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Foursquare Rolls Out Targeted Ads, Adds New Way to Reach Engaged Users

AdAge had a great piece yesterday discussing Foursquare’s recent launch of targeted ads when users check-in. The idea is pretty straightforward, when a user checks-in to a location, they’re immediately displayed an ad that relates to that check-in.

Let’s look at an example. Say you’re at a bar, pop open your Foursquare app and check-in. Right as you complete your check-in, the app, now knowing your location, displays an ad for a specific drink, maybe a limited release beer that you didn’t know was available. You see the ad, think the drink sounds good and head to the bar to order one. It’s that easy. Foursquare knew your location and served up an advertisement that correlated directly with those details.

The good news for advocacy folks, while the ads are being rolled out to marketers of perishable and tangible products alike, it’s not a leap to transition the concept directly to your advocacy effort.

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Texas, Nevada Make Big Plays for More Hollywood Business

As a fan of Stephen King’s massive tales of societal collapse and the aftermath (“The Stand” and “Under the Dome”), I was excited for the debut of “Under the Dome” on CBS but equally apprehensive, given past TV treatments of his work. But so far “Under the Dome” has been excellent, and I recently read a piece about life on the set.

In the article, writer Richard Rushfield mentions the flip-flopping history of movie and television tax credits in North Carolina, where the Maine-based series has been filmed. And that made me wonder what other states have been doing this year to entice Hollywood studios. (Sorry for the long set-up.)

The majority of states offer tax and rebate incentives to attract the movie and TV industries, and the Motion Picture Association of America has a handy chart describing each program. But it has not been updated for all the 2013 activity. For example, the Nevada Legislature passed legislation this year appropriating $20 million in tax incentives for producing movies, TV or online series, and video games in the Silver State. Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) signed the bill last month.

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Morning Briefing: No Deal in Sight on Nuclear Option

Senate leaders are still talking today after a three-and-a-half-hour joint caucus Monday evening failed to head off a threat by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to do away with filibusters on executive branch nominations. Reid is insisting that Republicans agree to the approval of seven nominees on which he filed cloture motions last week before he backs away from plans to use the "nuclear option" to change the rules through a gambit utilizing just a simple majority of 51 votes. The first vote is scheduled for this morning, on Richard Cordray to be permanent head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Today in the Senate: The chamber meets at 10 a.m., when Sen.-elect Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., is scheduled to be sworn in. Votes on seven cloture motions for executive branch nominations could start around 11 a.m. but may also be pushed to later in the week. If cloture is invoked on any of the nominations, there would be up to eight hours for debate prior to a vote on confirmation of the nomination, except for the nomination of Thomas E. Perez for Labor secretary, which would have up to 30 hours of debate.

Today in the House: The schedule is light, with three bills to be considered under suspension, including one (HR 1848) by Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., that would direct the Federal Aviation Administration to overhaul certification requirements for small airplanes. Meets at noon with legislative business starting at 2 p.m. and votes postponed until 6:30 p.m.

Today at the White House: President Barack Obama conducts a round of interviews with Spanish-language television anchors from Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and New York to make the case for overhauling immigration laws.

FINANCIAL WATCHDOG GETS FIRST VOTE: The debate over confirming Cordray has always been more about the agency that the former Ohio attorney general was selected to run rather than his qualifications for the post.

Republicans tried to strike a deal with Democrats to replace the director’s position with a bipartisan commission and to shift CFPB funding to the regular appropriations process and away from the Federal Reserve, where the watchdog agency was placed under the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul (PL 111-203).

Democrats are digging in, charging that the GOP opposition is aimed entirely at undermining the law by defunding the agency meant to enforce rules protecting financial services consumers.

Obama installed Cordray through a recess appointment in January 2012 at the same time he named several members to the National Labor Relations Board. A federal court ruled that those NLRB appointments were illegal, clouding Cordray’s appointment even though he was not included in the court case. The administration is contesting the ruling at the Supreme Court. Obama renominated Cordray to the position earlier this year.

There were indications last night that enough Republicans will support Cordray today to cut off debate on his nomination. However, there is no such appetite for the next two scheduled cloture votes, which would occur on Obama’s renomination of two NLRB members whose recess appointments were ruled invalid. We’ll be watching the tense negotiations, and whether Reid allows the timetable for votes slip to accommodate a broader deal.

STANDOFF CLOUDS JUDICIAL PICKS: Though Reid’s threat to deploy the nuclear option is focused on executive branch nominees, it’s putting progressives who have long agitated for the swifter Senate confirmation of Obama’s judicial picks in a delicate spot.

Some prominent liberal legal groups have stopped short of endorsing the Nevada Democrat’s approach or asking that he broaden it, even though it almost certainly would result in the faster court confirmations they have sought. The Alliance for Justice and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, among others, are taking a wait-and-see approach, believing the Senate’s cooler heads will prevail and head off a sweeping rules change.

Other groups on the left, such as the Center for American Progress say Reid should immediately change the rules to prevent filibusters on judicial nominees as well as executive branch picks, though it’s unclear whether he has the 51 votes he would need.

CQ reporter John Gramlich writes that fears about potential Republican retaliation loom over any decision. Republicans representing the home states of judicial nominees could, for example, begin to refuse to return "blue slips," a customary Senate sign of assent required for nominations to proceed through the Judiciary Committee.

APPROPRIATORS PROTECT COAST GUARD: Senate appropriators head into today’s markup of a fiscal 2014 homeland security spending bill with a proposal that is not far from that of their House counterparts, but with the effects of the sequester looming over the measure.

Chairwoman Mary L. Landrieu’s bill is expected to contain $39.1 billion in discretionary spending, a sum that exceeds spending levels dictated by the Budget Control Act (PL 112-25) and is likely to trigger opposition from panel Republicans. A $38.9 House-passed measure (HR 2217) also exceeds the level normally permitted by sequestration.

We’ll be watching whether Landrieu, D-La., and other appropriators, including Republicans Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, will try to add money for the Coast Guard to repair and upgrade older ships. CQ reporter Rob Margetta writes the Coast Guard funding will likely come at the expense of an Obama administration priority: a new $714 million animal disease lab known as the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility that the House opted to not fully fund.

PANEL VOTES ON WATT NOMINATION: Senate Banking is expected to advance the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency today, but his chances in the full Senate are less clear.

Panel Republicans strongly oppose the nomination, expressing concern Watt is a career politician who’s unqualified for the job and would embrace policy positions such as principal reduction if confirmed as FHFA director. Republicans have long opposed such loan forgiveness as a bailout to irresponsible homeowners.

We’ll be listening for whether Republicans rewarm those critiques or open new lines of attack in anticipation of a floor fight. Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, would replace Edward J. DeMarco, who has been at odds with the Obama administration on major housing finance issues since becoming acting director in 2009.

Obama has struggled to fill the position. After he nominated Joseph A. Smith Jr., a North Carolina banking regulator, in November 2010, Senate Republicans promised to filibuster the nomination because they said he wouldn’t be an independent regulator. Smith declined to be renominated in January 2011.

BIPARTISAN HEALTH BILLS ADVANCE: House Energy and Commerce is due to mark up a pair of bipartisan bills today and Wednesday that could join the modest list of health policy accomplishments for the 113th Congress if no opposition emerges.

One measure (HR 698) would allow research on organ donations from individuals who are HIV-positive, reversing a decades-old ban and potentially paving the way for organs from HIV-positive donors to be transplanted into patients who are also HIV-positive. The Senate passed companion legislation (S 330) by unanimous consent on June 17.

A second bill (HR 2094) would give states preference for asthma grant funding if they meet certain requirements designed to help schools prepare for responding to allergic reactions.

CQ’s editors and reporters value your feedback on our news coverage and welcome your questions and comments on the stories we’re covering.

— Adriel Bettelheim, Morning Briefing editor, adrielbettelheim@cqrollcall.com, on Twitter @abettel

Bill Reversing Ban on HIV Organ Donation Set for House Markup

Two bipartisan health bills are slated to be marked up by the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week, including legislation similar to a measure that breezed through the Senate last month.

