour on Jan. 1 for employees of federal contractors, ranging from defense companies like Boeing to janitorial and food-services firms.

Photo: dcJohn via Flickr

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Obama To Visit Washington State, See Mudslide Aftermath

Obama To Visit Washington State, See Mudslide Aftermath

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will fly to Washington state on April 22 to see the aftermath of the Snohomish County mudslide, exactly a month after one of the state’s worst natural disasters.

The president notified U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) of his plans during a five-minute phone call Tuesday. DelBene’s 1st District includes the neighborhood near Oso that vanished beneath the mud and debris, and the town of Darrington to the east.

The White House also notified Gov. Jay Inslee, who had been discussing a possible presidential visit since shortly after the rain-soaked slope gave way March 22. Obama plans to meet with families, first responders and recovery workers. He will be accompanied by Inslee, DelBene and Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA).

DelBene said she wanted the president to witness the “incredible devastation” firsthand. She said the Obama administration has been responsive to the disaster, but that additional federal help may be needed.

Obama declared an emergency two days after the mudslide, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist with search and rescue. It took the state until March 31 to compile a damage assessment to seek a declaration of major disaster, necessary for direct financial aid from FEMA to victims. Obama issued the declaration two days later.

The death toll from the mudslide stood at 35 on Tuesday, with 11 others missing. Five dozen homes and other structures were destroyed.

DelBene said the timing of the president’s visit on the one-month anniversary is coincidental. After his tour, Obama will board Air Force One for a long-planned swing through Asia, with stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Obama’s trip to Oso will be comparatively belated when compared with some recent disasters. After Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, for instance, Obama suspended his re-election campaign and toured the damage with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie two days after the storm made landfall. Sandy left 32 dead in New Jersey, 53 in New York and tens of billions of dollars in damage.

And three days after the Boston Marathon bombing last April, the president and first lady Michelle Obama visited patients at hospitals and attended an interfaith service.

Keith Maley, a White House spokesman, said the timing of Obama’s visit was hashed out closely with local and state officials and was tailored to minimize impact on the ongoing recovery work.

When Obama visited Colorado Springs in June 2012, as deadly wildfires that began six days earlier were still raging, some accused him of capitalizing on the disaster in the midst of a campaign season, while others said the visit was a distraction from firefighting.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said by email the governor deeply appreciates the White House’s responsiveness since the disaster. That, she said, matters more than when the president flies out.

“What’s been ‘important’ to us is having resources and boots on the ground,” she said. “The timing of the visit appears to us to be just right.”

Marcus Yam/Seattle Times/MCT

House Ethics Committee Won’t Open Formal Probe Into McMorris Rodgers

House Ethics Committee Won’t Open Formal Probe Into McMorris Rodgers

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee on Monday declined to open a formal investigation into allegations that U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers misused her campaign and congressional funds — a decision that rules out potential ethics charges or sanctions against the Washington state Republican for now.

However, two lawmakers on the bipartisan panel will continue reviewing the complaints, which were filed in 2013 by Todd Winer, McMorris Rodgers’ former spokesman.

It’s possible, though not likely, the committee could later impanel an investigative subcommittee to determine whether McMorris Rodgers broke federal laws and rules governing the separation of official funds from taxpayers and campaign funds from political donors.

Among Winer’s allegations, made public Monday, were that McMorris Rodgers’ congressional staff worked on her re-election campaign on the public’s time and dime, and that she hired a consultant to help her with media appearances and other duties related to her office but paid him out of her campaign treasury.

The Ethics Committee’s decision comes three months after a separate entity, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, found “substantial merit” to Winer’s allegations. The OCE’s board voted 6-0 to refer the case to the ethics panel, which has subpoena authority.

Elliot Berke, an attorney for McMorris Rodgers, said in a statement he expects the Ethics Committee’s continued review eventually will find no wrongdoing. He ascribed the decision not to drop the case entirely to the fact that a full review couldn’t be wrapped up in the 90 days the committee was allowed.

“We remain confident that, in time, the committee will dismiss the complaint, which was based on frivolous allegations from a single source — a former employee who then discredited himself by admitting to his own improper conduct,” Berke said.

McMorris Rodgers is a fiscal and social conservative and the No. 4 House Republican leader.

