Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Michelle Obama Initiates Recipe Sharing Program

    Although most of Washington is focused this week on the upcoming vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination for Secretary of Defense and the rapidly approaching sequester deadline, the latest press release from the White House concerns... recipe sharing:
First Lady Michelle Obama Announces New Effort to Make Healthier, MyPlate Recipes Easy to Find and Share
WASHINGTON, DC –Today, five of America’s largest media companies, as well as Pinterest, announced a new collaboration in support of Let’s Move! to make it easier for their millions of online visitors to put nutritious meals on the table every day.  Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines, Meredith, Food Network and Time, Inc. in collaboration with the Partnership for a Healthier America and USDA’s MyPlate have identified thousands of nutritious recipes that meet the guidance that supports USDA’s MyPlate, and are labeling, compiling and promoting these recipes on their most popular cooking websites, which collectively garnered 150 million views in January alone. More than 3,000 recipes have been identified across 18 websites, and today nearly 1,000 of these recipes have been collected on a new Pinterest page associated with the effort, providing a one-stop-shop where parents, beginner home cooks and even the most experienced chefs can find and share healthier recipes.

“As a mom, I know how challenging it can be to think of new meal ideas that your kids will like and that will be good for them,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “This partnership takes the guess work out of finding healthier recipes and gives parents the information and the tools they need to make healthy choices for their families every day.”
    This announcement comes of the heels of last week's claim by the First Lady's office that the three-year-old Let's Move initiative had managed to halt and even begin reversing the nation's 30 year childhood obesity epidemic.

   The United States may have a lot on its plate these days, but thanks to the White House, at least it will be healthy.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Chuck Hagel's Archives: Access Denied

    Barring any last minute revelations, a second cloture vote by the Senate on Tuesday should guarantee Chuck Hagel will be the next Secretary of Defense.  And as long as the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO) and Hagel himself continue to refuse to allow anyone to access Hagel's considerable archives from his years as senator, currently housed at UNO, the chances of any such revelations are slim.  But although James T. Shaw, director of collections at UNO, says that the archives are not available because a trained archivist has not yet organized the entire record, there seems to have been a considerable amount of work accomplished sifting through the 1700+ boxes of documents and other artifacts. In fact, in the past three years, at least two exhibitions of Hagel's archives have been presented by UNO.

    The first exhibition was in 2010 and lasted for almost two months.  A press release described the rather extensive display:
The exhibition – A Senator’s Walls: A Selection of Photographs and Artifacts from the Offices of Senator Chuck Hagel – features more than 300 items from Hagel’s offices in Washington, DC; Omaha; Lincoln; Kearney; and Scottsbluff. The items on display include photographs, awards, gifts, cartoons, newspapers and magazines, presenting a visual history of the senator’s activities during his two, six-year terms in office.
    The press release also contains this statement that seems to contradict Shaw's recent statement that the complete archives will not be made available until the entire collection is indexed and organized:
The collection, known as the U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel Archives, will open partially to researchers by 2012.
     The timing has apparently changed considerably since 2010 since Stephen R. Shorb, the Dean of the Criss Library at UNO, recently told The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper that he anticipated the archive will not be ready for another two and a half years. He did not indicate if this would be the partial access the 2010 press release spoke of or full access.

    The second exhibition of Hagel's archives was prepared to coincide with a visit from Hagel just this past November.  The Gateway, UNO's campus news organization, reported on the visit and special display created at the Criss Library:
Jessica Agler, archivist at the Chuck Hagel Archives, organized the event with her team and created a display of Hagel’s historic 1996 gubernatorial victory against Ben Nelson. 
Agler said there are 1,700 boxes of paper, 1,000 videos and cassettes, 500 books, and about 1,500 framed photos and plaques in the archive. Holly Newman Dzyban, student archivist, went through the artifacts and organized much of the exhibit in the Criss Library. 
“Some of the things I really enjoyed were the political cartoons and we have reproduced some of those upstairs,” Dzyban said. 
While there was a hefty amount of artifacts to sift through, Agler wanted students to be able to see the exhibit, come to the meeting and hear Hagel’s frank opinions about issues facing the nation.
    Charley Reed, Media Relations Coordinator at UNO, said in a recent email to The Weekly Standard, “The archive must be fully processed in line with archival best practices to assure that the archive is presented responsibly and to professional standards.”  It is not clear from the reports on the two exhibits if the student archivists are doing most of the work preparing the archives for final access or if their involvement was primarily to prepare the preliminary exhibits.  In any case, it is difficult to see how Senate staffers and journalists, who regularly do extensive research for their jobs, are insufficiently qualified to review the partially categorized Hagel material.

    Ironically, the 2010 press release about that Hagel exhibition contained the following statement:
The Hagel artifact exhibition at UNO kicks off during October, which is American Archives Month. This year’s theme is “I Found it in the Archives.” 
    When it comes to the Hagel archives, however, the only people finding anything are the college student archivists.  And unless Hagel or UNO reverse course, journalists, senators and their staff seeking information regarding the defense secretary nominee's past writings and statements won't be able to say “I Found it in the Archives.”  Come Tuesday, time to do so will have run out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

White House Credits ‘Let's Move’ for Halting and Reversing Childhood Obesity Trend

   Today the White House credited Michelle Obama's three-year old Let's Move initiative with halting and even reversing a thirty year trend of increasing childhood obesity, a trend that has led to what the Centers for Disease Control has called an epidemic.  A press release from the Office of the First Lady announced details of a "two day nationwide tour" at the end of the month to celebrate the third anniversary of the program that promotes exercise and healthy eating habits to young people.  Also included is a short history of the program (emphasis added):

Mrs. Obama launched Let’s Move! on February 9, 2010 to unite the country around our kids’ health and create real support for families to live healthier lives.  Since then parents, business leaders, educators, elected officials, military leaders, chefs, physicians, athletes, childcare providers, community and faith leaders and kids themselves have stepped up to improve the health of our nation’s children. 
Thanks to these efforts, families now have access to more information to make healthier decisions for their children. Young people now have more opportunities for physical activity in their communities. Food in schools has been dramatically improved.  More Americans now have access to healthy, affordable food closer to home. And the national childhood obesity rate has leveled off, and even declined in some cities and states.