That bill (HR 698) would allow research on organ donation from individuals who are HIV-positive, reversing a decades-old ban and potentially paving the way for organs from HIV-positive donors to be transplanted into patients who are also HIV-positive. The Senate passed companion legislation (S 330) by unanimous consent on June 17 that incorporated changes supported by House sponsor Lois Capps, D-Calif.

The bill appears poised to advance, given its track record in the Senate, which means it could join the relatively short list of health care accomplishments for the 113th Congress if no opposition emerges. Unlike most legislation related the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), the measure has a diverse group of supporters from both sides of the aisle.

"This is one of those issues that worked out very well because there was bipartisan interest in both houses," said Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, the lead Republican co-sponsor of the House bill. "That’s why I believe it’s going to succeed this week."

The other health bill (HR 2094) scheduled for the markup would gives states preference for asthma grant funding if they meet certain requirements designed to help schools prepare for responding to allergic reactions.

An Energy and Commerce aide said the panel expects "a smooth markup with strong support" for the measures, which the committee will take up Tuesday and Wednesday.

Under the organ donation bill, a 1988 provision (PL 100-607) that outlawed organ donations from HIV-positive individuals would be repealed and the Health and Human Services Department would be directed to set up guidelines for researching organ transplantation from those donors. If a review of the research shows that the transplants are safe and effective, HHS would instruct the network that maintains the national organ-matching system to change the current standards.

Harris called it "a common-sense bill that modernizes our policy toward donation by HIV-positive donors to HIV-positive recipients." He also said he hopes the measure can be considered under suspension of the rules, an expedited procedure that requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

"The process has been validated in other countries and it’s about time we, you know, make use of those organs here in the United States," he said.

In a statement, Capps also said she was encouraged that the measure had been scheduled for markup and expressed hope that it would become law quickly.

"The HOPE Act is the result of bipartisan and bicameral collaboration and is critically important for transplant patients across the country," she said.

Under the other bill, states that require public elementary and secondary schools to allow trained school personnel to give epinephrine to students who appear to be having an anaphylactic reaction would receive a funding preference for asthma-related grants. To get the preference, the states would also have to require schools to keep a secure supply of epinephrine that can easily be accessed by the trained individuals and have a plan in place that ensures at least one trained person is on school premises during school operating hours. In addition, the states’ attorneys general would have to certify that their laws offer "adequate civil liability protection" to the trained personnel.

"A systemic allergic reaction can kill within minutes. To prevent a fatal outcome, we need to make epinephrine pens available in our schools," Tennessee Republican Phil Roe said in a statement introducing the bill.

Roe dropped the measure in May with Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who noted in the release that he has a grandchild with a severe food allergy. It currently lacks companion legislation in the Senate.

Top 5 Races to Watch in the Mountain Region

There are many wide-open spaces but few competitive races in the Rocky Mountain West. Even though the important contests are few, they could be good indicators of which party has the upper hand next fall.

Here are the top five races to watch in the Mountain region:

Montana Senate. Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer accounted for his party’s A, B, and C plans for recruitment in this state, so Democratic strategists were willing to wait for his decision. So his Saturday announcement that he would not run for the seat leaves his party without a candidate and makes this a top pick-up opportunity for Republicans. GOP Rep. Steve Daines seems like a likely candidate, especially with Schweitzer out. Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating: Pending.

Utah’s 4th District. Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson narrowly survived a strong challenge from Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love. Democrats can’t fathom how Matheson could lose after winning with Mitt Romney at the top of the ballot. But the race was razor close, and Love will run a better campaign this cycle. Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating: Pure Tossup. Get the full Rothenberg Political Report analysis here ($).

Colorado’s 6th District. Republican Rep. Mike Coffman narrowly survived re-election in this Aurora-based district….

Read More on Roll Call: Top 5 Races to Watch in the Mountain Region

Hawkings: Why the D.C. ‘Living Wage’ Fight Matters to Congress

One of the summer’s hottest local stories has become the standoff between the D.C. Council and Wal-Mart over how much the big-box behemoth should have to pay its Washington workforce.

The dust-up could end up touching Congress in several ways, beyond the sudden uncertainty about whether Hill staffers will have a new place for lunchtime shopping by the end of the year. (One of the chain’s first stores under construction in the city is at First and H streets Northwest, right behind the Government Printing Office and no more than a 20-minute walk from the Russell Senate Office Building.)

Whether city leaders end up sticking with or backing away from the “living wage” measure approved last week — it would require big retailers to pay starting wages 50 percent above the District’s regular minimum — could help steer the fate of President Barack Obama’s moribund-for-now proposal to raise the federally guaranteed hourly wage floor.

Whether Republicans end up moving legislation to block the local ordinance would indicate how forcefully, if at all, they want to apply the congressional prerogative to trump local rule. Whether Democrats move assertively against such a GOP intrusion would reflect how enthusiastic they are about advancing the agenda of organized labor.

And whether Wal-Mart would even seek such intervention will offer insights into how the lobbying team for the world’s largest retailer plans to prioritize its interests at the Capitol.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has until the end of this week to sign or veto the measure. (The city’s regular minimum wage of $8.25, or $1 more than the federal floor, would go up to $12.50.) The company doesn’t yet have any stores open in the city, but the one on H Street is among three nearing completion, and plans are well along for three more in neighborhoods clamoring for more connection to Washington’s vaunted economic renaissance.

Wal-Mart is vowing that, if the higher wage law takes effect, it will abandon preparations…

Read more on Roll Call: Hawkings: Why the D.C. ‘Living Wage’ Fight Matters to Congress

Fight over Senate rules heads to Hill showdown

WASHINGTON (AP) — A fight over cherished Senate rules blamed for that balky chamber’s notorious habit of grinding to a halt on contentious issues dominated Capitol Hill politics Monday, as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid pressed for changes that could help President Barack Obama win confirmation for some of his executive nominees.

Reid, D-Nev., is pushing to let nominees win approval with a simple majority of senators’ backing instead of the 60-vote threshold that has stalled many nominations. All 100 senators have been invited to a closed-to-the-public meeting Monday evening to seek a compromise on how to approach those nominated to serve in senior positions in Obama’s administration.

Reid said the proposal applies only to those tapped to serve in the administration, not for lifetime posts as judges.

"We’re not touching judges," Reid said. "This is not judges. This is not legislation. This is allowing the people of America to have a president who can have his team … in place."

Reid was expected to address the issue during a speech at an advocacy organization linked to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the White House.

Critics of Reid’s proposal, including the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, called Reid’s move one that would "change the core of the Senate." He said it would fundamentally deny senators their prerogative to query potential officials.

Reid and McConnell, along with their rank-and-file members, have traded barbs over just what the proposed changes would mean, both for Obama’s current slate of nominees awaiting confirmation and for future senators who can delay or derail agendas.

Democrats, who are the majority in the Senate, are pushing to change minority Republicans’ ability to block confirmation of Obama’s picks for posts on a labor rights board and a consumer protection bureau. Republicans had stalled confirmation votes for Obama’s pick for labor secretary and chiefs of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Export-Import Bank, but last week, GOP lawmakers stepped aside and said they would allow those nominations to move forward.

"Is there anyone out there in the world – the real world – that believes that what’s going on in the Congress of the United States is good?" Reid said. "Our approval rating is lower than North Korea’s."

McConnell called Democrats’ proposed changes contrary to Senate tradition, which typically requires 60 votes to end debate and move forward on nominations or legislation.

"I hope that we’ll come to our senses and not change the core of the Senate. We’ve never changed the rules of the Senate by breaking the rules of the Senate," McConnell said.

But Democrats control the Senate, and Republicans could be at their mercy.

"We need to start talking to each other instead of at each other," McConnell said.

It’s not clear a conversation would produce any agreement. Reid calls the changes minor and narrow. McConnell calls them unprecedented and overbroad.

Reid said the nominees would protect consumers, workers and the environment. McConnell and his GOP allies argue the picks are payback to Obama’s political base.

"They’re driven by the unions," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Countered Reid: "They have nothing against the qualifications. They don’t like the jobs these people have."

In particular, Republicans have objected to a pair of union-backed members of the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block. They were appointed by Obama when he said the Senate was in recess. An appeals court has ruled that Obama exceeded his authority, and the board’s actions since they took their seats are in legal limbo.

