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That Buzzing In Your Pocket? It’s A Politician Wanting Your Vote

By Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If you thought you couldn’t escape the onslaught of political ads in 2012, just wait until 2016.

This election cycle, campaigns are expected to fully embrace mobile advertising as a way to target voters anytime, anywhere.

For the first time, spending on political ads for digital media is expected to top $1 billion, rivaling the estimated amounts campaigns spend on telemarketing and radio, according to a report released this month by the research firm Borrell Associates.

That’s still just a fraction of the total $11.4 billion Borrell estimates will be poured into political advertising in 2016. But it’s a big increase since 2012, when spending on digital political ads was just $159 million.

Compared to the cost of airing a traditional television commercial, digital ads are a relatively inexpensive way for campaigns to get attention, said Steven Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The formula is simple: Do something humorous, encourage links in social media and shape the initial impression of an opponent before he or she can do it themselves,” Smith said.

A recent example popped up on some Missourians’ smartphones during the first Republican debate: A series of 10-second videos on the messaging platform Snapchat that portrayed Jason Kander, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, as a “pandering panda” who hobnobs with wealthy donors and special interests in Washington.

Funded by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Snapchat videos were followed by a website titled “Kander Pander,” along with a longer video featuring a person in a panda suit dancing with a money bag. Corresponding social media posts spread the panda-themed attack on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Kander’s campaign manager, Abe Rakov, dismissed the quirky ads as a sign of desperation from Republicans worried about the re-election of incumbent GOP Sen. Roy Blunt.

But the dancing panda also is a harbinger of the changes coming to political advertising as Americans grow increasingly reliant on their mobile devices for everything from checking the weather to buying a latte.

Snapchat, which automatically erases messages in a matter of seconds, might seem like an odd venue for ads. But with 71 percent of Snapchat users between the ages of 18 and 34, it’s easy to see why politicians are eager to use such tools to reach younger voters where they spend a lot of their time — on their smartphones.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush turned to Snapchat to announce he was running for president earlier this year, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio used it to showcase behind-the-scenes footage from his own presidential campaign kickoff.

Another Republican presidential hopeful, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, used the app to air brief videos of him destroying the tax code by setting it aflame, feeding it through a wood chipper and hacking it with a chainsaw.

Not to be left out, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker aired their own 10-second presidential campaign ads on Snapchat in July.

“Maybe I oughta run,” Kasich says with a smile on his Snapchat ad, a shaky production that gives the impression it was shot from the end of a selfie stick.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton joined the Snapchat craze this month. She joked at a fundraiser in Iowa that she loved Snapchat because “those messages disappear all by themselves,” a reference to the ongoing scandal regarding her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

Candidates also are flocking to Pinterest, Instagram and apps such as Meerkat and Periscope that let mobile users livestream video from their phones.

“If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it),” wrote Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior public relations adviser to President Barack Obama, on the website Medium.

Broadcasting an event live used to require a costly truck and satellite time, Pfeiffer points out. “Now you can do it with your phone … the same machine you use to text, check Instagram, hail an Uber, and play Candy Crush,” he wrote.

Smartphone use in the United States has exploded since the 2012 election, increasing by 394 percent, said Andrew Lipsman, vice president of marketing and insights at comScore, a company that tracks digital consumer behavior.

“Mobile has really taken over the landscape,” Lipsman said. “So if that’s where consumers are going to spend their time, from an advertising perspective that’s where you need to be.”

And then there’s the fact that two highly sought after voting demographics are reachable by mobile: millennials and Hispanics, Lipsman said.

Nearly 80 percent of Hispanic Internet users say they access the Internet on a phone, tablet or other mobile device, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

And those in the millennial generation tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time on their phones, Lipsman said.

His company’s research also suggests another reason why political strategists want to invest in mobile ads: They tend to work better than online ads.

“That’s a surprise for a lot of people,” he said. “One of the big reasons is a lot of online ads are relegated to the side of the screen, but a mobile ad takes up most or all of your screen. So it can be a quick impression, but it can make a big impression very quickly.”

Mobile advertising has limitations, however. People are not as likely to make donations from their mobile phones as they are from a desktop computer, Lipsman said.

And mobile ads that “microtarget” voters based on their location or personal data could backfire if they make people feel harassed.

“There’s an irony here that many of these candidates claim they would support protecting consumer privacy, yet their campaigns are in essence engaged in online and offline stalking,” said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy in Washington.