    The press release does not include any statistics to bolster the claim.

    Mrs. Obama's nationwide tour will consist of stops in Clinton, Mississippi; Chicago, Illinois; and Springfield, Missouri.  She will also make a pre-tour appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, to air on Friday, February 22.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Organizing for Action Continues to Run Afoul of IRS

    Despite assurances to the contrary, the former website of Obama for America, now Organizing for Action (OFA), continues to be used to promote Democratic Party causes and candidates.  Two weeks ago, an event for the Terry McAuliffe campaign for governor in Virginia was listed for several days before being removed after stories by The Weekly Standard and Politico.  Now, the Regional Field Director of the Ed Markey for U.S. Senate (Massachusetts) is listed as the host of a phone bank event to "let people know that Ed Markey, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate will be in Pittsfield on Tuesday, February 19th."

    Several local Democratic party groups recently had listed "watch parties" on the website for President Obama's State of the Union address.  Arguably these events could have simply been informational.  However, another event hosted by the Democratic Women of Wiregrass (Alabama) sounds decidedly more partisan in nature.  Participants are urged to "catch up on the latest plans and activities of the Democratic Party in Alabama."

    OFA responded rather quickly after the news broke of the McAuliffe event listing two weeks ago and removed the event, but apparently did not implement a pre-screening system for its event-listing feature.  The IRS rules regarding 501(c)(4) organizations such as OFA prohibit advocating on behalf of candidates and political parties.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard on February 18, 2013.

The Importance of Being Earnest

    Josh Earnest, White House Deputy Press Secretary, answering a reporter's question aboard Air Force One last Friday, inadvertently painted with a broader brush than he intended.  The reporter asked why Republican senators were linking Chuck Hagel's nomination for Defense Secretary with a bid to extract more details on the Benghazi fiasco from the Obama administration.  In an effort to cast doubt on the senators' motives, Earnest said the following in his reply:
But one thing I would add is Senator McCain gave an interview on Fox News yesterday explaining why he was delaying  -- why he supported the delay in this confirmation vote.  And I just want to read the exact quote from what he said, because I think it's pretty enlightening.  He begins saying, "To be honest with you, Neil" -- I didn’t go to journalism school, but I think if I were a journalism professor I would encourage journalists' ears to perk up when an interview -- when a person answering a question says, "to be honest with you."   
    In retrospect, Earnest might regret his momentary impersonation of a journalism professor.  Although his observation may indeed be accurate, McCain is not the only politician to have employed the euphemism in question. Just two days earlier, Earnest's own boss was speaking at a manufacturing plant in Asheville, North Carolina.  In the course of his speech, President Obama said the following:

    Josh Earnest, White House Deputy Press Secretary, answering a reporter's question aboard Air Force One today, inadvertently painted with a broader brush than he intended.  The reporter asked why Republican senators were linking Chuck Hagel's nomination for Defense Secretary with a bid to extract more details on the Benghazi fiasco from the Obama administration.  In an effort to cast doubt on the senators' motives, Earnest said the following in his reply:
But one thing I would add is Senator McCain gave an interview on Fox News yesterday explaining why he was delaying  -- why he supported the delay in this confirmation vote.  And I just want to read the exact quote from what he said, because I think it's pretty enlightening.  He begins saying, "To be honest with you, Neil" -- I didn’t go to journalism school, but I think if I were a journalism professor I would encourage journalists' ears to perk up when a
So we're seeing this trend of what we call insourcing, not just outsourcing.  And the reason is because America has got outstanding workers.  We're starting to produce more homegrown energy, which is driving down our energy costs.  And, obviously, we've still got the biggest market in the world.  And if we try to improve our infrastructure a little bit more, then we're going to be even that much more competitive. 
Now, I want to be honest with you...
     As it turns out, the phrase is heard coming from the White House more than the Deputy Press Secretary might like to admit.  A Google search of the White House website returns 729 results.  Doubtless some of these are duplicates, but from the look of things, First Lady Michelle Obama rarely gets through a speech without using the phrase, in one case even stringing two together.  The president and other members of his staff likewise make liberal use of it.  And then there's this individual:
I got to be honest with you, I don't know if he's seen any of the television coverage. 
To be honest with you, Dave, I have not had a chance to talk to him about that at all. 
To be honest with you, I don't know whether or not he caught any of the opening ceremonies. 
I don't know if they've -- to be honest with you, I don't know if they've seen those excerpts or not. 
To be honest with you, I have not talked to the President about his reaction to the hearing. 
I guess I hadn't really thought about it, to be honest with you

   That's right. Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in one instance as recently as October.  It seems likely that in future, journalists' ears will indeed "perk up" when they hear this phrase.  And if the past is any guide, the source of the alleged verbal misdirection may very well be the president, his wife, or none other than Josh Earnest himself.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Monday, February 18, 2013

@BarackObama on Barack Obama: 'Our North Star'

    Although Obama for America (OFA) has transitioned into the apparently independent 501(c)(4) non-profit Organizing for Action, the group has retained the original website (BarackObama.com) and Twitter account (@BarackObama).  Although the president's role in this new organization is not clear, his name and picture are featured prominently by OFA.  Consequently, the results Sunday were rather jarring when OFA decided to tweet the following:

    Barack Obama tweeting a photo of Barack Obama as the North Star...  Seems like OFA could use someone with a fresh perspective deciding what to tweet.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

In Defense of the TSA. Sort Of.

