Krebs Daily Briefing 18 April 2016

International

Pope Francis Takes 12 Refugees Back to Vatican After Trip to Greece

MYTILENE, Greece — Pope Francis made an emotional visit into the heart of Europe’s migrant crisis on Saturday and took 12 Muslim refugees from Syria, including six children, with him back to Rome aboard the papal plane. The action punctuated the pope’s pleas for sympathy to the crisis confronting the refugees just as European attitudes are hardening against them. Those taken to Rome were three families — two from Damascus and one from Deir al-Zour — whose homes had been bombed in the Syrian war, the Vatican said in a statement as the pope departed the Greek island of Lesbos, where he had visited the Moria refugee camp. “The pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees,” the statement said. The announcement capped a brief trip by the pope to Greece that again placed the plight of migrants at the center of his papacy. “We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution,” Francis said during a lunchtime visit to the Moria camp, where leaders of Eastern Orthodox Christian churches joined him. “As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf,” Francis continued. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.” While the announcement had the appearance of a surprise, Francis told reporters on the plane ride home that the relocation of the refugees had involved planning and paperwork by the governments of the Vatican, Italy and Greece. In Rome, the Catholic charitable association Sant’Egidio will help care for the families and try to find them work. More:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/world/europe/pope-francis-visits-lesbos-heart-of-europes-refugee-crisis.html?emc=edit_th_20160417&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=53476364&_r=0

Jordan’s King Abdullah II to restore Jesus’ Tomb

Impressive stateliness, dignity. Imposing character; grandeur. Many synonyms can describe the word “majesty”. According to protocol, that’s the correct way to address a monarch, however, a very few are really worthy of the adjective. Not many rulers have at heart the real interest of their people. Once upon a time, there was this kingdom. The only treasure, its people. A kind, honest and hospitable people. The only abundance, sand. Alias, no oil. But this small and poor kingdom would be the most stable nation of its region. And when the whole world asked “why”, the answer was simple: a great king to rule a great people. Today it was announced that King Abullah II of Jordan will pay for the restoration of the Jesus’ Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The Holy Sepulcher has been the holiest site of Christian pilgrimage since the 4th century. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem reports that the restoration work was needed because scientific studies had revealed grave problems of moisture from the “condensation of the breath of visitors,” and oxidation due to candle smoke. Since Jordan is a poor country, King Abdullah will pay for the project with his personal money. That’s a real king, a real Muslim, a real humanitarian, but above all, a real human being. King Abdullah II of Jordan, you’re not only deserving of our respect and gratitude but, beyond a single solitary doubt, wondrously worthy of the word “majesty”.

https://royalblog.org/2016/04/13/the-real-majesty/

An Old Alliance Faces New Pressures as Obama Heads to Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON — Over the last seven decades, photographs of American presidents side by side with the kings of Saudi Arabia have provided visual evidence of an enduring, strategic alliance between the United States and the oil-rich kingdom in the Middle East. On Wednesday, President Obama will add one more photo to the scrapbook when he arrives in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for a private meeting with King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 80-year-old monarch. But the expected image of the two leaders will fail to convey the depth of the strain on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. During Mr. Obama’s tenure, there has been distrust and disagreement over how to contain Iran, the fight against the Islamic State, the future of Syria and clashes in Yemen. Blunt comments about the Saudis by Mr. Obama in a recent interview have deepened the ill will. “The relationship is troubled. It’s rocky,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But, he added, “it’s not headed for an impending collapse.” That is because the two nations still need each other. The United States provides military and intelligence support to the kingdom for its regional security, and is expected to announce additional support this week. Saudi Arabia helps fight terror groups like Al Qaeda and remains the second-largest provider of oil imports to the United States, selling about one million barrels per day. Now, with Mr. Obama in the twilight of his presidency, Saudi leaders are looking past him, to the winner of November’s presidential election.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/18/world/middleeast/an-old-alliance-faces-new-pressures-as-obama-heads-to-saudi-arabia.html?src=me&_r=0

Congressional vote moves Brazil’s Rousseff closer to impeachment

Brazil’s leftist President Dilma Rousseff suffered a humiliating loss when the lower house of Congress voted to impeach her on Sunday, leaving her almost certain to be forced from office months before the nation hosts the Olympics. Fireworks lit up the night sky in Brazil’s megacities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro after the opposition comfortably surpassed the two-thirds majority needed to send Rousseff for trial in the Senate on charges of manipulating budget accounts. The floor of the lower house was a sea of Brazilian flags and pumping fists as dozens of lawmakers carried in their arms the deputy who cast the decisive 342nd vote, after three days of a marathon debate. The final tally was 367 votes cast in favor of impeachment, versus 137 against, and seven abstentions. Two lawmakers did not show up to vote. Brazilian financial markets opened higher after the vote – which was a major step toward ending 13 years of the left-leaning Workers’ Party rule in the world’s ninth largest economy. The central bank intervened against a sharp rise in the currency, offering up to $4 billion in derivatives at an auction. The real BRBY traded 3.53 per dollar, while yields on rate futures fell <0#2DJI:> and equity futures rose INDc1. If, as is expected, the Senate votes by a simple majority in early May to proceed with the impeachment, Rousseff would be suspended from her post and replaced by Vice President Michel Temer as acting president, pending her trial. Temer would serve out Rousseff’s term until 2018 if she is found guilty. The impeachment battle, waged during Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930s, has divided the country of 200 million people more deeply than at any time since the end of its military dictatorship in 1985. It has also sparked a bitter battle between the 68-year-old Rousseff and Temer, 75, that could destabilize any future government and plunge Brazil into months of uncertainty. Despite anger at rising unemployment, Rousseff’s Workers Party can still rely on support among millions of working-class Brazilians, who credit its welfare programs with pulling their families out of poverty during the past decade.

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-politics-idUSKCN0XE05M

National

 

Wall Street Veterans Bet on Low-Income Home Buyers

 

