Thursday, August 28, 2014

Feds: Cost of Healthcare.gov Estimated $1.7 Billion

    The federal government issued sixty contracts from 2009 to 2014 in efforts to build the federal insurance marketplace. According to a report issued today by the inspector general (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the government had already paid out just under half a billion dollars by February 2014, five months after the beginning of open enrollment. The government is already under obligation for another $300 million, and the estimated value of the sixty contracts totals $1.7 billion. The OIG provided a summary of its findings:
The 60 contracts related to the development and operation of the Federal Marketplace started between January 2009 and January 2014. The purpose of the 60 contracts ranged from health benefit data collection and consumer research to cloud computing and Web site development. The original estimated values of these contracts totaled $1.7 billion; the contract values ranged from $69,195 to over $200 million. Across the 60 contracts, nearly $800 million has been obligated for the development of the Federal Marketplace as of February 2014. As of that date, CMS had paid nearly $500 million for the development of the Federal Marketplace to the contractors awarded these contracts.
    A few familiar names appear on the list of contracts, such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Also appearing are CGI Federal, widely blamed for the botched roll out of the site last October, and Accenture Federal Services, which has taken over for CGI in hopes this year's open enrollment will go better than 2013.
    The inspector general presented the report on the contracts largely with commentary, instead noting that "[i]n the coming months, OIG will be issuing additional, indepth audits and evaluations that look more closely at contracting for the Federal Marketplace and will include, when appropriate, recommendations to resolve vulnerabilities we identify and/or build on promising approaches."

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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Deputy Secretary of Defense: 'Right Now... No Boots on the Ground' in Iraq

    Ever since President Obama pulled forces out of Iraq, he has been unequivocal in his statements about American combat troops and that country. As recently as August 7, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the "President has also made clear that American military action in Iraq would not include combat boots on the ground.  That is a principle that the President laid out at the beginning and that continues to be true today."
    However, in remarks Wednesday to US troops in Guam, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work twice qualified the president's words with "right now", saying "Do I think we're going to have boots on the ground[?] The president's been very clear, right now, no," and a short time later, "So right now, the president's been very clear, no boots on the ground."
    Secretary Work was responding to a question about ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Iraq from a soldier in the audience at an event at Apra Harbor, Guam. The following are excerpts from Work's reply [emphasis added]:
Well, all I can say on this is this is the biggest debate that's going on inside Washington D.C. right now. Okay, everybody knows that ISIL is -- these are about the worst guys that we've come up against. I mean, they're so bad that Al Qaeda you know, said, we don't like these guys anymore. You know if Al Qaeda says (Inaudible).
So not only are they terrorists, but they're pretty good light infantry. They know how to do combined arms. They -- one of the things that makes them so effective is they have a lot of equipment that they've gotten from the Iraqi army, they've captured from the Iraqi army and the Syrian army. They're very, very fast. They've got a very flat command and control structure, and they have good combined arms.
And so they move quickly, and they're very bold. I mean, they're quite effective with their tactical -- at the tactical level...
In the end though, we're going to have to confront ISIL. Do I think we're going to have boots on the ground. The president's been very clear, right now, no. And if we can find good partners, having the government of Iraq, having (inaudible), who's stepped down, having a new unity government. That's going to be a big deal, because the president as said when we have a good partner we will consider doing more in support of them.
KRG forces, the Peshmerga, they've already proved to be quite capable on the battlefield as long as they have the weapons. They can stand up to ISIL. But we can talk with Turkey. We can talk with Jordan. We can talk to Saudi Arabia. We can talk to a lot of different partners, and we have to address this as a regional issue.
So right now, the president's been very clear, no boots on the ground. But we've already started to support our government of Iraq, our partners, using airpower.
    When asked, based on Work's comments, under what conditions the US might put boots on the ground in Iraq, Bill Speaks of the defense department's Public Affairs office responded via email, "We would not speculate on something like that."
    President Obama did not specifically address future actions by the US military in Iraq in his remarks Wednesday regarding the murder of photojournalist James Foley by ISIL, saying only that the United States "will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless."
    Following the president's remarks, the Wire reported that the National Security Council announced more airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq. White House pool reports said that the president himself went golfing.