    In recent years, the main claim to fame of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been making the Department of Motor Vehicles look good.  Some of the criticism has doubtless been justified, but a visit to the TSA Week in Review at the TSA blog should give anyone a renewed sense of appreciation for what the TSA faces daily as the agency tries to fulfill its mission to keep air travel safe.  Just this past week, the TSA discovered 30 firearms, 26 of which were loaded, including 11 with rounds in their chambers.  Here's a photo of one of the discoveries:

    Obviously people who own guns sometimes have the need to transport them.  But loaded, ready to fire, in carry-on luggage?  [I'm sure by this point, there are people shouting "Second Amendment!" at their computer screens. I'm with you, I'm with you... But folks, there's got to be a better way than that.]

    But this is what really caught my eye on the blog, and not the photo as much as the caption:

Flare Gun – A passenger at Midway (MDW) had a flare gun and four flares in his carry-on bag. You know, if you want to signal a flight attendant, there is a little button above your head. You don’t need a flare gun. Flares and flare guns are prohibited items. 
    I appreciate a good sense of humor, even from a government agency.  Speaking of a sense of humor, here's one final gem from the TSA blog:

What Not to Say at an Airport – Statements like these not only delay the people who said them but can also inconvenience many other passengers if the checkpoint or terminal has to be evacuated: 
  • An individual approached a general aviation ramp at Knox County Airport (RKD) and stated that aircraft were buzzing his house and if it did not stop, he was going to shoot one down.
    It's been a long time since I've been though airport security, so perhaps I'd be better off keeping my mouth shut.  But the next time you run into a TSA agent, keep in mind that not everyone who flies has as much sense as you. And not everyone on the ground does, either.

Friday, February 15, 2013

State Dept. Awards $18.2 Million to Afghanistan in Opium Fight

    The State Department this week announced more than $18 million in awards to provincial governments in Afghanistan in the fight against the illicit opium industry in that country.  The awards come despite the news this past November that countrywide, there was an "alarming" 18% increase in 2012 in poppy growing.  On top of this, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, presented testimony to Congress on Wednesday regarding the hazards of direct assistance to the government of what Chairman Jason Chaffetz of the House Subcommittee on National Security called "one of the most corrupt nations in existence."

    The State Department press release on the awards begins as follows:
U.S. and Afghanistan Announce $18.2 Million in Good Performers Initiative Awards for Provincial Counternarcotics Achievements 
On February 12, 2013, Afghanistan’s Minister for Counter Narcotics Zarar Moqbel Osmani and U.S. Embassy’s Coordinating Director for Rule of Law and Law Enforcement Ambassador Stephen G. McFarland announced $18.2 million in Good Performers Initiative (GPI) awards. GPI awards are given to provinces that achieved or retained poppy-free status, reduced net poppy cultivation by more than 10 percent over the previous year, or made other exceptional counternarcotics efforts during the cultivation season. Twenty-one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces received GPI awards, including 17 provinces that earned $1 million awards for being poppy-free.
    Total awards are down from $19.2 million in 2011 and $25.7 million in 2010.  In 2008, over $39 million was awarded.  Despite these and other efforts to make a dent in the opium trade, the area of land dedicated to poppy growing from 2006 (the year before the award program began) to 2012 fell by only six percent, from 164,000 hectares to 154,000.  Perhaps even more discouraging is that increase from 2011 to 2012 came despite a 154% increase in verified poppy eradication by the Afghan government.

    There is good reason for concern for the future of opium reduction efforts as the U.S. "winds down" (in the words of President Obama) its  involvement in Afghanistan. The United Nations report from November 2012 unsurprisingly found that the vast majority of the opium is coming from those regions of the country that are the least secure.
This year saw 95 per cent of cultivation concentrated in the southern and western provinces where insecurity and organized crime are present: 72 per cent in Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Day Kundi and Zabul provinces in the south, and 23 per cent in Farah, Hirat, and Nimroz provinces to the west. This confirms the link between insecurity and opium cultivation observed since 2007, says the Survey.
    Special Inspector General John Sopko, in the broader context of providing direct aid to the Afghan government, expressed his concern about the impending increase in the difficulty of providing accountability for the use of funds precisely because of the ongoing drawdown of U.S. forces:
Ultimately, however, the question will be how far and where U.S. personnel can safely travel. As the area in which we are unable to conduct oversight grows, many of our programs may be exposed to increased risk of fraud, waste, and abuse–especially if we increase direct assistance to the Afghan government without first imposing strict pre-conditions on the Afghan government to  permit effective oversight of these funds by U.S. personnel.  
    Followup on the State Department's Good Performers Initiative Awards certainly will be similarly impacted.  The press release notes the source of the funds and the method of administration:
The Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs funds GPI, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics works with each province to design and implement development projects using GPI funds. 
    As John Sopko also noted:
[A]ccording to the Afghan Coalition of Transparency and Accountability, the budget submitted by the Ministry of Finance this quarter contained no allocations for combating corruption despite the international community’s demand that the ministry make governmental integrity a priority.
    If the Afghan government resists accountability and fighting corruption while the U.S. still has tens of thousands of troops on the ground in the country, there is little reason to believe that the situation will improve as the troop numbers dwindle.  As the U.S. war winds down, it seems likely opium production will quickly wind back up.

Note: The article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

President Obama: 'At Some Point You Run Out of Money' [Video]

It's Valentine's Day, and today the Republicans heard President Obama say those three little words they never thought they'd hear: "out of money." While speaking on early childhood education in Decatur, Georgia, the president said, according to the White House transcript:
So we’ve worked to make college more affordable for millions of students and families already through tax credits and grants and loans that go farther than before.  But taxpayers can’t keep subsidizing ever-escalating price tags for higher education.  At some point you run out of money.  So colleges have to do their part.  And colleges that don’t do enough to keep costs in check should get less federal support so that we’re incentivizing colleges to think about how to keep their costs down. 
If "you didn't build that" is any indication, this new quotation from the president could be the gift that keeps on giving.
Here's the video:

"But taxpayers can’t keep subsidizing ever-escalating price tags for higher education.  At some point you run out of money."

