In the USA...United Surveillance AmericaOccupy Wall Street’s debt buying strikes at the heart of capitalism
By Alex Andreou, The Guardian
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 15:55 EST
Across the United States, 2,693 people have received a letter in the last few months, which identified a debt and read: “You are no longer under any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else.” This is the work of the Rolling Jubilee project – a non-profit initiative which buys personal debt for pennies on the dollar in the secondary market (where debt is sold to companies who then resell it to collection agencies) but then simply cancels it.
When the Occupy movement came into being in the summer of 2011, its critics said that a lack of identifiable objectives and strategy for achieving them meant it was doomed to fail. This was a monumental underestimation of its potential impact. Two years on, the debate about the ethics of corporate capitalism in its current form, the fairness of the remuneration of those at the top, the widening wealth gap and the morality of tax avoidance is alive and well. The concept of the “99%” is now part of the collective consciousness. All this is, in no small part, down to the fuse lit by the Occupy movement.
However, another significant aspect of the movement – dismissed as being woolly – was that it brought like-minded people together and allowed a dialogue which identified common strands. This appears to have evolved into several focused and practical initiatives. One of the most significant, and perhaps the most threatening to the status quo, is the Strike Debt group, of which the Rolling Jubilee project forms part.
The idea is that, those freed from debt and those sympathetic to the movement, then donate into the fund to keep it “rolling” forward; hence the name. The fund has already raised $600,000 and has used $400,000 of this to purchase and cancel an astonishing $14.7m of debt, primarily focusing on medical bills. This strikes at the very heart of the system, not only by using its own perverse rules against it, but critically by revealing the illusory and circular nature of debt.
Capitalism requires a layer of cheap, flexible labour to operate optimally. It is not a coincidence that the most successful global economy, by any traditional capitalist measure, is an authoritarian quasi-communist state. Many, myself included, have been arguing that our current predicament is not crisis-consequent austerity, but a permanent adjustment. David Cameron on Monday confirmed as much. The great lie, peddled by Thatcher and Reagan, was the idea that we could all be middle class, white-collar professionals within a neoliberal economy. It was simply not true.
David Graeber, one of the original members of Occupy Wall Street writes: “Almost immediately we noticed a pattern. The overwhelming majority of Occupiers were, in one way or another, refugees of the American debt system … The rise of OWS allowed us to start seeing the system for what it is: an enormous engine of debt extraction. Debt is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us, at home and abroad.” Western capitalism is running out of serfs, slaves, colonies, immigrants, child labour and women as chattels. A new underclass must be created. Debt is the weapon of choice. Medical bills underlie more than 60% of bankruptcies in the US. The level of student debt has reached an eye-watering $1.2tn.
This is why the debate on the back-door privatisation of medical and education services in this country matters so much. The extraction of profit from these two key areas changes the social contract in a fundamental way. The idea is no longer that the state will educate you and keep you healthy, so that you may continue to contribute with both your work and your taxes. It has mutated instead into “you will borrow money from the state’s private partners in order to become educated and stay healthy, so that you may continue to contribute to their bottom line”. All of the 99%, in a very real way, work in part for an assortment of financial institutions, largely invisible and certainly unaccountable.
Iceland’s – strangely unreported – decision to write down mortgage debt for its citizens, undermines that notion. A rejection of traditional systems of credit and money as a response to austerity, such as in the barter markets of Volos in Greece and Turin in Italy undermines that notion. The Rolling Jubilee project undermines that notion in a significant way, by asking the sizzling question: “If a corporation is prepared to accept five cents on the dollar in exchange for our debts, if that is our debt’s open market value, how much do we really owe?”
And if your instinct is to point out that $15m is so small a drop in the ocean as to be insignificant, my response would be: not to the 2,693 people who received that letter. The sparkle of a lit fuse is, by its nature, humble.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
*************JP Morgan gave $1.8m contract to Chinese ex-premier's daughter – report
Relationship with Wen Jaibao's daughter is part of wider US probe into Wall Street bank's hiring practices in China
theguardian.com, Thursday 14 November 2013 09.59 GMT
JP Morgan paid $1.8m (£1.1m) over two years to a small consulting firm run by the daughter of former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, according to a New York Times report, a relationship that is part of a wider US probe into the Wall Street bank's hiring practices in the region.