As the head of Goldman Sachs’s mortgage department, Daniel Sparks helped make the bank more than a billion dollars betting against the market as housing prices began to crash in 2007. Today, he is betting on home buyers who no longer qualify for mortgages in the fallout of that housing crisis. Shelter Growth Capital Partners, an investment firm Mr. Sparks founded in 2014 with two other former Goldman Sachs executives, has been buying homes that were foreclosed on during the financial crisis and later resold to buyers under long-term installment contracts. The firm has bought just over 200 homes from Harbour Portfolio Advisors, a Dallas investment firm that has specialized in selling homes to lower-income buyers through what is known as a contract for deed. In these deals, a seller provides the buyer with a long-term, high-interest loan, with the promise of actually owning the home at the end of it. These contracts, a form of seller financing, have ballooned in recent years as low-income families unable to get traditional mortgages have turned to alternate ways to buy homes. The homes are often sold “as is,” in need of costly repairs and renovations, and many of the transactions end in eviction when buyers fall behind on payments. The market is growing in part because so many would-be home buyers with damaged credit histories cannot get loans. Banks are unwilling to write mortgages to riskier clients after being fined billions of dollars for pushing borrowers into unaffordable subprime mortgages before the crisis. Last year, the number of new mortgages worth $100,000 or less for homes in the largest metropolitan areas in the United States was at its lowest point in a decade, according to CoreLogic, a financial services research firm. “There’s a whole underbelly of real estate that’s not through traditional sale,” said Robert Doggett, general counsel for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and a critic of contracts for deeds. “It’s not a problem of yesteryear. It’s coming back.” Other Wall Street veterans have entered the scene nationally, too. Battery Point Financial, founded by Jeremy Healey in 2013, is focusing exclusively on buying homes in smaller cities to sell them to buyers through contracts for deeds. Mr. Healey, a former mortgage trader at Goldman Sachs, has $40 million in backing from Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company, the private equity giant. One reason the contract for deed market has become popular among investment firms is that under many contracts, buyers can be evicted if they default on their loans. That is very different from traditional mortgages, under which the foreclosure process can be lengthy and costly.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/18/business/dealbook/wall-street-veterans-bet-on-low-income-homebuyers.html?emc=edit_th_20160418&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=53476364&_r=0

 

Focus on Chief Justice as Supreme Court Hears Immigration Challenge

 

WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. twice voted to save President Obama’s health care law, infuriating his usual allies on the right. Now, conservatives are nervous that the chief justice will disappoint them again in a challenge to another major Obama initiative, this one on immigration.

The case, to be argued on Monday at the Supreme Court, presents fundamental questions about executive power against the backdrop of a wrenching national debate over Mr. Obama’s plan to spare millions of immigrants from deportation. But Chief Justice Roberts’s record suggests that he may avoid taking a position on such a divisive and partisan issue, focusing instead on the more technical question of whether the states challenging the Obama administration’s immigration plan have suffered the sort of direct and concrete injury that gives them standing to sue. That jurisprudential off-ramp would avoid a deadlock or a grand pronouncement from a short-handed court on a politically charged issue in a presidential election year. And that may prove attractive to a chief justice who has said he does not want the Supreme Court to be viewed as a forum where “partisan matters would be worked out.” A narrow ruling would in some ways echo Chief Justice Roberts’s 2012 opinion sustaining the central feature of the health care law on grounds so carefully calibrated that no other justice joined all of his opinion. And it would be consistent with his stated preference for achieving consensus by defining the legal question at issue in a case as narrowly as possible. Chief Justice Roberts, 61, is a patient man and a canny strategist, sometimes to the frustration of his conservative colleagues. In 2007, three years before the Citizens United decision, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February, urged him to move faster in deregulating campaign finance law. In 2009, Chief Justice Roberts persuaded seven of his colleagues to duck a challenge to the Voting Rights Act on technical grounds and then used language from that opinion in 2013 to justify striking down the heart of the law in Shelby County v. Holder. David A. Strauss, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said an incremental step will appeal to Chief Justice Roberts all the more in the current political climate. “The chief justice, who has spoken recently about how the confirmation process might affect the court’s stature, may be especially troubled by a 4-4 split in this case,” Professor Strauss said. A ruling based on standing, he said, “would wipe the slate clean, so the program could be considered in the future by a full Supreme Court.” Mr. Obama’s plan would allow more than four million unauthorized immigrants who are parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents to apply for a program shielding them from deportation and allowing them to work legally. In the short term, a ruling to dismiss the case on standing grounds would at least temporarily save the plan.

A tie vote, on the other hand, would leave in place an injunction blocking the plan and probably deny Mr. Obama any chance of resurrecting it. The case, United States v. Texas, No. 15-674, was brought by Texas and 25 other states, which say the plan went beyond what Congress had authorized. Lower courts have sided with Texas. The trial judge ruled that the Obama administration should have given notice of the plan and sought public comments on its new program. The appeals court affirmed that ruling and added a broader one: The program, it said, also exceeded Mr. Obama’s statutory authority. The Supreme Court asked the parties to address the even broader question of whether Mr. Obama had violated his constitutional obligations to enforce the nation’s laws. But the court must first address whether Texas has suffered the sort of direct and concrete injury that gave it standing to sue in the first place. “Chief Justice Roberts will be very skeptical of Texas’s standing claims,” said Tara Leigh Grove, a professor of law at William & Mary and the author of an article on lawsuits by states against the federal governmentto be published next month in The Cornell Law Review. Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, said his state had brought the case to settle fundamental questions about presidential power. More:

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/18/us/politics/focus-on-chief-justice-as-supreme-court-hears-immigration-challenge.html?emc=edit_th_20160418&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=53476364

 

Southern Cities Split With States on Social Issues

 

JACKSON, Miss. — It was not that long ago that Victoria Fortenberry figured she would mark her 18th birthday by getting on a bus and getting out of Mississippi. But here she was, blue-haired, tattooed and 19 years old, singing at a party for a new line of craft beer to a crowd that included her girlfriend. Ms. Fortenberry came here to attend a Christian college and found a place where she could be unashamedly Southern and openly gay in a way not possible in her conservative suburban hometown, or even in the Jackson of a decade ago. And so: “At some point,” she said, “I decided I won’t just leave.” Jackson may not register nationally as an outpost of bohemianism or urbane liberalism. But its city government, which is majority black and Democratic, refuses to fly the Confederate-themed state flag at municipal buildings, and this month voted unanimously to oppose a new state law that creates special legal protections for opponents ofsame-sex marriage. And it has a place for blue-haired singers — and their girlfriends.

Jackson is among a group of Southern cities from Dallas to Durham, N.C., where the digital commons, economic growth and a rising cohort of millennials have helped remake the culture. Many of these cities have found themselves increasingly at odds with their states, and here in a region that remains the most conservative in the country, the conflicts are growing more frequent and particularly pitched.

Fights are raging over gay rights here and in North Carolina, where a new law limits transgender bathroom access and pre-empts local governments from passing their own anti-discrimination ordinances. The resistance has been fierce in North Carolina, where companies have called off expansion plans and Ringo Starr and Bruce Springsteen have canceled concerts. The potential consequences of these boycotts point up the complications, though: In a South dominated by the politics of rural and suburban conservatives, a canceled rock concert or technology project is likely to punish the places that oppose the legislation, and have little effect on the areas that support it. “We’ve got this divide,” said Ferrel Guillory, the director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The divide between the cultural conservatism of older suburbs and older rural areas, and these new, thriving, modern economy, diverse cities.”  The skirmishes over gay rights are only part of the growing rift between Southern cities, with their mostly Democratic municipal governments, and Southern state legislatures, which have come to be dominated by Republicans. Lawmakers in Alabama recently blocked cities from setting their own minimum wages, while Charlotte and Jackson have fought with the states over control of their airports. North Carolina’s Republican legislature has redrawn city council districts and tried to stop municipalities from becoming “sanctuary cities” for immigrants. The Arkansas and Tennessee legislatures have passed laws that, like North Carolina’s, ban local anti-discrimination ordinances that differ from state law. This version of a civil war even extends to the Civil War. Alabama is considering a law that would prevent local jurisdictions from removing Confederate symbols without state approval. Similar efforts were proposed but have so far failed in Virginia and Louisiana.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/16/us/southern-cities-move-past-states-on-liberal-social-issues.html?emc=edit_th_20160416&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=53476364&_r=0