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Democratic Governors: GOP Stole the House Elections

    With President Obama's State of the Union address coming up Tuesday night, the Washington Post's David Ignatus (on Chris Matthew's show) is wondering...
whether Obama can get out of the zero sum game Washington where to do something good on immigration reform, he's got to, you know, destroy Marco Rubio who is the Republican symbol of progress on that. 
    If the President is taking civility cues from the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), the answer will be a resounding "no."  The DGA posted the following on its website on Monday:
In the 2012 election, more Americans voted for Democratic members of Congress than Republicans.  Yet tea party darling Eric Cantor is the Majority Leader and John Boehner serves as Speaker -- and they're blocking President Obama's pro-jobs legislation and pushing a right-wing ideological agenda.  They didn't earn those positions; they stole them.
    On the eve of President Obama's most significant speech of the year, the annual address to Congress and the nation from our chief executive, an organization representing the chief executives of nineteen of the states called the current leadership of one of the house of Congress illegitimate. The DGA goes on to cite "gerrymandering" as the explanation for how the GOP managed to steal the elections and maintain control of the House of Representatives.

    Certainly political organizations are terminally hyperbolic in their rhetoric, but the DGA has outdone itself here. The DGA did not specify which of the 17 races required to give the Democrats the House majority were stolen by Cantor and Boehner, but in any case, the leader of the Democrat party will be forced to address the nation Tuesday night with the latter of these two election thieves looking over his shoulder.  One thing is certain: the president will either disappoint the Democratic Governors Association or David Ignatus depending on the tone he chooses.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard on February 12, 2013.

Monday, February 11, 2013

White House Still Denying "Spending Problem", Healthcare Excepted

    After dodging the question just a week ago, Jay Carney's hand was forced today by a statement Nancy Pelosi made yesterday on Fox News Sunday:
"We have to recognize that, which cuts really help us and which cuts hurt our future? And cuts in education, scientific research and the rest are harmful, and they are what are affected by the sequestration," she said on "Fox News Sunday." "So, it is almost a false argument to say we have a spending problem. We have a budget deficit problem that we have to address." 
    At a press briefing this morning, Carney initially seemed to contradict Pelosi (via Politico):
"Of course the president believes that we have a spending problem," Carney said at a White House briefing, adding that the problem "is specifically driven by -- and I think every economist worth, whose insights into this area are worth the paper on which his or her PhD is printed, would tell you that  -- the principle driver, when it comes to spending, of our deficits and debt, are, is health care spending. And that’s just a fact.
    By qualifying his answer with "health care spending," Carney simply repeated what he ended up saying a week ago when he first ducked the "spending problem" question [emphasis added]:
MR. CARNEY:  Wendell [Goler, Fox News], I’m not sure what rhetorical game you’re trying to engage in.  What he said -- I mean, what is true is that we have a health care spending problem.  That’s why the President addressed it in the Affordable Care Act.  That’s why he’s addressed it in the proposals he’s put forward, and he has addressed it in discretionary spending cuts and he has put forward more spending cuts.
     A search of the White House website turns up very few mentions of "spending problem," and based on the archives of the president's speeches and statements, he has never personally publicly uttered those words.  However, on April 13, 2011, the White House press office released the following statement by Gerald W. McEntee, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) [emphasis added]:
Gerald W. McEntee, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), issued the following statement in response to President Obama’s speech on fiscal responsibility:

“President Obama today made clear that everyone needs to sacrifice to lower the federal debt and that we need to look at both sides of the financial ledger.  As Congress works with the President to find solutions, we urge lawmakers to consider the fact that we have a revenue problem, not a spending problem – and to remember how much the working middle class of our nation has already sacrificed.  The surefire way to balance the budget is to create jobs, close corporate tax loopholes and require the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share. We also commend the President for his strong rejection of the Republican budget proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher and to block grant Medicaid.”
    Unless the president believes the nation has developed a spending problem in the last 22 months, it seems safe to say that his position has not changed since the White House published McEntee's remarks. The White House firmly believes it has addressed the "spending problem" through the passage of ObamaCare. From now on, look for the emphasis to be on increased "revenue," more commonly know as taxes.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard on Monday, February 11, 2013.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mozart and the Dinosaurs

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  was one of the most famous composers and musicians in history.  He was very well known throughout Europe, about the closest to a pop star that one could be in the 18th century. And yet a story in the New York Times this past week said that knowing exactly what his face looked like is "impossible."
In the impossible search to know exactly what the face of musical genius looked like, researchers in Salzburg, Austria, have made progress. Their subject was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a local boy. 
One portrait long thought to be of Mozart turned out to be someone else. A suspect image was confirmed to be of him. And a third portrait, deemed incomplete, was actually found to consist of a finished piece grafted onto a larger canvas. 
The International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, announced the findings last month in conjunction with an exhibition of Mozart portraits that opened on Jan. 26 and runs through April 14. One goal, the foundation said, was to burn away idealized conceptions of Mozart — a white-wigged, red-jacketed, romanticized figure — and focus attention on what he might really have looked like... 
The exhibition speaks to a yearning within the living to know the past, by knowing the face of someone whose work lives on so powerfully in our own time. 
“It’s an emotional question,” Ms. Ramsauer said. “Mozart is such a universal genius. Everybody knows him. Everybody takes part of his life.” 
Research done before the show altered assumptions held for decades.
  Compare that with this article published in the Times last Spring:
Fossils discovered in northeastern China of a giant, previously unrecognized dinosaur show that it is the largest known feathered animal, living or extinct, scientists report. 
Although several species of dinosaurs with feathers have already been uncovered in the rich fossil beds of Liaoning Province, the three largely complete 125-million-year-old specimens are by far the largest. The adult was at least 30 feet long and weighed a ton and a half, about 40 times the heft of Beipiaosaurus, the largest previously known feathered dinosaur. The two juveniles were a mere half ton each... 
“This is a great time to be a dinosaur paleontologist,” said Dr. Norell, whose research concentrates on fossils from China and the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. “The feathered dinosaurs show how the whole conception of dinosaurs has really changed in the last 15 years.”
    Mozart died only 222 years ago and was one of the most well known persons on earth at the time, and yet there is a cottage industry built around discovering what he looked like. There are false leads, "idealized conceptions" of his appearance, and recent research has changed "assumptions held for decades."

