Poll says public losing patience with Congress

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A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that the American public is losing its patience with the new Congress and thinks that the debate over spending and the deficits has been “generally rude and disrespectful.”

The poll sampled 1,525 adults during the period March 8-14. McClatchy Newspapers reports that big losers so far have been Republicans, who rode a wave of discontent to win control of the House in November.

There’s even bipartisan agreement — 48 percent of Republicans and Democrats have that view, as well as 57 percent of independents. President Barack Obama signed legislation Friday to provide funding to keep the government open until April 8, the sixth such temporary extension in the 6-month-old fiscal year.

Pew surveyed 1,525 adults from March 8-14. The poll’s findings suggest the political losers so far have been Republicans, who rode a wave of voter irritation to win control of the House of Representatives last fall.

After the election, 35 percent said Republicans had a better approach to the deficit, expected to reach a record $1.65 trillion this year. This month, that number has plunged to 21 percent.

People don’t think Obama has better ideas, either — 20 percent found his approach better, down from November’s 24 percent. Total sample margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Read more in The Miami Herald

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Industry insiders score jobs on Issa’s team

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First as ranking minority member and now as chairman of one of the most powerful committees in Congress, San Diego Republican Darrell Issa has built a team that includes staff members with close connections to industries that could benefit from his investigations.

Issa took control of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last month and asked companies, nonprofits and industry associations for guidance on federal regulations. The committee, which includes 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats, has broad powers to investigate government and industry and to issue subpoenas.

Issa’s staff already has released findings sympathetic to industries bent on softening or eliminating certain government regulations. A preliminary report this month, for example, focused largely on Environmental Protection Agency standards and relied heavily on input from industry associations. Other standards the committee is targeting include new regulations on workplace safety and the financial services industry.

And some on Issa’s staff know this territory from the inside.

Several have ties to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who have made much of their fortune in oil and chemical businesses and have established a reputation as staunch small-government conservatives. Their influence through campaign contributions, lobbying and nonprofit groups — such as Americans for Prosperity, an activist organization with connections to the Tea Party movement — has become more pronounced since the shift in power in the House last November.

A Republican staff counsel for the oversight committee is the son of a lobbyist pushing for regulatory changes on behalf of big corporations. At least four other staffers once lobbied Congress for companies and industry associations. Another counsel worked for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which Issa recently asked for input on government regulations.

Gary Bass, a regulatory expert who has monitored government transparency and spending for nearly three decades as founder of the nonprofit, OMB Watch, said it’s business-as-usual to see Congressional committees staffed with people close to entities they monitor — no matter which political party is in charge.

But Bass said that Issa has gone a step further by actively soliciting input from the business community, making the connection of his staff to those same business all the more troubling.

“What you’re going to see are regulations that are tilted in favor of those interests,” he said.

Frederick Hill, spokesman for Issa and the oversight committee, declined to answer questions about the staff’s connections to lobbyists, business interests, the Koch companies, foundation or nonprofits.


“I only have a short comment for you on this subject,” Hill wrote in an e-mail. “The Committee makes all hiring decisions based on the ability of individuals to help the committee do its job.”

Issa declined to be interviewed for this article, as did representatives of Koch Industries, the conglomerate that the Koch brothers control.

Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit that analyzes campaign finance and lobbying data, said that Issa’s oversight committee needs to operate openly and to publicly disclose any potential conflicts.

“If there is even a whiff of conflict of interest, it’s important for them to be transparent and upfront about any interests that the committee or its staffers might have,” he said.

Koch connections

In mid-January, the Watchdog Institute, an independent nonprofit reporting center based at San Diego State University, obtained a list of 62 Republican committee employees from majority spokesman Hill in order to examine their work experience in light of Issa’s ambitious investigative agenda.

The Institute also sought a list of Democratic staffers and contacted minority spokeswoman Jenny Rosenberg 11 times to obtain it. She only released the name of Staff Director David Rapallo.

The Committee on House Administration, which oversees the day-to-day operations of the House, released a list on Feb. 22 of all committee staff as of January, including more than 50 with the minority.

The Institute applied the same research standards to majority and minority staff members. Because the Democrats, however, haven’t outlined an agenda akin to Issa’s — aside from Friday’s announcement to examine possible fraud in the mortgage industry — there wasn’t a similar benchmark for the Institute to use to assess the backgrounds and corporate connections of the minority’s staff.

