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What a week it has been in politics. Just when we had started to believe that inaction and regressive social policy could become the norm, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and even the Texas Legislature showed us that it’s still possible for government bodies to do what they’re supposed to do – reflect the needs and concerns of our people, even those who have historically been marginalized and disenfranchised.  And today, the Senate’s passage of S. 744, which recognizes that immigration reform is good for our economy, our democracy, and our society, has created what I hope is unstoppable momentum.

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Fuel Efficient and Hybrid Cars Reduce State Gas Revenues; States Look for Alternative Funding Sources

State gas taxes that fund everything from new roads, bridges and paving to bike paths, mass transportation and light rail declined from $40.7 billion in 2004 to $37.9 billion in 2010, according to inflation-adjusted data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a research group in Washington. The decline will continue and the slope downward is expected to get steeper as consumers increasingly drive fuel efficient, hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles.

The Obama administration has mandated higher fuel efficiency standards; cars must average 54.5 mpg by 2025.  Meanwhile, consumers have howled about the price of gas which now averages about $3.58 per gallon but at times has been higher than $4 per gallon. The lower price, while better for consumers, is bad for the states because it means less tax revenue. In California, the gas tax has climbed from 36 cents per gallon to 39.5 cents per gallon recently and state officials said explicitly that the state’s environmental policies, which mandate greater fuel efficiency, have reduced revenues.

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Q&A: Probes of IRS treatment of tea party proceed

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Internal Revenue Service testifies to Congress this week after IRS documents showed that progressive and other groups seeking tax-exempt status were listed along with conservative organizations as meriting close examination by agency screeners.

With IRS chief Danny Werfel preparing to answer questions Thursday from the House Ways and Means Committee, here’s where things stand with his beleaguered agency:

Q: Do the latest revelations mean the IRS subjected progressive groups pursuing tax-exempt designations to the same tough treatment that tea party organizations received?

A: In interviews, leaders of some liberal and other groups – such as advocates of the medical use of marijuana – say they faced detailed questions and long delays. So far it remains unclear whether the extent of the problems they faced was as widespread as the ones that dozens of conservative groups confronted. Werfel is likely to get questions on that from lawmakers, especially Democrats.

Q: Why were groups’ applications examined so closely?

A: The IRS must determine who qualifies for tax-exempt status. One designation sought by many organizations – called 501(c)(4) for its tax code section – lets groups help candidates’ election campaigns if it isn’t their primary activity.

Thanks to vague laws and regulations, that means the IRS must painstakingly study the activities of all politically active groups that apply for that designation. What was different about this episode is that conservative groups – and apparently others too – were given close scrutiny because of their names or statements on their applications or websites.

Q: Did President Barack Obama or any top White House, administration or Obama campaign official start or direct the IRS targeting of conservatives?

A: Several Republicans have suggested the operation was directed by Obama allies and was purposely aimed at his conservative adversaries. There is no evidence yet that anyone from the Obama administration or his political organization was involved in the targeting of conservatives.

Q: Then who started it and why?

A: According to Treasury Department Inspector General J. Russell George and testimony to congressional committees, the screening started with a handful of IRS workers in the Cincinnati office who process around 5,000 applications for tax-exempt status every month.

In early 2010, one worker passed an application from a tea party organization to his boss because he thought their tax treatment could attract news media attention. The boss forwarded it to his superiors, including the IRS exempt organizations office in Washington, which oversaw the Cincinnati screeners and expressed interest.

After that, the boss back in Cincinnati – who told congressional investigators that the IRS wants to treat high-profile cases consistently – had his screeners look for similar applications. Eventually they and others set aside dozens of such cases.

Q: What did the IRS do with the conservative groups’ applications that were set aside?

A: About 40 were shared with an IRS attorney in Washington, who provided technical advice.

That ended up causing a 13-month period – from October 2010 to November 2011 – during which no real work was done on tea party applications. According to testimony to Congress and George’s report in May, Cincinnati IRS workers thought their Washington bosses were working on guidelines but Washington thought work in Cincinnati was proceeding. There is no evidence yet that Washington’s involvement had any other impact on the cases.

Q: Where did the lists come from?

A: According to George, in May 2010 IRS officials began compiling spreadsheets listing characteristics that screeners were supposed to seek. That list contained the term “tea party” by August 2010 but kept evolving.

George has reported that by June 2011, the list also included “patriots” and “9/12,” plus mentions of making America better and criticism of how the country was being run. He has said that after several changes, by May 2012 the spreadsheet was revised to shift its focus away from applicants’ policy views and instead toward activities permitted by Treasury regulations.

Democrats from the House Ways and Means panel released 15 of the lists this week. They showed that various points the lists included terms like “Progressives” and “Healthcare legislation.” As recently as April of this year they contained “Paying National Debt” and “Green Energy Organizations.” Werfel, who was given his job in May by Obama, said this week that he ordered use of the lists completely halted earlier this month.

Q: How many groups were affected?

A: George’s report singled out 298 organizations for close study because of potential political activity. Of those, 96 had “tea party,” “patriots” or “9/12″ in their names. There is no precise breakdown of the political views of the remaining 202 groups, but they included groups from the right, left and center.

Despite the careful scrutiny they received, George found that as of December 2012 none of the 298 political cases’ applications had been denied. Most remained undecided or were approved.

Q: What tough treatment did the groups receive?

A: Most tea party groups waited at least a year for decisions on their applications, with some waiting more than three years. In addition, the IRS sent lengthy questionnaires to many that included queries about their donors and plans, if any, by group leaders to seek public office.

Q: Who wrote these questionnaires?

A: That’s unclear, as is why the delays in processing applications persisted so long. Also blurry is why top IRS officials who said they learned about the targeting in spring 2012 didn’t tell Congress, even though lawmakers had asked them about it repeatedly because of complaints from tea party constituents.

Q: What’s next?

A: Besides Ways and Means, the Senate Finance and House Oversight and Government Reform committees and the Justice Department are pursuing investigations likely to take months.

Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.

©2012 The Associated Press

What’s in Obama’s plan to combat global warming

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s wide-ranging plan to combat global warming would for the first time put limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants.

Obama on Tuesday announced plans to reduce domestic carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent between 2005 and 2020 and “put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution.”

Other aspects of the plan would boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures. The 12 hottest years on record all have occurred in the past 15 years.