Citing documents, public filings and interviews, the newspaper said JP Morgan had a $75,000-a-month contract with a consultancy run by Lily Chang, which appeared to have only one other employee. The paper said Chang is the alias of Wen Ruchun, the only daughter of Wen Jiabao, who as premier had oversight of financial institutions at the time of the contract.
US authorities are investigating JP Morgan's hiring practices in China as part of a wider bribery probe into whether the bank traded contracts and jobs in order to win business. Investment banks globally have a long history of hiring people with key connections who can help win advisory roles on important and lucrative deals.
The practice was widespread in China from the early-2000s, when investment banks engaged in so-called 'elephant hunting' – chasing mandates to manage the multibillion dollar stock offerings of the country's big state-owned enterprises.
The distinction between hiring a relative of a foreign official who may be well connected, and employing such a person with the express hope of winning specific business, is key to proving violations of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The US Securities and Exchange Commission's anti-bribery unit is leading the JP Morgan probe, a person familiar with the matter previously told Reuters.
On 7 August, JP Morgan disclosed in a regulatory filing that it had a request from US regulators regarding employees in Hong Kong, but did not elaborate. The New York Times followed with a report detailing the nature of the probe, later confirmed by Reuters.
In its August report, the New York Times said two of JP Morgan's hires under investigation were of the son of the head of a Chinese state-run financial conglomerate, and the daughter of a former railway official.
Citing people with knowledge of the matter, Bloomberg News reported in late-August that JP Morgan had an internal spreadsheet that linked appointments to specific deals pursued by the bank. It said JP Morgan, in response to the SEC probe, started an internal investigation in Hong Kong, which was later expanded across Asia, covering interns as well as full-time staff.
In the New York Times report on Thursday, the paper said Wen Ruchun's firm, Fullmark Consultants, was paid a total of $1.8m by JP Morgan in 2006-08.
A spokeswoman for JP Morgan in Hong Kong said the bank was "co-operating fully with regulators". She declined to comment further and referred to the bank's 1 November quarterly filing in which it gave further information about the probe, disclosing that, in addition to the SEC, the US Department of Justice and agencies from other jurisdictions were investigating hiring practices in Hong Kong.
Reuters could not immediately reach Wen Ruchun for comment.
A visit to the Beijing office cited by the New York Times as Fullmark's headquarters revealed no company of that name, suggesting the business has either closed or moved.
JP Morgan at one point hired Tang Xiaoning, the son of Tang Shuangning, chairman of state-controlled financial conglomerate China Everbright Group, and a former banking regulator, the New York Times reported in August.
After the younger Tang joined JP Morgan, the bank won several important assignments from Everbright, including advising a subsidiary on a stock offering, the newspaper reported.
The SEC is also probing JP Morgan's hiring of Zhang Xixi, the daughter of a now-disgraced Chinese railway official. The bank went on to help advise the official's company, which builds railways for the government, on its plans to go public, the New York Times reported in its August article.
According to the newspaper's latest article, there is no indication from documents seen by the New York Times that Wen brokered any deals or investments between JP Morgan and companies affiliated with her family.
****************Wikileaks: U.S. backing pharmaceuticals in Trans-Pacific Partnership draft
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 20:35 EST
The United States is seeking broader protections for its pharmaceutical and other companies in negotiations on an ambitious Pacific trade deal, according to a document released Wednesday by WikiLeaks.
Julian Assange’s anti-secrecy activist website published what it said was the draft text as of late August for a chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being negotiated among 12 countries that comprise more than 40 percent of the world economy.
The text shows widespread disagreements among negotiators, despite calls from President Barack Obama to seal the agreement by the end of the year. Talks are scheduled to resume Tuesday in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In multiple passages in the documents, the United States is seen as pressing for greater leeway for companies to seek patents in the medical field, a move that could potentially restrict cheaper generic drugs in the vast area.
In the notes, most nations part ways with the United States and support two-decade-old exemptions under the World Trade Organization for patents in certain areas related to public health.
The text also shows that the United States and Japan are seeking to restrict nations from denying patents on the argument that products do not result in “enhanced efficacy.”
Generic drug leader India, which is not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has cited that reason to deny patent protections, enraging major pharmaceutical companies.
Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group critical of globalization, charged that the Trans-Pacific Partnership marked a step backward and would lock consumers into high prices for medication.
“The Obama administration’s shameful bullying on behalf of the giant drug companies would lead to preventable suffering and death in Asia-Pacific countries,” Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s global access to medicines program, said in a statement.