    On the other hand, fossils of a creature that purportedly lived 125,000,000 years ago are flatly stated to "show that it is the largest known feathered animal, living or extinct... The adult was at least 30 feet long and weighed a ton and a half, about 40 times the heft of Beipiaosaurus, the largest previously known feathered dinosaur. The two juveniles were a mere half ton each." For an animal that predeceased Mozart by 124,999,778 years, one gets the impression that the New York Times might admit one of these dinosaurs into its corporate offices on its own recognizance while Mozart was fishing around for some ID at the security desk.

    Although the dinosaur story does go on to throw in some caveats ("apparently", "possible", and "probably",) the initial matter-of-fact tone of the writing is striking. I believe the first paragraph holds the key: "scientists report." Scientists are the modern-day oracles. In the post-modern world, the pronouncements of "science" are the closest to "truth" that our society recognizes. Until those pronouncements change.  As the closing line of the story says, "the whole conception of dinosaurs has really changed in the last 15 years."  And there's no reason to believe it won't change just as much in the next 15 years.

    So while our children are bombarded with images of dinosaurs in textbooks and TV documentaries that are presented in near photographic detail, the appearances of actual humans, even very famous ones, who lived before the invention of photography remain somewhat mysterious.  However, at least it suggests some rather amusing imaginary scenarios.  Picture the New York Times Christmas party and the security guard at the door admitting guests. "'Wolfgang'? Is that your name, or the name of your band?  You said you're a musician, right?  Let me call upstairs and see if anyone recognizes you - look up at that camera, OK? - Hold on just a minute...  Lucy! Hey, how are you? You haven't changed a bit!  What's it been, three, three point five million years? Say, you don't know this guy, do you? No? Well, Lucy, head on up.  I've got to take care of Mr. Mozart here. Apparently no one knows this guy from Adam."

Friday, February 8, 2013

Obama Group Runs Afoul of IRS Rules, Its Own Promise [Updated]

    Obama for America continued its metamorphosis this week into Organizing for Action, an independent organization that will advocate for various "progressive" causes, including immigration reform and gun control.  The BarackObama.com website, home of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, has been changing as well, but the transition has not been without its missteps.

    The latest problem involves a local event (actually a series of events) posted on the site as a Day of Action to collect signatures for Democrat Terry McAuliffe to get the former chairman of the DNC on the ballot for governor of Virginia:
    At the bottom of the page is the new footer which has replaced the "Paid for by Obama for America"  that used to mark each page on the website:
    However, under the rules governing 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organizations, which is what Organizing for Action is according to its "About" page, such activity on behalf of a candidate or political campaign is prohibited. IRS rules state:
The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.
    As noted above in the event listing, the host for the event is John Heflin.  According to Heflin's Linked-in profile, he is currently an intern for the Terry McAuliffe for Governor campaign, and previously worked for the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the Wisconsin branch of the Obama for America campaign.

    Even if Organizing for Action does not have a pre-screening process for the listing of such events, this posting has been on the site for more than two days without being caught.  If Organizing for Action is to avoid future trouble with the IRS, more discretion will be needed in the activities it promotes.

    This is not the first time Organizing for Action has run afoul of 501(c)(4) IRS regulations.  Two weeks ago, before OFA suspended its donations page, at least two emails when out, one from the president himself and one from Vice President Biden.  Both emails were labeled as "Paid for by Organizing for Action," and yet the links in the email took recipients to the BarackObama.com website where donations were still be accepted for the Obama Victory Fund to pay off campaign debt. (As of 12/31/12, the Obama campaign was still reporting debt of almost $6 million.)  While the president was not a "candidate" at the point the donations were being solicited, at least the spirit of the IRS rules were being violated if not the letter.

    Ironically, Politico ran a story today entitled "New Obama group Organizing for Action says it’s non-partisan
" [emphasis added]:
President Barack Obama’s new nonprofit Organizing for Action insists that promoting the White House’s legislative agenda can’t be counted as “partisan political activity.”The organization on Wednesday quietly posted new guidelines on its website formally declaring its intention to stay out of campaign politics.Neither OFA nor its chapters will be involved in any way in elections or partisan political activity,” OFA wrote. “Its exclusive purpose is public policy advocacy and development, and in particular, both enactment of President Obama’s legislative agenda and the identification and advancement of other goals for progressive change at the state and local level.
     In view of the Terry McAuliffe campaign event scheduled on OFA's website, "partisan political activity" by any definition, it appears OFA's public statements do not yet match its actions.

UPDATE: Friday afternoon, OFA removed the event from its site.  The Google cache is still available here.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard on February 8, 2013.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Department of Defense Rejects GAO Recommendation Regarding "Sexual Assault Victimization" in the Military

    On January 23, news broke that outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had issued a directive that the military's ban on women in combat would be lifted.  The New York Times reported that his decision was in response to unanimous agreement among the Joint Chiefs of Staff as expressed in a letter to Panetta:
Mr. Panetta’s decision came after he received a Jan. 9 letter from Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stated in strong terms that the armed service chiefs all agreed that “the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”
     The Times article said it was unclear why the Joint Chiefs decided to act now after years of discussion, although there is speculation that recent threats of legal action may have played a role.  However, a Government Accountability Office report issued on January 29 raises some questions about the timing of such a monumental change in policy.

