2011 - %3, May

Is the Taliban Now Ready to Deal?

| Wed May 4, 2011 4:41 PM EDT

Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports that the White House believes the killing of Osama bin Laden will help us on two fronts:

The Obama administration is seeking to use the killing of Osama bin Laden to accelerate a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and hasten the end of the Afghanistan war, according to U.S. officials involved in war policy.

“Bin Laden’s death is the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan,” said a senior administration official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations. “It changes everything.” Another senior official involved in Afghanistan policy said the killing “presents an opportunity for reconciliation that didn’t exist before.” Those officials and others have engaged in urgent discussions and strategy sessions over the past two days about how to leverage the death into a spark that ignites peace talks.

....U.S. officials expressed hope on Tuesday that Pakistan’s failure to find bin Laden — or its possible complicity in sheltering him — could lead Islamabad to adopt a softer position on Afghan reconciliation. They think that Pakistani officials, who have interfered with peace efforts in the past, have an opportunity to play a more constructive role. “Our hope is that they are so embarrassed by this that they try to save face by trying to help their neighbor,” one U.S. official said.

It's hard to tell if this is wishful thinking or not. If you'd asked me point blank, I would have guessed that in the short term bin Laden's death would motivate the Taliban to fight even more furiously and motivate the Pakistanis to redouble their support and pull away from the United States. Embarrassment doesn't usually cause people to back down, and in any case, Pakistan's primary goal of keeping Afghanistan out of the orbit of India hasn't changed a whit. If anything, it might seem even more urgent now.

But this is just a wild guess. Hopefully Obama's foreign policy boffins have a better read on this than I do.

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If Only We Could Shoot Climate Change in the Face

| Wed May 4, 2011 3:42 PM EDT

Might the death of Osama bin Laden give President Obama a chance to revive a climate and energy bill? That's what former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson thinks. Via Politico:

"My hope is that from this success in the foreign policy arena two days ago, that he will be emboldened to take once again to the Congress legislation — not just to increase a renewable energy standard — but climate change legislation that this country and the world need," Richardson said Tuesday at a Climate Leadership Gala hosted by the Earth Day Network in Washington.

It certainly is the case that the bin Laden's death has put some wind in Obama's sails. But I don't think it's enough wind to change the minds of a House majority that doesn't even think that the climate is changing, let alone get them to support a bill to deal with it. Unfortunately, passing climate legislation isn't an issue that American politicians are as unified on as they are about hunting down a terrorist mastermind.

But hey, at least Richardson's realistic about the perils of waiting to do something until after 2012:

“We can sit back and say, 'Well we'll wait until the next election, wait until the political climate is better.' You know if we do that, we’re doomed — if we don’t take action right away," he said.

Education Roundup: How to Teach Students About Osama's Death

| Wed May 4, 2011 2:20 PM EDT
  • Osama bin Laden's death became a featured topic in classrooms around the country this week. So how are teachers translating this violent news story into a lesson plan suitable for kids? For younger students, there's educational website BrainPop, which made an animated movie that explains bin Laden's death and what happened on September 11. There's also the Molly Ringwald route: compare bin Laden to Harry Potter's Voldemort.
  •  How are students reacting to news of bin Laden's death? Kandi Lancaster, a social studies teacher at Walnut Creek Intermediate School, told Bay Area News Group reporters "many of her students didn't think it was right for Americans to be celebrating bin Laden's death in the streets. A lot of students, she said, feared retaliation." First grader Alejandro told HuffPo that bin Laden should have been imprisoned, rather than killed. One student at Monticello High School in Minnesota asked her US history teacher, "Why, as a largely Christian nation, are we celebrating the death of someone?"
  • Teacher Appreciation Day hit. The Tennessee Senate uncelebrated by voting to end teachers' collective bargaining rights.
  • Meanwhile, the 2011 National Teacher Of The Year is... Maryland teacher Michelle Shearer! Shearer will take a one-year sabbatical to speak at educational conferences about what's best for public schools. So what does a teacher with 14 years experience think works best for public schools? Check out Shearer's interview with The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss. Highlight: "teaching can't be boiled down to a formula."
  • One group that thinks teaching can be boiled down to a formula is the Bloomberg administration in New York. Dana Goldstein reports that Bloomberg is arguing in court for the right to release to the media the "value-added" ratings of 12,000 NYC public school teachers. The Los Angeles Times tried this last year; an LA educator committed suicide after he saw his low score published.
  • In other sad news: If Alabama governor Robert Bently signs SB 256, undocumented children in that state won't be allowed to go to the prom, join the school band, or participate in any activity deemed extracurricular.
  • Twenty percent of the students in Florida's Fern Creek Elementary School are homeless, The New York Times' Michael Winerip reports. But small class sizes, talented veteran teachers, and strong support systems have helped students score proficiently on tests for six years. Maybe some of those strategies could help the other 954,000+ homeless students in the US.
  •  Lastly: Since 2006, Tennessee teachers have lead students in Bible study sessions, school board meetings have opened with prayer, and other religious endorsements have been going on in the Sumner County school system, according to an ACLU suit filed against the district.