Obama’s plan would be put in place through executive order, bypassing Congress, which has stalemated over climate legislation in recent years.

Some questions and answers about the climate plan:

Q: What is Obama proposing?

A: The linchpin of his plan is a timetable to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants. Forty percent of U.S. carbon emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The Obama administration already has proposed controls on new plants, but those controls have been delayed.

Under Obama’s plan, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue a new proposal by late September to regulate greenhouse gases from new power plants. By next June, EPA will propose guidance for states to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Greenhouse gases are blamed for global warming.

Both proposals are expected to be made final in 2015, with states required to submit plans to regulate greenhouse gases from existing power plants no later than June 2016.

Q: What else does he want?

A: Obama’s plan also would expand development of renewable energy such as wind and solar power on public lands. The president hopes to generate enough electricity from renewable energy projects to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020, effectively doubling the electric capacity federal lands now produce. He also set a goal to install 100 megawatts of energy-producing capacity at federal housing projects by the end of the decade.

Obama also announced $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to spur investment in technologies such as carbon “capture” systems that can keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere.

Q: What legal authority does Obama have to restrict greenhouse gas emissions by power plants?

A: A 2007 Supreme Court ruling declared that under the Clean Air Act the EPA has authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as air pollutants. After the Bush administration resisted such steps, the EPA in 2009 under Obama concluded that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare, triggering controls on automobiles and other large sources.

Until this year, the Obama administration always has said it preferred to address global warming through legislation rather than executive action. However, in his State of the Union address in February, Obama declared that if Congress would not act on global warming, he would.

Q: What is the states’ role?

A: Ultimately it is up to states to develop standards for greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but they do so under federal guidelines established under the Clean Air Act.

Q: Is legal action likely?

A: Yes, legal challenges are a near certainty. Some legal experts question whether the Clean Air Act allows the EPA to limit carbon pollution from existing plants before finalizing rules for future plants.

Roger Martella, an EPA general counsel under President George W. Bush, said Obama’s proposals are “very much in uncharted legal waters. This is not a settled area of law.”

Even if courts uphold the EPA’s right to act, further legal challenges are likely. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of utilities and energy companies, said previous EPA regulations have had technical and methodological errors that had to be fixed, often under court order.

Q: What is the political reaction to the president’s plan?

A: Obama cited global warming as top priority in his first presidential campaign and he suffered a major defeat in the Senate when a climate bill was withdrawn without a vote. The president largely ignored the issue during his campaign for re-election in 2012, but mentioned it on election night and recommitted to fight climate change at the start of his second term. Environmental activists have been irked that Obama’s high-minded goals never materialized into a comprehensive plan.

Republicans quickly dismissed the plan announced Tuesday as a “war on coal” and jobs. “It’s tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today’s economy,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a major coal-producing state.

Environmental groups offered a mix of praise and wariness that Obama would follow through on his ambitious goals. “People are happy that the president is finally staking out ownership of this important issue. That enhances the idea that something will get done,” said Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.

Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity said Obama’s proposal “isn’t big enough, doesn’t move fast enough to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis.”

Q: What’s the industry’s reaction?

A. Nick Akins, CEO of Ohio-based American Electric Power, one of the nation’s largest utilities, said in an interview Tuesday that as long as utilities like his are given enough time to transition to a cleaner fleet of power plants, Obama’s plan can be carried out “without a major impact to customers or the economy.”

Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric power companies, said officials look forward to working with the administration as it develops the plan, along with members of Congress and the states, “which will play a critical role.”

Q: What about the Keystone XL Pipeline?

A: In a surprise move, Obama offered a rare insight into his deliberations on Keystone XL, a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries that has sparked an intense fight between environmental activists and energy producers. The White House has insisted that the State Department is making the decision independently, but Obama said Tuesday he’s instructing the department to approve it only if the project won’t increase overall net emissions of greenhouse gases. “Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” Obama said.

Obama’s remarks appeared designed to reassure environmentalists, but they also could indicate an easing of the way for the pipeline, if the carbon standard is met, as pipeline supporters argue.

“The almost five-year review of the project has already repeatedly found that these criteria are satisfied,” said Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada, the Calgary-based company that has proposed the pipeline.

But Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the liberal leaning Center for American Progress, said that “for the first time, the president has set a do-no-climate harm standard before he approves the Keystone XL pipeline. That will be difficult standard to meet.”

Associated Press writer Jonathan Fahey in New York contributed to this report.

Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

©2012 The Associated Press

States promise quick action after court ruling

ATLANTA (AP) — Across the South, Republicans are working to take advantage of a new political landscape after a divided U.S. Supreme Court freed all or part of 15 states, many of them in the old Confederacy, from having to ask Washington’s permission before changing election procedures in jurisdictions with histories of discrimination.

After the high court announced its momentous ruling Tuesday, officials in Texas and Mississippi pledged to immediately implement laws requiring voters to show photo identification before getting a ballot. North Carolina Republicans promised they would quickly try to adopt a similar law. Florida now appears free to set its early voting hours however Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP Legislature please. And Georgia’s most populous county likely will use county commission districts that Republican state legislators drew over the objections of local Democrats.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 opinion that struck down as outdated a key provision of the landmark 1965 law credited with ensuring ballot access to millions of black Americans, American Indians and other minorities. Roberts’ opinion gives Congress an opportunity to retool the law’s so-called preclearance sections that give the U.S. Justice Department veto power over local elections. But the prospects of a quick fix seem uncertain, at best, given stark ideological divides on Capitol Hill on a host of matters.

Southern Republicans largely hailed Roberts’ opinion as recognition of racial progress since President Lyndon Johnson signed the law at the apex of the civil rights movement.

“Over the last half-century, Georgia has reformed, and our state is a proud symbol of progress,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “Today’s decision guarantees that Georgia will be treated like every other state – a right we have earned.” In neighboring Alabama, where the case originated, Gov. Robert Bentley said, “We have long lived up to what happened” in the Jim Crow era, “and we have made sure it’s not going to happen again.”

Democrats and civil rights attorneys lambasted the ruling as a setback for the very advancement Republicans highlighted, and the dissenters predicted a proliferation of laws designed to curtail minority participation in elections.

Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights activist who was beaten as he advocated for voting rights in the 1960s, called the ruling a “dagger.”