Photo: A mobile phone shows a Facebook page of campaign propaganda to promote Hillary Clinton as president in 2016, in this photo illustration taken April 13, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Kansas Tea Partier Tim Huelskamp: Another Irate Obamacare Customer

By Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Texas Senator Ted Cruz isn’t the only ardent critic of Obamacare in Congress who is signing up for health coverage under a law he’s vowed to repeal.

Kansas Representative Tim Huelskamp, chairman of the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, admits he, too, has enrolled for health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act, despite repeatedly voting to repeal it.

“For the record — I am on Obamacare — yee-hah!” Huelskamp recently confessed to constituents at a town hall meeting in north central Kansas, according to The Clay Center Dispatch. “My wife complains about it all the time.”

Cruz, Huelskamp, and other far-right lawmakers are in an awkward political position: Do they use an Obamacare exchange to purchase insurance, and risk being charged with hypocrisy? Or do they stand on principle and decline coverage or resort to the private insurance market, thereby giving up thousands of federal dollars offered to government employees to help pay premiums?

They have a choice. Some are choosing Obamacare.

Cruz, a Republican senator who is running for president, said this week that his family planned to go on Obamacare because they’d no longer be able to get health coverage through his wife’s employer. She’s taking unpaid leave from her job to join Cruz on the campaign trail.

Like Cruz, Huelskamp has railed for years against Obamacare — in speeches in Congress, on the stump during elections, in town hall meetings with voters, in emails to donors, and in statements to the press and on television.

In a petition Huelskamp circulated among supporters to de-fund Obamacare, he described the health care law as a “disaster” and the “most despised legislation in recent American history.”

Asked whether he sees any contradiction between his outspoken opposition to Obamacare and his family’s enrollment, Huelskamp said in a written statement that the law forces members of Congress to sign up.

Like millions of other American families, he said, “we object to this expensive, liberty-attacking mandate.”

It’s true that members of Congress who want to take advantage of health benefits offered through their employer — the federal government — must use plans offered through a government-run exchange in the District of Columbia.

But that’s not the whole story.

Huelskamp could have foregone coverage completely, or shunned the exchange and purchased a family health plan directly from a private broker.

Representative Louis Gohmert (R-TX), decided to go without health insurance rather than sign up for Obamacare. Some other lawmakers have said they would go through the private market to avoid the exchanges, including Representative Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey and Representative Diane Black of Tennessee, both Republicans.

But purchasing insurance on the private market would mean Huelskamp, a married father of four children, would have to forgo the employer contribution that the government offers to offset the cost of members’ premiums.

That contribution could be worth nearly $1,000 per month for members with families, according to the Congressional Research Office.

The salary for a rank-and-file member of Congress is $174,000 a year.

Huelskamp, like some other House members, already saves on rent in Washington by crashing nightly on his office couch with a sleeping bag — which he says allows him to get more work done.

Some members have said they will use the exchanges to purchase health care, but plan to return the federal contribution money to the U.S. Treasury.

Huelskamp’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request to clarify whether Huelskamp had accepted federal dollars to help pay for his premium.

It’s still Huelskamp’s hope to repeal Obamacare, which he describes as a government monstrosity.

He isn’t very happy with his Obamacare plan, anyway, he said in his statement.

“Because of Obamacare, my premiums and deductible went up — and my coverage went down,” Huelskamp said.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

New Federal Budget Bill Lets Political Parties Cash In

By Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A provision in the $1.1 trillion omnibus budget bill that President Barack Obama is expected to sign into law this week will open up new sources of cash for the nation’s two political parties.

Eleven paragraphs added to the bill as a last-minute rider increase the amount individuals can donate to national parties by almost tenfold, to $1.5 million per two-year election cycle. The previous limit was $194,400.

The money can be deposited only in accounts designated for specific purposes, such to finance a presidential nominating convention, renovate a party’s headquarters or defray expenses related to election recounts and “other legal proceedings.”

Parties will have to disclose the names of anyone who contributes to the accounts.

Advocates of the rider say it will get taxpayers off the hook for paying for political conventions and increase accountability in political fundraising. But those who oppose the change complain that it will open the floodgates of big money in elections.

“Elections are supposed to be battles of ideas, not playgrounds for wealthy special interests to buy the loyalty of politicians,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who voted against the spending bill last week in protest.