Federalize Medicaid!

| Wed May 4, 2011 1:11 PM EDT

Back in 2009, Congress provided additional Medicaid funding to states on the condition that they keep eligibility requirements steady. This is called Maintenance of Effort, and as Suzy Khimm reports, Republicans want to do away with it:

The State Flexibility Act would not go as far as the Ryan plan, which proposes a massive overhaul of the Medicaid funding structure. But it would allow states to take a knife, if not a hatchet, to the program....Having already made steep cuts to provider payments and benefits, "some states will certainly make eligibility cuts," says Edwin Park, VP for health policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Moreover, by introducing new procedural hurdles—Mississippi, for instance, has made it harder for people to renew coverage—states could deter more-vulnerable residents from signing up, says Park. Similar proposals put forward in California would have reduced enrollment by 500,000, he adds.

This is, obviously, one way to cut healthcare expenditures: just provide healthcare to fewer people. Preferably the poorest and sickest, since they don't contribute to political campaigns and aren't very reliable voters.

On a less cynical policy level, it's also worth noting that although there are lots of programs that are best handled at the state and local level because local officials understand local conditions better, healthcare really isn't one of them. Sick is sick, and treatment for chronic diabetes doesn't change much from California to Mississippi. What's more, Medicaid expenses always rise during recessions (more poor people = more Medicaid), which is also when state revenues crater and cutbacks are inevitable. This not only hurts sick people with low incomes, it makes economic turndowns even worse than they have to be.

So let's just federalize Medicaid. Medicare works fine on a national level, after all, and during a recession the federal government can fund higher Medicaid expenses automatically by running a bigger deficit. It's a nice automatic stabilizer that not only helps the poor and the sick but helps the economy too. What's not to like?

The Price of Secrecy, Obama Edition

| Wed May 4, 2011 1:03 PM EDT

The covert events of the past weekend show the value of keeping certain government secrets closely guarded. But if you're looking for a more quantifiable way of assessing the value the Obama administration places on secrecy, you're in luck.

According to its new report to the president, the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO)—the federal agency that provides oversight of the government's security classification system—puts the cost of classification for 2010 at over $10.17 billion. That's a 15 percent jump from the previous year, and the first time ever that secrecy costs have surpassed $10 billion. Last month, ISOO reported that the number of original classification decisions generated by the Obama administration in 2010 was 224,734—a 22.6 percent jump from the previous year.

The price tag of government secrecy is actually higher than the ISOO report suggests. The agency reviews the classification of 41 agencies—but not the CIA or the National Security Agency, among other agencies, whose classification is itself classified. The Federation of American Scientists' Steve Aftergood asked two security officials what damage to national security would result from releasing security cost estimates for the agencies in question. Their answer: that classifying that information "was consistent with intelligence community guidance." In other words: because we said so.

Aftergood points out that there's a plan for reforming the classification process, waiting in the wings to the implemented. But the White House has dragged its feet, and it remains in policy purgatory.