Republicans also have objected to Obama’s pick to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created as part of Wall Street overhaul legislation that was opposed by the GOP. Obama nominated his pick, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, more than two years ago.

Reid and McConnell spoke during separate interviews with NBC’s "Meet the Press."

Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/philip-elliott

©2012 The Associated Press

Austerity Is Here to Stay

A collective shudder swept through financial markets and across official Washington late last month after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke announced it soon will be time for the U.S. central bank to step away from a half-decade of stimulating the economy with trillions of dollars in easy money. As stock prices slumped and falling bond prices pushed interest rates to a two-year high, the financial world signaled little confidence that Congress and the White House would veer away from their determined course of fiscal contraction.

Especially for the past two years, the Fed has counterbalanced with its monetary stimulus the spending restraint and tax increases that lawmakers and President Barack Obama have embraced, propping up a fragile recovery while giving elected officials room to debate, and enact, a series of measures that add up to an American version of fiscal austerity.

It was inevitable that the Fed would reverse course — the threat that its lax policies would lead to a destabilizing degree of inflation was much too great. Yet, now that Bernanke is telling everyone that the economic landscape is changing, there’s no sign that lawmakers and executive branch officials are prepared to respond in kind by loosening fiscal policy to balance a tighter monetary environment. If anything, the course of fiscal constraint appears to be locked in.

Many economists fret that austerity Washington-style will put the brakes on more rapid economic improvement. If the U.S. recovery falters, that would seriously harm the global economy, and the result might be a second worldwide slump to rival the one that has only begun to show in the rearview mirror.

"The budgetary procedure that is in place in the United States, which leads to a budgetary adjustment, seems to us absolutely inappropriate," said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, at an economics conference in France earlier this month. Lagarde’s comments are all the more notable because her organization had been preaching austerity, particularly for Europe, since the 2008 financial crisis. But the IMF is now clearly backpedaling, and last month it took aim at U.S. fiscal policy in a report that said "the deficit reduction in 2013 has been excessively rapid and ill-designed."

The federal deficit, more than any other measurement, tells the story of persistent fiscal constraint. The deficit is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to fall to $642 billion this year, a 41 percent one-year decline that will bring the annual shortfall to roughly half what it was just two years ago. The CBO says the deficit is likely to continue shrinking until it is a mere 2.1 percent of gross domestic product in fiscal 2015, after peaking at 10.1 percent in 2009.

This rapid shrinkage is the result of a mix of spending cuts, including the sequester that took effect in March, higher taxes that came with the fiscal-cliff agreement at the very start of this year and a clear strengthening in the economy — most pointedly in housing.

In the fiscal-cliff deal, Congress raised taxes by more than $600 billion over a decade, and no one is talking about cutting taxes below that level right now. Spending has been reduced by more than $2 trillion over a decade through the 2011 debt limit law, which established 10 years’ worth of discretionary spending caps and set in motion the automatic spending sequester.

And while Democrats would like to replace the $1 trillion sequester with revenue increases and alternative spending reductions, Obama and lawmakers from both chambers of Congress have essentially agreed — both in the laws that have been enacted and the budget plans that have been proposed — to continue on the current deficit-cutting path in the immediate years ahead.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, a critic of the Fed’s bond-buying program of "quantitative easing," welcomed Bernanke’s comments about winding it down. "I think it’s over the top and puts us in very dangerous territory," the Ohio Republican said in a recent CNBC interview. "We all knew this day was going to come when he was going to start to back up a little bit — better now than later."

The message was clear enough: The sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats over the specifics of fiscal policy preclude any agreement to change course.

"It looks to me like we’re sort of stuck in a gridlock situation right now," says William G. Gale, co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and an economist on the White House Council of Economic Advisers in the early 1990s under President George Bush. "Even if we weren’t, I wouldn’t expect there to be more expansionary policy. The Republicans don’t want it because it suggests that government can be part of the solution, and for whatever reason, the Democrats are not asking for it," Gale says.

The Fed’s threat to begin withdrawing stimulus by ending its $85-billion-a-month bond-buying program adds a new dimension to the economic tableau. Many Democrats have supported the efforts of Bernanke, a Republican. But many GOP lawmakers called the Fed’s actions an "extraordinary intervention" in the economy that risks causing inflation and distorting economic activity.

Bernanke has defended the Fed’s actions — which have included holding the central bank’s benchmark interest rate at essentially zero since December 2008 — as an important support to the recovery. "Notably, keeping longer-term interest rates low has helped spark recovery in the housing market and led to increased sales and production of automobiles and other durable goods," Bernanke told the Senate Banking Committee in February. "By raising employment and household wealth, for example through higher home prices, these developments have in turn supported consumer sentiment and spending."

Now, it appears, Washington may be on track to find out how much the economy can grow while policy is intent on contraction.

Party leaders spar over Senate rule changes

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top Senate Democrat says Congress’ inability to get things done is a reason lawmakers have an approval rating, in his words, "lower than North Korea’s." His Republican counterpart says Democrats are manufacturing outrage to railroad their agenda.

The Sunday sparring comes on the eve of a rare closed-door session where all senators will consider a proposal that would change Senate rules to remove a 60-vote threshold for President Barack Obama’s nominations to win confirmation.

Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid says the changes are minimal and would help Obama round out his team with qualified nominees.

Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Reid would be "breaking the rules of the Senate in order to change the rules of the Senate."

The two appeared separately on NBC’s "Meet the Press."

©2012 The Associated Press

After Sandy, New York aims to fortify itself against next big storm, climate change

NEW YORK ? Off a narrow road in a swampy part of Staten Island, Thomas Morello is preparing his two-
family home for the next time the water pours in from Lower New York Bay, a quarter-mile or so away.

When Hurricane Sandy hit more than eight months ago, inundating but not destroying his converted summer cottage, Morel­lo discovered the house was not anchored to its foundation. Now, as he repairs the damage from water that rose almost to the second floor, he is bolting and screwing the structure to its pilings. He has moved its electrical and heating systems to the roof. A previous owner had taken the most critical step, elevating the house about six feet.

Soon, the city will make similar preparations but on a vastly grander scale. Under a $19.5 billion blueprint released last month, New York outlined plans to fortify itself not only against the next big storm but against seas that scientists say could rise 21 / 2 feet by the 2050s and other climate-related challenges, including heat waves.

The 438-page plan, which involved a neighborhood-by-neighborhood survey of potential problems along 520 miles of coastline, vaults New York to the forefront of U.S. resilience planning, experts said, along with the gulf coast of Louisiana, which released its $50 billion plan in 2012.

“New York City’s sophistication in approaching climate adaptation is way at the top,” said Debra Knopman, vice president and director of the Rand Corp.’s justice, infrastructure and environment division, who has worked with Louisiana and is familiar with New York’s effort. “It’s a very, very impressive report.”

Still, many are waiting to see whether New York can and will follow through. That might depend on whether the next mayor is as committed to resilience planning as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and whether the city can find the remaining $4.5 billion needed to carry out its plans. Officials here acknowledge that they will be returning to a deeply divided Congress for more money and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for regulatory changes that will enable some of their efforts.

“The question is whether Sandy is enough of an impetus to maintain and sustain a plan like this,” said Jordan Fischbach, a policy researcher at Rand. “Is it close enough to the top of the list, and will it compete with other priorities in the decade or two to come?”

As Morello, a carpenter, and city officials here can attest, adapting to climate change is generally not technologically complex. It is mostly about raising homes, buildings and other vital facilities to escape rising seawater or, if that is impractical, building barriers . It is about taking advantage of the natural topography to help sap the strength of damaging storms, waterproofing and protecting critical infrastructure such as electrical grids and assessing the possible results of prolonged heat and drought, and trying to mitigate them.

“It’s not rocket science. A lot of these things are things we do already,” said Jessica Grannis, adaptation program manager at the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown University Law Center, a clearinghouse for information on such preparations. “It’s just tailoring them to a changed future.”

“It’s planning. It’s money. And it’s will,” said Daniel Zarrilli, New York’s director of resiliency, who lives on Staten Island, one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy.