“Since the Supreme Court gutted our campaign finance laws, we’re left with a situation where those special interests have a growing ability to try to buy a government to their liking,” McCaskill said in a statement. “That’s why now is not the time to be giving millionaires and billionaires even more influence over campaigns.”

The rider blows up one of the few remaining campaign contribution limits, said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group and research center in Washington.

“The sums of money involved have nothing to do with empowering regular Americans in any way,” Weissman said. “This is only about the parties’ ability to solicit donations from the super-rich.”

Public Citizen, League of Women Voters and several other advocacy groups sent a letter to the president, urging him to veto the spending bill to halt what they describe as “the most corrupting campaign finance provisions ever enacted.” But the White House has said he won’t.

Obama isn’t very happy about some aspects of the spending bill, but he thinks the overall legislation is a better deal than he could get in the next Congress, both houses of which will be controlled by Republicans, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday aboard Air Force One.

“So the president made a tactical decision to go ahead and support this piece of legislation,” Earnest said.

Obama campaigned for president on a platform that included tightening campaign finance laws, but he hasn’t followed through on that pledge, Weissman said.

“This administration really hasn’t done anything at all to improve the campaign spending corruption of our democracy. And they said they objected to this, but they permitted it to go through,” he said. “They even pushed for votes for the bill to go through.”

Both Democrats and Republicans stand to benefit from easing the limits on contributions to their national committees. The change will affect the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, as well as each party’s campaign committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

An infusion of cash might be especially handy for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which ended the November midterm elections $20 million in debt. Officials at the committee have denied that they were involved in inserting the campaign finance rider into the omnibus, as did the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Politico and other news organizations have reported that the language was drafted by a Democratic attorney from Seattle, Marc Elias, at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who they said negotiated the addition of the rider with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Elias’ firm has represented the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Although no one accepts public responsibility for the rider, its unlikely origins can be traced to the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, named for a 10-year-old girl who died of cancer.

Obama signed that measure into law last year. It allots $12.6 million annually for pediatric cancer research at the National Institutes of Health. The cost was covered by ending public funding for political conventions.

Members of Congress complained at the time the research bill passed that it was “purely symbolic” and in reality did nothing to increase the amount of money available to support biomedical research.

Last week, however, Boehner pointed to the Gabriella Miller bill as the reason it was necessary to add the controversial campaign finance rider to the omnibus bill.

“This provision was worked out in a bipartisan way to allow those who are organizing political conventions to raise the money from private sources as opposed to using taxpayer funds,” Boehner said.

Democratic lawmakers such as McCaskill and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who balked at the rider, found themselves in rare agreement with Tea Party activists, who usually support looser campaign finance restrictions. In this case, however, those activists are worried that easing just the contribution limits for national campaign committees will give an unfair advantage to the establishment wings of both parties.

The omnibus rider won’t “create a level playing field for candidates who are outside the Beltway,” David N. Bossie, the president of the political action committee Citizens United, said in a statement.

“What congressional leaders are doing is what they do best: protecting incumbents and the two-party system,” Bossie said.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus argues that the rider will have the opposite effect, increasing fairness in political fundraising.

“Lately, we’ve seen an influx of money into organizations that have no contribution limits; some don’t have to disclose their donors to the public,” Priebus wrote in a recent USA Today opinion piece. “Because of Congress’ vote, some of the money that might have gone to those organizations could instead go to the national parties, in a completely transparent process.”

Priebus apparently is referring to the so-called dark money that “super” PACs and other groups can accept from unnamed contributors, unlike the national parties, which must release donors’ names publicly.

More than 1,200 super PACs spent a total of $346 million on midterm elections in 2014.
(Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)

Photo: Public Citizen via Flickr

GOP Surge Crushes Democrats’ Hopes Of Taking Governors Races Nationwide

By Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Democrats’ hopes of ousting a number of beleaguered Republican governors on Tuesday were crushed by the GOP wave that also flipped control of the U.S. Senate.

Democratic governors from Connecticut to Colorado were at risk of losing their jobs, too, adding to the party’s Election Day woes.

Democrats had aimed to win many of the 14 toss-up gubernatorial races, out of a total of 36 nationwide. By late Tuesday, they had prevailed in just two.

In deep-blue Massachusetts, Republican businessman Charlie Baker defeated state Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, in a race to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick.