Winer was passed over for promotion as her communications director in her leadership office and was let go from her congressional office shortly after in January 2013.

Her congressional staff had previously described Winer’s allegations as primarily concerning improper commingling of campaign and official funds during her successful 2012 race for the House Republican Conference chairmanship against Rep. Tom Price of Georgia. House rules permit members to tap either campaign or official funds for leadership contests, but not both.

But the main thrust of the OCE’s findings, which the ethics panel was required to release, dealt with instances where McMorris Rodgers’ congressional staff members were allegedly enlisted to help with her re-election for a fifth term in November 2012.

For instance, the report said McMorris Rodgers’ chief of staff, Winer and other aides spent their work hours prepping her for campaign debates and writing debate speeches. In October 2012, four aides flew from Washington, D.C., to Spokane for a week of what the OCE concluded were mostly campaign-related events. Their airfare, meals and other travel expenses totaling $4,794 were picked up by McMorris Rodgers’ congressional office.

The OCE also listed several other instances of her aides dealing with re-election strategies and preparations — including a trip to the Republican National Convention — while on the clock for their congressional jobs.

The OCE also alleged McMorris Rodgers used a political-action committee she controls to pay for a GOP consultant she hired in April 2012 to coach her on congressional television interviews and other media appearances.

The consultant, Brett O’Donnell, told the OCE his work was unrelated to her campaign. Yet the OCE concluded O’Donnell was paid $16,000 for eight months of work out of CMR PAC, a leadership PAC set up by McMorris Rodgers.

Photo: Republican Conference via Flickr

Rep. McMorris Rodgers Faces Possible Ethics Probe

Rep. McMorris Rodgers Faces Possible Ethics Probe

By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON—U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Spokane, on Thursday disclosed she’s the target of a possible ethics investigation stemming from her successful run for the No. 4 House GOP leadership post.

The disclosure came ahead of a deadline for the House Ethics Committee to decide whether to dismiss or pursue an ethics complaint filed last year with the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, by a former staff member.

The ethics committee, which unlike the OCE has investigative powers, announced Thursday it would seek a 45-day extension, which is not uncommon.

McMorris Rodgers’ staff said the allegations are baseless.

The Spokane lawmaker is considered a rising star in the House GOP and just last week delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

The allegations involved “commingling” campaign funds and other resources in the run up to her election as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference in 2012, McMorris Rodgers aides said.

House rules permit lawmakers running for party-leadership positions to tap either their campaign treasuries—raised from political donors—or official funds provided by taxpayers to perform their jobs. But members must use one or the other, and not mix the funds or other resources.

Posters and mailings for a leadership election, for instance, can be paid with campaign money. But then it can’t involve the lawmaker’s office staff.

The complaint to the OCE is confidential and details of the allegations have not been made public. But a person close to the inquiry said it came from Todd Winer, McMorris Rodgers’ former spokesman. Winer was passed over for a job as communications director in McMorris Rodgers’ new leadership office, and was dismissed from her personal office in January 2013.

Winer, now spokesman for Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, did not respond to a phone call and e-mail message seeking comment.

Nate Hodson, communications director for the House Republican Conference, said McMorris Rodgers is “confident that every activity was compliant with all federal laws, House rules and standards of conduct. We are fully cooperating and look forward to seeing this matter dismissed.”

Hodson and Elliot Berke, McMorris Rodgers’ outside attorney, did not respond when asked whether Winer’s allegations go beyond issues of commingling campaign and official resources.

Hodson and Berke, who is with McGuireWoods, an international law firm based in Richmond, VA, both downplayed the significance of OCE’s decision in December to refer the matter to the ethics panel, and the ethics committee’s decision to defer until March 23 whether to initiate a full investigation.

The OCE is an independent ethics watchdog that functions as an internal-affairs office for the House. It serves as a fact-finding body to determine whether an official investigation is warranted. That referral is made after the OCE’s eight-member board completes a three-step process for determining whether there is a “reasonable,” then “probable” and finally “substantial” merit to the allegations.

Since January 2012, the OCE has referred at least 15 lawmakers to the Ethics Committee for possible investigation.

They included allegations of campaign-finance-rules violations by Reps. Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, and Aaron Schock, of Illinois, as well as a sexual-harassment complaint against Rep. Alcee Hastings, of Florida.

Photo by republicanconference/Flickr