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Latest From Healthcare.gov: Nonsense -- Literally

    Healthcare.gov has had its share of problems over the ten months since its launch, but those looking for information about appealing a Marketplace decision are facing a brand new one: nonsense -- literally. The inquiry How to Appeal a Marketplace Decision is answered with, "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Donec egestas rhoncus orci, at lobortis justo tempor a." The full page appears as follows:

    The page can be seen by selecting the "Get Answers" menu from the home page of Healthcare.gov and choosing "How to appeal a Marketplace decision." Selection of the submenu items on the left return the same result.
    Appeal information is not the only page with the nonsense text. Why Health Coverage is Important brings up an identical result, as does Immigrants.
    Other problems exist on the site as well. A search for "appeal" reveals the following:
    According to the website lipsum.com, the nonsense text is "simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry." In other words, the text is simply a placeholder until the permanent information is entered.
    An email to CMS requesting comment was not immediately returned.

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

State Dept. Spends $435K on Security Fencing for Ukraine-Crimean Border

    As part of the U.S. Crisis Support Package for Ukraine announced by the White House in April, the State Department awarded a $435,000 contract to B.K. Engineering System in Kyiv for razor wire to help"defend the newly imposed borders between Ukraine's mainland and the Crimean peninsula." The contract was awarded on June 12, but was just posted online this week.

     An $8 million "non-lethal assistance" package was announced at the same time as a larger $50 million aid package for Ukraine to "help Ukraine pursue political and economic reform and strengthen the partnership between the United States and Ukraine." The razor wire (Concertina) is included under "[e]ngineering equipment, communications equipment, vehicles, and non-lethal individual tactical gear for Ukraine’s Border Guard Service" that was spelled out in the April Fact Sheet. The contract notice posted online says:
[T]his order is for the delivery of 2,500 spools of Concertina wire for the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine referenced in the Office of the Vice President's Fact Sheet entitled "U.S. Crisis Support Package for Ukraine" dated 22 April 2014. This Fact Sheet includes Security Assistance in which the Office of the Vice President announced the provision of urgently needed non-lethal assistance to the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine to fulfill its core security mission.
    More recently, according to a report in the Daily Beast, the eastern Russian-Ukrainian border has been under greater threat than the Crimean border. President Obama spoke to Ukrainian president Poroshenko on Monday to discuss recent events and reiterate that "any Russian intervention in Ukraine without the formal, express consent and authorization of the Ukraine government would be unacceptable and a violation of international law." President Obama last spoke with Russian president Vladimir Putin on August 1 where he "reiterated his deep concerns about Russia’s increased support for the separatists in Ukraine" and "about Russia’s compliance with its obligations under the INF Treaty."

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Defense Secretary Hagel: 'The World is Exploding All Over'