Republicans also captured Democratic-held governor’s mansions in Arkansas, where Rep. Asa Hutchinson beat out Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Mike Ross; in Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn lost to Republican Bruce Rauner, an investment banker; and in Maryland, where Republican businessman Larry Hogan upset Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Democrats did manage to pick up a governorship in Pennsylvania, where Republican Gov. Tom Corbett lost to Democratic businessman Tom Wolf. Corbett is the first incumbent governor in the state’s history to fail to earn a second term. His chances for re-election were damaged by his handling of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal, as well as his support for big cuts to public education funds.

Pennsylvania turned out to be a rare bright spot for the Democrats.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, the subject of early buzz as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, had to battle to keep his job after deep tax cuts he championed were followed by projections of a big budget shortfall. But in the end, the Republican governor defeated Democrat Paul Davis, the state House minority leader.

In Wisconsin, Democrats had targeted Republican Gov. Scott Walker for defeat after he clashed with the state’s labor unions over collective bargaining rights. Walker hung on Tuesday to win a tougher-than-expected race with Democratic candidate Mary Burke.

Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder also had made himself a target of the unions when he signed right-to-work legislation in 2012. But Snyder fended off his Democratic rival, Mark Schauer, a former congressman, to win re-election.

Florida voters, deluged by negative ads in a bitter race that smashed records for campaign spending, elected Republican Gov. Rick Scott for a second term, edging out Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who was trying to return to office as a Democrat. Crist’s campaign lost a bid to keep polls open late in heavily Democratic Broward County.

Nathan Deal, the Republican governor of Georgia, secured re-election against Democrat Jason Carter, a state senator and grandson of the former president, Jimmy Carter.

Paul LePage, the Republican governor of Maine, won a three-way competition with independent Eliot Cutler and a Democratic challenger, Rep. Mike Michaud.

In Alaska, Republican Sean Parnell took over as governor when Sarah Palin quit in 2009. Now he’s running against a fusion ticket made up of independent candidate Bill Walker for governor and Democrat Byron Mallot as lieutenant governor. Palin has endorsed Walker and Mallot.

Colorado’s first-term governor, John Hickenlooper, a centrist Democrat, was locked in a tight battle with his Republican opponent, former Rep. Bob Beauprez. Hickenlooper had hoped he could eke out a victory if voters credited him for the state’s economic recovery. But Hickenlooper was vulnerable. He suffered a backlash from both Republicans and Democrats after he signed gun control laws last year, only to apologize in remarks to law enforcement officials this summer. He also took criticism for granting a temporary reprieve to a convicted killer on death row.

The gubernatorial race in Vermont was among those close to call early Wednesday as Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont clung to a thin lead over Republican Scott Milne.

Although most Democrats had kept their distance from Obama this election cycle, the president traveled to Connecticut on Sunday to rally voters in a last-minute attempt to boost the prospects of Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy. Malloy was locked in a close race with Republican opponent Thomas Foley, a former private-equity executive.

In South Carolina, incumbent Republican Gov. Nikki Haley handily defeated Democrat Vincent Sheheen; in Ohio, Republican John Kasich won re-election as governor. Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley also was re-elected, as were Republican Govs. Bill Haslam in Tennessee, Dennis Daugaard in South Dakota, Terry Branstad in Iowa, Matt Mead in Wyoming, Jim Risch in Idaho, Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico.

The GOP also won easily in Texas, where Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott beat state Sen. Wendy Davis; in Oklahoma, which re-elected Gov. Mary Fallin; in Arizona, where Doug Ducey won; and in Nebraska, where Republican Pete Ricketts was elected governor.

Among Democrats, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan triumphed in her bid for another term, beating Republican businessman Walt Havenstein, and Rhode Island Democrat Gina M. Raimondo, the state’s treasurer, defeated Republican opponent Allan W. Fung, the mayor of Cranston.

The odds look good for Democrats in Hawaii, where state Sen. David Ige is expected to defeat Democrat-turned-independent Mufi Hannemann.

Democrats also won re-election in Minnesota and Oregon, and Democratic incumbents coasted to victory in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown won a fourth term and in New York, Andrew Cuomo swept to re-election by a large margin.

(Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to this article.)