President Barack Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” in the court overturning “well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair.”

At Obama’s Justice Department, officials opted for caution. They said the agency, which enforces federal voting laws, has in hand 276 submissions from state and local governments seeking preclearance. The department will issue guidance on those pending laws and procedures in the next few days, they said.

For five decades, the law required that certain states and localities with a history of discrimination submit all of their election laws – from new congressional district maps to the precinct locations and voting hours – to Justice Department lawyers for approval. Congress reauthorized the law multiple times, the latest in 2006 with overwhelming bipartisanship capped by a 98-0 Senate vote.

Election officials in Alabama’s Shelby County, a suburban enclave nestled between civil rights hot spots Birmingham and Selma, brought suit asking the courts to invalidate Sections 4 and 5, which set preclearance parameters.

The Roberts majority, which included conservatives Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, sidestepped whether the advance approval requirement is constitutional, ostensibly leaving Section 5 on the books. But the justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, threw out the Section 4 formula that determined what jurisdictions must have the advance federal oversight. Roberts reasoned that the original formula – extended through reauthorizations – is obsolete because Congress based it on 1960s voter registration and turnout data. The chief justice emphasized, however, that Congress can rewrite the formula to reflect “current conditions,” though he didn’t offer recommendations or acknowledge the inherent political challenges involved.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented on behalf of the court’s liberal bloc, all of them Democratic appointees. Ginsburg argued that continued discrimination, which Roberts himself noted in the majority opinion, demands continued federal oversight.

Critics of the majority also chided court conservatives for striking down congressional action, given that the 14th and 15th amendments authorize Congress to enact laws enforcing the amendments’ protections against discrimination.

Before the ruling, the formula required reviews for all of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia; and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

Justice Department attorneys have used Section 5 in multiple cases to block voter identification laws, saying they discriminate against minority and poor voters who are less likely to have the required government-issued documents. Over the law’s existence, many Southern states have ended up watching courts drawing legislative and congressional district lines after federal authorities used Section 5 to invalidate what state lawmakers did.

South Carolina has successfully implemented a voter identification law, but only after revising its preferred policy after Gov. Nikki Haley and other Republicans negotiated with the Obama administration. Under the court’s ruling, no negotiations would’ve been necessary.

Within hours of Tuesday’s decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared on Twitter, “(U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder can no longer deny VoterID in Texas.” The Texas Department of Public Safety announced later in the day that on Thursday it would begin distributing photo IDs under a 2011 law that Holder’s lawyers had blocked under Section 5.

In Mississippi, the secretary of state said her office would begin enforcing a pending voter ID law for primaries in June 2014. North Carolina Republicans said they plan swift action on a pending voter ID bill.

Laughlin McDonald, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights office, said he agrees that pending submissions to the Justice Department are now moot. It’s less clear what happens to scores of laws that the feds have already denied since the 2006 reauthorization. McDonald said he believes a state or other covered jurisdiction would have a strong case to argue that it could implement any affected law it has passed since the reauthorization.

That could be an issue in some disputes over at-large voting districts. The Justice Department denied some proposals where the population of an entire county or city would elect all representatives of a governing body, potentially diluting the influence of a minority that would otherwise be able to influence outcomes within single districts.

The case does not affect the act’s Section 2 prohibition against voter discrimination based on race, color or other minority status. Still, the burden shifts to a citizen who must prove discrimination, whereas the preclearance process required state and local governments to prove in advance that a policy wouldn’t harm minority voters. Also untouched is Section 3, which allows the government to require preclearance based on more recent discrimination. The Justice Department has used that provision to extend oversight in Arkansas and New Mexico.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican who supports the court’s finding, said Section 2 gives citizens a legal recourse, while Section 3 gives the government a tool to police wayward local officials. He noted that Holder used Section 2 to go after Pennsylvania’s voter ID law in a state not covered by preclearance.

“Look,” he said, “this is already happening in other states and nobody is screaming and hollering about it.”

©2012 The Associated Press

Supreme Court Gay Marriage Ruling Will Tighten Ethics And Campaign Finance Laws

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s ruling overturning the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act will alter a host of ethics and campaign finance laws that apply to elected and appointed officials as well as campaign donors.

Ethics laws requiring disclosure of spousal income, banning gifts to spouses from certain sources and banning nepotism will now apply to elected, executive and federal agency officials in same-sex marriages and unions. Also, married same-sex couples will now be able to give joint contributions from a single bank account to political campaigns.

These changes underline how much the DOMA affected federal statutes, beyond those debated when the law was passed. The court, in the ruling issued Wednesday, noted that, because of DOMA, key “government-integrity rules do not apply to same-sex spouses.”

The government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a brief in the DOMA case arguing that the application of DOMA provided exemptions from ethics laws for married gay couples and harmed the public by opening avenues for nepotism and corruption while limiting certain disclosure laws.

“It means that the same sorts of restrictions that apply to heterosexual married couples will apply to gay married couples,” said CREW executive director Melanie Sloan after the court’s ruling. “It’s terrific because there shouldn’t be exemptions from disclosure.”

The first real example of the disclosure exemption under DOMA emerged when Sean Eldridge, a Democratic congressional candidate and the husband of Facebook millionaire and New Republic owner Chris Hughes, filed his first financial disclosure report, as required by federal ethics laws. Normally, candidates must list their spouse’s assets in such reports, but Eldridge did not disclose Hughes’ vast wealth because DOMA prevented recognition of their marriage.

This exemption from disclosure also applied to agency heads in the executive branch. Under DOMA, the same-sex spouse of an agency head could receive payment from a company or industry under the agency’s regulatory power without making that payment public information.

Gifts over $1,000 and honoraria given to spouses will also now be required to be disclosed on financial disclosure reports filed by both congressional candidates and executive officials covered by disclosure laws in the Ethics in Government Act. Same-sex spouses will also be covered by a host of other congressional ethics laws limiting payments and paid travel, among other things.

Bribery laws will be expanded to cover same-sex spouses of federal and District of Columbia officials, previously not the case under DOMA. As the CREW brief noted, “as a result [of DOMA], same-sex spouses might avoid culpability for engaging in conduct that would be criminal for opposite-sex married couples.”

While most of the changes to ethics laws involve expanding restrictions and disclosure requirements to cover same-sex spouses, campaign finance law will be ever so slightly expanded.

