Kevin Drum

Congress Needs Its Own Dormitory

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:12 PM EDT

Paul Waldman is exasperated with the latest fad among members of Congress: sleeping in your office to demonstrate to your constituents just how much you really, truly hate the Sodom that is modern Washington DC. It started after the Gingrich revolution of 1994, and has now become so popular among the tea party set that even the womenfolk are getting into the act. "It was never my goal to come to DC and be comfortable," says South Dakota's Kristi Noem. Waldman is unamused:

Oh, spare me. If you're doing it because you don't want to get too settled in Washington, then I assume you won't be running for re-election, right? I thought so.

I'll grant that as far as affectations go, this one certainly takes commitment. But how exactly is sleeping in your office supposed to keep you connected with the real America? What's going to make you more "out of touch," getting an apartment so you can have a good night's sleep when you're doing the people's business, or literally never leaving Capitol Hill? Is signing a one-year lease on a studio going to suddenly make you change your views on deficit spending or tax cuts or the next trade deal? If it is, your constituents probably shouldn't have elected you in the first place.

Maybe Congress should just set up its own dormitory, along the lines of a youth hostel, maybe, and let our nation's representatives bunk down there. They've already got a barbershop and a gym, after all, so why not just add a few photogenically spartan cells and allow the office suites to revert to being actual offices?

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Voter Fraud Literally Less Likely Than Being Hit By Lightning

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 3:10 PM EDT

Justin Levitt has been tracking allegations of voter fraud for years. "To be clear," he says, "I’m not just talking about prosecutions. I track any specific, credible allegation that someone may have pretended to be someone else at the polls, in any way that an ID law could fix." So far, he's found 31 cases representing around 200 individuals. If every one of them turns out be a genuine case of fraud, that's a fraud rate of:

Of course, Levitt might be off by an order of magnitude. Or maybe even two or three orders of magnitude. That would put the fraud rate at 0.02 percent. On the other hand, these are just allegations. If past performance holds true, nearly all of them will turn out to be clerical mistakes, which means we're back to 0.00002 percent. This compares to many thousands of voters who have been turned away from the polls for lack of ID in just the past few years.

Also worth noting: every single one of these cases involves just one or a few people. There's not a single credible case in the past 15 years of any kind of organized voter impersonation scam of the kind that might actually affect the outcome of an election. There's just no there there.

Map of the Day: Here's Why Congress Doesn't Really Care About Your Petty Problems

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 12:52 PM EDT

Via Vox, here's a colorful map from Broadview Networks that helps illustrate one reason that policymaking in Congress often seems so disconnected from the real world. It's because policymakers tend to be pretty well-off folks living in a pretty well-off region that shelters them from the problems many of the rest of us encounter. If you live in Missouri, you might be annoyed that internet speeds in the US are so low. But if you live in Washington DC or northern Virginia, guess what? Your internet speed is pretty good! Virginia is ranked #1 in the nation, and DC is right behind it. So is it any wonder that this really doesn't seem like a pressing problem in Congress? Especially when all the big ISPs are telling you that there's plenty of competition already—plenty!—and then slipping a few grand to your Super PAC? Of course it's not.

News You Can Use: Don't Auto-Renew Your Obamacare Policy

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 12:05 PM EDT

Sam Baker has a long piece in National Journal about a looming Obamacare problem that could hit a lot of people who renew their coverage later this year. Here's the short version: federal subsidies are calculated based on a "benchmark" plan, and this means that low-income taxpayers can buy the benchmark plan at pretty low cost. However, since Obamacare encourages competition (yay!), your region might have a whole bunch of new, lower-cost plans available next year. This means the benchmark will be recalculated, and if you want to keep your low payments you'll need to switch to one of the newer plans.

But what if you don't? What if you just auto-renew without thinking about it? Since you're no longer buying the benchmark plan, your subsidies will go down and your annual premium will go up. Maybe a lot:

As cheaper plans come into the marketplace, millions of consumers will see the cost of keeping their plan rise. But they might not know it.