 

Colorado offered free birth control — and teen abortions fell by 42 percent

 

Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment is seeking more funding to continue a privately funded birth control program that has, by several measures, been a startling success. The program, known as the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, provides intrauterine devices (IUDs) or implants at little to no cost for low-income women at family planning clinics in Colorado. It contributed to a 40 percent drop in Colorado’s teen birth rate and a 42 percent drop in the state’s teen abortion rate between 2009 and 2013, according to state data reported by the New York Times’s Sabrina Tavernise. Young women served by the family planning clinics also accounted for about three-fourths of the overall decline in Colorado’s teen birth rate. And the infant caseload for Colorado WIC, a nutrition program for low-income women and their babies, fell by 23 percent from 2008 to 2013. “This initiative has saved Colorado millions of dollars,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a July 2014 statement. “But more importantly, it has helped thousands of young Colorado women continue their education, pursue their professional goals and postpone pregnancy until they are ready to start a family.” But the program has long drawn criticisms from social conservatives, who argue that it could encourage promiscuity. Since teens don’t need to be accompanied by an adult to obtain contraceptives at the facilities, critics also say the initiative undermines parental rights. And some opponents reject the states’ numbers altogether. Lawmakers in Colorado’s Republican-controlled Senate made similar arguments when they blocked public funding for the program earlier this year. Colorado’s drop in teen births is part of a nationwide decline in the teen birth rate. There are multiple theories for this decline, ranging from greater use of long-acting reversible contraceptives to lead abatement programs.

 

http://www.vox.com/2014/7/7/5877505/colorado-contraceptives-teen-pregnancy-birth-control

 

How the GOP Made Obama One of America’s Most Powerful Presidents
Republicans over the past seven years have come to view Barack Obama not just as an ideological enemy but as a “dictator”—an accusation hurled most recently by both Chris Christie and Glenn Beck—a president who has unconstitutionally abused his executive power with an array of unilateral actions. But Republicans are hardly passive victims of an overweening executive; they are, in fact, paying for their own unilateral surrender of power. The GOP-dominated Congress has sought to weaken and undermine Obama and instead has achieved the opposite. Unable to pass significant legislation after the Affordable Care Act, the Obama White House filled the vacuum by creative use of executive authority, setting a potentially risky precedent for the future balance between the branches but spurred, ironically, by the very opponents who were trying to contain him. Out of anti-Obama pique, Congress has also relinquished much of its primary tool, the power of the purse. Congress and the White House have not agreed on a budget since 2009, and only at the end of 2015 was an actual budget passed by the House. So while it is technically true that even the most controversial military programs of the Obama years have had de facto congressional support, Congress has failed to use its constitutional control of the budget as a check on executive action.  Some critics also currently speculate that the refusal by most Republican senators to even consider the new nominee for the Supreme Court could lead to an attempt to simply place an appointee on the court. Obama could use the novel interpretation that nothing in the Constitution says the Senate must actually confirm a nominee by vote and that failing to vote could be construed as a tacit and passive approval of a nominee. Were that to happen, it would surely be condemned by Republicans as a naked power grab, but it could also set another precedent for the current imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Thus, the long-run effect of Obama enmity has been to enable this president to expand the power of the executive branch, perhaps permanently. Not only did Republicans fail to contain Obama, they have enabled him to become one of the most powerful presidents ever, and certainly the most powerful non-wartime president the country has ever known as well as the most active and consequential “lame duck” president in memory.  When it comes to the power game, whether or not Obama has been making good or bad decisions is beside the point. He has won, while the GOP has been scoring on its own goal for the past seven years.

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/barack-obama-gop-most-powerful-213814#ixzz45ulRKwfW

How the Maker of TurboTax Fought Free, Simple Tax Filing

Update, April 14, 2016: In 2013, we detailed how Intuit has lobbied against allowing the government to estimate your taxes for you. So this week, we called Intuit and asked if they still oppose free, government-prepared returns. The answer: Yes. “Our legislative, our policy position on that hasn’t changed,” said spokeswoman Julie Miller. She called Intuit “a staunch opponent to government prepared tax returns.” Meanwhile, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed a bill yesterday to allow free government-prepped returns. Her office also released a report on the tax industry’s opposition to simpler filing solutions. It cited the article below as well as another story we did on how a rabbi, civil rights activist, and others were misled into supporting Intuit’s campaign. This story was co-produced with NPR. Imagine filing your income taxes in five minutes — and for free. You’d open up a pre-filled return, see what the government thinks you owe, make any needed changes and be done. The miserable annual IRS shuffle, gone. It’s already a reality in Denmark, Sweden and Spain. The government-prepared return would estimate your taxes using information your employer and bank already send it. Advocates say tens of millions of taxpayers could use such a system each year, saving them a collective $2 billion and 225 million hours in prep costs and time, according to one estimate. The idea, known as “return-free filing,” would be a voluntary alternative to hiring a tax preparer or using commercial tax software. The concept has been around for decades and has been endorsed by both President Ronald Reagan and a campaigning President Obama. “This is not some pie-in-the-sky that’s never been done before,” said William Gale, co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It’s doable, feasible, implementable, and at a relatively low cost.” So why hasn’t it become a reality? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t help that it’s been opposed for years by the company behind the most popular consumer tax software — Intuit, maker of TurboTax. Conservative tax activist Grover Norquist and an influential computer industry group also have fought return-free filing. More:

https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-maker-of-turbotax-fought-free-simple-tax-filing?utm_source=pardot&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter

State/Local

RSA Rebuttal to the API Report on Pension Reform

 

The Alabama Policy Institute recently issued a report on Alabama public pension systems, focusing on RSA. While praising reform measures that have been adopted, the authors of the report (two Auburn finance professors with no apparent background in pension research), concluded that the pension systems need more reform. The authors recommended adoption of an untested “cash balance plan” as a mandatory Tier III for new hires, but the entire report is premised on erroneous, contradictory and/or flawed assumptions. Below is a synopsis of some of the major faults of the report and its recommendations. See opinion piece, and full RSA rebuttal at links below:

 

http://www.rsa-al.gov/uploads/files/RSA_rebuttal_to_API_pension_proposal.pdf

 

http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2016/04/the_fight_for_pension_reform_i.html#incart_river_index

 