Photo: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback waves to a cheering crowd in Topeka , Kan., on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, after he was re-elected. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT)

Report: Second Largest Afghan City Could Go Dark When U.S. Subsidies End

By Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Residents of Afghanistan’s second largest city could go without power when U.S. subsidies for diesel fuel phase out next year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The United States has no realistic plan to help the Afghan government provide a sustainable source of electricity for a three-year period between 2015, when the Department of Defense stops subsidizing fuel for Kandahar’s diesel generators, and 2018, when the city is slated to connect to Afghanistan’s two major electric grids, the report found.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, who chairs a subcommittee on contracting oversight, said the report, if true, “paints a deeply disturbing picture.” The Missouri Democrat said the findings underscored the need to hold government officials accountable for the tax dollars they spent on such projects.

“At a time when Congress can’t seem to find the money to build roads and bridges here at home, we continue to see the maddening consequences of poor federal planning and oversight of big, taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects overseas,” McCaskill said in a statement.

The Pentagon will continue to provide subsidized fuel to the Afghan government through September 2015, tapering the amount over the preceding months from 400,000 gallons in June 2014 to 50,000 gallons in September 2015, at which point the subsidies are scheduled to end.

Afghan officials reportedly told Special Inspector General John Sopko that without the subsidies, the country’s power utility couldn’t afford to keep the generators running.

If that happens, Sopko wrote in Tuesday’s report, “it seems possible that thousands of homes and businesses in Kandahar will no longer have access to electricity.”

The United States has spent billions to upgrade Afghanistan’s decrepit power grid, with much of the work assigned to engineering firm Black & Veatch, based in Overland Park, Kan., and its former partner, Louis Berger Group of Morristown, N.J.

In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan came under fire for awarding a $266 million sole-source contract to Black & Veatch to refurbish the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, a project that included adding a third turbine.

The turbine could help offset the loss in power that’s expected when fuel subsidies end, Sopko wrote in Tuesday’s report. But he said installation probably wouldn’t be completed until late next year at the earliest.

He warned that if electric service to the Kandahar region is compromised, “the U.S. government may lose some of the hard-earned counterinsurgency and economic gains made over the last few years.”

“The U.S. government never intended diesel generators to be a permanent solution for Kandahar’s power needs,” said Larry Sampler, the assistant to the administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at USAID. “The long-term plan is for the Afghan power company DABS to provide Afghanistan with the power it needs from less expensive sources and for the users to pay for it. USAID has helped DABS to acquire the technology, the training, and the capacity needed to provide reliable and affordable electricity to the people of Afghanistan.”

In its written response to the special inspector general’s report, the agency said it was studying the possibility of funding a solar power plant and new hydroelectric turbine at Dahla Dam nearby, but Sopko dismissed the tight deadlines and cost estimates of those proposals as unrealistic.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Is Media-Savvy Sen. Claire McCaskill Playing It Safe?

By Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A paparazzo cornered Claire McCaskill last month in a hallway of her Senate office building.

Wielding a video camera for celebrity-obsessed TMZ, he wanted to know why the Democratic senator from Missouri had “grilled Dr. Oz like a cheeseburger” at a recent hearing on diet scams.

McCaskill looked bemused, but she didn’t miss a beat.

“It’s bad when a doctor says there’s a miracle pill that will let you lose weight and keep eating anything you want,” the senator said.

TMZ rarely ambushes lawmakers unless they’re embroiled in scandal. Yet for media-savvy McCaskill, the attention — even from a gossip outfit — got chalked up as a public relations win.

“We are so excited to have been TMZ-ed,” McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard enthused in an email to a reporter after the video hit the Web.

Mehmet Oz and diet scams. The General Motors auto recall. Military sexual assaults. Campus rape. Cover-ups in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Waste in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fraud in the National Guard. Mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery.

McCaskill has a knack for picking legislative projects that build her personal brand by linking it to causes that draw headlines but rarely are polarizing.

It’s a brand that was at the heart of both her Senate campaigns: the image of a thrifty former state auditor and onetime prosecutor determined to make sure taxpayers get their money’s worth.
McCaskill’s friends and supporters say any national attention she gets is a byproduct of results-oriented public service work and the fact that she’s never been one to mince words, whether in a hearing room or on Fox News.

The senator’s spokesman said McCaskill didn’t hesitate to go to the media to wage public battles for causes she believes in.

“Claire doesn’t see the media as an adversary or a tool, but as a partner for the public good,” LaBombard said.