HealthCare.gov isn't able to automatically recalculate the subsidies existing consumers are eligible for. So, while the dollar value of your financial assistance drops, you can only find out that's happening by going back into the system and asking for a redetermination as part of the shopping process.

Consumers who auto-renew their policies will get the same dollar value of subsidies they got last year—even though changes in the marketplace all but guarantee that will no longer be the right subsidy amount for millions of people.

"That's the totally crazy part," Pearson said. "They're basically going to send them what they know to be the wrong subsidy."

The IRS will eventually figure out how much financial assistance you should have received, and will reconcile the difference on your taxes. If you should have gotten a bigger subsidy, the government will issue you a tax credit. If your subsidy was too big, which would be the case if you keep your plan and lower-cost options come to the market, you'll owe the IRS money.

This puts everyone in a tough spot. HHS officials want to make auto-renewal as simple and automatic as possible. Long experience shows that even a little bit of added complexity will reduce the rate of sign-ups. But a simple auto-renewal runs the risk of misleading people about how much their insurance costs if they don't switch to a new plan. What to do?

In broad terms, this is yet another bit of fallout from the sausage-making process that created Obamacare. In order to get a bill passed, it had to satisfy lots and lots of interest groups. In order to satisfy those interest groups, the structure of the program was made complex. And then, barnacles were added to barnacles to further satisfy everyone. The result is stuff like this.

In narrower terms, this might have a technical fix: add a few steps to the auto-renewal process that make the cost of renewing more transparent. Given the number of people who signed up initially despite the horrific rollout problems with healthcare.gov, I suspect this wouldn't have a huge impact on renewal numbers. And it might save a boatload of grief down the line.

In any case, if you or a friend is enrolled in Obamacare, here's the bottom line: don't just mindlessly auto-renew. Take a few minutes to find out if anything has changed that affects your annual premiums. Don't wait till next year to find out via a letter from the IRS.

Here's What You Need to Know About Tax Inversions: Almost Nothing

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 11:15 AM EDT

I guess that corporate tax inversions are slated to be the topic of the week. This is the maneuver in which a corporation buys a company overseas and then transfers its headquarters to the new country, where tax rates are lower. Voila! A lower tax bill:

Dozens of additional deals are in the works, according to administration and congressional officials, and other companies are quietly contemplating the move. Last month, CVS Caremark chief executive Larry Merlo met with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and urged him to act to stop the rash of expatriations. Otherwise, Schumer said that Merlo warned him, CVS “might be forced to do it, too,” to duck a total tax bill expected this year to approach 40 percent.

“There’s a huge number coming,” Schumer said in an interview. “We hear there are going to be several big announcements in August.”....The potential costs to the U.S. treasury are enormous. One measure, by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), suggests that the nation stands to lose nearly $20 billion in tax revenue over the next decade. Former JCT director Edward Kleinbard said he thinks the potential loss is much higher.

“My guess is they didn’t fully reflect the sharknado of inversions that is about to happen,” said Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California.

This whole issue is maddening in the usual way. As it happens, both Democrats and Republicans agree that this problem needs to be fixed, but in approximately the same way that Israelis and Palestinians both "agree" that war in the Middle East needs to be fixed. President Obama proposed a corporate tax overhaul years ago, followed by a more targeted proposal back in March, but they've gone nowhere because Republicans want a net tax cut. Republicans, for their part, have proposed wide-ranging tax reform, but the prospect of getting the current Congress to agree on wide-ranging tax reform is laughable. Hell, they can't even agree on a tiny, focused bill to fix the border crisis.

So now Democrats are pushing Obama to fix the problem administratively, and Republicans in turn are yelling "tyranny!" And that's where we stand. It's all very edifying.

This post is not an "explainer." I have deliberately left out every single relevant detail because none of them matter. Republicans want net taxes on corporations to go down, and Democrats want them to stay the same. Ne'er the twain shall meet, and that's pretty much all you need to know. But it did give me a chance to quote an eminent law professor using the word sharknado.