Many among the minority are longtime Hill staffers. Some worked for government agencies, nonprofits or law firms. Others are former lobbyists with connections to labor, energy and the petroleum and chemical industries.

On the Republican side, more than three-quarters of the staffers have been hired since Issa took over as ranking member of the committee at the beginning of 2009. In most cases, the Institute did not identify connections to companies or industries with a stake in oversight investigations.

Among those that do have connections, some have ties to the Kochs.

One person completed a Koch Associate Program with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and coordinated a regulatory studies program at the Mercatus Center. The center, a think tank heavily funded by Koch and co-founded by Richard Fink, the executive vice president of Koch Industries, has a long history of advocating against government regulations.

Another staffer, Daniel Epstein, was at the Koch foundation and worked “together with Koch Industries Inc.’s assistant general counsel” before joining the committee as Republican counsel, according to a statement attributed to him in The Hill, a trade publication that covers Congress. Epstein did not respond to interview requests.

At least three more oversight staffers also have ties to the Mercatus Center, which counts two Koch Industries executives on its board of directors, including Charles Koch, the chairman and chief executive of Koch Industries.

Catherine Behan, spokeswoman for Mercatus, defended its independence, saying that its research is not guided or influenced by any outside business interests.

“We don’t do directed research,” she said. “No one comes to us and says ‘we want to do a study on X.’”

In the past three years, Koch companies reported spending about $40.5 million lobbying on behalf of energy and manufacturing interests. The companies lobbied significantly on Environmental Protection Agency regulations — which oversight committee staffers scrutinized in a recent report and were the focus of many industry responses to Issa’s solicitations for guidance on regulations.

Koch Industries does not appear among the more than 150 letters Issa sent to businesses asking their input about onerous government regulations. But Koch Industries has lobbied against some of the same laws that many businesses said they objected to when they responded to Issa’s solicitation.

A lobbyist named Barney Skladany Jr. — whose son, Jonathan Skladany, is Republican counsel on Issa’s oversight team — also lobbied Congress on environmental regulations that industries identified as onerous in their responses to Issa’s request. Among Skladany Jr.’s clients: Dow Chemical, Mortgage Insurance Companies of America and Volkswagen. Jonathan Skladany declined to comment, and his father did not respond to an interview request.

Industry presence diverse

Because of the oversight staff’s connections to Koch Industries, the Watchdog Institute also examined Koch’s campaign contributions to members of the oversight committee. Koch Industries has given more than $130,000 to sitting committee members since 2000, mostly to Republicans.

Current Republican committee members received at least $72,750 from Koch Industries in the last election. Most are freshman, who received at least $42,750.

Data: Koch Industries’ donations to current oversight committee members for the 2010 election

Koch Industries began contributing to Issa’s campaigns in 2008 and has given him at least $12,500.

Levinthal, of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the Koch brothers “have a portfolio filled with ways to influence the government.”

“The committee at the end of the day may be more reflective of the interests that the company and its executives espouse,” he said.

The oversight committee has made headlines consistently since Issa took charge, holding several hearings and issuing its first subpoena almost two weeks ago. It also released responses from industries on its website.

In a Feb. 9 report, oversight staff explained that the committee is “uniquely positioned” to examine “barriers that stand in the way of job growth and economic recovery,” saying the point is to “get Americans back to work.”

The report recommended “additional scrutiny” of certain regulations, including EPA standards. The industry associations that provided the staff with input included at least two that count Koch companies as members.

Last year, as ranking minority member of the oversight committee, Issa was one of many committee members to cosponsor legislation — lobbied on by Koch Industries — opposing a decision from the EPA that would greatly expand the agency’s authority to regulate air pollution.

Other interests also intersect on the oversight committee.

For example, an oversight committee counsel, Kristina Moore, worked in the same office as Shane Karr, an auto alliance executive whom oversight staff interviewed for its report.

Moore did not respond to an interview request. A spokesman for the auto alliance said Karr declined to be interviewed.

Small school, big backers

In February 2009, after Issa became the ranking Republican, he approved a trip to a Mercatus-funded retreat for his committee staff director, Larry Brady.

On his disclosure form, Brady, who did not respond to an interview request, cited the purpose of the trip: “Provide in-depth briefings on issues of relevance to oversight investigations.”