Alabama is no stranger to sex scandals. It just never expected one from this guy.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In the mortuary of disaster that is Alabama politics, it is important to note that Gov. Dr. Robert J. Bentley is still in charge, for now. The 74-year-old, balding grandfather and star of sexy phone chats to the senior political adviser three decades his junior appears to be at the center of a complex web of deceit, betrayal and mendacity that falls somewhere between the better parts of the Old Testament and the steamy Southern plays of Tennessee Williams. Nor is it, by any means, over. Reporters hound Bentley at his every appearance, asking about his $1,800 burner cellphones and the use of a state helicopter to pick up his forgotten wallet. “I’m the governor. And I had to have money. I had to buy something to eat,” Bentley said last Thursday by way of explanation. The state House is expected to vote next week to set up an impeachment committee, and the lieutenant governor has been blunt: She’s ready to take over as soon as she’s needed. The state’s former top cop, Spencer Collier, plans to file a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit next week. Once a staunch ally of Bentley, he claims the governor sacked him because he refused an illegal order to not cooperate with a grand jury investigation involving the speaker of the House, who goes on trial next month on 23 felony counts of ethics violations. As calls for the conservative Republican’s resignation mount, the variety of investigations underway are heading into “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup” territory. “Robert Bentley should not be sitting in the governor’s office,” says Allen Farley, the Republican House member who last year asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate Bentley’s use of state resources to carry out his alleged affair. The woman in question is Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a 44-year-old married mother of three. “He’s the state of Alabama’s spokesperson, our representative,” Farley said in an interview. “And this is someone I want negotiating on behalf of the state? I don’t think so.” When Bentley was first elected in 2010, he was a popular, soft-spoken dermatologist, devout Baptist deacon, father of four and grandfather of eight, and married for half a century. He said he wouldn’t take his $120,000 a year salary until the state reached full employment, and he hasn’t. One year into his second term, he is divorced, estranged from his family, expelled from his church, ostracized by his party, pilloried by the public and at the center of an alleged sex and abuse-of-power scandal that may drive him from office. “It’s like King David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament,” says Johnny Mack Morrow, a Democrat from rural Franklin County, another former ally of the governor turned harsh critic. “Or maybe like Percy Sledge’s song, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ ” On a leaked phone recording that went viral, the septuagenarian governor tells Mason explicitly of his yearnings. “You’d kiss me? I love that. You know I do love that. You know what? When I stand behind you and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts, and I put my hands on you and pull you in real close. Hey, I love that, too.” The governor has admitted to an “inappropriate relationship; both have denied a physical affair. Throughout it all, he continues to insist he did nothing illegal. More:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/alabama-is-no-stranger-to-sex-scandals-it-just-never-expected-one-from-this-guy/2016/04/15/85ec7afe-fdc0-11e5-9140-e61d062438bb_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories_alabama-747am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

Robert Bentley ditched Syrian refugee call, but not for concert

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley didn’t phone in to a Nov. 17 conference call with White House officials on the Syrian refugee program, though he later complained to the Obama administration – and sued the federal government – over a lack of communication on refugees. While the call took place, the governor was on a plane to Las Vegas to attend the Republican Governors Association conference – and catch a concert by singer Celine Dion. “The governor was not on the call, as he was en route to Nevada,” Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said in an email to The Anniston Star on Friday. Ardis said Bentley was briefed on the call by a staffer. “And no, he did not skip the call for the concert.” Bentley was one of the first governors to declare his refusal to accept Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks last year. Officials of Catholic Social Services, the state’s only refugee resettlement agency, later said there were no Syrians bound for Alabama anyway. Critics noted that governors have no power to prevent someone from entering the state once they’re in the country. But the state-level refugee bans caught on like wildfire. Within days of Bentley’s declaration — which included a Nov. 16 executive order banning state agencies from helping with Syrian refugee resettlement — more than half of the nation’s governors would also announce their opposition to refugee resettlement. The Obama administration, hoping to head off opposition to its plan to bring 10,000 refugees into the U.S., held a Nov. 17 conference call with the nation’s governors to answer questions about the program. The day after the call, Bentley released a public statement expressing his disappointment with administration officials’ lack of answers to his questions about the refugee program. “While the White House attempted to share information with Governors who have refused the relocation of Syrian refugees out of concern for their state’s security, there were few questions answered by the Obama Administration,” Bentley’s Nov. 18 statement read. “Despite Tuesday’s call, I still have strong concerns on the vetting process of Syrian refugees,” Bentley’s statement read. “I am joining fellow Governors this week to discuss this important issue at the Republican Governors Association Annual Conference. I will continue to press the Obama Administration for answers and will keep the safety and security of Alabamians a top priority.” Bentley would go on to send two more open letters to Obama administration officials expressing his “growing frustration with the lack of answers” from the administration. But there’s no evidence anyone from the Bentley administration asked questions during the call. Notes by Bentley’s director of federal relations, obtained through a public records request last year, show 10 governors asking questions about how refugees are vetted, who sponsors them, and how many refugees are women or children. There’s no mention of questions by Bentley officials. “The White House call between governors and Administration officials just concluded,” Bentley staffer Jill Boxler wrote in an email to other Bentley officials at 5:45 p.m. Nov. 17. “It was 1.5 hours long, cordial and informative.” More:

http://m.annistonstar.com/news/robert-bentley-ditched-syrian-refugee-call-but-not-for-concert/article_b8c63e62-0354-11e6-8778-c32c6095aab5.html?mode=jqm

Blogs/Opinions

 

On Immigration, Law Is on Obama’s Side

 

THE legal controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement policies will soon come to a head when the Supreme Court justices hear the case United States v. Texas on Monday. Texas claims that the president’s executive decisions lack legal sanction by Congress and have injured the state. But whether or not you like President Obama’s actions, he has operated under longstanding provisions of law that give the executive branch discretion in enforcement. This presidential prerogative has been recognized explicitly by the Supreme Court. Moreover, the nature of immigration enforcement and the resources (or lack thereof) appropriated by Congress necessitate exactly the type of choices that the president has made. Congress has repeatedly granted the executive branch broad power in enforcing immigration laws. The 2002 law creating the Department of Homeland Security explicitly said the executive should set “national immigration enforcement policies and priorities.” The Supreme Court has recognized the leeway Congress gives the executive branch in deportations. In a 2012 majority opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court noted that “a principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials,” including the decision “whether it makes sense to pursue removal at all.” More:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/18/opinion/on-immigration-law-is-on-obamas-side.html?emc=edit_th_20160418&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=53476364

 