The Safest Job in the Country: Member of Congress

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 12:59 AM EDT

In the wake of tonight's elections, Geoffrey Skelley of Sabato's Crystal Ball tweets:

Remaining incumbents look good to make it to November, so 303/306 incumbents have won renomination this cycle....Should clarify: HOUSE incumbents are now 303/306 in renomination tries; SENATE incumbents are 19/19. So 322/325 overall.

Yep, Americans sure are disgusted with Congress. An electoral rebellion is right around the corner.

On a related note: Given this year's microscopic incumbent failure rate of 0.92 percent, Eric Cantor must really be feeling crappy these days. I sure hope K Street showers him with enough lobbying money to assuage his pain.

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Russian Hackers Probably Know Your Passwords

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 6:36 PM EDT

Holy crap:

A Russian crime ring has amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion username and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses, security researchers say.

The records, discovered by Hold Security, a firm in Milwaukee, include confidential material gathered from 420,000 websites, ranging from household names to small Internet sites....At the request of The New York Times, a security expert not affiliated with Hold Security analyzed the database of stolen credentials and confirmed it was authentic.

So far, says the Times, the Russian hackers are mostly using the information "to send spam on social networks like Twitter at the behest of other groups, collecting fees for their work." I guess that counts as good news, all things considered, though obviously that could change quickly. Here's how the Russian gang did it:

They began as amateur spammers in 2011, buying stolen databases of personal information on the black market. But in April, the group accelerated its activity....Since then, the Russian hackers have been able to capture credentials on a mass scale using botnets — networks of zombie computers that have been infected with a computer virus — to do their bidding. Any time an infected user visits a website, criminals command the botnet to test that website to see if it is vulnerable to a well-known hacking technique known as a SQL injection, in which a hacker enters commands that cause a database to produce its contents. If the website proves vulnerable, criminals flag the site and return later to extract the full contents of the database.

“They audited the Internet,” Mr. Holden said. It was not clear, however, how computers were infected with the botnet in the first place.

By July, criminals were able to collect 4.5 billion records — each a username and password — though many overlapped. After sorting through the data, Hold Security found that 1.2 billion of those records were unique. Because people tend to use multiple emails, they filtered further and found that the criminals’ database included about 542 million unique email addresses.

I guess I really should get started on my annual password-changing exercise. Or maybe get a password manager, which I've resisted so far for reasons that may not really be that compelling. Or, alternatively, just forget the whole thing except for a very few sites that pose a real threat if hacked. I mean, do I really care if someone gets the password to my LA Times account? What good would it do them? Unfortunately, even on a fairly narrow reading of "real threat," I come up with nearly a couple dozen sites. That's still a lot of passwords to change.

Chart of the Day: The Terrorist Watchlist By the Numbers

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 1:49 PM EDT

Over at the Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux break down the federal government's terrorist watchlist for us:

Of the 680,000 people caught up in the government’s Terrorist Screening Database—a watchlist of “known or suspected terrorists” that is shared with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments—more than 40 percent are described by the government as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.”

....[Classified] documents, obtained from a source in the intelligence community, also reveal that the Obama Administration has presided over an unprecedented expansion of the terrorist screening system. Since taking office, Obama has boosted the number of people on the no fly list more than ten-fold, to an all-time high of 47,000—surpassing the number of people barred from flying under George W. Bush.

....Most people placed on the government’s watchlist begin in a larger, classified system known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)....In the summer of 2013, officials celebrated what one classified document prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center refers to as “a milestone”—boosting the number of people in the TIDE database to a total of one million, up from half a million four years earlier.

There's much more at the link. Click to read the whole thing.

The Siberian Permafrost Just Sent Us a Warning Message

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 1:34 PM EDT

One of the scary aspects of climate change is the possibility of positive feedback loops. When Arctic ice melts, for example, it exposes seawater, which doesn't reflect as much sunlight as ice. So more sunlight is absorbed, which makes the planet even warmer, which melts more ice, rinse and repeat.

Of all of these feedback loops, the scariest might well be the melting of the Siberian permafrost. As the permafrost melts, it releases large amounts of methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. That warms the planet, which speeds up the permafrost melt, which releases more methane, ad infinitum.