That same month, the oversight committee brought on two alumni of the Mercatus Center as staffers — including Moore, who returned to the committee after a brief stint at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The committee later hired at least two more Mercatus alumni.

Based at George Mason University in Virginia, Mercatus’ activities overlap with the commercial and ideological interests of Charles Koch.

Mercatus received at least $7.6 million from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation between 2006 and 2008, according to the most recent tax filings available online. The foundation did not return phone calls.

Mercatus’ research policy states that “Mercatus financial supporters have absolutely no influence or control” over its work, and Behan said the Koch executives on the board have no influence either.

Still, Issa asked the Mercatus Center for regulatory advice in his recent solicitation blitz. In response, Mercatus outlined ways government regulations can hurt the economy.

Between Feb. 9 and Feb. 17, four Mercatus scholars testified at oversight committee and subcommittee hearings, including Veronique de Rugy, who was scheduled to speak at an exclusive Koch Industries conference in Aspen in June.

Koch Industries hosted another exclusive conference last month in Palm Springs — a semi annual event to discuss “strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it.”

Two Mercatus scholars, as well as FOX News’ Glenn Beck and the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore, were on the agenda of speakers at the Aspen conference.

Tyler Grimm, a new oversight committee staffer, contributed to Beck’s book “Arguing With Idiots,” and was a research assistant for Moore, an economic columnist.

Grimm did not respond to interview requests. Beck’s spokesman said he was not available for an interview.

Moore said Grimm was “a good economist” and a good fit for the oversight committee’s staff. Moore also said he thought highly of Mercatus’ work.

“I think they’ve got some of the best economists in the country and that they’re fair and balanced,” he said.

The Watchdog Institute, a nonprofit based at SDSU, produces in-depth reports and partners with media organizations across Southern California, including The Press Enterprise, the North County Times and KPBS.

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GAO report says federal government agencies riddled with duplication and waste

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A report released Tuesday by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office claims Washington “could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually” by “reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation” in federal government programs.

The GAO report was mandated last year as a provision in a bill that raised the federal debt ceiling.

The GAO report blast the federal government for its inefficiency and duplication of programs.

“This report confirms what most Americans assume about their government. We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn’t know. The congressional branch doesn’t know. Nobody knows,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in a statement Tuesday morning. “This report also shows we could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year without cutting services.”

Coburn, who pushed for the report, estimated that duplicative spending could save between $100 and $200 billion each year.

“Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services,” according to the report.

According to FoxNews.com:

The study found 33 areas with “overlap and fragmentation” in the federal government. Among them, it found:

— Fifty-six programs across 20 agencies dealing with financial literacy.

— More than 2,100 data centers — up from 432 a little more than a decade ago — across 24 federal agencies. GAO estimated the government could save up to $200 billion over the next decade by consolidating them.

— Twenty programs across seven agencies dealing with homelessness. The report found $2.9 billion spent on the programs in 2009. “Congress is often to blame” for fragmentation, GAO wrote in this section, explaining that the duplicative programs in multiple agencies cause access problems for potential participants.

— Eighty-two “distinct” teacher-quality programs across 10 agencies. Many of them have “duplicate sub-goals,” GAO said. Nine of them address teacher quality in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

— Fifteen agencies administering 30 food-related laws. “Some of the oversight doesn’t make any sense,” the report stated bluntly.

— Eighty economic development programs.

The report also suggested that cuts could be warranted in the military, and area which has traditionally been off-limits to lawmakers from both parties. It pointed out there  are 130,000 military and government medical professionals, 59 Defense Department hospitals and hundreds of clinics that could be consolidated, resulting in savings in administrative, management and clinical areas.

Information from FoxNews.com

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Pension reporting legislation would force States to declare massive liabilities

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Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Ca.) wants states to calculate their pension shortfalls more conservatively.

New legislation that would force states to report more accurate unfunded pension liabilities is being pushed by House Republicans, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Public Employee Pension Transparency Act was introduced on Feb.9 by California Rep. Devin Nunes, and would require states and municipalities to report more accurately on the financial health of public-employee pension funds. Under proposed rules, most states would be forced to report even larger funding deficits than already disclosed.


If passed, the law would require that states provide a more conservative calculation on investment earnings, which they now typically estimate at 8 percent per annum. Under new rules, a second calculation would be conducted using a 4 percent investment earnings assumption. Private companies generally use a 6 percent factor.