Nineteen states and many localities, including Washington, are preparing such plans, according to Vicki Arroyo, the Georgetown center’s executive director. Chicago, which faces little flood danger, is figuring out how to cope with increasing heat. The five counties around low-lying Miami must determine how they can respond to rising waters. In Norfolk, there is talk of retreating from neighborhoods that flood regularly.

Still, the sheer scope of what New York hopes to protect is staggering. Under the FEMA maps last issued in 1983, 33 square miles of the city, or 11 percent of its land, were in danger of flooding in a 100-year storm ? a storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year. Preliminary 2013 maps have increased that to 48 square miles. By the 2050s, 72 square miles, or 24 percent of the city, will face that danger because of sea-level rise.

About 398,000 homes will be in those flooding zones under the new FEMA maps. (The city has more waterfront than Miami, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco combined.) New York’s panel of climate experts predicts that the number of days each year when the temperature is above 90 degrees could triple to 52 by 2050.

The city supplies electricity to about 8.3 million people and 250,000 businesses; in the summer, its grid handles almost twice the load of the next largest city, Los Angeles. As Sandy showed, some critical power plants are in the flood plain, and distribution lines run underground. Both were disrupted.

Each day, 7.6 million people ride the city’s subways and buses, an additional 2 million cross bridges or come through tunnels, and 850,000 ride commuter rails. The city must provide food and water to similar numbers, and health care to tens of thousands. It supplies the 3.4 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel that vehicles burn every day.

The plan calls for an array of solutions. On Staten Island’s eastern shore, for example, the city wants to build levees and floodwalls, some 15to 20 feet high, that would protect, among other places, Morello’s Midland Beach neighborhood. On Newtown Creek, the Army Corps of Engineers would build surge barriers that would close during storms to keep water out of Long Island City. The hard-hit Rockaway Peninsula would get a dune system, including a double dune in Breezy Point, where 126 homes burned down during Sandy.

Coney Island’s beaches would be renourished, and breakers might be installed off the shores of Staten Island and the Bronx’s City Island to dampen waves. A wetlands restoration project in Queens is designed to do the same thing.

The most innovative project might be construction of a “Seaport City” atop a levee designed to protect the East River shoreline south of the Brooklyn Bridge. Modeled on Battery Park, the area would be home to residences and commercial development.

The city would offer $1.2 billion in loans or grants to help people retrofit homes against floods, mostly by elevating electrical, heating, air-conditioning and fire equipment and reinforcing walls.

And officials want FEMA to provide breaks on costly flood insurance for the 26,000 buildings in the new flood zone that cannot be elevated if owners take other measures, such as moving critical equipment higher.

One thing the city won’t do, said Seth W. Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corp., is retreat from the waterfront, where hugely expensive structures exist. With the exception of one neighborhood of 168 homes on Staten Island, there is no talk of buying out owners.

For Morello, who was trapped in his home with his wife and son during Sandy by water that rose to within two steps of the second floor, the choices are simpler. Standing in a yard adjacent to his house, not far from fields of eye-level weeds, he speaks of replacing joists, fortifying his house and “bringing it back to life” by the first anniversary of the storm.

Whether his plans or the city’s pan out depends on cost, priorities and the determination to see them through. But there is little disagreement among those who study climate change that they must.

“People realize this is the new normal and the next normal,” Georgetown’s Arroyo said. “It’s going to be a future that doesn’t look like the past, and it’s going to be a future that is dynamic.”

Deceptive Floral Advertising

Consumers spend millions of dollars each year ordering “local” roses, lilies, daffodils, and floral displays from thousands of websites all across the states. Most online sites simply gather the order, charge an extra fee to the customer, and then contact a local florist to deliver flowers. Local in this context means the flowers come from a local merchant even if the online florist is thousands of miles away.

Some online florists advertise that they are “local,” and this is interpreted to mean the website is actually located in the community where the flowers originated. The issue has been hotly debated in state legislatures for two years now as lawmakers attempt to sort out whether advertising associated with these sales is deceptive. Predictably local florists and their national competitors are on opposite sides of this issue.

Keep Reading…

GOP Immigration Feint in the House? Or Just a Faint of Heart?

Wednesday’s all-House-Republicans-on-deck meeting on immigration has lost its potential to generate the summer’s biggest congressional news.

Caucus leadership has already concluded there’s no chance a majority of the majority is back from the July Fourth recess ready to tackle the issue in anything close to a comprehensive or speedy manner.

That news was buried in the third sentence of the 15th dense paragraph of a memo that Majority Leader Eric Cantor sent out to a nearly empty Capitol on July 5. Although creating a citizenship pathway for the 11 million people who are in the United States illegally would be the most consequential change in domestic policy of the decade, and spurning the idea would be political hemlock for the GOP, the idea barely merited a passing afterthought in his discussion of the House’s July legislative agenda.

Instead, the bulk of the next four weeks will be devoted to passing a trio of “drill, baby, drill” deregulatory Republican energy measures that have no chance of even a serious hearing in the Democratic Senate. That will be joined by five spending bills that are more likely to complicate than to smooth this fall’s inevitable budget crisis.

Read More on Hawkings Here: GOP Immigration Feint in the House? Or Just a Faint of Heart?

113th Congress On Pace To Be Least Productive In Modern History

WASHINGTON — The current Congress has had just 15 bills signed into law so far, the fewest in recent history.

This is not an insignificant feat. After all, the 112th Congress (2011-2013) was the most unproductive since the 1940s. But even that Congress, by this time in its first year, had 23 bills signed into law.

And the low number can’t be blamed on President Barack Obama. He’s vetoed just two pieces of legislation during his time in office, both in 2010.

The Huffington Post compiled the data from GovTrack, which lists laws since 1973. Back then, significantly more legislation made its way into public law. The height was the 94th (1975-1976) and 95th (1977-1978) legislative sessions.

While the 113th Congress has passed a couple of significant pieces of legislation — including the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims — the approvals have often been accompanied by intense partisanship not seen in the past, when both VAWA and disaster relief received strong bipartisan support.

Other bills that became law this year, however, have been significantly less weighty — awarding a congressional gold medal and a measure regarding commemorative coins.

Last year, Thomas Mann of the left-leaning Brookings Institution, and Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, published a Washington Post op-ed saying that the GOP deserves the blame for the dysfunction.

“We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional,” they wrote. “In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”

In an interview with Washington radio station WAMU aired on Monday, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) bemoaned the productivity of Congress and called on his colleagues to do more.

“The first six months of this Congress have been among the least productive in American history,” Connolly said. “Only 13 bills have been passed into law in the first six months of this year. That’s gotta be a record low.”

Economic View: Austerity Won’t Work if the Roof Is Leaking

I RECENTLY spent a week in Berlin, where the entire city seemed under construction. In every direction, cranes and other heavy equipment dominated the landscape. Although many projects are in the private sector, innumerable others — including bridge and highway repairs, new subway stations and other infrastructure work — are financed by taxpayers.

But wait. Hasn’t Germany been one of the most outspoken advocates of fiscal austerity after the financial crisis? Yes, and that’s not a contradiction. Fiscally responsible businesses routinely borrow to invest, and so, until recently, did most governments.

Lately, however, fears about growing public debt have caused wholesale cuts in American public investment. The Germans, of course, yield to no one in their distaste for indebtedness. But they also understand the distinction between consumption and investment. By borrowing, they’ve made investments whose future benefits will far outweigh repayment costs. There’s nothing foolhardy about that.

The German experience suggests how we might move past our own stalled debate about economic stimulus policy. In the aftermath of the economic crisis, the policy discussion began with economists in broad agreement that unemployment remained high because total spending was too low. Keynesian stimulus proponents argued that temporary tax cuts and additional government spending would bolster hiring. Austerity advocates countered that additional government spending would merely displace private spending and that we already had too much debt in any event. And the debate has languished there.

A preponderance of evidence suggests that Keynes was right. But as the German experience illustrates, progress is possible without settling that question. The Germans are investing in infrastructure not to provide short-term economic stimulus, but because those investments promise high returns. Yet their undeniable side effect has been to bolster employment substantially in the short run.

Not all German public investments have met expectations. Berlin’s new consolidated airport, for example, has suffered multiple delays and cost overruns, and parts of the city’s recently constructed central rail station are to have major repairs. But private investment projects suffer occasional setbacks, too, and no one argues that businesses should stop investing on that account.