Still, McCaskill’s reputation for speaking colorfully and in the moment can give the senator’s staff heartburn. For instance, in 2006 she said on “Meet the Press” that former President Bill Clinton had been a great leader “but I don’t want my daughter near him.” That’s also the sort of witticism that makes McCaskill a sought-after guest on political talk shows and cable news.
Beyond the sound bites and buzz, political observers note that McCaskill’s high-profile causes tend to be safe bets for a blue senator in an increasingly red state.

In choosing to focus on issues that members of both parties can support, they say, she’s avoiding partisan battles. By doing so, she’s also dodging some of the more controversial topics of the day, they note.

She has a far less prominent voice, for instance, on weighty issues such as climate change or what the United States should do next in Iraq.

“The positions she’s taking are things that probably are less likely to totally alienate her from a whole lot of folks,” said Bob Priddy, the news director of Missourinet, a statewide commercial radio network. “She goes after waste, fraud and abuse. She goes after sexual assault. … They’re things that she can go after that won’t be attacked by one side or the other.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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Washington Promises To Fix VA But Overhaul Won’t Be Easy

By Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Eric Shinseki has been pushed out as the secretary of veterans affairs. The president vows changes. The Senate is moving with uncharacteristic speed toward a bipartisan response.

But fixing the sprawling agency with an entrenched bureaucracy won’t be easy.

It has a management culture marred by cronyism, intimidation and poor oversight from the Department of Veterans Affairs central office. It has a performance-based bonus system that rewards those who falsify records to meet unrealistic quotas. And it simultaneously penalizes supervisors who don’t push their employees to “cook the books.”

“If you weren’t going to crack people’s heads, if you didn’t put people’s feet to the fire, they didn’t want you around,” said Charleston Ausby, a Marine Corps veteran from Sugar Land, Texas, who worked as a VA service representative from 2002 to 2012.

Ausby said he and his co-workers routinely came under pressure to reduce the VA’s record disability-claims backlog by misfiling or mislabeling old claims that had been pending for years to make them appear in the computer system as though they were new claims.

Like “cooking the books” at VA hospitals to conceal delays in medical care, the practice of manipulating claims data made it seem as though veterans weren’t waiting as long for decisions on their benefits as they really were, Ausby said.

Most underlings are too demoralized to complain or don’t know how to do so without risking retribution, he said.

Falsifying data isn’t a new phenomenon at VA, said Gerald Manar, who worked as an adjudication manager at the VA for 30 years before becoming the national veterans service deputy director for Veterans of Foreign Wars.

VA managers are reluctant to ask for more money and the staff they need to meet quotas because they don’t think their requests will go over well with higher-ups in Washington or politicians in Congress, Manar said.

“The attitude among managers is, ‘Why even bother asking, because we’re not going to get it,'” Manar said. “When you have that kind of culture, you feel so beaten down, so restricted, so disheartened by what’s happened before that you don’t even ask for what you need.”

Some VA employees resort to hiding the problem. As a result, politicians, the public and officials at the VA central office don’t get an accurate picture of what’s wrong from people in the field.

“In a bureaucracy when people are given orders to do things that can’t possibly be done, they become cynical,” said Ronald Abrams, a former VA official who is the joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

“For example, years and years ago I read that the post office made a rule that all mail coming in on Monday had to get out on Monday, otherwise people would lose their jobs…so in Pennsylvania employees rented a trailer and simply threw the letters into a trailer,” Abrams said.

“When the VA said, ‘OK we have to get all these appointments scheduled within 14 days,’ the cynical employees said, ‘We can’t possibly do that.'”

A new test is whether the massive agency needs to grow even more to accommodate a booming veterans population or whether it’s an outmoded model that should be re-imagined to simplify veterans’ benefits applications and give them more access to private care.

A compromise bill crafted by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, aims to strike a balance between expansion and privatization.

It would allow veterans who live far from VA facilities or can’t get timely VA appointments to seek care from any doctor in the Medicare program, at federally qualified health centers, facilities funded by the Department of Defense or Indian health centers.

The bill would authorize the VA to lease 26 new health facilities and would allot $500 million in unobligated VA funds to hire more doctors and nurses.

Another provision in the bill would allow the VA secretary to demote or fire senior agency officials based on their performance. Unlike a similar bill that passed last month in the House of Representatives, this version doesn’t remove the right of poor-performing officials to appeal their terminations, but it expedites the process from 120 days to just three weeks, and withholds their pay until the appeal is resolved.