The good news about the permafrost is that it's probably not going to start seriously melting until the middle of the century or beyond. The bad news is that it might already be starting:

By now, you’ve heard of the crater on the Yamal Peninsula. It’s the one that suddenly appeared, yawning nearly 200 feet in diameter, and made several rounds in the global viral media machine....There’s now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news isn’t so good.

It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground. According to a recent Nature article, “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.”

This particular crater is apparently due to abnormally hot summers in 2012 and 2013, and one or two hot summers could happen regardless of changes in global temperatures. As usual, then, we can't say for sure that this is a direct result of climate change. But what we can say is that it's a canary in the coal mine. As the climate warms, we're going to see more and more craters like this. Individually, we'll never know if climate change is to blame. But collectively, there won't be much doubt. And if and when the permafrost goes into an irreversible meltdown, you might want to pack your bags and move to Tierra del Fuego.

Obama Wants Businesses to Put Their Money Where Their Mouths Are

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

The Economist interviewed President Obama this week, and Clive Crook was discomfited by this snippet:

The Economist: We see a lot of business people and they do complain about regulation.

Mr Obama: They always complain about regulation. That’s their job....The business community does have broader responsibilities to the system as a whole. And although the general view today is that the only responsibility that a corporate CEO has is to his shareholders, I think the American people generally sense—

The Economist: Do you really think that's true? Because when I talk to corporate CEOs, that’s one of their complaints. If you ask for a complaint about the White House, they’ll say it is the attitude. Every CEO nowadays is involved in nine different social responsibility things—it’s ingrained in most public—

Mr Obama: Well, I think—here’s what’s interesting. There’s a huge gap between the professed values and visions of corporate CEOs and how their lobbyists operate in Washington. And I’ve said this to various CEOs. When they come and they have lunch with me—which they do more often than they probably care to admit (laughter)—and they’ll say, you know what, we really care about the environment, and we really care about education, and we really care about getting immigration reform done—then my challenge to them consistently is, is your lobbyist working as hard on those issues as he or she is on preserving that tax break that you’ve got? And if the answer is no, then you don’t care about it as much as you say.

Oddly, Crook is upset because he thinks this demonstrates that Obama is indeed anti-business, just as his critics claim. Here's what he has to say about that:

Interesting to see a politician accuse business people of insincerity. Even on the view that executives are entirely self-serving, by the way, you'd expect them to care a lot about education and immigration reform. Aside from that, how peculiar of Obama, pausing briefly from his busy schedule of political fund-raising, to criticize businesses for the effort they put into lobbying. If lobbying didn't work, businesses wouldn't do it. It works because politicians are receptive. That's their job.

Think about what we have here. The Economist interviewer is apparently taking at face value business complaints that they never get credit for the immense amount of social work they do. That's an odd bit of naiveté for a normally cynical business publication. Then Obama points out the obvious: what corporate CEOs say and what they do are rather different things. If you want to know what their real priorities are, take a look at what their lobbyists focus on.

Sensible enough, you'd think. But Crook doesn't agree. And here's the weirdest part: he thinks that it's somehow unfair of Obama to criticize business lobbying when, after all, it works. On this reading, the tidal wave of pseudo-bribery that lubricates Washington DC is beyond criticism precisely because politicians are so eager to accept all these pseudo-bribes. How can you be pro-business, and at the same time be critical of the endlessly parochial goals of corporate lobbying?

Those seem like perfectly compatible positions to me, so I don't really get this. Perhaps it gets to the difference between being pro-market and pro-business. These are rather different things, but they often get mushed together without much thought.

In any case, I have no doubt that Obama doesn't instinctively venerate the business community the way George Bush (or even Bill Clinton) did. Nevertheless, pointing out that most corporations aren't quite the social visionaries they claim to be is hardly evidence of anything other than a clear view of the world. After all, as Crook says, lobbying works. That being the case, surely Obama is right: if they really cared about the environment and education and so forth, they'd be mounting big lobbying operations and demanding that Republicans support them if they ever want to see another dime. But for the most part, they haven't. Money has spoken.