The Germans didn’t become bogged down in debate over stimulus policy, and they didn’t explicitly portray their infrastructure push as stimulus. But that didn’t hamper their strategy’s remarkable effectiveness at putting people to work. The unemployment rate in Germany, at 5.3 percent and falling, is now substantially lower than in the United States, where it ticked up to 7.6 percent last month. (By contrast, in March 2007, before the financial crisis, the rate in Germany was 9.2 percent, about five percentage points higher than in the United States.)

A prudent investment is one whose future returns exceed its costs — including interest cost if the money is borrowed. Opportunities meeting that standard abound in the infrastructure domain. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the nation has a backlog of some $3.6 trillion in overdue infrastructure maintenance. No one in Congress seriously proposes that we just abandon our crumbling roads and bridges, and everyone agrees that the repair cost will grow sharply the longer we wait.

The case for accelerated infrastructure investment becomes more compelling with our economy still in the doldrums. That’s because many of the needed workers and machines are now idle. If we wait, we’ll need to bid them away from other tasks. Also because of the sluggish economy, the materials required for the work are now relatively cheap. If we wait, they will become more expensive. And long-term interest rates for the money to pay for the work continue to hover near record lows. They, too, will be higher if we wait.

Austerity advocates object that more deficit spending now will burden our grandchildren with crushing debt. That might be true if the proposal were to build bigger houses and stage more lavish parties with borrowed money — as Americans, in fact, were doing in the first half of the last decade. But the objection makes no sense when applied to long-overdue infrastructure repairs. A failure to undertake that spending will gratuitously burden our grandchildren.

In 2009, austerity proponents argued against stimulus, predicting that the economy would recover quickly and spontaneously. It didn’t. Later, they said we tried stimulus and it didn’t work. But in the face of a projected $2 trillion shortfall in the spending needed for full employment, Congress enacted a stimulus bill totaling only $787 billion, spread over three years. And much of that injection was offset by cuts in state and local government spending.

Now austerity backers urge — preposterously — that infrastructure repairs be postponed until government budgets are in balance. But would they also tell an indebted family to postpone fixing a leaky roof until it paid off all its debts? Not only would the repair grow more costly with the delay, but the water damage would mount in the interim. Families should pay off debts, yes, but not in ways that actually increase their indebtedness in the longer term. The logic is the same for infrastructure.

Austerity advocates, who have been wrong at virtually every turn, are unlikely to change their minds about stimulus policy. But with continued slow growth in the outlook, it’s time to reframe the debate. Our best available option, by far, is to rebuild our tattered infrastructure at fire-sale prices. If the austerity crowd disagrees, it should explain why in plain English.

Robert H. Frank is an economics professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.

Economix Blog: Progress on Housing Finance Reform

Phillip Swagel is a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and was assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department from 2006 to 2009.

Taxpayers received $66 billion of good news last Monday in the form of dividends to the Treasury from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as part of the compensation for the bailout of the two government-sponsored enterprises (G.S.E.’s). The bad news is that these payments reflect the fact that the two firms remain in government hands nearly five years after being taken into conservatorship in September 2008, putting taxpayers at risk in the event of another housing downturn.

A fundamental change in this situation requires Congressional action, which is always difficult in our divided political system. Even so, legislation introduced recently by a bipartisan group of eight senators led by Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, has focused renewed attention on housing finance reform.

I was among the many people providing technical advice to the group working on the Corker-Warner proposal and think there is much to like in it. The legislation includes the essential elements of housing finance reform: a dominant role for private capital; considerable protection for taxpayers against future bailouts; a secondary government backstop to ensure stability; competition and entry by new firms into housing finance so that no future entity is too big to fail; a clear delineation of the roles of private firms and the government; an empowered regulator to ensure that loan quality remains high for guaranteed mortgages; and support for activities related to affordable housing.

A paper I wrote with Ellen Seidman, Sarah Rosen Wartell, and Mark Zandi has a proposal similar in many respects to the Corker-Warner bill. Clicking through to the biographies of my co-authors quickly reveals that the four of us come at this issue from quite different political perspectives. The common ground we reached in a sense mirrors that of the bipartisan group of senators in looking to move forward with reform rather than allowing Fannie and Freddie to remain effectively part of the government, which is the outcome that will obtain if no action is taken.

A key feature of the Corker-Warner proposal is the requirement that private investors must put up capital equal to 10 percent of the loans that will be guaranteed by a new government agency set up along the lines of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. This provision alone goes a long way toward restoring the dominant role of private incentives and protecting taxpayers against the possibility of another costly housing bailout. Indeed, Fannie and Freddie would have easily made it through the crisis had this been in place. The legislation further allows new firms to enter the mortgage securitization business now dominated by the two G.S.E.’s. With enough competition, no firm in the future housing finance system will be too big to fail.

At the same time, a secondary government guarantee behind the private capital would ensure that mortgage financing is available across economic conditions, with taxpayers compensated for taking on residual housing credit risk. This contrasts with the failed system of the past in which the government backstop was implicit but free.

The U.S. Mortgage Market

Some background might be useful for readers unfamiliar with the workings of our convoluted housing finance system.

Originators such as banks make loans, which Fannie and Freddie then buy and bundle into mortgage-backed securities with a guarantee against losses from homeowner defaults. The two firms then sell these securities to investors, now including the Federal Reserve as part of its quantitative easing program. Banks and other lenders like the arrangement because they can readily sell loans to Fannie and Freddie and get cash to lend to yet again. The setup benefits home buyers through the greater availability of financing and lower interest rates as American families effectively tap into global financial markets for their mortgages.

There is a cost, however, borne by taxpayers. When the government took over the two firms in 2008, the Treasury Department promised to provide cash as needed to keep Fannie and Freddie afloat, effectively ensuring that the two firms’ $5 trillion in obligations will be honored (in addition to guarantees, that huge sum includes debt issued by the G.S.E.’s to finance their own purchases of mortgage-backed securities). Investors had long believed that the government would support the firms in a pinch, a belief that gave the G.S.E.’s an advantage over other financial firms.

Actions taken during the crisis turned the previously implicit government guarantee into an explicit one, at a cost to taxpayers that peaked at $189 billion at the end of 2012. American families at least got something from the bailout of Fannie and Freddie, as mortgages were available throughout the crisis even as other parts of credit markets experienced strains. The firms have paid some $132 billion in dividends to the government, but these funds do not get credited as paying down the taxpayer assistance. Moreover, the firms are not allowed to build up reserves with which to cover any potential future losses. Instead, the firms’ profits are swept to the Treasury, where they provide a temptation to Congress and the president as a means by which to pay for new government spending.

Fannie and Freddie today are linchpins of the nation’s housing finance system, providing guarantees on two-thirds of the mortgages originated in 2012. Together with agencies like the Federal Housing Administration, the government stands behind nearly 90 percent of new mortgages. Taxpayers are thus extraordinarily exposed to future housing-related losses.

Many who follow Fannie and Freddie had long warned that their problems posed a risk to the financial system. The imperative of housing finance reform is to devise a new system that protects taxpayers against another costly bailout while ensuring that American families have access to mortgages on reasonable terms.

Challenges With Reform

A key challenge in moving forward with reform is that bringing in private investors who take losses ahead of taxpayers will translate into higher mortgage interest rates, reflecting the compensation demanded by private investors to take on housing credit risk. Indeed, in the past, proponents of reform were sometimes derided as being “anti-housing” for supposedly wishing for higher interest rates. The crisis has mostly silenced this criticism, with broad agreement that reform must involve greater private capital to take losses ahead of any potential government backstop.

The Corker-Warner proposal requires investors to put at risk funds equal to 10 percent of the value of the mortgages included in mortgage-backed securities to be guaranteed by the government. The total losses of Fannie and Freddie during the crisis were equal to about 4 percent of the firms’ combined assets. The firms were shielded by homeowner down payments and by private mortgage insurance before they had to make good on their guaranteed securities, but the housing price collapse of more than 30 percent combined with concentrations of Fannie and Freddie’s risk in key bubble states such as Nevada combined to generate losses that wiped out the firms’ thin capital cushions of less than 1 percent of their assets.