Among other legislative fixes offered by members of Congress in recent weeks are measures that would freeze bonuses to senior VA employees until changes are implemented, require the VA to identify officials accused of misconduct by name and publicly release Office of the Medical Inspector reports of investigations into wrongdoing at VA facilities.

Past efforts to overhaul the VA have met with a mixed record of success.

In the 1920s, for example, the government adopted strict civil service rules after the first director of the Veterans’ Bureau was caught selling surplus hospital supplies for personal profit.

The rules ended up stifling innovation and made it hard to recruit good doctors, said Colin Moore, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Hawaii who is working on a book about the history of the VA.

The consequences hit after World War II, when a series of articles exposed the abuse and neglect of returning veterans.

The VA responded to the crisis by establishing partnerships with medical schools that dramatically improved the quality of care for veterans.

But the downside of focusing VA resources on acute in-patient care in urban areas near medical schools became apparent after Vietnam, when returning veterans had trouble accessing local primary care. It wasn’t until Congress passed the 1996 Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act that the VA became an integrated health system and expanded into hundreds of outpatient clinics in rural areas and across the South and Southwest.

The VA now has 152 hospitals and 800 clinics serving more than 6 million veterans across the country.

“It’s tragic for the veterans, but this pattern of scandals and reform is just more or less the entire history of the organization,” Moore said.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

To Prevent Data Theft, Businesses Race To Adopt New Technology

By Lindsay Wise, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Recent high-profile data breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus have accelerated plans by banks and retailers to implement technologies they say will prevent hackers from stealing consumers’ account information.

Malware installed in Neiman Marcus payment terminals exposed 1.1 million debit and credit cards from July to October last year, while the Target incident compromised the personal information of more than 110 million customers in November and December.

The sophistication and scope of the recent breaches has lent increased pressure to the adoption of a new generation of microchipped debit and credit cards and a cutting-edge technique known as “tokenization” to protect online and mobile purchases.

Industry experts say the technologies will limit the volume and value of consumer data stored by retailers, who no longer will have to safeguard sensitive details such as card numbers, PINs and security codes.

“It’s not just about protecting consumers from financial loss or the system from financial loss; it’s really about maintaining trust,” said Ellen Richey, executive vice president, chief legal officer and chief enterprise risk officer for Visa Inc.

In the aftermath of the breaches, Visa and MasterCard announced the formation of a new cross-industry security working group focused on speeding up and coordinating the adoption of the new technologies.

“We were pushing that direction, but this Target event has given it the kind of urgency that it didn’t have before,” Richey said.

Banks already are starting to issue debit and credit cards embedded with microchips, also known as EMV, which stands for Europay, MasterCard and Visa. The system is widely used in Europe. More than half of all credit cards in the U.S. are expected to shift to EMV by 2016.

To encourage the transition, MasterCard, Discover, American Express and Visa have instituted a policy that a bank or merchant that hasn’t adopted chip technology by October 2015 will bear the loss if a transaction turns out to be fraudulent, Richey said.

“It’s a fairly powerful incentive,” she said.

The United States has been slow to adopt microchipping because of the high costs associated with replacing traditional magnetic-stripe cards and payment terminals, estimated at $15 billion to $30 billion.

“Because of that high cost, there were definitely folks out there who were skeptical of whether they should or shouldn’t implement it, and now because of the data breaches, that seems to be moving a whole lot faster,” said David Fortney, senior vice president for The Clearing House, the nation’s oldest banking association and payments company, which provides payment clearing and settlement services.

Consumers aren’t likely to notice changes overnight. Banks will issue the microchipped versions as old cards expire, rather than all at once.

The new chip card will have a little symbol on the front to represent the microprocessor embedded inside.

“It’s actually like a little computer, a real little computer with applications and a processor in it,” said Visa’s Richey. The microprocessor also can be placed in a mobile phone, she said.

Instead of swiping the card to pay, a shopper dips a “contact” chip card into a slot in the pay terminal at checkout.

“Contactless” chip cards will use radio signals, so the shopper has only to tap or hold a card or mobile phone close to the terminal to make a purchase.

The computer in the card produces a cryptographic message that changes with every transaction, so even if thieves steal the account number, they can’t make a counterfeit card, Richey said.

“The problem we’re having is that criminals can steal information from a merchant environment, and they can get enough information to make copies of the card,” she said. “They don’t have to have your physical card; they can make copies — and as many copies as they want — because the data is static and doesn’t change from transaction to transaction.”

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