    I first reported the GAO report in a January 31 blog post at The Weekly Standard where I addressed the fiscal impact of allowing women in combat positions.  However, the broader focus of the report is spelled out in its title: "DOD Has Taken Steps to Meet the Health Needs of Deployed Servicewomen, but Actions Are Needed to Enhance Care for Sexual Assault Victims." An explanation of the special focus on sexual assault victims appears early in the report [emphasis added]:
The roles for women in the military have been expanding and evolving, particularly since the Persian Gulf War more than 2 decades ago. Formerly, servicewomen served primarily in supportive roles in overseas U.S. military operations. Today, servicewomen are integral to combat support and counterinsurgency operations, and they serve in many roles they previously did not hold. In late 2011, for example, women began serving aboard Navy submarines. In early 2012, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced that changes to its assignment policies would result in more than 14,000 additional positions being opened to women, including positions in select direct ground combat units. Further, while sexual assault victimization is not unique to women, the presence of women in new roles suggests that continued vigilance with respect to this issue is needed. Given the expanding and evolving role of women in the military, the health and wellness of servicewomen plays an important role in overall military readiness. 
    According to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, this report was originally due by December 31, 2012.  As mentioned above, the report was released on January 29, but given that the paragraph above does not mention the lifting of the women in combat ban, the GAO report was apparently finalized prior to Panetta's announcement. This policy change, much more far reaching that even the change opening "14,000 additional positions" in early 2012, exponentially increases the need for "continued vigilance" regarding "sexual assault victimization" that the GAO calls for.  Therefore, the timing of the announcement lifting the ban and the DOD's reaction to the GAO report recommendations is curious.

    The GAO made two recommendations at the conclusion of its inquiry regarding "sexual assault victimization":
To enhance the medical and mental health care for servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault, GAO recommends that DOD (1) develop department-level guidance on the provision of care to victims of sexual assault; and (2) take steps to improve first responders' compliance with the department's requirements for annual refresher training. DOD did not concur with the first recommendation, but cited steps it is taking that appear consistent with the recommendation. DOD concurred with the second recommendation.
     In this short summary of the DOD's reaction to the draft report, which the DOD reviewed before the GAO prepared and issued the final version on January 29, the GAO notes that the DOD "did not concur with the first recommendation, but cited steps it is taking that appear consistent with the recommendation." This summary sounds sanguine about the steps the DOD is taking to conform to the GAO's first recommendation, but it fails to convey the lengths to which the DOD appears to have gone to avoid concurring and to avoid fully cooperating with the GAO staff conducting the review.  Here is the full paragraph from the body of the report discussing the DOD's recommendations.  It is quite lengthy, but I have taken the liberty of highlighting all the references to the DOD's reticence to fully engage the GAO:
In written comments on a draft of this report, DOD stated in its cover letter that, overall, the department did not concur with the report's findings and conclusions. However, DOD's cover letter did not provide an explanation for this comment. In an enclosure to its letter, DOD stated that it did not concur with our first recommendation that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs develop and implement department-level guidance on the provision of medical and mental health care to victims of sexual assault that would specify health care providers' responsibilities to respond to and care for sexual assault victims, whether in the United States or in deployed environments. DOD's justification of its assessment, however, did not make clear why the department did not concur. Instead, DOD provided examples of steps it has been taking that may help to address the findings in this report. Specifically, DOD stated that, while the second version of DOD Instruction 6495.02, entitled "Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program Procedures" has been in coordination for nearly 2 years and is not yet published, the revised instruction will be comprehensive and will contain two medical enclosures. According to DOD, the first medical enclosure will address health care provider procedures and direct the Surgeons General of the military services to carry out responsibilities related to the
coordination, evaluation, and implementation of care, while the second medical enclosure will address health care providers' responsibilities related to Sexual Assault Forensic Examination kits. During the course of this review, we met with DOD officials who had knowledge of and were involved in the instruction's revision, but these officials did not discuss or share their draft revisions with us when we presented our findings to them. We cannot verify, therefore, whether the enclosures referenced in DOD's comments will address our recommendation. However, we plan to review the instruction when DOD finalizes it to determine whether it meets the intent of our recommendation. Finally, DOD stated that the department meets its oversight responsibilities with regard to sexual assault response through training in graduate medical education and through monitoring and oversight of the process that governs credentialing and privileging of providers.  However, it is not clear why this statement is applicable to our recommendation. We did not address these points in the finding that led to this recommendation, and our recommendation is focused on the need for additional guidance. 
    The DOD's lack of transparency and full cooperation with the GAO has certainly compromised the effectiveness of this report at the precise time when a huge policy change regarding women is emerging. Not only, as the GAO indicates above, will this require further follow up by the GAO, but it has prevented Congress from having complete information on an important aspect of the issue at a time when Congress must decide whether or not to act.  As the GAO report said:
Given the expanding and evolving role of women in the military, the health and wellness of servicewomen plays an important role in overall military readiness. 
    Implementing this policy change, unless Congress intervenes, will be the first order of business for Chuck Hagel or whoever ends up being confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense. And given the importance of the military readiness of the United States, the Department of Defense owes the GAO, Congress and the American people full disclosure when it comes to how it plans to handle one of the most significant changes to the armed forces in our lifetime.

Note: A version of this article first appeared on February 6, 2013 at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Homeland Only Fully Approves 10% of Freedom of Information Requests

According to an annual report for 2012 just released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), DHS processed a total of 205,895 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests during the year. The report, presented by Acting Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer Jonathan R. Cantor, shows that DHS reduced the backlog of such requests by 30 percent during the year. However, a deeper look at the numbers reveals that the agency only fully granted just over 10 percent of FOIA requests that were processed.

Here are the figures from Table B (1) in the report:
205,895 – Total requests processed
21,715 – Full grants
118,719 – Number of partial grants/partial denials
65,461 – Number of full denials (Exemptions/Other)

The percentages break down this way:
32% Fully Denied (although more than half of the denials were due to “no records” or “improper FOIA request”)
89.5% Fully or Partially Denied
10.5% Fully Granted
The report also states that the federal agency employees almost 400 people just to deal with FOIA requests.