Pharmaceutical companies have traditionally argued that they need revenue from their inventions to fund further research into potentially life-saving drugs.
In a separate section, the United States and Australia are marked as opposing moves to limit liability of Internet service providers for copyright infringement that takes place over their networks.
Obama has argued that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will create US jobs by enhancing exports while ensuring top-notch labor and environmental standards.
A spokeswoman for the US Trade Representative’s office declined comment on the content or authenticity of the document released by WikiLeaks, saying that negotiations were ongoing.
But the leak renewed concerns among Obama’s political base, which has complained it has not been consulted on negotiations.
In a letter Wednesday, 151 House of Representative members from his Democratic Party opposed granting so-called “fast-track” authority that would give the Obama administration greater authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Congress still voting up-or-down but unable to revise the text.
“We are deeply committed to transforming US trade policy into a tool for creating and retaining family-wage jobs in America, safeguarding the environment, maintaining consumer protection and improving the quality of life throughout the country,” the lawmakers wrote to Obama.
The text released by WikiLeaks did not cover agriculture, an area which the trade pact has concerned groups ranging from US Midwestern dairy farmers to Japanese rice farmers.
Many officials view the Trans-Pacific Partnership not only as an economic but as a geopolitical tool. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in deciding to enter talks, spoke of ensuring Tokyo’s role in shaping the future of a region marked by China’s rise.
China, Asia’s second largest economy, is not part of the talks, which include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
*****************The more you know about the odious Trans-Pacific Partnership, the less you’ll like it
By Dan Gillmor, The Guardian
Thursday, November 14, 2013 7:35 EST
Among the many betrayals of the Obama administration is its overall treatment of what many people refer to as “intellectual property” – the idea that ideas themselves and digital goods and services are exactly like physical property, and that therefore the law should treat them the same way. This corporatist stance defies both reality and the American Constitution, which expressly called for creators to have rights for limited periods, the goal of which was to promote inventive progress and the arts.
In the years 2007 and 2008, candidate Obama indicated that he’d take a more nuanced view than the absolutist one from Hollywood and other interests that work relentlessly for total control over this increasingly vital part of our economy and lives. But no clearer demonstration of the real White House view is offered than a just-leaked draft of an international treaty that would, as many had feared, create draconian new rights for corporate “owners” and mean vastly fewer rights for the rest of us.
I’m talking about the appalling Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, a partial draft of which WikiLeaks has just released. This treaty has been negotiated in secret meetings dominated by governments and corporations. You and I have been systematically excluded, and once you learn what they’re doing, you can see why.
The outsiders who understand TPP best aren’t surprised. That is, the draft “confirms fears that the negotiating parties are prepared to expand the reach of intellectual property rights, and shrink consumer rights and safeguards,” writes James Love a longtime watcher of this process.
Needless to say, copyright is a key part of this draft. And the negotiators would further stiffen copyright holders’ control while upping the ante on civil and criminal penalties for infringers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation says TPP has “extensive negative ramifications for users’ freedom of speech, right to privacy and due process, and hinder peoples’ abilities to innovate”. It’s Hollywood’s wish list.
Canadian intellectual property expert Michael Geist examined the latest draft of the intellectual property chapter. He writes that the document, which includes various nations’ proposals, shows the US government, in particular, taking a vastly different stance than the other nations. Geist notes:
Other nations have argued for balance, promotion of the public domain, protection of public health, and measures to ensure that IP rights themselves do not become barriers to trade. The opposition to these objectives by the US and Japan (Australia has not taken a position) speaks volumes about their goals for the TPP.
The medical industry has a stake in the outcome, too, with credible critics saying it would raise drug prices and, according to Love’s analysis, give surgeons patent protection for their procedures.
Congress has shown little appetite for restraining the overweening power of the corporate interests promoting this expansion. With few exceptions, lawmakers have repeatedly given copyright, patent and trademark interests more control over the years. So we shouldn’t be too optimistic about the mini-flurry of Capitol Hill opposition to the treaty that emerged this week. It’s based much more on Congress protecting its prerogatives – worries about the treaty’s so-called “fast track” authorities, giving the president power to act without congressional approval – than on substantive objections to the document’s contents.
That said, some members of Congress have become more aware of the deeper issues. The public revolt against the odious “Stop Online Piracy Act” two years ago was a taste of what happens when people become more widely aware of what they can lose when governments and corporate interests collude.