The Federal Election Commission will now have to allow same-sex couples to make joint contributions from a single bank account.

In an April advisory opinion brought about by Dan Winslow, a Senate candidate in the Republican special primary election to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry, the FEC ruled that because of DOMA same-sex couples could not make joint contributions from a single bank account.

The FEC opinion states that, if the court overturns DOMA, the FEC would happily revisit the issue. “If DOMA is held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court – or is otherwise modified or repealed – the Commission will, upon request, revisit this issue,” it says.

Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog group in Washington, D.C., doubted that the FEC would even need to issue a new opinion. “I wouldn’t think there would be any need to go back to the FEC for clarification, it’s pretty simple.”

The court ruling will also have an effect on federal lobbying laws, which in the House ban the spouses of Congress members from lobbying their spouse’s office. In the Senate, spouses are banned from lobbying anyone in the body. These laws will now have to recognize same-sex spouses as lobbyists and extend these restrictions to them as well.

Congressional insider trading rules enacted in the 2012 STOCK Act, requiring members of Congress and their spouses to report stock trades more frequently and banning them from using information gained from their position to trade stocks, will now apply to same-sex spouses.

Anti-nepotism laws also will be expanded to cover the same-sex spouses of federal judges. Laws requiring judges to recuse themselves from cases where their spouse holds a financial interest will now apply to same-sex spouses of federal judges.

Supreme Court’s DOMA decision: What’s next

Big questions remained unanswered for many same-sex couples across the country Wednesday, even after the gay rights advocates responded with jubilation to the Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision overturning a key element of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Thousands of couples living in states that do not recognize gay marriage do not know yet whether they will be allowed to file their federal income taxes jointly. They also don’t know whether they are entitled to a range of marital tax exemptions, such as the estate tax provision at issue in the case that prompted the ruling.

That’s because the Internal Revenue Service, like many other federal agencies, defines marriage based on where a couple lives and not on where they married.

As a result, although the DOMA ruling grants full federal benefits to a gay couple living in Maryland, where same-sex marriage is now legal, it does not immediately grant full benefits to a couple living in Virginia, where gay marriage is not recognized.

Gay-rights supporters were quick Wednesday to press President Obama to address that inconsistency through executive action or other means.

Activists from the Human Rights Campaign and other gay-rights groups have proposed that Obama issue an order that all federal agencies define marriage based on the “place of celebration.”

Obama and his top aides, meanwhile, asked for patience. telling activists in a phone call within hours of the ruling that it will be complicated to figure out how to reinterpret or revise the hundreds of federal agency provisions affecting benefits for gay couples across the country.

Administration officials, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said White House lawyers and Justice Department officials had begun analyzing all the relevant laws with an eye toward swift action.

Yet, these officials said, the administration was confronting complex questions that require careful consideration to avoid future legal battles. Losing such battles, they added, could prove counterproductive to gay rights.

Some conservative leaders have already threatened to sue if Obama uses his authority to issue what evangelical organizer Gary Bauer called a “de facto redefinition of marriage in states who through their democratic processes have made it clear they oppose such a change.”

Some issues are relatively clear-cut, according to people familiar with the administration’s deliberations, because a number of agencies already define marriage based on where the wedding took place.

That is true for immigration matters. As a result, the court ruling defuses an emotional question that has been part of the debate over immigration policy raging in Congress. Once the ruling takes effect, legally married gays who live anywhere in the U.S. should be permitted to apply for green cards for their spouses.

The Pentagon also defines marriage based on the place of celebration. Secretary Of Defense Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the agency “intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses ? regardless of sexual orientation ? as soon as possible.” That, for instance, would give married gay couples the ability to live together in on-base housing and receive military health care.

A task force to begin assessing the ruling’s impact was created inside the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel several days ago, according to people familiar with the process.

Obama’s gay supporters signaled Wednesday that they are willing to show some patience ? but only to a point.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, pressed Attorney General Eric Holder on the matter during a private phone conversation Wednesday, according to people familiar with the call. Holder promised Griffin a “thorough and thoughtful process,” according to a statement from the gay-rights group.

Holder issued a separate statement Wednesday pledging that his agency would work “expeditiously” with other executive branch departments to put the court ruling into effect.

Senators amend the immigration bill to bolster border security

Senators on Wednesday approved a plan to double the number of officers along the U.S.-Mexico border, a key concession to Republicans who plan to join with Democrats in supporting a comprehensive immigration measure this week.

At the same time, House Republicans signaled that there will be no quick resolution to the months-long debate over the nation’s immigration laws, regardless of what happens in the Senate.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told colleagues Wednesday that he will only hold votes on immigration proposals that are supported by a majority of his own caucus, and another senior Republican lawmaker suggested that Congress might not settle the issue until next year at the earliest.

By a vote of 69 to 29, senators amended the immigration bill to include provisions that would double the size of the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican border, require the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border and authorize the use of new radar and unmanned aerial drones to track illegal border crossings.

“Americans want immigration reform, but they want border security first,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a key backer of the amendment who helped secure 15 GOP votes for it.

But a majority of the Senate Republican conference banded together against the proposal, calling it a costly and ineffective way to keep people from crossing into the United States illegally.

The amendment “throws money at the border, but it doesn’t get the job done,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

Supporters of the comprehensive immigration bill, led by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” hope to hold a final vote by Thursday evening. But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) complained again Wednesday that talks on wrapping up debate had gone “backwards” amid GOP objections to proceeding.

One potential sticking point was settled Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married.

In response, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) withdrew two proposed amendments to the immigration bill that would have allowed same-sex foreign spouses and partners of U.S. citizens to apply for visas. Senate Republicans had threatened to jettison the entire package if the same-sex provisions were included.

Boehner, meanwhile, once again told his colleagues at their weekly closed-door meeting that no matter what the Senate does on immigration reform, the House will act on its own.

“It’ll be a bill that reflects the will of our majority and the people we represent,” Boehner said, according to GOP aides in the room.

Boehner’s reassurances pleased rank-and-file members, most of whom want the chamber to deal with border security before addressing the legal status of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

“I think this train is getting ready to slow down” in the House, said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a key Boehner ally.

Cole predicted that the House won’t seriously debate any immigration legislation until congressional leaders and the White House broker deals to fund government operations in the fiscal year that begins in October and to raise the federal debt ceiling.