    Fresh off a trip to India and Australia, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed a group of Marines in San Diego, California Tuesday, and delivered a line that may show up in Republican campaign ads this election cycle. After updating the troops on some issues in the Pacific region and the Middle East, Hagel took questions from some of the Marines and gave a stark assessment of the global security situation: "The world is exploding all over." The remark came in response to a question about the Obama administration's realignment of the military towards the Asia-Pacific theater:
Q: Good afternoon, sir. My question is that, given that the administration's primary focus is on the Pacific theater, how has all of the issues popping up in the world today, Russia, Iraq, Africa, the rest of the theaters pretty much affected that current mission? And how do you foresee that affecting the mission in the future? 
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. That's a -- go ahead, sit down -- that's a question I got often when I was in India and Australia. And the trip I just came from was my sixth trip to the Asia Pacific area in the last year-and-a-half. I've got four planned this calendar year. And so I get that question all the time. It's a legitimate question for the very reasons you asked. 
The world is exploding all over. And so is the United States going to continue to have the resources, the capabilities, the leadership, the bandwidth to continue with the rebalance toward the Asia Pacific? And the answer is yes.
Hagel went on say that, despite the rebalancing towards the Pacific, the US will not be "retreating" from any threats elsewhere in the world.
Now, that said, as I've said, with that rebalance, which will continue, and we are committed to do that, we're not retreating from any other part of the world. Great powers can't pick and choose which challenges and threats they're going to deal with. There is no power on Earth like the United States of America... 
No country is great enough, powerful enough to deal with all these threats and challenges alone in the world today. They're too big, too complex. The world is too complicated.
Whether they're cyber threats, which are relatively new, but are just as real and deadly and lethal as anything we've ever dealt with, obviously, what's going on in North Korea, China's behavior in the South China Sea, East China Sea, you mentioned Russia's actions in Ukraine, North Africa, the Middle East today, every part of that world is troubled under great stress.
    Hagel noted in his talk with the Marines, "We're in more countries, involved in more operations with more partners all over the world than we've ever been in." Hagel has faced criticism from Republicans for cutting the military budget and specific programs while at the same time expanding the overall mission of US forces.
    The Obama administration has increasingly come under fire lately for weakness in foreign policy, even from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, though Clinton seemed to subsequently walk back her criticism.

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

Hobby Lobby and the Hunk

    The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision has spawned many protests since being handed down in June, but a mini-demonstration in Queensbury, NY early this week produced one of the more unusual signs carried by one of the participants. Four members of the same family showed off their signs on a street corner. Three of the messages were rather pedestrian: "Keep Your Theology Off My Biology", "My Body My Choice", and "Separation of Church and Work." But the fourth may have caused some motorists to do double takes with its simple message: "Hunk Obama":

    I suppose a second interpretation of the sign could be "Honk if You Love Obama" with the heart standing in for "if you love." But I prefer the "hunk" interpretation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

US Embassy in Canada Celebrates LGBT Pride Festival With Free Outdoor Drag-Queen Movie

    The US Embassy in Canada is fired up about celebrating the Ottawa's Capital Pride festival ("Ottawa's most colorful festival".) The festival includes an embassy-sponsored free outdoor screening of the PG-13 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, which, according the Internet Movie Database, tells the story of "[t]hree drag queens [who] travel cross-country until their car breaks down, leaving them stranded in a small town."
    Besides the film, to "show our support of LGBT+ rights," the embassy is partnering with the festival to bring two American activists to address festival goers:
We have also partnered with Capital Pride to bring up two American LGBT+ activists to participate in a number of scheduled activities. Transgender activist Stephanie Battaglino will be a keynote speaker at the Free to Learn - GLBT+ Conference on August 20th, and will host the Gender Mosaic Networking Social and Human Rights Vigil on August 21st. 
Globetrotting-adventurer / wonder kid Cason Crane is this year's International Parade Marshall. He will also be a keynote speaker at the Free to Learn - GLBT+ Conference and will participate in some of the youth-oriented activities organized by Capital Pride's youth wing.
    The embassy's most visible sign of support is the giant rainbow flag draped on the outside of the embassy building. To provide a sense of scale, the photo on the left below shows the American flag that flies at the embassy. The photo on the right shows the "pride" flag as it is currently displayed.

    The festival runs from August 15th to 24th and culminates with a parade on the final day.

Note: The plus sign used after LGBT and GLBT is not defined, but presumably is standing in for Q, "questioning"; I, "intersex", and A, "ally". Those are the letters which are most commonly used to expand the reach of the basic acronym. GLBT, as opposed to LGBT, is the preferred order of the acronym in Canada.