If they become aware – that’s the key. One of TPP’s most odious elements has been the secrecy under which it’s been negotiated. The Obama administration’s fondness for secret laws, policies and methods has a lot to do with a basic reality: the public would say no to much of which is done in our names and with our money if we knew what was going on. As Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out, in a letter to the White House:
I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the administration’s policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant. If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States. I believe in transparency and democracy and I think the US Trade Representative should too.
Thanks to WikiLeaks, we have at least partial transparency today. The more you know about the odious TPP, the less you’ll like it – and that’s why the administration and its corporate allies don’t want you to know.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
November 13, 2013Only 106,000 Pick Health Insurance Plans in First Month
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and SUSANNE CRAIG
WASHINGTON — Just over 106,000 people picked health plans in the first month of open enrollment through the state and federal insurance marketplaces established by the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health secretary said Wednesday, a fraction of the administration’s initial estimate for enrollment during that period.
Only about a fourth of the new enrollees — 26,794 — signed up through HealthCare.gov, the problem-plagued federal exchange, according to figures released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A much larger number, 76,319, signed up through the 14 state-run marketplaces.
The long-awaited figures, released by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, became instant fodder for the political battle over Mr. Obama’s signature legislative initiative. As nervous Democrats on Capitol Hill threatened to introduce legislation altering the law, Republicans called the new numbers dismal and embarrassing, citing them as further proof that the program was a “train wreck.”
The White House has spent weeks trying to lower expectations about the numbers — even as questions emerged about the way it counts who is enrolled. On Wednesday, Ms. Sebelius and congressional Democrats were upbeat, saying people were clearly shopping for coverage.
“The marketplace is working,” Ms. Sebelius said. “People are enrolling.”
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has predicted seven million people will enroll by the time the initial six-month sign-up window closes, and administration officials insist they can meet that goal. But the numbers released Wednesday fall far short of the administration’s early projections, contained in an internal memo in September, which said 464,920 would sign up in the first month.
In a method that Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, called “Enron-like accounting,” the administration defines enrollees as those who have “selected a marketplace plan.”
They are people like Hung Trang, 60, a nail salon owner in Tampa, Fla., who has been trying for weeks to sign up. With help from a counselor, called a “navigator,” he has picked a plan for himself and family, but has not yet committed to buy it.
The industry, though, says people like Mr. Trang do not count until they have agreed to pay.
“Paying the first month’s premium is what needs to happen before coverage actually begins,” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association. “Until a consumer makes their first-month premium, they can make a different coverage decision — including whether they want to buy coverage or not.”
A total of 106,185 consumers went through the enrollment process and picked plans, the administration said. Many more people — 846,184 — applied in the state and federal marketplaces without adding plans to their shopping carts for purchase. Those applications would cover a total of 1,509,883 Americans.
A peek into state data reveals vast disparities. Florida, the state with the third-highest number of uninsured (behind California and Texas), had the most enrollees in the federal-run exchange, 3,571. Texas was second, with 2,991. There were just 42 in North Dakota.
In explaining the relatively low figures, administration officials cite problems with the federal website that have prevented people from signing up. But they also say experience shows people wait until the last minute.
When Massachusetts expanded health coverage in 2007, only 123 of the 36,167 people who ultimately signed up did so during the first month of enrollment. But more than 7,000 signed up in the final month. (Massachusetts counted only people who had already paid their premiums as enrollees, according to Jon Kingsdale, who ran that state’s health insurance exchange for the first four years.)
There is still one month to go until the Dec. 15 deadline for signing up for coverage that begins Jan. 1; the initial enrollment period does not close until March 31. So administration officials, and some outside experts, say these early figures do not reveal much.
“These numbers are interesting,” David Simas, a top White House adviser on health care, said in an interview, “but in terms of any kind of insight into the success of the program, they’re not the central indicator.”
In political terms, though, the numbers are yet another problem for the White House, which is one reason Ms. Sebelius — and not the president — announced them. Republicans insist that, at this rate, there is no way the administration can reach its goal.
“By the time we reach the critical month of December, actual enrollment could lag projections by over one million people,” Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, wrote in a letter this month, accompanying a subpoena for detailed enrollment data.
In an interview, he said enrollment figures were only a part of the story. “It’s not just about the top-line number,” he said. “What I want to know is the mix of these people. What kind of insurance are they getting? What age are they?”