States would be required to file annual reports with the Treasury on the status of their funds. Failing to do so would cost them their ability to issue tax-exempt bonds which they rely on for infrastructure and other projects.

The bond-rating agency, Moody’s Investor Service, expressed support for the legislation, saying it “would provide new incentives to state and local governments to take action to ensure public-employee pension plans’ long-term viability.”

Predictably, state government officials expressed opposition for the legislation.

“Transparency is not the issue here,” said Jeffrey Esser, executive director for the Government Finance Officers Association. “The effort is designed to make public-employee pension plans look bad.”

The legislation would also explicitly ban the federal government and the Federal Reserve from bailing out insolvent public pension plans. Although states and municipalities contend they are not looking for the federal government to do so, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s recent proposed budget plan suggested that the state may consider “seeking a federal guarantee of the debt” to help stabilize its massively underfunded plans.

Republicans hope the bail-out provision will prevent states from counting on the feds to step in to prop up sick pension funds. “You still need to put that policy out there so that the states know that there’s not going to be any bailouts coming,” said Mr. Nunes.  “We don’t want to get in a position to where people even think that that’s an option.”

The Pew Center on the States recently calculated state and local pension plans had unfunded balances of $1 trillion based on 2008 data, although some sources estimate the shortfall is now closer to $3 trillion.

The Wall Street Journal

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Feds shut down major Medicare fraud operators, arrest more than 100

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Federal authorities charged more than 100 doctors, nurses and physical therapists in nine cities with Medicare fraud Thursday, part of a massive nationwide bust that snared more suspects than any other in history.

More than 700 law enforcement agents fanned out to arrest 111 people accused of illegally billing Medicare more than $225 million. The arrests are the latest in a string of major busts in the past two years as authorities have struggled to pare the fraud that’s believed to cost the government between $60 billion and $90 billion each year. Stopping Medicare’s budget from hemorrhaging that money will be key to paying for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder partnered in 2009 to allocate more money and manpower in fraud hot spots. Thursday’s indictments were for suspects in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Chicago, Brooklyn, Tampa, Fla., and Baton Rouge, La.

They show that “health care fraud is not easy money,” Holder said at a press conference in Washington.

A podiatrist performing partial toenail removals was among 21 indicted in Detroit. He is accused of billing Medicare about $700,000 for the costly and unnecessary procedures, which authorities said amounted to little more than toenail clippings. The podiatrist billed Medicare for 20 nail removals on three toes of one patient, according to the indictment. He charged Medicare about $110 for each procedure.

A Brooklyn, N.Y., proctologist was charged with billing $6.5 million for hemorrhoid removals, most of which he never performed. He claimed he performed 10 hemorrhoid removals on one patient, which authorities said is not possible.

Authorities also busted three physical therapy clinics in Brooklyn, run by an organized network of Russian immigrants accused of paying recruiters to find elderly patients so they could bill for nearly $57 million in physical therapy that amounted to little more than back rubs, according to the indictment.

In Miami, two doctors and several nurses were charged with swindling $25 million by writing fake prescriptions recommending nurses and other expensive aids to treat homebound patients, authorities said. The services were never provided.

In total, nearly three dozen defendants were charged in Miami in various scams that topped about $56 million.

Thursday’s totals exclude busts two days earlier in Miami that netted 21 suspects accused of bilking $200 million from Medicare.

“These unprecedented operations send a clear message. We will not tolerate criminals lining their pockets at the expense of Medicare patients and taxpayers,” HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson said in prepared remarks to be delivered at a news conference.

For decades, Medicare has operated under a pay-and-chase system, paying providers first and investigating suspicious claims later. The system worked when the agency was paying hospitals and institutions that couldn’t close up shop and flee the country if they’d been overpaid. But as Medicare has expanded to one of the largest payer systems in the world, he agency has struggled to weed out crooks. There are about 1.3 million licensed suppliers nationwide with 18,000 new applications coming in every month.

Sebelius has promised more decisive action on the front end, by vigorously screening providers and stopping payment to suspicious ones, under greater authority granted by the Affordable Care Act. removals, most of which he never performed. He claimed he performed 10 hemorrhoid removals on one patient, which authorities said is not possible.