“I don’t see how a big immigration brouhaha helps you going into trying to figure out how to keep the government funded and what to do about the debt ceiling,” Cole said.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a tea party-backed lawmaker and immigration lawyer, said the House should move methodically and should not accelerate the process to seek political gains with the nation’s fast-growing Hispanic population.

“We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off, thinking that we have to do this for political reasons,” Labrador told reporters. “We don’t have to do this for political reasons. In fact, the biggest mistake we can make as conservatives is to pander to the Hispanic community.”

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), another outspoken conservative, agreed. “If we’re going to do it for political expedience, it’s the flat-out wrong reason to do anything,” he said. “Everything we do should be based on sound, right policy.”

Obama climate strategy represents piecemeal approach

President Obama will invoke his executive authority Tuesday by undertaking a slew of measures aimed at curbing climate change and its impacts, from imposing the first carbon limits on existing power plants to requiring all federal projects to withstand rising seas and more intense storms.

The laundry list of policies Obama will outline in a speech Tuesday afternoon at Georgetown University ? some new, many of which build on existing programs ? hint at both the opportunity and challenge the president faces when it comes to global warming.

Freed from the need to compromise with Congress, Obama can enact regulations and issue directives that will change both government and the marketplace before he leaves office. But he is embarking on a piecemeal approach that targets individual sectors of the economy, with many of the details to be sketched out in the next two years.

Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute said the speech is “of extraordinary importance” because the president would be “resetting the climate agenda” by articulating a national strategy for the United States. “Now it matters because until it is clear where a nation is going on this, private investors and citizens don’t really know what long-term signals to follow,” Steer said.

But even as Obama answers a central question facing him in his second term ? by instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a proposed rule to regulate carbon dioxide from existing coal and gas-fired utilities by June 2014 and finalize it a year later ? it remains unclear exactly how the agency will do that, and what it will cost industry.

The EPA has not yet begun drafting the rule, according to individuals familiar with the agency’s plans who asked not to be identified, and has only devised an “outreach” document aimed at starting discussions with state officials and other key constituencies. Furthermore EPA will now re-propose its rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants in September, according to these individuals, and will establish separate standards for gas and coal-fired power plants as the utility industry had sought.

Jeffrey Holmstead, who represents several utilities as a partner at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, said the administration will not specify how much the new power plant rule will achieve in emission reductions or what it will cost to implement, since “EPA just doesn’t know what’s realistic because the statute doesn’t give a lot of options.”

Kyle Danish, an attorney at the law firm Van Ness Feldman, said that the regulation of carbon dioxide from existing coal plants required a “novel interpretation of this part of the Clean Air Act,” because there is no best available technology for reducing CO2 emissions. “It’s a little bit of a twist but that’s the tool that they have,” he said.

Holmstead, who headed EPA’s air and radiation office under President George W. Bush, said the approach highlights the administration’s dilemma: “The White House faces a challenge because there’s not a single, big, bold action that shows they can deal with climate change.”

Instead the administration will expand on several of its current initiatives: developing fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses and vans beyond model year 2018; implementing energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings that, combined with earlier rules, will reduce carbon emissions by a total of 3 billion metric tons or more by 2030; and pursuing a global agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerants and air conditioning worldwide.

Obama will also set some new clean energy targets, such as instructing the Interior Department to permit 10 gigawatts of renewable power on public lands by 2020 and pushing for negotiations at the World Trade Organization aimed at eliminating tariffs on the trade in environmental goods such as clean-energy technologies.

The agenda has drawn plaudits from environmentalists, who have been pressing the administration for months to take bolder action on global warming in the face of congressional opposition.

“Not only is this by far the most comprehensive and ambitious administrative plan proposed by any president, it’s also common sense and very popular with the public,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) spokesman Don Stewart questioned that assessment, asking in an e-mail why Obama did not press this issue harder before the 2012 election. “In what amounts to a national energy tax, the president will pivot away from jobs ? the No. 1 issue for constituents,” Stewart wrote.

Both Republicans and some business leaders say they are concerned the proposals will jeopardize access to cheap fossil fuel energy that has helped keep America competitive with manufacturers overseas. Shares of U.S. coal mining companies slid sharply Monday, in part over concern of how the president’s plan would affect their future viability.

Robert M. “Mike” Duncan, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, said if the administration imposes impractical standards on coal companies, “taking America’s most significant source of electricity offline would have disastrous consequences for our nation’s economy.”

Still, the list of policies does not give environmentalists everything they wanted. It remains silent on two critical climate decisions the White House will have to make later on ? whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and whether to compel federal agencies to take climate change into account when conducting environmental reviews of agency decisions.

And Joseph Stanko, who heads government relations at the firm Hunton and Williams and represents several utility companies, wrote in an e-mail that the president’s climate strategy “is a collection of previously announced efforts, so it’s really a ‘re-action’ plan.

Paul Billings, vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association, said that while he was pleased to see the president focus on curbing carbon emissions from power plants, “One thing we’ve learned with this administration, proposing a regulation and finalizing a regulation is two different things. You have to start, but you have to finish.”

Several of the new initiatives Obama will outline Tuesday focus on helping the U.S. cope with global warming’s impact. The president will not only direct agencies to make it easier to spend federal funds on making communities more resilient to climate change, he will launch an initiative to ensure hospitals can withstand climate impacts and require the federal flood insurance program as well as any new federal road, building or project to take sea level rise and increased storm surge into account during planning and construction.

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

How to Update the Voting Rights Act

Five Supreme Court Justices just rolled back the most effective civil rights provision in our nation’s history. What should we do now?

One option is to declare “mission accomplished” and forget about race in politics.

That, however, will not work. Although we have made amazing progress in the past fifty years, too many state and local politicians still maintain power by manipulating election rules.

Nueces County, Texas, provides one example. After the rapidly growing Latino community surpassed 56 percent of its population, the county gerrymandered local election districts to diminish the influence of Latino voters. The Voting Rights Act blocked Nueces County’s gerrymandering in 2012, but now that the Court has rolled back the Act, state and local politicians will have more opportunities to manipulate voting rules.

Voting rights protections are still needed, and it is feasible to design up-to-date and adequate protections. While today’s Supreme Court decision is a setback, Congress has the power to do the right thing and update the Voting Rights Act.