Ms. Sebelius said Wednesday that her agency would release that kind of data at some point; she did not say when. But experts on all sides of the debate agree that the “mix” may be far more important than the actual enrollment numbers. If not enough young, healthy people enroll, premiums will skyrocket, and the law’s promise of “affordable care” will not be realized.
“The mix is valuable for insurers, because it will result in more stable premiums; if all the people who enroll are very sick, they will have to raise premiums next year, and that is a problem,” said Dan Mendelson, who was a health policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and is now chief executive of Avalere Health, a consulting firm.
“But,” Mr. Mendelson said, “the numbers are important; enrollment is important. I do think this administration is going to be benchmarked on how much enrollment materializes.”
Mr. Mendelson’s firm recently looked at 12 of the 14 state exchanges and found a far lower rate of enrollment than for other programs, including the expansion of prescription drug coverage under Medicare under President George W. Bush. He said problems with the federal website had created a “negative communications climate” that was depressing enrollment.
“Their problem is more than technology,” he said, referring to the administration. “It’s that because of technology, they can’t be beating the drum, and they can’t be sending the president out to advocate for enrollment.”
If Massachusetts is any guide, signing up people is difficult even under the best of circumstances, Mr. Kingsdale said. In the first three months of operation, he said, the state found that for each 100 hits on its website, 44 were “unique hits” from Massachusetts residents. Of those, 18 shopped for plans, and one bought coverage.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported from Washington, and Susanne Craig from New York.
November 13, 2013With Enrollment Slow, Some Democrats Back Change in Health Law
By ASHLEY PARKER and MICHAEL D. SHEAR
WASHINGTON — Anxious congressional Democrats are threatening to abandon President Obama on a central element of his signature health care law, voicing increasing support for proposals that would allow Americans who are losing their health insurance coverage because of the Affordable Care Act to retain it.
The dissent comes as the Obama administration released enrollment figures on Wednesday that fell far short of expectations, and as House Republicans continued their sharp criticism of administration officials at congressional hearings examining the performance of the health care website and possible security risks of the online insurance exchanges.
In addition, a vote is scheduled Friday in the Republican-controlled House on a bill that would allow Americans to keep their existing health coverage through 2014 without penalties. The measure, drafted by Representative Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who is the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is opposed by the White House, which argues that it would severely undermine the Affordable Care Act by allowing insurance companies to continue to sell health coverage that does not meet the higher standard of Mr. Obama’s health care law.
But a growing number of House Democrats, reflecting a strong political backlash to the rollout of the law, are warning the White House that they may support the measure if the administration does not provide a strong alternative argument. The approaching House vote is shaping up as an important test for both the health measure and the unity that Democratic leaders have so far been able to maintain around it despite a fierce Republican attack.
In a closed-door meeting Wednesday of House Democrats and White House officials, tensions flared as several lawmakers upbraided the administration, saying that the president had put Democrats in a tough political position by wrongly promising consumers that they could keep their existing health care plans. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Americans have received cancellation notices from their insurers because their health care coverage does not meet the minimum standards dictated by the new law.
“I’m frustrated in how it rolled out, and I let them know in no uncertain terms,” said Representative Mike Doyle, Democrat of Pennsylvania. “The point I was making in caucus to the administration is don’t give us this techno-babble that you’re going to do some administrative fix down the road. There’s a bill being put on the floor on Friday.”
The overall message of the meeting, said several attendees, was that the White House and the House Democratic leadership have until Friday to come up with a satisfactory alternative, or House Democrats may be forced to support Mr. Upton’s bill, which already has two Democratic co-sponsors: Representatives John Barrow of Georgia and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, who represent more conservative districts.
“I think the Upton bill is terrible, but we need something else to vote for in order to keep our word to the American people,” Mr. Doyle added. “We told people in those plans that they were grandfathered in, and if they wanted to stay in them, they could, and we need to honor that.”
A similar proposal, which would allow people to keep their current health insurance permanently, is also drawing support in the Senate under an effort led by Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana. Ms. Landrieu said she remained committed to her bill, despite White House expressions of reluctance to embrace a legislative fix. Still, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said Wednesday that the Landrieu proposal “shares a similar goal to what the president has asked his team to explore.”
“We are happy to work with her and any member of Congress who has ideas on how to make the Affordable Care Act better,” he said.