Impeachment Is the Wrong Way by Henry Mabry

Much talk has swirled around Montgomery about impeachment of Gov. Robert Bentley. It would be understandable if the Governor had engaged in high crimes and misdemeanors; however, this issue boils down to sordid innuendo for which the biggest of rumors may never have even happened. At least the person of interest looks more like Jennifer Flowers instead of plumpy Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones, a doppelganger for the Wicked Witch of the West. This is not to brush off what has been reported in the press. Probably no one likes what has transpired, and most probably do not condone such activities. The families have suffered, and this is the real tragedy. What has been reported is not good and it is problematic for effective leadership; however, what has also been reported does not rise to the level of being removed from office by legislative impeachment. Maybe there is more to this, but if the Governor has really done something wrong that warrants removal from office, then federal or state prosecutors and grand juries will make such determinations. That is how it is done here and in the rest of the country. That is the accepted practice. Impeachment is not the accepted practice. Alabama lawmakers have scratched their heads as to the mechanics of an impeachment process because it has never been done before in Alabama’s 198 years as a state. There is a reason for this even though Alabama has had its host of less than pristine governors and other office holders. It has been noted on the Internet that 13 governors in the nation’s history have been impeached with only eight being found guilty of high crimes against the state. Since 1923, only two governors have been impeached. That is right, only two governors of the country’s 48 or 50 states since Calvin Coolidge was President have been impeached. Both of those two governors were impeached for bribery-style allegations, and one was post indictment and one occurred just prior to federal indictment. Putting this matter further in perspective, in the past 93 years, there have been over 1,000 governors and only two of those, or one out of every 500, have been impeached. Gov. Robert Bentley has his faults, as we all do, but Gov. Robert Bentley does not deserve to be number three man etched onto such a dubious list in almost a century.  The man has not been indicted and charged with theft. The man did not give no-bid contracts to his buddies and rake money into his bank account. The man did not get paid or receive gifts for official action. This is no Gov. Evan Mecham of Arizona indicted for multiple counts regarding state business improprieties. This is no Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois found guilty of trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat.  More:

http://www.alreporter.com/impeachment-is-the-wrong-way/

 

Opinion – Josh Moon: Racism alive and well in Alabama

If you live around the Montgomery area and spent more than a few minutes on social media over the past week, you undoubtedly viewed a rather disturbing video. The scene was filmed on a cell phone camera and began in the midst of a confrontation. A black woman was standing at a walk-up, Regions Bank ATM in Montgomery. Behind her, an older, gray-haired white man was screaming. Apparently upset that the woman didn’t realize he was waiting in his car – instead of in line like everyone else – the guy was having a straight-up, old fashioned conniption fit. He was cursing and calling the woman horrible names. Those horrible names, of course, included the n-word. With will power I can’t comprehend, the lady in the video stayed calm, hardly responded to the man, turned and left when she completed her transaction. In 24 hours, the video had more than a hundred thousand shares and Regions, despite having zero responsibility for the incident, posted a message saying it was appalled and promised to close the man’s account. The comments under the original Facebook post by Montgomery resident Arnita Robbins were the expected mix of outrage and disbelief. Many proclaimed shock that such things would be said in 2016. WARNING: This video contains language that some will find offensive I don’t understand the shock so many have because I’m white, and to the surprise of many, I have lived in Alabama all of my life. To watch a white man fly off in a fit of rage at a black person over some perceived wrong is nothing new to me. To hear a white person drop the n-bomb is nothing new to me. The only thing odd about that video is that someone happened to catch such an expression of hate on camera today. Usually, there’s a quick glance around to check to see if there’s a black man or someone with a camera around. This guy just happened to be so enraged he forgot to check. But don’t for a second think this was an isolated incident. Racism is alive and well in Alabama, and around the country. The successful campaign of Donald Trump is more than enough proof of that. As is the rise in hate groups since President Obama was elected in 2008. What has allowed racism to survive are those who have, for their own benefit, preyed upon the prejudices of the past in order to stereotype groups of people. They do it for many reasons. For ratings. For profits. For increased membership in hate groups. For votes. They are the people that will argue our welfare money is going to buy spinning rims and stereo systems and then feign outrage when you accuse them of racism. They are the people who contend all black youths are “ill-educated and have tattoos on their forehead,” like one of the right’s most popular political commentators did last week. They are the people who scream about the Obama family vacationing in Hawaii at Christmas, but were cool with Nancy Reagan essentially wallpapering the White House with hundred-dollar bills and with George W. Bush flying to Texas every other week. They are the people who go to bat for the corrupt bankers, politicians and government officials who profited like bandits while destroying the American economy eight years ago, but who fight like hell to keep the mostly-black, nonviolent drug offenders in prison. They are the people who have sucked billions of dollars away from inner-city schools and set up programs that allow public money to go to mostly-white private schools, but who then bemoan the poor performances of both the inner-city schools and their students. These people make good money keeping white people scared, angry and motivated, and they do that by painting the overwhelming majority of black people as uneducated freeloaders who have bad attitudes, little respect for authority and criminal intentions. They have done a masterful job at furthering racism and instilling hatred. And that scene at the ATM last week was evidence of their work.

http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/local/blogs/moonblog/2016/04/15/opinion-josh-moon-racism-alive-and-well-alabama/83049652/

 

Gov. Robert Bentley ran on ‘transparency,’ but now demands silence

 

Gov. Robert Bentley rolled into office on the promise of “transparency.” “Transparency promotes government accountability, and as elected officials, we are held accountable for our decisions by the people we serve,” he said. It was like his motto. Alabama “deserves transparency in everything we do.” Yep. ”If you have things to hide, then maybe you’re doing things wrong.” ”I think you ought to be willing to release everything to the American people.” ”I believe in transparency.” Yep, yep yep. He even made a big deal – over and over again — of releasing his tax returns. But all of that changed. Not just recently. Not just since former Alabama Law Enforcement secretary Spencer Collier dropped the bomb on him in March, telling the world and the authorities Bentley may have used state money and resources to carry out an affair with his now-former political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Sometime in the fall of 2014, after Seth Hammett took over as Bentley’s chief of staff and after I began to write about excessive overtime paid to a member of Bentley’s executive security team, the governor demanded that members of his staff sign non-disclosure agreements. What happens in Montgomery stays in Montgomery. Even if what happens in Vegas does not. Some signed and some didn’t. Some left. But it is now obvious why Bentley thought the agreements were needed. We know now that the governor’s office was coming unhinged, that everything necessary to keep his dreamy genie in the bottle was being done. He had lusted, at least, for a pseudo-staff member who was paid through his connections. His marriage was on the rocks., He had been recorded whispering disturbing nothings into Mason’s ear. People like me were questioning travel expenses. The person who had seen the most – his executive security officer Wendell Ray Lewis – was getting attention in the press. It’s like Bentley could see it all coming. The wallet flown in a state helicopter to the beach. The Celine Dion concert in Vegas. The administration unraveling. And his answer was simple: People in glass houses should put up blinds. Transparency was no longer as important as shut-the-hell-up. It reminds me of a great story last year by Jeff Manning of the Portland Oregonian/Oregon Live, detailing the politics and strategy in the destruction of former Oregon Gov.  John Kitzhaber, who resigned in a self-immolating mix of money and romance. “The attorneys argued … that transparency was a luxury the governor could no longer afford,” Manning wrote last year. “Above all, the attorneys told him, don’t quit. His job was his most important bargaining chip for likely settlement negotiations of ethical and perhaps criminal accusations.” Which seems stunningly familiar in Alabama.