With a 10 percent capital requirement, the firms would easily have made it through the worst housing cycle in recent memory. To be sure, a 10 percent capital requirement is not the same as the 100 percent in a fully private system. But a fully private system is neither feasible nor stable. By the standards of the recent housing debacle, the Corker-Warner legislation provides considerable protection for taxpayers.

Still, any government guarantee gives rise to moral hazard, since investors will naturally seek to obtain government backing on risky mortgages that provide a high private upside if the loan works out, and a loss for taxpayers if it does not. The Corker-Warner legislation creates an empowered regulator with a mandate to ensure that underwriting standards remain high. This is helpful, but not enough by itself — after all, regulators failed to prevent the previous bout of poor lending behavior.

An important insight, however, is that requiring substantial private capital to take losses ahead of the government guarantee helps to mitigate the moral hazard. This is because the investors with their funds at stake have a powerful incentive to enforce prudent underwriting. The presence of first-loss private capital thus brings market discipline to bear by aligning private interests with those of the government. This is exactly the point made by the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, in an April 2007 speech on financial regulation. The Corker-Warner proposal involves sufficient private capital to generate a meaningful incentive for prudence.

A further critique of the Corker-Warner approach is that the government inevitably will charge too little for its guarantee. Indeed, this would be in keeping with other government insurance offerings, such as the federal flood insurance program. In the first place, setting a price for the guarantee will be better than leaving it implicit and unpriced, as in a system that is notionally private until the crisis actually hits. Moreover, as reform brings in private capital and the government share of the housing market recedes from its current 90 percent, market-based mechanisms like auctions can be used to set the price of the government backstop.

Moving Forward

The policy debate over housing finance reform is a microcosm of the larger debate about the role of the government in society. A government guarantee lends stability and ensures that taxpayers can get mortgages across economic conditions, but puts taxpayers at risk in the event of the next housing downturn. The Corker-Warner proposal seeks a balance by ensuring that considerable private capital is at risk ahead of the guarantee.

Other possible outcomes for housing finance reform are to maintain the status quo in which Fannie and Freddie are controlled by the government and there is no private capital, or to move to a private system in which government involvement is limited to the small share of loans made with the involvement of agencies such as the Federal Housing Administration that work with targeted groups of borrowers.

Both of these alternatives are flawed. The current government-dominated system exposes taxpayers to needless risk and stifles the possibility of beneficial competition and innovation. Not moving forward with reform would lock in this unfortunate situation.

A move to a fully private system seems desirable, but it is difficult to see this as a stable outcome or one that actually protects taxpayers in the event of an inevitable future crisis. This is because the government will feel compelled to intervene in the face of any future housing market collapse, regardless of promises that the system was private. To do otherwise would be to countenance an economic catastrophe. A housing finance system that is notionally private would inadvertently recreate the key flaw of the past with an implicit, and uncompensated, guarantee.

Moreover, it is a political reality that legislation for a fully private system has scant chances. Delay in moving forward with a pragmatic reform maintains the current system in which there is a dominant government role with a full guarantee and no private capital. Holding out for the unattainable but theoretically perfect housing finance system thus cements in place the nationalized outcome least favored by proponents of a market-based approach.

White House delays health-care rule that businesses provide insurance to workers

The White House on Tuesday delayed for one year a requirement under the Affordable Care Act that businesses provide health insurance to employees, a fresh setback for President Obama’s landmark health-care overhaul as it enters a critical phase.

The provision, commonly known as the employer mandate, calls for businesses with 50 or more workers to provide affordable quality insurance to workers or pay a $2,000 fine per employee. Business groups had objected to the provision, which now will take effect in January 2015.

The decision comes as Obama is working to secure his domestic legacy, urging Congress to pass an overhaul of immigration laws and using his executive powers to combat climate change. With the prospects for immigration reform uncertain in the House ? and new environmental regulations still more than a year way ? implementation of the 2010 health-care law has singular importance.

The White House portrayed the delay as a common-sense step that would reduce financial and regulatory burdens on small businesses. Republicans, who are planning to target “Obamacare” in the 2014 midterm campaigns, said the delay is an acknowledgment that the health-care overhaul is flawed.

The decision will spare Obama what might have been a major distraction as officials begin to implement the centerpiece of the health-care law, which remains in place: a requirement, starting in 2014, that most Americans obtain insurance through their employer or through federally backed and state-backed marketplaces, known as exchanges.

The decision by Obama, who was on Air Force One returning from Africa on Tuesday when the announcement was made, to delay a controversial part of the law underscores his willingness to use the power of the executive branch to help to protect the legislation’s image at a defining moment.

“We believe we need to give employers more time to comply with the new rules,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, wrote in a blog post Tuesday evening. “This allows employers the time to .?.?. make any necessary adaptations to their health benefits while staying the course toward making health coverage more affordable and accessible for their workers.”

Republicans say they expect higher costs as a result of the law. House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) said the decision “means even the Obama administration knows the ‘train wreck’ will only get worse.” He added, “This is a clear acknowledgment that the law is unworkable.”

Bob Kocher, a former top health-care aide to Obama, said he was disappointed by the delay because it will create uncertainty about what parts of the law will take effect. “It confuses people,” he said, adding that it “will undermine all the other rules because people will expect delay.”

The health-care law, which had been a source of confusion for years, is expected to have a bumpy rollout. The employer mandate would have added complexity.

Small businesses, many of which would have had to install systems to track and report which employees are receiving coverage, had been complaining about the difficulty of complying with the requirements, giving way to fears that companies might reduce their workforces to fall below the 50-worker threshold.

The decision comes as a result of years of bumps and setbacks for the overhaul, including legal challenges and political opposition that have hampered its implementation. Last summer, the Supreme Court upheld the law but struck down a mandatory expansion of Medicaid. State officials and businesses held off changing their policies through the 2012 presidential campaign because Obama’s GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, had promised to repeal the law.

Some populous states, including Florida and Texas, have decided not to set up exchanges, putting a far bigger burden on federal health officials to serve Americans. The exchanges are being designed to offer a variety of insurance plans; the federal insurance exchange is set to begin in less than three months.

Although the overhaul was passed in 2010, federal officials continue to issue clarifications to its language. Many of the rules critical to employers were issued this year, or remain in draft form. As a result, businesses have been scrambling to understand their obligations, said Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health think tank.

“When I talk to large companies, even though they already offer coverage they are still scrambling to understand the rules so they can comply,” he said. “Employers were feeling like they had to make these decisions under some amount of pressure, and this gives them a year to be more deliberative about it.”

A senior White House official said the administration’s decision goes beyond delaying the employer mandate. Officials also are working to simplify the depth of information that businesses will have to provide to the government about the coverage they offer.

The launch of the exchanges is a landmark moment in the overhaul, and White House officials have been warning that there will be rough spots. The White House hasn’t received the funding it requested to implement the law, and officials have expressed concern that Americans eligible for coverage won’t know how to get it.

Earlier this year, the administration said businesses that buy health plans for their workers through health exchanges would not have access to the full range of options in 2014, promising to have them in place a year later.

The decision to postpone the employer mandate is not expected to have a major impact on employees. Those workers who would have received coverage from their employers as a result of the law will now be expected to use the exchanges. Employees who cannot afford coverage on their own are eligible for federal subsidies.

The vast majority of businesses ? 96 percent, according to the White House ? have fewer than 50 employees and therefore are exempt from the mandate. And nearly all firms of 200 or more workers offer their employees some sort of coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“We have heard concerns about the complexity of the requirements and the need for more time to implement them effectively,” Mark J. Mazur, an assistant Treasury secretary, wrote in a blog post. “We recognize that the vast majority of businesses that will need to do this reporting already provide health insurance to their workers, and we want to make sure it is easy for others to do so.”

Mazur wrote that Treasury, which oversees part of the law, will issue more details about the delay within a week.

Several business groups praised the administration, saying the delay will give businesses time to adjust to the new requirements.

“This one year delay will provide employers and businesses more time to update their health care coverage without threat of arbitrary punishment,” Neil Trautwein, a top official with the National Retail Federation, said in a statement. “We appreciate the Administration’s recognition of employer concerns and hope it will allow for greater flexibility in the future.”