Ms. Landrieu drew a distinction between her plan — which she said would maintain the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act — and those offered by Republicans that would dismantle the law, like the one introduced by Mr. Upton.
“That bill guts the Affordable Care Act. It does not fix it,” she said. “It guts it, and I don’t support it and would urge the Democrats in the House not to support it. My bill is not meant to undermine the Affordable Care Act; it’s meant to strengthen it.”
She expressed confidence that more Democrats would sign on to her plan, which is designed to encourage people to move eventually to better insurance on the federal exchange. “Every day I think we’ll pick up co-sponsors,” she said, pointing to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who said Tuesday that she was on board. On Wednesday, Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, also signed on to her plan as a co-sponsor.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said Wednesday that he had had “quite a long conversation” with the president on Tuesday evening about the health care law, as well as other issues, and would be holding a special Democratic caucus meeting on Thursday with White House officials to discuss the next steps.
Administration officials conceded that the bungled health care rollout had produced a turbulent political situation in Washington. But they said they were confident that fixing the website, HealthCare.gov, would help Democrats in next year’s elections.
Mr. Carney said the president’s top aides were working to come up with an administrative fix to the problem of the cancellation of health insurance plans. But he declined to say when that would be announced or whether it would come before Democrats are asked to vote on Friday.
“Sooner rather than later,” Mr. Carney said several times.
White House officials said they recognized the need for Democrats to vent their frustration about the health care problems. Mr. Carney said that the dissatisfaction felt by Democrats on Capitol Hill “is similar to the frustration that the president feels.”
But they continued to oppose Mr. Upton’s bill, saying it would create more problems than it would solve.
“Intentionally or not, the bill would not just address the problem,” Mr. Carney said, adding that it would “essentially allow insurers to sell new plans that are substandard and potentially undermine the central promise of the Affordable Care Act.”
Insurance companies, already deeply worried about the low enrollment in the plans they are offering on the insurance exchanges, say congressional proposals to force them to allow canceled policies to be reissued could be disastrous. Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s lobby, said insurers “have significant concerns on how it would work operationally.”
But with no alternative proposal from the White House as of Wednesday, Democrats were increasingly critical.
“This has been a complete embarrassment,” Representative Patrick Murphy, Democrat of Florida, said. “It doesn’t matter what party you are. The focus needs to be how do we get this right.”
Jonathan Weisman and Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting.
November 13, 2013Health Website Official Tells of White House Briefings
By ROBERT PEAR and ERIC LIPTON
WASHINGTON — The chief digital architect for the federal health insurance marketplace said Wednesday that he met periodically with White House aides to discuss the status of the website over the last three years, but he said the meetings focused narrowly on specific technical issues and therefore gave the president no clear warning of the disaster that ensued on Oct. 1.
The official, Henry Chao, said he had provided “status briefings” to the White House on the development of certain features of the website, envisioned as the main vehicle for people to compare and buy insurance plans under the new health care law.
Jeanne M. Lambrew, the president’s health policy coordinator, generally attended and often led the meetings, Mr. Chao said at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The committee, investigating the rollout of the new health care law, has requested testimony from Ms. Lambrew and from Nancy-Ann DeParle, who was director of the White House Office of Health Reform from 2009 to 2011 and then deputy chief of staff for Mr. Obama until early this year.
Kathryn H. Ruemmler, the president’s chief lawyer, rebuffed the panel’s request. In a letter to the committee on Tuesday, she said the testimony of Ms. Lambrew and Ms. DeParle was not needed “in light of the extraordinary information that has been provided to the Congress to date.” Moreover, Ms. Ruemmler complained that Republicans on the committee were seeking testimony on a “broad and amorphous range of issues” not tied to any “legitimate oversight interest.”
The panel is trying to find out how much the White House knew about defects in the website, HealthCare.gov, and whether politics contributed to some of the underlying problems.
Committee Republicans said they still wanted to hear from Mr. Lambrew and Ms. DeParle. “They are the people we need” because they were “the political people in charge,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio.
At the hearing on Wednesday, federal officials working on the project were unable to tell committee members how much it would cost to fix the site, on which the government has already spent more than $600 million.
Neither Mr. Chao nor Todd Park, the chief technology officer at the White House, nor Steven VanRoekel, the chief information officer for the federal government, could answer questions about the cost of repairing the site, which has been plagued with software and hardware problems since it went live on Oct. 1.
Even while testimony was underway before the oversight committee, a separate House panel questioned other administration officials about the security of the website and the protection of personal information that consumers provide when applying for health insurance and federal subsidies.