It is clear that transparency is a luxury Gov. Robert Bentley does not think he can afford, either. The shades are long drawn, and the pretense all but over. It’s easy now to see all that we can’t see. Bentley does not use state email and reportedly bought so-called “burner phones” to hide his conversations. Hammett was not paid by the state, but by an energy cooperative when he worked for the governor, and Mason was paid not with public (and publicly visible) funds, but with a witches brew of cash from the Bentley campaign and a shadowy non-profit linked to the University of Alabama. And the University of Alabama paid lots of money to the Mason family, in unusual ways. Questions are dodged, walls are raised and transparency is nothing but an illusion. It is a luxury this governor can no longer afford. It is one Alabama must demand. Oh, I asked the folks in the governor’s office about the non-disclosures, and for copies of all those that had been signed. They said they’d be in touch. Perhaps they will.

 

http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2016/04/gov_robert_bentley_ran_on_tran.html#incart_river_home

Morning Money

ECONOMIC MOOD REMAINS GRIM — Per a Wells Fargo/USA Today poll out this a.m.: “When thinking about the U.S., American respondents are more likely to describe current economic conditions as being fair (37 percent) or poor (35 percent) than they are to rate these as being very good/ good (28 percent) … While the proportion of those who rate the economy as good remains on par with results seen last year (28 percent vs. 27 percent, 2015), Americans are growing more pessimistic towards the economic conditions of the country”

AND THE DATA ISN’T GREAT EITHER — HFE’s Jim O’Sullivan: “The bad news: Real GDP growth appears to have been close to zero in Q1. After reviewing the latest input data, we have cut our estimate for the Q1 growth rate to just 0.5 percent at an annual rate, from 1.5 percent. The good news: Jobless claims continue to show no sign of weakening in the labor market, with data through early … A year ago, real GDP rose at just a 0.6 percent rate in Q1, but that was followed by a 3.9 percent pace in Q2”

THE G20 GURUS AIN’T EXACTLY HELPING — Mohamed A. El-Erian on Bloomberg View: “The communique issued by the Group of 20 finance ministers and central bankers at the conclusion of talks in Washington this weekend had a somewhat unreal, and worryingly ironic, tone. Noting that global growth ‘remains modest and uneven,’ the G-20 warned the large advanced economies against continuing their prolonged, excessive reliance on unconventional monetary policy to power growth.

“Yet the communique, which was issued in the names of the specialized policy makers most closely involved in perpetuating this highly unbalanced policy mix, contained few new policy initiatives. As a result, the outlook is for more of the same, with all the growth disappointments and financial risks that this entails for the well-being of billions of people around the world.”

BUT Q1 EARNINGS NOT SO BAD! — Via Goldman Sachs: “So far, 1Q earnings season has contained mostly positive results relative to low expectations. For the 35 reporting firms, median year/year EPS growth equaled 6 percent versus 3 percent expected by consensus. [This] week is the first major reporting week, with 101 S&P 500 firms representing 28 percent of market cap scheduled to release earnings”

TRUMP TROUNCED AGAIN — POLITICO’s Kyle Cheney and Katie Glueck: “It was another delegate bloodbath for Donald Trump. In Georgia. In Wyoming. In South Carolina. In Kansas. In Florida. Ted Cruz put on a clinic, mobilizing his GOP activist base to capture at least 50 delegates on Saturday while Trump came away with about a dozen in another bruising defeat that undermines his chances to become the Republican presidential nominee.

“If Trump fails to clinch the nomination by the end of primary season on June 7, the nomination will likely be decided at a contested convention in July. And Cruz, after picking up scores of loyal delegates who he expects stick with him if the convention takes multiple votes to resolve, is radiating confidence about his ability to prevail in that scenario.” http://politi.co/22Gomfy

SPOTTED by POLITICO Europe’s eagle-eyed Gabe Brotman: “Mario Draghi in Kramerbooks perusing the nonfiction section in the famed DC bookshop, with particular interest in Strategy by Lawrence Freedman, The Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan, and Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. What did Draghi buy? HOW ADAM SMITH CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE by Russ Roberts. Photo: http://bit.ly/20Op2jT

M.M. SIDENOTE — Both MM and MM’s older brother worked as waiters at Kramerbooks café back in the day.

ROUSSEFF IMPEACHED — Bloomberg: “[Brazilian] President Dilma Rousseff has lost a key impeachment vote in the lower house but will fight back in court and in the Senate, a government leader in Congress said. … Financial markets have surged in recent weeks on the prospect that Vice President Michel Temer, 75, would take over the top job and revive the economy. An exchange-traded fund of Brazilian stocks jumped 4.5 percent at 10:28 a.m. in Tokyo.

“The session is being broadcast live on public screens across the nation as thousands of protesters and government supporters rally in front of Congress. Tens of thousands of the president’s supporters and detractors gathered to stage protests throughout the nation, with the two sides in the capital Brasilia separated by a metal barrier designed to prevent confrontations.” http://bloom.bg/23Gml92

HOT CLICK — Amazing SNL cold open with Larry David as Bernie Sanders telling Julia Louis-Dreyfus — reprising her Seinfeld role as Elaine Benes — that his plan to break up the big banks is yada yada yada. http://bit.ly/23QJVfW

DRIVING THE WEEK — New York votes on Tuesday with 95 delegates at stake for Republicans and 291 for Democrats … Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Monday will preside over an FSOC meeting with asset management on the agenda … Index of leading indicators on Thursday at 10:00 a.m. expected to rise 0.4 percent … Morgan Stanley reports first-quarter earnings on Monday, Goldman Sachs on Tuesday. Will their trading results be better than expected? … ECB makes a policy announcement Thursday with no changes expected to rates or its asset purchase program …

IN BROOKLYN WITH BERNIE — POLITICO’s Patrick Temple West spent Sunday talking to Bern-feelers in the Borough of Kings. “POLITICO spent the day asking attendees: ‘How do you define Wall Street?’ While they universally criticize the financial industry, Sanders’ fans don’t agree on how to interpret Wall Street. … Their answers indicate Sanders has cemented a reputational problem for hedge funds, banks and other financial businesses that is likely to last beyond his long-shot presidential campaign.

“His supporters’ answers might also offer Hillary Clinton’s campaign a glimpse into what the Left wants to hear. ‘I define Wall Street as kind of a financial bully,’ said Katrina Naidas, 26, who lives in Brooklyn. ‘They are kind of like the guard dogs of the money of the one percent,’ she said. … ‘Banks, investment banks, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them but I do agree that we need to separate the retail bank from the investment bank and from the speculation,’ said Mack Butler, 40.”

CBA ROUND THREE — Better Markets’ Dennis Kelleher emails: “Cost benefit analysis only sounds innocent and reasonable. In practice, when it comes to financial regulation, it becomes ‘industry-cost-only analysis’ that grossly minimizes the public interest, is biased against regulation no matter how necessary, and leads to dangerous de-regulation like we had before the 2008 crash. Even worse, it’s litigation catnip for the industry’s anti-Dodd Frank zealots, as is obvious for anyone watching them use it as a club in every court case they file.”