Republicans and Democrats should agree to modernize the Voting Rights Act based on two principles: (1) updating the Act’s preclearance and litigation provisions; and (2) requiring disclosure.

Update Preclearance & Litigation

The preclearance process of the Voting Rights Act applied to all or part of 15 states, and required those areas to submit proposed changes in voting rules to federal officials for approval. The Supreme Court held that the coverage formula requiring preclearance by some states but not others was outdated because it was based on election data from the 1964, 1968, and 1972 elections.

Congress should update the coverage formula to require that states and localities with recent voting rights violations preclear new election law changes. In addition, states and localities that violate voting rights in the future should be required to preclear their election law changes.

Congress should also update the voting rights litigation process. The law needs to stop unfair election rules before they are used and harm voters. For example, the updated Act should bolster the process for obtaining a court order to stop unfair rules from being used in an election. States and localities generally have more information about their proposed election law changes, and the updated Act should shift more responsibility to states and localities to show that a change is fair. Further, litigation standards designed for redistricting cases should be updated to more effectively address other problems — such as hurdles to casting a ballot.

Require Disclosure

Congress should also update the Voting Rights Act to require that states and localities with significant minority populations disclose election law changes via an online portal that is open to review by the public. States and localities should disclose the reasons for the changes, their anticipated effect on minority voters, and demographic data about the area.

Like the preclearance requirement, the disclosure rules should be comprehensive. The effects of all new election rules would be public, and this transparency would deter many unfair rules. Disclosure would increase states’ compliance with the Act and thereby reduce the amount and cost of litigation. Increased transparency would help federal officials and voting rights groups detect trends, devise non-litigation solutions where appropriate, and concentrate finite litigation resources on the most significant problems. While disclosure does not solve all problems, it can add value, as it does with securities trading, mergers that may trigger antitrust concerns, environmental impact statements, and campaign finance disclosure.

An updated Voting Rights Act will help not just voters of color, but our nation as a whole. Removing voting barriers and deterring politicians from manipulating election rules improves democracy for all Americans. Protecting voting rights also provides legitimacy to our nation’s efforts to promote democracy and prevent corruption around the world.

This is a critical moment. Public attention on the Supreme Court’s decision presents an opportunity to update the Voting Rights Act in Congress. But eventually public interest will fade, and the chance to update the Act will be lost. Congress must start the process now.

Spencer Overton is a Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School and a Senior Fellow at Demos. He is the author of the book Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerOverton.

Investing in the American Dream: Immigration and the EB-5 Program

Immigration is back in the headlines — the Senate judiciary committee has just approved a new immigration law, propelled by the efforts of a so-called “Gang of Eight” bipartisan grouping of senators.

Lost in the doubtlessly shrill debate that will soon begin in the Senate is an existing, little known but highly innovative path for foreign nationals who want to contribute to the U.S. economy, and become permanent residents in return.

Created in 1990 by Congress, the “EB-5,” or the Investment Immigration Program, aims to incentivize foreign nationals to invest capital and create jobs in the U.S. To qualify, an immigrant must create or preserve 10 full-time jobs in a period of two years, and make a minimum investment of $1 million ($500,000 for specially defined areas), and invest in a commercial enterprise (from a sole proprietorship to a corporation).

Data from the Department of Homeland Security shows that the program has grown from granting 142 permanent residencies (PRs) under the category “employment creation (investors)” in 2002 to 806 PRs in 2007 and finally to 3,340 in 2011. Considering that the annual authorization under the EB-5 program is for 10,000 visas, clearly the huge potential of this program is yet to be tapped.

It’s not just potential immigrants who look at the EB-5 as a great opportunity; domestic U.S. businesses also have great expectations from the program’s ability to provide alternative sources of capital. George Olsen, who worked on the $228 million EB-5 financing of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, N.Y., is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying “In the past, you had to explain it to people–people didn’t believe that the program was around.” Now, two Manhattan-based residential projects are planning to use the EB-5 route to raise the $260 million required.

So what trends is one seeing from analyzing EB-5 immigrant data? A study done in 2010 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by sampling 295 beneficiaries showed real estate is overwhelmingly the No. 1 industry for investors. California was the No. 1 immigrant destination, with New York and Florida being other popular states to settle. The study also revealed that while South Korea, China, and Taiwan were the top three countries from where EB-5 beneficiaries came, the program granted permanent residency to nationals from 30 other countries, making it truly global.

The program has not been without its share of criticisms and pitfalls. Charles Lane savaged it as a “visa-for-dollars program” in a Washington Post article, saying that “EB-5 has created a lot of jobs — for consultants, brokers and other fee-seeking middlemen.” Worryingly, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently indicted Illinois-based Anshoo Sethi for misleading about 250 Chinese investors by using the promise of EB-5 visas to sell $145 million in securities to finance a hotel-cum-conference center that had not yet received the necessary project clearances.

This makes the task of legitimate immigration consultants like Abbas Hashmi, and his firm, Long Island-based Green Card Capital, that much tougher. “Black Box investments with the promise of high returns where little is known about the people or the project where the money is going, is something we steer our clients away from.” The firm’s website also has a section on EB-5 fraud listing the various scams to educate potential EB-5 applicants.

Despite such issues, the EB-5 program has great potential. The Obama administration created Council on Jobs and Competitiveness has stated that, fully leveraged, the EB-5 program can generate 40,000 new jobs per year based on $4 billion in investment.

Maybe the future is indeed green.

7 Voting Measures That Didn’t Actually Need Preclearance, According To The Supreme Court

In a 5-4 decision on Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, effectively releasing certain states, counties and towns from the requirement to receive federal preclearance before making changes to voting laws.

The majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder found that the formula under Section 4 for determining which jurisdictions had to “preclear” voting changes was no longer valid because “things have changed dramaticallyâ€? in the South since the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965. To preserve the preclearance process under Section 5, Congress must come up with a new formula to decide which places receive greater legal scrutiny.

Sections 4 and 5 were not arcane or rarely used provisions. They covered a lot of territory, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and parts of California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan.

And they kicked in with some controversial efforts. Since the 2010 elections, GOP-controlled legislatures across the country have passed stricter voter ID proposals, limited accessibility to voting and polls, and drafted partisan redistricting measures. Seven of these actions were delayed by preclearance and, without the now-unconstitutional Section 4, would have had a more direct path to implementation.