Roberta Stempfley, an acting assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, said there had been at least 16 reported attempts to infiltrate the system. In addition, she said, there has been at least one effort to delay or shut down the site, by an outside party trying to orchestrate a “denial of service” attack involving repeated queries meant to overload the system.
Ms. Stempfley, testifying before the House Committee on Homeland Security, did not provide details of the incidents, which she said were being investigated. After the hearing, a Homeland Security Department official said none of the attempts appeared to have been successful or to have resulted in the unauthorized release of personal information. On an average day, the official said, 620 similar reports come in to the department.
The security of the health care website had not been fully tested when it opened to the public last month, according to federal officials and documents from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Many questions at the oversight committee hearing focused on website procedures that required consumers to create password-protected accounts before they could see the exact cost of health plans for which they were eligible.
Mr. Chao rejected Republican suggestions that the administration had blocked an “anonymous shopping” feature because it feared that consumers would be shocked if they saw the full unsubsidized prices of insurance policies.
In fact, Mr. Chao said, federal officials excluded the feature because it had failed to perform properly during testing. “It failed so miserably that we could not conscionably let people use it,” he said.
However, the chairman of the oversight committee, Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, pointed to a government document indicating that the anonymous shopper feature had been tested successfully in September and was to be “turned off” for unspecified reasons.
Mr. Issa tried repeatedly to determine who in the administration had decided to go forward with the website on Oct. 1 despite indications that it was not ready.
“This was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launch pad,” Mr. Issa said.
He added, “We have discovered and will undoubtedly continue to discover that efforts were taken to cut corners to meet political deadlines at the end.”
David A. Powner, director of information technology issues at the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said, “Clearly, knowing what we know now, a delay in the rollout would have made sense.”
November 13, 2013Boehner Rules Out Negotiations on Immigration
By ASHLEY PARKER and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
WASHINGTON — Signaling an end to the push for major immigration legislation this year, Speaker John A. Boehner on Wednesday ruled out negotiations between the House and the Senate on an expansive immigration overhaul similar to one approved by the Senate with bipartisan support in June.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Boehner said that while House Republicans were working on a “common-sense, step-by-step approach in terms of how we deal with immigration,” they were unwilling to enter into talks with the Senate on a broad bill that would include a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally.
“The idea that we’re going to take up a 1,300-page bill that no one had ever read, which is what the Senate did, is not going to happen in the House,” he said. “And frankly, I’ll make clear we have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill.”
With few legislative days left in 2013 and nearly all the focus on the health care law and House-Senate budget talks, Mr. Boehner said House Republicans had little interest in detouring on to immigration legislation that divides their party. His stance means the immigration fight would be pushed into 2014. If there was to be movement, it would probably have to come earlier in the year before the midterm elections get too close.
But the speaker, in an encounter earlier Wednesday with two young immigrants without legal status, did indicate he continued to see immigration legislation as a priority. The pair, brought to the United States as children by their parents, approached him at Pete’s Diner, his dawn breakfast haunt, to urge him to support a broad immigration overhaul.
“How would you feel if you had to tell your kids at the age of 10 that you were never coming home?” said Carmen Lima, a 17-year-old who explained that she had a similar conversation with her father, who was here illegally, at that age.
“I’m trying to find some way to get this thing done,” Mr. Boehner told her. “It’s, uh, as you know, not easy, not going to be an easy path forward. But I’ve made it clear since the day after the election it’s time to get this done.”
The Republican-controlled House had already been working on a piecemeal approach to immigration legislation, in which it would take up individual — and more narrow — bills, like a measure to improve border security or to overhaul the guest worker program. An aide to Mr. Boehner said that he was not ruling out negotiations with the Senate on any immigration bill, but simply throwing water on the idea that the House would pass one or two smaller bills and then merge them in a conference committee with the Senate’s larger plan.
The speaker’s comments also were intended to quell the concerns of some hard-line members who feared that supporting even a narrow border security bill could be used as a “Trojan horse” that would lead to the House’s being forced to consider a larger, Senate-influenced bill that endorses what they consider “amnesty.” Mr. Boehner’s remarks came less than a week after another member of his leadership team, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 Republican, said that the House would not have time before the end of the year to vote on any immigration legislation.
Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said all he cared about was the final product. “The process is irrelevant,” he said. “How John Boehner gets to a vote, and when he gets to a vote, is immaterial to us. We will help him with the vote, but he has to get something to the floor.”
As the immediate prospects for a bill dimmed, one of the leading Republican senators behind the effort criticized the administration’s handling of border security. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said at a confirmation hearing for Jeh C. Johnson, the nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that the administration had refused to provide information on how it was policing the border.
After Mr. Johnson stopped short of committing to provide the border data without consulting with homeland security officials, Mr. McCain said that he would not vote to confirm him until Mr. Johnson gave a “yes answer” to sharing the information.
“How can we carry out our functions of oversight if we don’t get the kind of information we need to make the decisions that this committee to make?” Mr. McCain said.
November 13, 2013 04:00 PMWatch John Boehner Lie About Immigration Bill
Props to these kids for catching John Boehner at his favorite diner pretending like he's not a tool of his corporate masters and telling their stories.
The Hill has the whole story:
A pair of immigrant teenagers confronted Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) at a Capitol Hill diner on Wednesday morning, telling him their parents were in danger of deportation because of the House’s inaction on immigration reform.
Boehner was eating breakfast at Pete’s Diner — his regular morning pit stop — when Carmen Lima, 13, and Jennifer Martinez, 16, approached him with a video camera in tow.
After Lima shared her story and asked the Speaker to commit to immigration reform, Boehner told her, “I’m trying to find a way to get this thing done. It’s, as you know, not easy. It’s not going to be an easy path forward, but I’ve made it clear since the day after the election that it’s time to get this done.”
Boehner made no specific commitments to the children, and at a press conference hours later, he ruled out passing legislation that could be reconciled with the Senate bill in a conference committee. That was a new marker for the Speaker, and it cuts off what many advocates saw as the only remaining path for the kind of broad immigration overhaul they are seeking.
“We’ve made it clear we’re going to move on a common-sense, step-by-step approach in terms of how we deal with immigration,” Boehner said after a closed-door House Republican conference meeting. “The idea that we’re going to take up a 1,300-page bill that no one had ever read, which is what the Senate did, is not going to happen in the House. And frankly, I’ll make clear we have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill.”
Can we please stop saying Boehner is one of the reasonable ones who would make a deal if the tea party would let him? He's not reasonable. He's a true believer and he just lied to those kids, right to their face.
Here's why he won't bring it to the floor.
Actually it is easy, @SpeakerBoehner. With 190 cosponsors on H.R.15 and 28 Rs vowing support, we have the votes to pass #immigration reform.
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) November 13, 2013
Speaker Boehner just lied to two kids, one of whom will be a voter before 2016 rolls around, maybe even in time for 2014. You think they won't work like dogs to elect a more honest representative?
Watch: <iframe width="440" height="284" src="http://embed.crooksandliars.com/embed/MjgzMzddLQ
" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
********************Ted Cruz: Attacks on me are really ‘directed at the American people’
By David Edwards
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 15:45 EST
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said recently that opponents who criticized him were really attacking all of the American people.
Ann Marie Murrell and Dr. Gina Loudon of the conservative website Politichicks caught up with Cruz at what they described as a “top-secret dinner” following his Friday appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show.
“We all asked, we begged for someone to stand up for us and then you stood up for us,” Murrell told the senator. “But then you were denigrated by both the left and the right. Does this make you want to chunk it in or does this make you want to fight harder for us?”
“I’m encouraged,” Cruz insisted. “I’m encouraged because I think all across the country, I think people are getting energized, they’re getting engaged, they’re speaking up. And we shouldn’t be surprised. Changing the country isn’t easy. And the establishment is going to fight back. In both parties, they don’t want to change.”
“And so, the reason — the nastier the attacks get — I mean, they’re directed at all of us, they are directed at the American people,” he continued. “Because a lot of the folks in Washington don’t want to be held accountable.”
Regarding the possibility of a 2016 presidential run, Cruz warned that “we don’t have a long time to turn this country around.”
“I think we need leadership to pull us back, to get back to economic growth,” he said. “There’s a reason why people from all over the world have come to the United States seeking the American Dream. Because there’s never been a country in the history of the world where you could come with nothing and achieve anything based not on who your daddy is, not on who your family is, but based on your talent and perseverance and on the content of your character.”
“Politichicks is awesome,” Cruz said in conclusion. “Y’all are doing an awesome job. Thank you for speaking up for freedom.”