MEET TOM HOENIG — FT’s Barney Jopson: “Forty years before Tom Hoenig reached the upper echelons of bank regulation, he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam war. A talented mathematician, he was put to work in an artillery unit doing the calculations that gun crews needed to hit their targets. Today he has a different foe in his sights: the US’s biggest banks. …

“As vice-chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Mr Hoenig, 69, has been a rare outlier among the US’s usually cautious bank watchdogs. Outspoken, with a reputation for doomsaying, he routinely warns his peers that their unduly sanguine policies are storing up financial and economic trouble.” http://on.ft.com/1qRCK95

MORE BERN ON WALL STREET — POLITICO’s Colin Wilhelm: “Sanders on Sunday pressed his line of attack again that ‘Wall Street and other special interests’ are for rival Hillary Clinton and want to bring ‘oligarchy’ to the country. ‘This is the issue of American politics today: Do we have a government that represents all of us or just the 1 percent?’ Sanders said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’

“‘You’re not going to have a government that represents all of us, so long as you have candidates like Secretary Clinton being dependent on big money interests.’ … Still, Sanders struggled to name a specific instance that proved that his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination had been influenced by big bank donations” http://politi.co/1WaFwSA

NO DEAL IN DOHA: OIL TANKS — Reuters: “Crude oil futures were down more than 5 percent in early Asian trading on Monday after a meeting by major producers in Qatar fell apart on Sunday, leaving the world awash with unwanted fuel. … Some 18 oil exporting nations, including non-OPEC Russia, had gathered in the Qatari capital … for what was expected to be the rubber-stamping of a deal to stabilize output at January levels until October 2016.

“But the deal fell apart after Saudi Arabia demanded that Iran join in despite calls on Riyadh to save the agreement and help prop up crude prices. … Amrita Sen from Energy Aspects said the outcome “has a huge negative impact on sentiment, especially as the deal had been hyped up so much.” http://reut.rs/1XDFQbp

AMERICANS SOUR ON THE FRONT-RUNNERS — WSJ’s Janet Hook: “Both parties’ presidential front-runners are growing increasingly unpopular, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds, with Hillary Clinton showing an especially steep decline over the past month. Among voters in both parties, 56 percent hold a negative view of Mrs. Clinton and 32 percent hold a positive view. That 24-point gap is almost twice as wide as in a Journal/NBC poll last month, when 51 percent viewed her negatively and 38 percent positively, a 13-point gap.

“GOP front-runner Donald Trump continues to be the candidate in either party viewed most negatively, with 65 percent of registered voters viewing him unfavorably and 24 percent favorably, a 41-point difference. Unlike with Mrs. Clinton, those numbers haven’t changed much over the past month. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mr. Trump’s nearest competitor for the Republican nomination, has an image problem of his own. Nearly half of voters see him in a negative light, while 26 percent view him positively.” http://on.wsj.com/1p9NUEU

CAN STOCKS SET RECORDS? — WSJ’s Saumya Vaishampayan and Min Zeng: “After the Dow … kicked off 2016 with its worst-ever five-day start to a year, the blue-chip index is flirting with its all-time high. The momentum of the recent rally, which has sent the Dow up 14 percent from the year’s low in February, could carry major U.S. indexes to fresh records. The outlook for stocks in coming months has improved since the Fed … March signaled a morecautious path for raising interest rates this year.

“While the Dow’s record is within reach, the index has also been there several times before and hasn’t vaulted the hurdle, partly because global growth remains sluggish and the outlook for corporate earnings is grim … The index is now back in familiar territory. Banks led a rally last week as lackluster results from some of the biggest U.S. lenders beat expectations, lifting the Dow to 17897.46. The index is 2.3 percent below its closing high, and the S&P 500 is 2.4 percent from its record close of 2130.82, set May 21” http://on.wsj.com/1XDFotJ

TIME TO DITCH THE GOP CONVENTION? — WP’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa: “The volatility of the Republican presidential race threatens to undermine the ­party’s July convention, putting potential donors on edge, raising security concerns and prompting some GOP politicians, including those in competitive reelection battles, to skip the Cleveland gathering altogether. … A bungled and possibly contested convention could have lasting repercussions not only for the eventual nominee but also for the Republican brand.

“Party leaders fear that a week of contentious floor fights, inflammatory rhetoric and potentially violent protests could project a negative image to voters nationwide. Compounding the challenges facing organizers are the expectations of Donald Trump, who asserted in an interview that he should have at least partial control over programming, stagecraft and other issues by virtue of his front-runner status — even if he does not have the delegates to secure the nomination beforehand. … Meanwhile, the city of Cleveland is preparing for potential violence.” http://wapo.st/1XDPxqc

POTUS Events

No public schedule

All times Eastern
Live stream of White House briefing at 1:00 pm

Floor Action

House Republicans will try to chart a path forward on legislation to help resolve Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, while the Senate plows ahead with its first 2017 spending bill despite the budget impasse across the Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is turning toward the appropriations process as he tries to get all 12 individual bills through the upper chamber.

Yet it’s unclear how many of those bills can be signed into law. House Republicans appear unlikely to pass a budget resolution this year due to internal divisions over whether they should backtrack on last year’s bipartisan spending deal.

The House might still proceed with appropriations bills after May 15 without passing a budget, but GOP leaders haven’t yet decided on a strategy. Discussions on a resolution to the impasse will continue this week.

Moreover, Congress hasn’t cleared all 12 individual spending bills since the 1990s.

McConnell filed cloture on proceeding to a House bill that will be used as a vehicle for the Senate’s energy and water spending bill. Appropriations bills considered in the Senate will adhere to the top-line spending level outlined in last year’s budget agreement.

The move sets up lawmakers to take an initial procedural vote after they wrap up their work on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its energy and water spending bill last Thursday, providing $37.5 billion for the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“The bill Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein [D-Calif.] and I have negotiated puts us one step closer to doubling basic energy research, invests in our waterways, and helps to resolve the nuclear waste stalemate,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

He added that he hopes the Senate is able to pass the proposal this week.

While the legislation passed the committee with bipartisan support, it could face a fight once it gets to the floor.

Senators noted during the committee markup that they were holding off on controversial amendments —including defending the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule — until it hit the Senate floor.

Puerto Rico

House Republicans are trying to rework legislation to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis amid a looming May 1 default that could roil financial markets.

The House Natural Resources Committee abruptly called off a markup of a bill last week when it became clear that the vote count was shaky.

Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) downplayed the notion that the legislation would have to be amended significantly in order to assuage concerns from both parties.

Conservatives want to ensure that public pensions and unions aren’t given priority over investors, while Democrats are trying to prioritize pension benefits.

“The bill is not going to change substantially,” Bishop said after a House GOP conference meeting on Friday. “But if we can tweak a few things to give people a comfort level, we will.”

The legislation would create an outside control board, which would be stacked with members nominated by both parties, to oversee Puerto Rico’s finances. In exchange for the review board, Puerto Rico would be allowed to restructure some of its debt.