Farm bill smackdown time to break up the bill

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, June 24:

___

House Republicans revolted against their leaders last week, rejecting a farm bill that would have cost $940 billion over the coming decade. So for the second time in less than a year, Congress has failed to pass a renewal of the massive legislation that funds farm subsidies and food stamps.

While all the focus was on the Republican revolt, this was in fact a bipartisan tubing. Only 24 Democrats voted in favor of the House bill, which was defeated on a 195-234 vote. Republicans had counted on their rank-and-file to pass this, but 62 Republicans voted “no.”

Democrats and Republicans rejected the bill for different reasons. Many Democrats thought the cuts in food stamp spending were too severe. Many Republicans thought there should be deeper cuts in food stamps, others objected to the preservation of unjustified farm subsidies.

There’s value in this defeat. The Senate, which passed a $955 billion farm bill two weeks ago, is on notice that the House isn’t interested in business as usual.

Here’s an opportunity for Congress to do something revolutionary: Break up the farm bill. Debate and vote on food stamp policy and farm policy as entirely separate matters.

Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana farmer, filed amendments to do just that, but House GOP leaders ignored him. They were counting on the usual alliance of interests to prevail. Farm-state Republicans and Democrats would vote “yes” for the subsidies that enrich rural landowners and Big Agriculture, and liberal Democrats would vote “yes” for the food stamps that benefit low-income constituents.

Take these issues separately.

Farm subsidies, the obsolete, Soviet-style affronts to the free market, have got to go. The concept of a farm safety net has been twisted into a grotesque abuse of taxpayer dollars.

Since 1996, farmers have been getting hefty government checks, called direct payments, for doing nothing but being farmers. Even their keenest supporters have given up trying to justify that transfer of wealth from taxpayers to some of the wealthiest people in the countryside.

Over the same period, federally subsidized crop insurance has morphed from a reasonable effort to protect against drought and flood into a costly and inefficient mess. The program funnels money to foreign financial companies, invites fraud on a massive scale and encourages degradation of the heartland by eliminating the risks that reward farmers who are good stewards and punish those who aren’t.

The House and Senate bills would eliminate direct payments, but crop insurance would be expanded. That can’t be justified.

Food stamp spending has soared over the past decade, partly because of the recession but also because rule changes have made it easier to qualify for aid.

The federal government provides a justifiable safety net to prevent hunger. But the food-stamp program’s expansion to $74.6 billion in 2012 from $18.3 billion a decade ago is alarming. The House bill proposes more substantial cuts than the Senate bill does.

When farm legislation failed last year, Congress passed an extension that expires on Sept. 30. If Congress is compelled to pass another extension because its members won’t embrace reform, it should at least exclude direct payments and crop insurance from the reauthorization.

Better yet, start over. Break up the farm bill.

___

(c)2013 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

GOP Leaders Playing Both Sides On Immigration Reform

WASHINGTON — Support for comprehensive immigration reform is much broader in Congress than Republican leaders are letting on. To gauge which way the wind is blowing in Washington, watch which direction the money is flowing, and, more importantly, who’s directing the money.

The top two Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, might not be working for immigration reform in the upper chamber, but their allies off Capitol Hill are leading the advocacy efforts. Two of the most well-funded groups working on behalf of reform are being run by senior aides in McConnell and Cornyn’s circle. One, American Crossroads, is run by close McConnell ally Steven Law, and is pledging to spend seven figures to press Republicans to approve reform. Law has said that reelecting McConnell, his longtime mentor, is the group’s top electoral priority.

FWD.us, the tech-funded group pushing for immigration reform, has tens of millions of dollars pledged to the fight. Rob Jesmer runs FWD’s D.C. operations as its campaign manager. He was executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2012 cycle, meaning he was in charge of electing and reelecting Senate Republicans, reporting to both Cornyn and McConnell. Previously he served as Cornyn’s chief of staff and is now a partner with FP1 Strategies, which represents Cornyn. Brian Walsh, the former spokesman for the NRSC, is also closely working with FWD. Jesmer and Walsh are both known in Washington as part of John Cornyn’s circle, having worked in his personal office and under him at the NRSC. Cornyn is now the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and has been speaking out against immigration reform amid his reelection bid in Texas. An amendment he pushed to include was considered by reform backers as an attempt to kill the legislation, and its defeat gave the process a boost of momentum.

And immigration reform backer the Chamber of Commerce is as closely allied with GOP leaders as any organization in Washington. Its spokeswoman, Blair Latoff, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. (Latoff is married to McConnell’s current chief of staff.)

The outside advocacy amounts to a classic Washington two-step, where politicians up for reelection tell the base one thing, while hoping for a different outcome.

It’s a sleight-of-hand that grassroots conservatives are starting to react against. On Monday, the Senate Conservative Fund accused McConnell of playing both sides, arguing that he was “quietly allowing” immigration reform to ease its way through the Senate. The Fund is allied with former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “I feel like [McConnell] could block the sunset if he wanted to, yet somehow can’t stop immigration reform. They’re just pandering to the far right,” said a Senate Democratic operative, concurring with the Conservative Fund’s assessment.

On Monday, 67 senators cast a key vote in favor of immigration reform, signaling that the legislation will move through the chamber and head to the House. Cornyn was not among them. He told HuffPost after the vote that there shouldn’t be any conclusions drawn from the advocacy of those in his circle.

“It shows how they’re free agents,” Cornyn said, laughing. “They’re available to be retained to represent clients.” Asked if he was in touch with them, he said: “Not about this.”

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the gang of eight negotiating the Senate’s immigration compromise, said he hadn’t noticed that Cornyn and McConnell’s teams were allied with him, even as the leaders themselves aren’t. “I hadn’t looked at it that way,” he said. “We’re glad to get support wherever we can. I’m glad to have it.”

One GOP operative working for immigration reform said that it’s widely understood that getting reform done will be a boon for the party in general. “Every major donor meeting they go into, they’re told, ‘We’re getting our ass kicked with Hispanics,’ and they want that to go away,” he said of GOP leaders in Washington. “Most of the bread-and-butter groups in our party are for this, for the same reason leadership is — they’re just sick and tired of hearing about this.”