But others maintained that the provision will never be workable.

“Temporary relief is small consolation,” said Amanda Austin, director of federal public policy with the National Federation of Independent Business, which last year lost the landmark Supreme Court case challenging the law’s constitutionality.

Delayed employer mandate the latest change for increasingly unsteady health-care law

The Obama administration has postponed one of the fundamental provisions of the health-care reform law, responding to mounting concerns from business owners who would have been required to start providing health coverage to their employees next year.

On Tuesday evening, Treasury Department officials announced the government would not penalize businesses that fail to provide health insurance next year, delaying what is known as the “employer mandate” component of the law until 2015. Starting then, firms with more than 50 employees will be required to provide at least a minimum level coverage to their workers or pay a steep fine to the federal government.

Officials made the decision to push the requirement back after fielding a flood of complaints from business owners about its implementation.

“We have heard concerns about the complexity of the requirements and the need for more time to implement them effectively,” Mark Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy, wrote in a blog post announcing the postponement, later adding that the administration plans to use the additional time to “consider ways to simplify the new reporting requirements” for business owners.

The newly delayed mandate has been a major point of contention for small business owners and lobbyists since it was approved as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Many warned that it would cause administrative nightmares for small employers and discourage those near the cutline from expanding beyond 50 workers.

Meanwhile, some firms have started scaling back their payrolls to get underneath the cap.

“Small companies have told us they are confused by the law and are simply finding it difficult to comply with, no matter when it goes into effect,” Rep. Sam Graves, chairman of the House Small Business Committee, said in an email to The Washington Post. “Instead of providing relief for businesses, this simply kicks the can down the road.”

A White House official said the added time would help small business owners adapt to the changes, arguing that the law will still drive down prices for coverage on Main Street.

“This allows employers the time to .?.?. make any necessary adaptations to their health benefits while staying the course toward making health coverage more affordable and accessible for their workers,” Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to Obama, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

This latest delay is the most consequential in a series of setbacks for the president’s signature law, which has shown signs of fragility as the initial deadline for full implementation approaches at the end of the year.

In April, the administration announced it would delay for one year a key cost-cutting feature of the law’s new small business health insurance marketplaces. Initially, the exchanges were supposed to allow employers to choose different plans for different workers; now, for the first year, they must select only one plan from a single carrier for their entire business.

More recently, the Government Accountability Office announced that federal and state officials have fallen well behind schedule setting up the marketplaces, which are scheduled to open for enrollment in October.

“This is simply the latest evidence that implementation of this terrible law is going to be difficult if not impossible, and the burden is going to fall on the people who create American jobs,” Amanda Austin, director of federal public policy at the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement.

The NFIB, a small business lobbying group, has pushed back against the health care law since it was making its way through Congress, later spearheading an effort to repeal the legislation that ended at the hands of the Supreme Court. The group has since focused on repealing some of the provisions it considers most detrimental to businesses on Main Street, including the employer mandate and a new tax on insurers.

Instead of delayed, Austin argued the mandate should be eliminated altogether.

“Temporary relief is small consolation,” she said. “We need a permanent fix to this provision to provide long term relief for small employers.”

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .

Budget cuts trim federal wildfire spending

WASHINGTON (AP) — This year’s across-the-board budget cuts are slicing tens of millions of dollars from the federal government’s funds for battling wildfires, reductions that have meant fewer firefighters and could cause agencies to dip into other programs designed to prevent future blazes.

The U.S. Forest Service’s $2 billion-a-year firefighting budget, which comprises the bulk of the federal effort, has been reduced by 5 percent, a cut that has meant 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer fire engines than last year, agency officials say. The Interior Department’s $37.5 million reduction has meant 100 fewer seasonal firefighter positions and other lost jobs as well, department officials say.

The reductions come as officials brace for a wildfire season they say might rival last year’s, when about 9.3 million acres burned, one of the largest totals on record. The West in particular faces tinderbox conditions, which, combined with high winds, proved deadly last weekend when a wildfire killed 19 members of a firefighting crew outside Yarnell, Ariz.

"This reduces our capability and significantly constrains our work in fire response" and restoring land after fires, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month about the cuts.

So far, more than 22,000 wildfires have burned more than 1.5 million acres across the country, according to the government’s National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho, which helps oversee federal firefighting efforts.

Together, the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service, have around 13,000 firefighters.

The across-the-board budget cuts – called the sequester – have affected most federal programs and are the product of a deficit-reduction stalemate between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans. The budget reductions, which are scheduled to cut federal spending by $1.2 trillion over the coming decade, have forced many agencies to take steps, including putting thousands of workers on unpaid furloughs.

Congressional aides said that because of the sequester, the Fire Service’s suppression fund – which pays for overtime and other costs of fighting wildfires – has been cut from $538 million this year to $510 million. The service was also facing a $50 million cut in its fire preparedness budget, the fund used to hire firefighters and buy equipment.

The Interior Department, whose firefighting budget was $832 million before the sequester, was saving money from its reduced hiring of seasonal firefighters.

Many are being hired for shorter periods to save money, Jewell testified. Including the seasonal firefighters, the department will have 250 fewer positions in its fire programs, officials said.

When faced with emergency expenses for fighting wildfires that drain their funds, both agencies would draw money from other accounts in their budgets. From 2002 to 2012, the Fire Service transferred $2.7 billion from other programs to pay for fighting fires, $2.3 billion of which Congress eventually restored. That "still led to disruptions within all Forest Service programs," Thomas Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service, told the Senate Energy panel last month.

Agency officials and environmental groups say such transfers can be harmful over time. For example, getting money to fight fires by taking it from programs for removing hazardous fuels from dry areas can make it likelier that future wildfires will occur.

"When we have emergencies burning, the U.S. government will continue to spend money on firefighting, even if they don’t have the money," said Christopher Topik, director of the Restoring America’s Forests project for The Nature Conservancy, the environmental group. "So then they’ll take it out of these other kinds of accounts, which are the ones that actually reduce the risk. That’s what will end up happening, and that’s not a good policy."

Officials said the across-the-board cuts have had no direct impact on the 110 Hotshot crews around the country, the highly trained units based mostly in the West who respond to the worst wildfires. Most are financed and trained by the Fire Service and some by the Interior Department, but a handful – like the Arizona crew whose members died – are run locally.

"I don’t know of any Hotshot crew that’s been disbanded or not filled or been mothballed because of the sequester," said Tom Nichols, division chief for fire and aviation management of the National Park Service, a part of the Interior Department. "Because they really are our first line and our elite line for dealing with wildfires."

©2012 The Associated Press

Key federal student loan rate doubles

The interest rate on a key federal student loan doubled Monday, as expected, but it is unclear whether Congress will allow the increase to stand before the new school year gets under way.

Federal law has set the rate for new subsidized Stafford loans at 6.8 percent, up from 3.4 percent. The subsidy means that these loans, for undergraduates with demonstrated financial need, do not accrue interest while the students are in school. It is estimated that the rate hike would add about $1,000 in interest over the life of a loan for many borrowers.

Subsidized loans taken out before Monday are not affected. Nor are other federal loans to undergraduates, graduate students and parents.

More than 7 million students are projected to take out subsidized loans for the coming school year.

Lawmakers and President Obama sought to prevent the rate hike but were unable to reach an accord before Congress left Washington for its July 4 recess. The Republican-led House passed a bill in May to tie loan rates to the government’s cost of borrowing, but the administration criticized some of the provisions and threatened a veto. The Democratic-led Senate stalemated.

Like congressional Republicans and some Democrats, Obama has proposed tying loan rates to annual market benchmarks instead of the current practice, in which Congress fixes rates. But lawmakers have been unable to agree on the details of such a switch, such as rate caps and annual rate variability for individual loans.

Many congressional Democrats want to extend the fixed 3.4 percent rate for a year, echoing a measure enacted a year ago. The Senate is expected to vote July 10 on whether to take up such a bill, which would be retroactive to Monday. It is likely to face a Republican filibuster.

Experts say that Congress still has time to act before the rate hike ripples through the higher education system. But if Congress adjourns for its August recess without passing a bill, the impact on students will be significant.

They said the sequester would be scary. Mostly, they were wrong.