Also noted in the report is that freedom of information isn’t free. Costs associates with processing FOIA requests, including almost $2,000,000 for litigation, were $38,633,002 during 2012. Only $435,890 in fees was collected to offset these costs.

The Department of Homeland Security is led by Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Note: This article first appeared on February 5, 2013 at The Weekly Standard.

Bill to Tax Flu Vaccine Reintroduced in House; Already Passed Senate

    On January 6th, I reported that legislation to add seasonal flu vaccines to the definition of taxable vaccines had been introduced in both houses of Congress.  The House version was introduced in December, so it died in committee when the 112th Congress adjourned.  However, an identical bill was introduced in the Sentate by Max Baucus in early January and passed by unanimous consent with no discussion.  Now the bill has been reintroduced in the House (H.R. 475) by Republican Jim Gerlach, the same representative who sponsored the original bill.

    The purpose of this legislation is to make sure seasonal flu vaccines are subject to a 75¢ per dose tax imposed already on many vaccines by Section 4131 of the IRS code.  The tax funds the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.  Here is what I noted about that fund in early January:
    Although the taxes raised by the vaccine tax go into a "trust fund," this trust fund, like most government trust funds, is on paper only.  According to the most recent report on the fund, November 2012, the balance in the fund is nearly $3.5 billion.  (Since the program's inception in 1988, the fund has paid out only $2.5 billion in 25 years for cases involving all vaccines, not just the flu vaccine.  The balance in the fund could conceivably last another 25 years with no further tax revenue.)   The $3.5 billion balance, of course, is "invested" in "US Treasury Securities."  In other words, financing a portion of the $16.5 trillion national debt.
     Also from my January post:
Due to the lack of explanation accompanying the bill, I am only speculating.  But as drug companies struggle to keep up with new and mutating strains of the influenza virus, this bill widens the definition of "taxable vaccine" to make certain that any and all attempts to fight present and future iterations of the flu are subject to the 75¢ per dose tax.  Given that the Centers for Disease Control projects that 135 million doses of flu vaccine will be used this year, Congress is protecting the government's $100,000,000+ take on flu vaccines alone.
     As I mentioned above, this legislation flew through the Senate in a day without any debate.  Its future in the House it uncertain, but the Senate's response gives no reason to suspect there is much controversy about it. I will continue to monitor the bill's progress.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Monkey Business: John McCain and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

    Senator John McCain strirred up a fuss today by mocking Iranian "President" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a tweet.  Here's the offending remark:

    While the joke was frankly fairly lame and comes from a long line of monkey jokes (think: "Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, You look like a monkey, and you act like one, too",) it was not the lameness that landed McCain in hot water.  Rather the joke was deemed racist by some, even by fellow GOPer Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who replied:

    "Racism" in America is often in the ear of the hearer even when not in the mouth or mind of the sayer. True racism surely still exists in this country, but is often obscured by sensitivities, selective application, and outright mischaracterizations. 

    Honestly, in this case, who in the world before today would have listed "monkey" as a racist name for an Iranian? I failed to turn up an example of this in an internet search today. (If anyone can refute this, please do.) However, I did find this story from 2009:
Iranian TV show scrapped after child calls toy monkey Ahmadinejad live on air 
An Iranian children's television show has been pulled after a child appearing on the programme called his pet monkey Ahmadinejad live on air. 
When the presenter of Amoo Pourang (Uncle Pourang), a programme watched by millions of Iranian children three times a week on state TV, asked the name of the toy the boy had been given as a reward for behaving himself, the child replied: "Well, my father calls him Ahmadinejad." 
The father's likely unease at his son's honesty was matched by the programme makers after the state broadcaster, IRIB, immediately responded by removing the show from viewing schedules, The Guardian reported.
     If John McCain's statement was racist, this story makes little sense.  An Iranian father makes a racist joke about the Iranian president? In all probability, Iranians use "monkey" in the same way Americans (including John McCain) do: a term of derision for someone they find silly or absurd. But while the consequences for McCain may consist of a few angry tweets, the Iranian father in 2009 may have faced much more dire consequences for his attempt at humor. Once again, the silly charges of "racism" have distracted from the real evil here: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the oppressive regime he heads. Ahmadinejad himself might actually be laughing this time.

ACLU: "All Too Many Parents Physically Abuse Their LGBT Children"

    Last week, a Tennessee state senator introduced a bill in the General Assembly called the "Classroom Protection Act." A similar bill introduced last year did not pass. The legislation seeks to prohibit human sexuality classroom instruction for kindergarden through eighth grade from including topics "inconsistent with natural human reproduction." However, the provisions requiring parental notification of certain counseling situations are attracting particularly virulent opposition. The provisions in question state that:
"Parents or legal guardians of students" [who receive counseling for] "engaging in, or who may be at risk of engaging in, behavior injurious to the physical or mental health and wellbeing of the student or another person"... "shall be notified as soon as practicable that such counseling has occurred." 
"Parents or legal guardians of such students shall be notified as soon as practicable of the circumstances requiring intervention" [for] "a student whose circumstances present immediate and urgent safety issues involving human sexuality."
    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) responded to this proposed legislation with an entry on its national blog entitled "Bill Would Threaten Free Speech and Place LGBT Students at Risk." The ACLU contends that the legislation "places LGBT students at risk and limits teachers' and counselors' free speech." Referring to the bill as the "Don’t Say Gay" bill, the ACLU also suggests the bill is discriminatory and will hamper anti-bullying efforts.