Who is Osama?

| Wed May 4, 2011 12:11 PM EDT

So it seems as if a goodly number of teenagers don't know who Osama bin Laden is. Gadzooks! But let's put this into a little perspective.

We're talking about 16-year-olds here. I was 16 years old in 1974. So let's try to think of someone who was quite famous in the late 60s but who had largely dropped off the front page from 1970-74. How about Daniel Ellsberg? Or William Calley? Maybe Moshe Dayan?

None of these are perfect subsititutes. But how shocked would you be if I told you that I hadn't heard of William Calley until some teacher of mine mentioned him in a class in 1974? Probably not very. I was only 12 when he was most famous and not paying much attention to the news. And it's not as if no teens under the age of 17 have ever heard of bin Laden. Just some of them. Probably the same ones who haven't heard of much of anyone outside the usual teen circle of pop stars and TV celebrities. This isn't exactly a feather in the cap of American teendom, but it's not a sign of the Apocalypse either. It's just kids not knowing or caring about some of the things their elders take for granted. Nothing much new about that.

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Feds Fine BP Big Time—For Alaskan Spill

| Wed May 4, 2011 11:59 AM EDT

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced an unprecedented fine against BP's Alaskan division for spilling 5,078 barrels of oil from a pipeline in 2006. Yes, that other big oil spill problem BP had before they trashed the Gulf of Mexico. The fine—$25 million—is the highest civil per-barrel penalty to date.

It works out to $4,923 for each barrel of oil the company spilled—which is higher than the standard penalty, the EPA explains, because it also includes fees for violating both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The maximum fine is usually $4,300 per barrel for Clean Water Act violations, imposed when a company is found grossly negligent for a spill. The agreement, hashed out by the EPA, the Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, also requires BP to set up a $60 million system-wide pipeline integrity management program.

The question for me is whether this fine sets a precedent for BP's other big spill. The company dumped 4.9 million barrels of crude if the Gulf. If the company is deemed grossly negligent in the disaster, BP could face up to $21 billion fines for Clean Water Act violations alone. Then there's the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process, in which the feds survey the damage to ecosystems and levy a fee for restoration to the responsible party. That's on top of the $20 billion in compensation for residents and businesses that BP already agreed to put into an escrow account.

All told, it could add up to quite a bit for BP if the government is aggressive in its penalties. But whether the government will be is still an open question.

House Passes "Redefining Rape" Bill, H.R. 3

| Wed May 4, 2011 11:53 AM EDT

UPDATED: The House of Representatives passed the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" on a 251-175 vote Wednesday afternoon. The bill has been the subject of a lot of controversy over the possibility that it could redefine rape for the purposes of abortion law and force IRS agents to ask questions during audits about whether a woman who had received an abortion had been raped or was the victim of incest. However, the bill is almost certainly DOA in the Senate, which is run by Democrats and is more sympathetic to abortion rights. Even if H.R. 3 did pass the Senate, President Barack Obama has vowed to veto it.

I've been following the action live on Twitter. I'd put a Twitter widget here, but they generally aren't very good (they either show old tweets ahead of new tweets or don't refresh), so I'd encourage you to just follow me on Twitter.

Public Records Should be.....Public

| Wed May 4, 2011 11:43 AM EDT

Should the White House release photos of Osama bin Laden that were taken after he was shot during Sunday's raid? I'm surprised this is even being debated. Of course they should. These are public records of a very public operation against public enemy #1, and like it or not the public should have access to them. The only reason to withhold them would be for reasons of operational security, and I don't think that applies here. Security issues are probably legitimate when it comes to releasing real-time video of the actual raid, but not to still photos of bin Laden himself.

Release the photos. And the video of his burial at sea, for that matter. These are public records, folks.

Quote of the Day: Lying About the Budget

| Wed May 4, 2011 11:31 AM EDT

Jonathan Cohn:

It’s becoming pretty clear how Republicans plan to defend their budget. They’re going to lie about it. 

Yep. Sadly, that seems to be a pretty good strategy in today's media environment.