Before “sequestration” took effect, the Obama administration issued specific ? and alarming ? predictions about what it would bring. There would be one-hour waits at airport security. Four-hour waits at border crossings. Prison guards would be furloughed for 12 days. FBI agents, up to 14.

At the Pentagon, the military health program would be unable to pay its bills. The mayhem would extend even into the pantries of the neediest Americans: Around the country, 600,000 low-income women and children would be denied federal food aid.

But none of those things happened.

Sequestration did hit, on March 1. And since then, the $85 billion budget cut has caused real reductions in many federal programs that people depend on. But it has not produced what the Obama administration predicted: widespread breakdowns in crucial government services.

The Washington Post recently checked 48 of those dire predictions about sequestration’s impact. Just 11 have come true, and some effects are worse than forecast. But 24 predictions have not come to pass. In 13 cases, agencies said it is too soon to know.

So many predictions fell short because, in recent months, the administration and Congress did what was supposed to be impossible: They undid many of sequestration’s scariest reductions. In the process, this supposedly ironclad budget cut ? ostensibly immune to political maneuvering ? became a symbol that nothing in Washington is beyond politics.

In some cases, politicians transferred cuts from high-value programs to lower-value ones. Employee travel was limited. Maintenance deferred.

But in other cases, they found “cuts” that didn’t cause much real-world pain. The Justice Department, for instance, prevented furloughs by “cutting” $300 million in money that had already legally expired, as well as $45 million meant to house detainees who didn’t exist.

This is why the sky didn’t fall. Sequestration was intended to show there was no longer any escape from austerity in Washington.

There was.

“The dog barked. But it didn’t bite,” said Robert L. Bixby of the Concord Coalition, which pushes for fiscal responsibility in Washington. Bixby said he worries that this budget maneuvering will eventually backfire.

After all, sequestration is not finished, and another round of cuts is coming in October. “Next time you warn about those things, people just say, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and write it off as political hype,” Bixby said. “There is that danger.”

Sequestration had been drawn up as a “dumb” cut ? it would slash accounts at many federal agencies equally. There would be no gaming the system. No getting out.

It “won’t consider whether we’re cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day,” President Obama said on Feb. 19, decrying sequestration as a “meat-cleaver approach.” “It doesn’t make those distinctions.”

Now, however, it does.

The Post found enormous variation among the outcomes of those administration predictions. In 13 cases, the results were unclear. Almost four months after sequestration took effect, the agencies could not, or would not, say if their predictions were coming true.

In 11 cases, sequestration turned out to be as bad as advertised, or worse.

The Labor Department had predicted that emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed would be cut by 9.4 percent. But in some states, the reductions have been larger: 11 percent. For an individual, that could mean $450 less in benefits this year.

At the Pentagon, officials had predicted that they would reduce training for the Army, flying time for the Air Force and ship deployments for the Navy. They did all three. “It’s extremely hard to show a degradation in our readiness, although we feel it deeply across the force,” Pentagon spokeswoman Beth Robbins said.

Across the government, more than 125,000 employees have been furloughed from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Internal Revenue Service, and other agencies. About 650,000 Defense Department civilians will start taking 11 unpaid days next week. Public defenders are losing up to 15 days of pay.

In 24 cases, however, The Post’s review showed that the predictions were wrong ? sequestration had not lived up to the administration’s alarms.

That included some cases in which furloughs were threatened but then reduced or eliminated. Customs and Border Protection agents, for example, faced up to 14 unpaid days before the Department of Homeland Security shifted money around last month to avoid furloughs.

Administration officials say they didn’t exaggerate sequestration’s effects on purpose. They believed it would be that bad. But then they got unexpected help from Capitol Hill.

“Subsequent to those estimates, Congress took action that changed a number of things,” an administration official said. The official was made available by the administration on the condition that the official speak anonymously.

So this is how politicians took the scare out of the sequester: In some cases, agencies dug into their budgets and found millions they could spare. In other cases, Congress passed a law that allocated new funds or shifted money around. In others, lawmakers signed off on an agency’s proposal to “reprogram” its money.

In the process, the “meat cleaver” of sequestration often became a scalpel. It spared crucial programs but cut second-tier priorities such as maintenance, information technology, employee travel and scientific conferences.

At the U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, officials had said they would have to shut off 350 gauges that provide crucial predictions of impending floods. They didn’t. The real number is less than 90. What was cut instead?

For one thing, $2.7 million in conference expenses have been chopped since February.

“That’s where science gets done, at those meetings. That’s where you present your preliminary results,” said Jerad Bales, the agency’s chief scientist for water. One example: Bales said the government spends about $1,000 per scientist who goes to an annual conference in San Francisco.

Last time, it sent 469 scientists. The attendance for this fall’s conference has not been set, but Bales guessed it would be more like 350, for a cost of $350,000. “We are not investing in the future,” Bales said.

In other cases, however, budget maneuvers made sequestration even less painful. It wasn’t a cleaver. It wasn’t a scalpel. It was more like liposuction ? carefully removing the things that would be missed the least.

The Justice Department, for instance, cut more than $300 million in what it called “expired balances.” In essence, this was money that had been allocated to the department in past years but wasn’t spent. When those years ended, the money expired; without Congress’s permission, it generally couldn’t be spent on anything new.

But, with Congress’s permission, it could still be “cut.”

So, instead of saving money by furloughing FBI agents and prison guards, the department lost only what it wasn’t free to spend anyway.

“It really was a loophole that allowed the Justice Department to largely escape the consequences of sequester,” said Scott Lilly, a former congressional staffer who works at the liberal Center for American Progress. “It’s a good thing that they got past it. But it also sort of nixed this whole notion that everybody’s being treated the same ? and everybody’s having to tighten their belt in the same way.”

At the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress found a similarly painless cut. Furloughs were looming for air-traffic controllers. Travel delays were predicted to pile up.

But they didn’t. Congress prevented the furloughs by substituting another “cut.” It took $253 million from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which gives grants to airports (among the longtime recipients: Lake Murray State Park Airport in Oklahoma, which was eligible for $150,000 per year, despite averaging one takeoff and one landing per week).

But the FAA’s loss wasn’t as bad as it sounds: The grantees that were entitled to this money had already told the government they didn’t need it this year. They didn’t have anything immediate to spend it on. The FAA might still, however, have given it to somebody else.

At the Department of Homeland Security, officials had predicted that there would be insufficient space to hold detained illegal immigrants. It was one of four Homeland Security predictions that didn’t come true; another one, about cutbacks at the Coast Guard, did.

What was cut instead? Some things that hurt: Maintenance. Employee bonuses. Hiring.

And some things that didn’t.

The department, for example, cut $7.8 million for a grant program that helped prepare for disasters. But it told Congress that this program had $36 million waiting in the bank, “neither dedicated to a project nor an activity.” And it said the program was duplicative, anyway. Other federal programs were already doing the same thing. “There is no impact from this reduction because of the duplication,” the department told Congress.

At smaller agencies, predictions also turned out to be wrong. U.S. Park Police officers were supposed to have 12 days of furloughs. They took three. The National Park Service found $4 million in savings in its budget.

It was, in sum, a remarkable disappearing act.

The Obama administration still gives credence to estimates that sequestration might cost the country up to 750,000 jobs. Research by Goldman Sachs has shown declines in federal payrolls and layoffs at defense contractors.

But sequestration has not become a daily hassle for most Americans, and its effects on the economy have been softened by a stronger job market and low interest rates.

“It was more the unquantified predictions of calamity by politicians that were wrong,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, a research firm.

But now, the Obama administration will seek to make the threat of the sequester reappear. In October, when the new fiscal year begins, so will another round of sequestration. The administration expects a new, $109 billion cut.

This time, it says, there will be fewer ways to soften its impact. Many of the easier trims have already been made. The White House is again pressing Congress to agree on a broader budget deal, and replace the sequester entirely, before October comes.

The problem is, officials said all that before.

“Their credibility ? I don’t want to say it’s shot, but it’s definitely diminished,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who chairs a House subcommittee that has oversight over Homeland Security and has examined its sequestration predictions. “They’re going to have a hard time doing that, when they had the doomsday scenario, and the sky didn’t fall.”