Monday, August 11, 2014

$908K for Vehicles for Biden's World Cup Trip--On Top of $2.2M for Hotels

    Vice President Biden's trip to Brazil in mid-June for the USA versus Ghana World Cup game and meetings the following day with the president and vice president of Brazil required rental of vehicles for Biden and his entourage costing over $900,000.  Added to the $2.2 million cost of hotels we reported a few weeks ago, the total costs of local lodging and transportation for the trip topped $3.1 million.
    The documents indicate two companies were used for vehicles and drivers:

    The $908,147 estimate far outstrips the $321,665 spent in February 2013 for a vice presidential trip to Paris. The documents for the World Cup trip do not contain enough details to explain why the cost for this trip is comparatively high, but asserts that the "anticipated cost to the Government will be fair and reasonable" and that the rates are comparable to "the rates charged for similar services during this season." The documents that accompanied the Brazil hotel contract posting noted that due to the World Cup, hotel rates were up anywhere from 75 to 365 percent, but a similar statement is not included in the vehicle documents.
    The State Department, the agency that handles arrangements for VIP trips, explained the reasons for the short notice and lack of full competition in awarding the contracts:
Security and logistics are the Department of State’s primary considerations when procuring vehicles rental. The Department of State must be able to provide a safe and secure vendor for VIP visitors. Frequently VIP visits are not announced or confirmed in sufficient time to conduct a competition, creating an urgent and compelling need.
    The two companies chosen were able to handle communications requirements and were accommodating to the security needs of the vice president's entourage.

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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Jimmy Carter: Hamas a 'Legitimate Political Actor'

    Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jimmy Carter takes to ForeignPolicy.com to argue that the key to ending the current war in Gaza is "recognizing Hamas as a legitimate political actor." Writing along with fellow "Elder" Mary Robinson (part of an "international group of elder statesmen"), the former president pinned the blame for the current conflict on Israel's refusal to appreciate the "major concession" made by Hamas in April and to recognize the new Palestinian government formed by the Hamas-Fatah "reconciliation":
This tragedy results from the deliberate obstruction of a promising move toward peace in the region, when a reconciliation agreement among the Palestinian factions was announced in April. This was a major concession by Hamas, in opening Gaza to joint control under a technocratic government that did not include any Hamas members. The new government also pledged to adopt the three basic principles demanded by the Middle East Quartet comprised of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia: nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements. Tragically, Israel rejected this opportunity for peace and has succeeded in preventing the new government's deployment in Gaza.
    While Carter and Robinson excoriate Israel for its conduct of the war, Hamas escapes with only a single reference to its "war crimes" (committed by "both sides") as "unacceptable":
There is no humane or legal justification for the way the Israeli Defense Forces are conducting this war. Israeli bombs, missiles, and artillery have pulverized large parts of Gaza, including thousands of homes, schools, and hospitals. More than 250,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinian noncombatants have been killed. Much of Gaza has lost access to water and electricity completely. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. 
There is never an excuse for deliberate attacks on civilians in conflict. These are war crimes. This is true for both sides. Hamas's indiscriminate targeting of Israeli civilians is equally unacceptable. However, three Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets, while an overwhelming majority of the 1,600 Palestinians killed have been civilians, including more than 330 children. The need for international judicial proceedings to investigate and end these violations of international law should be taken very seriously.
    Carter and Robinson conclude:
[T]he United States and EU should recognize that Hamas is not just a military but also a political force... Only by recognizing its legitimacy as a political actor -- one that represents a substantial portion of the Palestinian people -- can the West begin to provide the right incentives for Hamas to lay down its weapons... 
Ultimately, however, lasting peace depends on the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel
    Carter was awarded the Nobel prize in 2002 for "his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
    The entire Hamas article can be found here.