Authorities also busted three physical therapy clinics in Brooklyn, run by an organized network of Russian immigrants accused of paying recruiters to find elderly patients so they could bill for nearly $57 million in physical therapy that amounted to little more than back rubs, according to the indictment.

In Miami, two doctors and several nurses were charged with swindling $25 million by writing fake prescriptions recommending nurses and other expensive aids to treat homebound patients, authorities said. The services were never provided.

In total, nearly three dozen defendants were charged in Miami in various scams that topped about $56 million.

Thursday’s totals exclude busts two days earlier in Miami that netted 21 suspects accused of bilking $200 million from Medicare.

“These unprecedented operations send a clear message. We will not tolerate criminals lining their pockets at the expense of Medicare patients and taxpayers,” HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson said in prepared remarks to be delivered at a news conference.

For decades, Medicare has operated under a pay-and-chase system, paying providers first and investigating suspicious claims later. The system worked when the agency was paying hospitals and institutions that couldn’t close up shop and flee the country if they’d been overpaid. But as Medicare has expanded to one of the largest payer systems in the world, he agency has struggled to weed out crooks. There are about 1.3 million licensed suppliers nationwide with 18,000 new applications coming in every month.

Sebelius has promised more decisive action on the front end, by vigorously screening providers and stopping payment to suspicious ones, under greater authority granted by the Affordable Care Act.

The  Associated Press

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Medicare fraud runs deep in prescription drug program

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Crooks are taking advantage of lax oversight in Medicare’s Part D prescription drug program to obtain highly addictive drugs including oxycodone, Ritalin, and methadone, according to results of a federal probe.

The report by an independent inspector said Medicare can’t verify all the prescriptions it pays for, leaving the system open to exploitation by criminals using fake medical ID numbers and the identities of dead doctors.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administer the federally funded health insurance program, isn’t adequately confirming that prescriptions are written by physicians, according to the investigation by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Pharmacies and other Medicare contractors are supposed to enter a number that identifies prescribers. But in many cases, that information is being left blank or assigned a dummy number, last week’s report found. The missing information doesn’t always indicate fraud and could include clerical errors, but without prescriber identifiers, it’s hard for investigators to determine.

The report showed the agency paid $20.6 million for 228,000 prescriptions for so-called schedule II drugs with invalid prescriber IDs in 2007. The agency paid for about $1.6 billion worth of schedule II drugs during that same time period.

Investigators said the prescriptions with invalid IDs represented a small portion, but are alarming because schedule II drugs include heavy-duty painkillers and stimulants that are frequently trafficked.
Critics say pharmacies are getting around safeguards in the system, making it nearly impossible for federal health officials to track whether a licensed doctor prescribed the drug and in what quantities.

“It’s similar to placing a combination lock on a gate to protect what’s inside but then allowing any combination to open the gate,’’ said Robert Vito, a regional inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, during testimony before Congress last year.

Investigators recommended that contractors not be paid for Schedule II prescriptions that have an invalid doctor ID number, but Medicare officials worried stricter oversight could hamper legitimate patients’ access to medications.

The Associated Press

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N.Y. Congressman Christopher Lee resigns for misbehavior

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A New York congressman abruptly resigned his seat Wednesday, saying he was quitting because he regretted actions that have hurt his family and others.

New York Rep. Christopher Lee resigned immediately after he was caught trolling for dates on the Internet.

The gossip website Gawker reported Wednesday that Rep. Christopher Lee, a married two-term Republican lawmaker, had sent a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist.

Lee said in an e-mailed statement that his resignation was effective immediately. The statement offered no confirmation or details of a Craigslist posting.

“I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents,” Lee said. “I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all. I have made profound mistakes and I promise to work as hard as I can to seek their forgiveness.”

Added Lee: “The challenges we face in Western New York and across the country are too serious for me to allow this distraction to continue, so I am announcing that I have resigned my seat in Congress effective immediately.”

An anonymous woman described as a 34-year-old Maryland resident and government employee provided Gawker with e-mails she said were an exchange between her and Lee in response to an ad she placed in the “Women Seeking Men” section of Craigslist.

Gawker reported that Lee identified himself as a divorced lobbyist and sent a photo of himself posing shirtless. The woman eventually broke off the contact with Lee after becoming suspicious that he had misrepresented himself, according to Gawker.

Lee served on the House Ways and Means Committee and was active on economic revitalization issues.

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