GOP leaders have been pushing the message to their members that the legislation does not amount to a “bailout” in the hopes that it will mitigate the effects of ads from an outside group.

No new markup has been scheduled yet, but Bishop could call one as soon as this week if negotiations move quickly.

Tax Day commemoration

The House is expected to consider a slate of bills aimed at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in commemoration of the deadline for Americans to file their tax returns.

This year’s deadline is on Monday instead of the usual April 15 to accommodate a District of Columbia holiday.

House Republicans plan to seize upon the deadline to highlight proposed reforms to the IRS. The six bills on tap include proposals to ban employees from receiving bonuses until the agency establishes a plan to improve customer service; prohibit the IRS from re-hiring individuals who had been fired for misconduct; and prevent hiring new IRS employees until the Treasury Department certifies that none of its current employees have serious tax delinquencies.

Two other measures expected to pass easily with bipartisan support would prevent the agency from using funds to target citizens for exercising First Amendment rights and require the IRS to provide printed copies of the official instructions for filing taxes to accommodate people with limited internet access.

The GOP will continue to hammer the IRS on the scrutiny of conservative groups nearly two years after the House voted to hold the now-former official at the center of the controversy, Lois Lerner, in contempt of Congress. The Justice Department closed its two-year investigation last fall without any charges against Lerner.

“Our tax code is a modern-day embodiment of Dante’s circles of hell,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and five other Republicans wrote in a Townhall.com op-ed.

“And on top of all that, IRS employees seem to play by different rules than the rest of us, leading to scandals that only exacerbate the people’s distrust of their government,” they wrote.

Energy bill, Flint

The Senate is reviving a long-stalled energy reform bill, though a separate package on aid for the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis remains stuck. McConnell locked in votes on amendments, and the underlying bill, last week.

The exact timing of the votes is up to McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), but the bill could be back on the Senate floor this week.

It’s unclear if the Senate will wrap up the energy bill before it starts work on the energy appropriations bill.

While Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Friday she expects the energy reform legislation to go first, GOP leadership, separately, indicated the opposite.

The energy reform legislation has wide bipartisan support and Reid suggested Democrats would back it.

“I’m gratified that we’re able to reach this agreement. This is an important piece of legislation,” he said. “We’re trying to work things out through compromise. This is a good opportunity for us to show that we can do that.”

The announcement came after Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) dropped their holds on the energy reform bill.

Stabenow otherwise supported the legislation, but had placed a hold on it to try to get movement on a separate aid package for the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is still blocking that legislation, through Democrats are pledging to try to find a path forward. The bipartisan energy bill stalled earlier this year after a floor fight erupted over providing help to Flint. After Democrats initially pressed for $600 million, lawmakers spent weeks negotiating a $250 million package to pay for water infrastructure repairs in Flint and elsewhere.

FAA

Senators will also wrap up consideration of a long-term reauthorization of FAA programs this week.

The legislation would greenlight FAA programs through fiscal 2017, after lawmakers sent a short-term bill—expiring on July 15—to President Obama’s desk.

The Senate will take a procedural vote on Monday evening, with 60 votes needed to overcome the hurdle. The move would set up a final vote likely early Wednesday, unless lawmakers can agree to yield back some of the 30 hours of debate time.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is managing the bill for Republicans, had hoped to get the legislation cleared through the upper chamber last week, but lawmakers got snagged on an amendment fight and couldn’t get a deal to speed up votes.

Thune had tried to set up additional amendment votes for Thursday, but was blocked by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). In turn, Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the lead Democrat on the legislation, tried to set up amendment votes but was blocked by Thune.

Senators also dropped a plan to include a package of energy tax extenders in the legislation, with Democrats arguing that Republicans were caving to pressure from the Koch brothers.

“It’s highly likely that if every Democrat had voted for the tax provision there wouldn’t have been the 60 votes,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters. “[Republicans] just didn’t have the votes. I don’t believe they could have gotten 16 votes.”

Recruiting women for science fields

One item on the House’s Monday schedule will be a measure to amend an Agriculture Department program so that it prioritizes increasing the number of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The bill would rename the grant program after Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress a century ago who also held a degree in biology.

“More must be done to encourage women to run for elected office and to enter STEM fields,” the bill states.

Lawmakers are expected to pass the noncontroversial legislation easily on a bipartisan basis. But there could be a few holdouts in the roll call just as with two similar bills the House passed last month to encourage recruiting women for science fields.

Four male House Republicans voted against those measures. One of the lawmakers in opposition warned of potential reverse sexism if the federal government is directed to prioritize recruiting women.

Announcements

 

Paying Your Taxes; Tips to Remember


The IRS offers several payment options if you owe federal tax. Here are some key points to keep in mind when you pay your taxes this year.

  1. Never send cash. Electronic payment options are the quickest and easiest way to make a tax payment. You can pay online, by phone or with your mobile device.
  2. When paying with your mobile device use the IRS2Go app and make payments with Direct Pay, and by Debit or Credit Card. IRS2Go is the official smartphone app of the IRS.
  3. Check out IRS Direct Pay online at IRS.gov or with the IRS2Go app to pay directly from your bank account. It’s secure and free. You will get instant confirmation that you have submitted your payment.
  4. You can pay taxes electronically 24/7 on IRS.gov. Just click on the ‘Payments’ tab for access to IRS Direct Pay and other payment options. Pay in a single step by using your tax software when you e-file. If you use a tax preparer, ask the preparer to make your tax payment electronically.
  5. Whether you e-file your tax return or file on paper, you can choose to pay with a credit or debit card. The company that processes your payment will charge a processing fee. You may be able to deduct the credit or debit card processing fee on next year’s return. It’s claimed on Schedule A, Itemized Deductions.
  6. You may also enroll in the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. You can use the EFTPS to pay your federal taxes electronically. You have a choice to pay using the Internet, or by phone using the EFTPS Voice Response System.
  7. If you can’t pay electronically, you can still pay by a personal or cashier’s check or money order. Do not send cash. Make your check or money order, payable to the “U.S. Treasury.” Be sure to write your name, address and daytime phone number on the front of your payment. Also, write the tax year, form number you are filing and your Social Security number. Use the SSN shown first if it’s a joint return.
  8. If you pay by paper check, complete Form 1040-V, Payment Voucher. Mail it with your tax return and payment to the IRS. Make sure you send them to the address listed on the back of Form 1040-V. This will help the IRS process your payment and post it to your account. You can get the form on IRS.gov/formsat any time.
  9. Remember to include your payment with your tax return but do not staple or clip it to any tax form.
  10. Even if you can’t pay your tax in full, you should file your tax return on time. You should pay as much as you can with your tax return. That will help keep your penalty and interest costs down. You have options such as an installment agreement, which allow you to pay the balance over time. The Online Payment Agreement application is available on IRS.gov.

Each and every taxpayer has a set of fundamental rights they should be aware of when dealing with the IRS. These are your Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Explore your rights and our obligations to protect them on IRS.gov.