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Michelle Obama: America Has Not Achieved 'Anywhere Near Full' Equality

    First Lady Michelle Obama created a stir with her remark at the recent Summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders that "the blood of Africa runs through my veins." But later in her speech, she had some observations about the country of her birth as well. Mrs. Obama cited the progress made by and for women in the United States, particularly over the last century:
A century ago, women in America weren’t allowed to vote.  Decades ago, it was perfectly legal for employers to refuse to hire women.  Domestic violence was viewed not as a crime, but as a private family matter between a man and his wife.  
But in each generation, people of conscience stood up and rejected these unjust practices.  They chained themselves to the White House gates, waged hunger strikes in prison to win the right to vote.  They took their bosses to court.  They spoke out about rape and fought to prosecute rapists, despite the stigma and shame.  They left their abusive husbands, even when that meant winding up on the streets with their children.  (Applause.)  
And today in America, we see the results of those hard-fought battles:  60 percent of college students today are women.  Women are now more than half the workforce.  And in recent decades, women’s employment has added nearly $2 trillion to the U.S. economy -– yes, trillion.  (Applause.)
    However, in spite the advances, the first lady said that the United States has not achieved "anywhere near full" equality for women in a number of areas:
Now, are we anywhere near full economic, political, and domestic equality in the United States?  Absolutely not.  We still struggle every day with serious issues like violence against women, unequal pay.  Women are still woefully underrepresented in our government and in the senior ranks of our corporations.
    Mrs. Obama has been a target of criticism since February 2008 for statements that seem to disparage America when she said twice on the campaign trail, "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country."
    At the Mandela summit, Mrs. Obama went on to say that credit for the progress made in the United States for women has not simply been due to brave women, but to "brave men" as well:
But slowly, generation after generation, we’ve been moving in the right direction because of brave individuals who were willing to risk their jobs, their reputations, and even their lives to achieve equality.  And it wasn’t just brave women who made these sacrifices.  It was also brave men, too -- (applause) -- men who hired women, men who passed laws to empower women, men who prosecuted other men who abused women.
    As first lady, Mrs. Obama has done more than her share to give women opportunities to advance. Her White House staff is overwhelmingly composed of women, although on average the few men on her staff are paid more.

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

Biden: 'Why Would a Business Go' to Delaware?

    Vice President Joe Biden inadvertently may have produced the worst public service announcement for a state since  Maryland's Governor William Donald Schaefer referred to the Eastern Shore of his state as the "[outhouse]" of Maryland. Biden recently recorded a White House White Board video to boost the president's latest plan to spend billions on those ubiquitous "crumbling roads and bridges." To provide an example, Biden turned his sights on his home state, the "little state of Delaware":

[Transcript, 2:50 to 3:29] Take a look at my little state of Delaware.  I'm very proud of Delaware because I know it so well having represented it for so long.  There are 6,357 miles of public roads in the state of Delaware. Sixteen percent of them are in poor condition. How does that little state compete? Why would a business go, why would an enterprise get engaged in a place where there wasn't sufficient rail, or the roads weren't good, where the bridges were in disrepair? Businesses go where they can increase productivity. Productivity relates to how rapidly they can get things to market, how cheaply they can get 'em to market, and how often they can get 'em to market.
    Asked to comment on the vice president's remarks, Kelly M. Bachman, press secretary for Governor Jack Markell responded:
The Vice President has been as great a champion for Delaware as we have and has only helped improve the image of our great state across the country and around the world. We should always want to do better, but we're encouraged that our economy is improving and our job growth is outpacing the nation's. 
I don't speak for the Vice President, but I suspect he did not view his words as disparaging and we do not take them that way.  As a point of comparison, Delaware's 16% of roads in poor condition, although certainly not good, is better than our surrounding states. 
Both the President and Vice President continue to show the necessary sense of urgency to strengthen our transportation system and Governor Markell appreciates their support and advocacy. The condition of infrastructure in parts of the country are in an unacceptable condition and our advantages in the global economy will shrink rapidly if we don't make needed investments. 
Businesses and entrepreneurs have more choices than ever about where to locate, expand and hire - and a safe, reliable transportation infrastructure plays an important role in their decision making process. If we want to successfully compete for jobs in the global economy, we must invest in our people and our infrastructure.
    In spite of the benefit of the doubt the governor's office gave the vice president, it seems a safe bet that after Biden returns to Delaware for good, he won't be looking for work designing welcome signs for his home state.

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