    However, the main targets of the ACLU are the very parents of the kindergarten through eighth grade students whose rights this bill seeks to protect. Executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, Hedy Weinberg, unleashed this torrent of vitriol:
[I]t’s inexcusable to make counseling professionals out LGBT or questioning young people to family members, when all too many parents physically abuse their LGBT children, force them into quack 'reparative therapy' programs, or kick them out of their homes. This disgraceful bill pays lip service to student safety, but in reality it puts vulnerable young people at terrible risk."
    In the eyes of the ACLU, parents are a "terrible risk" to their own vulnerable children. The attitude here is similar to the one used to attack parental notification for minors seeking abortions. Parents are assumed to be the last ones qualified and apparently the least emotionally capable of dealing with the sexual questions and confusion of their own offspring. This is the nanny state at its worst, and not even the built-in protections in the legislation have assuaged the ACLU's fear of parentally wreaked carnage.  The bill explicitly states that:
[N]otice shall not be given to any parent or legal guardian if there is reasonable cause to believe that the parent or legal guardian may be the perpetrator or in any way responsible for sexual abuse of the student.
    The ACLU is not even bothering to mask its hostility to parents. That organization's assumption is that abuse by parents ("all too many parents") is the rule rather than the exception. The rights of parents are not even in the same league as the rights of the state to hide personal details of the children in its charge. The ACLU's opposition to this proposed law is a preemptive strike against the family, and it needs to be exposed for the subversive organization it has become.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

President Obama Celebrated 51st Birthday With A Whole Lot of Shooting

    The White House revealed today that President Obama started out his 51st year with a bang.  Daniel Halper of the Weekly Standard posted this morning that the official White House photographer had taken this photo of the president shooting clay pigeons on August 4, 2012, his 51st birthday:

    But guns were not the only thing the president shot on his birthday.  Bloomberg reported the next day:
President Barack Obama, who turned 51 yesterday, put in a full morning and early afternoon at the golf course at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday before flying to Camp David after 4 pm for the night.
    There is no word if the president shot any baskets at Camp David, but even the president's weekly address on that day carried the shooting theme with a reference to some of the athletes competing in the Summer Olympics which were taking place during that time:
 And I’m just as proud of all our athletes in sports that don’t always get as much attention... Kim Rhode became the first American to win individual medals in five straight Olympics with her gold in skeet shooting; and her teammate, Army Sergeant Vincent Hancock, won his second skeet gold. 
     Although the photo above may not complete allay suspicions about the validity of the president's recent claim that he shoots skeet "all the time" at Camp David, clearly that day at least there was a whole lot of shooting going on.

National Science Foundation: $400,000 for Guppy Study

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has requested $7.373 billion from Congress for fiscal year 2013, an increase of $340 million (4.8%) over 2012. According to an announcement on Thursday, $400,000 of that (spread over three years) will be going to fund guppy research.  Colorado State University announced the grant on January 31st for a study to investigate "the effects of genes moving from one population to another." The press release explains further:
Chris Funk and Lisa Angeloni, assistant professors of biology at CSU, and their student teams tackle the dilemma of when to artificially induce migration between populations to rescue them from decline by getting up close and personal with Trinidadian guppies. These small fish, although not at risk of extinction themselves, make for an excellent model system to study the effects of introductions on local adaptation and population growth.
    The purpose of the study is help biologists develop strategies for helping to rescue declining species from extinction. Conservation is a noble and justifiable (in some cases) goal and government's role dates back at least to President Teddy Roosevelt, although the National Science Foundation did not come along until 1950. However, "conservation" has taken a hit as efforts have sometimes focused on what appear to be less than justifiable goals (the snail darter, the Northern spotted owl, and some kind of desert rat whose exact name escapes me at the moment.)

    Currently, however, the United States government is over $16 trillion dollars in debt. Spending $400,000 on conservation at this juncture just doesn't pass the if-you-don't-need-it-to-keep-the-lights-on test (especially when the subject of the study is guppies, whose current world population according to my completely unscientific estimate is coincidentally also just over 16 trillion.) As an accountant, I just can't help thinking it ironic that in my line of work, the acronym of the National Science Foundation, NSF, is more commonly interpreted as Non Sufficient Funds  -- meaning a bounced check.

    Now I am sure for every example like the guppy study (or any number of examples Sen. Tom Coburn came up with a couple of years ago in his report on the NSF,) someone can give an example of how an NSF grant produced some remarkable discovery that has improved life for everyone (and not just guppies.) But until the U.S. government starts seeing a lot more black ink in the balance column of its check register, the National Science Foundation should have to face the fact that the taxpayers have bigger fish to fry.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Thirteen Months Between Council of Economic Advisors "Quarterly" Reports on Recovery Act

    A few weeks ago, I noted that the Government Accountability Office had taken some liberties with the term "bi-monthly" with the reviews and reports that were required by Congress in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Instead of 23 reports, the GAO had issued only 16 or 17 instead, but still used the term "bi-monthly." When I contacted the GAO for comment, I received a response that claimed that the "Recovery Act requires bi-monthly reviews but does not require bi-monthly reporting."

    Now it's President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors' turn to engage in some creative redefinition.  Just today, the Council issued a report on the 2009 Recovery Act.  Here's the title page noting it's the ninth such quarterly report:

    The obvious implication is that if one were interested in the eighth quarterly report, November 1, 2012 would be about the time such a report might have been issued.  However, one actually has to go back almost a full year before that to locate the eighth "quarterly" report, all the way to December 9, 2011:

    Given the magnitude of the misstatement on the cover of the report, it seems fair to question the reliability of the information on the following 22 pages.  The Executive Summary at the beginning of the report doesn't bode well:
As part of the unprecedented accountability and transparency provisions included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the Council of Economic Advisers(CEA) is  charged with providing to Congress quarterly reports on the effects of  the Recovery Act on overall economic activity, and on employment in particular.  This is the ninth report and it provides an assessment of the effects of the Act through the third quarter of 2012.  
    If another thirteen months pass before the next "quarterly" report, the CEA might want to rethink using the "unprecedented accountability and transparency" line again.