The Chamber and Crossroads are spending conservative donors’ money on the project to pass immigration reform. When it comes to FWD, it’s being done with Silicon Valley money, most of it ponied up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Joe Green, the founder and president of FWD.us, the tech-funded group pushing for immigration reform, has reportedly referred to its tactics as “Machiavellian.” Green said the organization will refrain from running ads against opponents of immigration reform, according to a source who was briefed by Green on the tactic. Jesmer joined the GOP consulting firm FP1 Strategies in December, following the elections. The firm, meanwhile, has worked with GOP clients who are opposed to immigration reform, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who pleaded with Congress to oppose reform in the name of “our humanity”. Running pro-immigration ads against Cornyn, McConnell or Cruz, however, would likely do them no harm, and might even help them.

But in states where immigration is unpopular, FWD hasn’t stayed away. Instead, it has run ads on entirely unrelated issues. Its ad backing immigration proponent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) slams Obamacare and its namesake, for instance.

FWD has been running ads praising Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat, for pushing to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

Similar ads praised backers of the Keystone XL pipeline. (Several backers of the group, including SolarCity and Tesla’s Elon Musk, pulled their funding after learning their money was paying for ads that ran counter to their own positions.)

“I simply don’t understand what they’re doing,� said one Democratic member of Congress involved in the closed-door House negotiations, declining to speak publicly so as not to alienate the group’s donors.

Begich told HuffPost it was unclear whether the ads would help or hurt him, and that nobody from the group had lobbied him on immigration reform. He voted for the key amendment on Monday. He also noted that much of the money was wasted because the weather is lovely in Alaska this time of year, and most people are outdoors, making radio ads much more effective.

“It’s their money, their choice,” Begich shrugged.

Aaron Bycoffe contributed reporting

A look at 48 years of the Voting Rights Act

WASHINGTON (AP) — The voting law that became a major turning point in black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and political power is now outdated, the Supreme Court says.

Whether that’s a marker of racial progress or proof of backsliding will be hotly debated. But neither side denies that remarkable changes were wrought through the nearly half-century-old Voting Rights Act.

As the issue moves to Congress, a look at the law’s history:

15th AMENDMENT

The right to vote, for American men at least, was supposed to be guaranteed when the 15th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War.

The amendment says: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Freed slaves began voting and even winning office, but former Confederate states came up with tactics to evade the 15th Amendment.

These literacy tests, poll taxes and other discriminatory laws, as well as intimidation and violence, continued for decades. In 1940, only 3 percent of eligible blacks in the South were registered to vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nearly a century after the amendment was ratified in 1870, the civil rights movement forced the nation to acknowledge the injustice.

THE MARCH FROM SELMA

Activists who tried to help blacks register in the South in the 1960s were met with violence. The fatal shooting of a demonstrator by a law officer in Alabama inspired the idea of a march to the state capital on March 7, 1965.

Hundreds of marchers on their way to Montgomery were clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma. TV news cameras captured what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Protesters across the country rallied in support of the marchers. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Selma to lead demonstrations. And President Lyndon Johnson seized the momentum to propel the Voting Rights Act through Congress.

He signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965.

VOTING RIGHTS ACT

The law outlawed racial discrimination against voters in local, state and federal elections.

Some entire states, as well as counties in other states, were subjected to special federal enforcement, based on a formula used to weigh their record on voting rights. They had to get approval in advance before they could make even minor changes to voting laws, such as moving polling places.

The enforcement provisions were originally seen as emergency measures that might be allowed to expire in 1970 if no longer needed.

But lawmakers extended the provisions in 1970, 1975 and 1982. In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep them another 25 years.

“We’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending,” President George W. Bush said as he signed the legislation.

NEARLY A HALF CENTURY LATER

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision Tuesday effectively halts enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, unless Congress updates it.

The court said Congress has failed to adjust the law to reflect decades of strides toward racial equality. The United States now has a black president; a black justice sits on the Supreme Court. And 48 years after “Bloody Sunday,” Selma is governed by a black mayor, Chief Justice John Roberts noted, writing for the court’s conservative majority.

The Supreme Court decision means that a host of state and local laws in covered jurisdictions now can take effect without Justice Department approval. Prominent among those are voter identification laws in Alabama and Mississippi.

The other covered states are Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan, are also included.

Enforcement coverage has been triggered by discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Under the law, jurisdictions can break away from federal oversight if they show a clean record on voting rights for 10 years. Towns in New Hampshire were released in March.

WHAT’S NEXT

President Barack Obama said the Supreme Court decision was a disappointing setback. He called on Congress to act to rectify the situation.

The Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate find few points of agreement these days, however. And Congress did nothing in response to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that warned lawmakers that the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement formula needed to be updated.

Unless Congress acts, there will be no deterrent to changes that would undermine voting rights, such as redrawing districts to dilute the power of minority voters. Voters can still use lawsuits to challenge such changes.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, writing in dissent, said throwing out effective enforcement was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.

Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ConnieCass

©2012 The Associated Press

Morning Briefing: Test Vote On Tap for Immigration Plan

It’s crunch time for the Senate, which holds a test vote today on a modified immigration bill that would vastly increase border security while putting 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. Sponsors appear to have the 60 votes needed to stave off a filibuster by conservatives such as Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas but are in search of the 70 they say would improve the bill’s chances in the House. Majority Leader Harry Reid wants a vote on final passage before recess and has made procedural moves designed to accomplish that.

Today in the Senate: The chamber resumes consideration of an overhaul of immigration laws (S 744) and votes on a motion by Reid, D-Nev., to limit debate on an amendment that makes a variety of changes to the bill, including tying the legal status created for illegal immigrants to heightened border security triggers. Meets at noon with a vote on the motion at 5:30 p.m.

Today in the House: The chamber meets in a pro forma session at 11 a.m.

Today at the White House: President Barack Obama meets in the afternoon with a group of CEOs and business owners to discuss the immigration overhaul.

TEST VOTE ON IMMIGRATION PLAN: After spending the end of last week frantically wrapping up negotiations on a border security plan, the Senate votes today on whether to limit debate on a catch-all amendment that includes the border language, a series of noncontroversial proposals and compromises on other immigration-related issues.

The border deal worked out by John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., would cost roughly $30 billion and double the number of armed officers on the southern border to about 40,000. It would also direct the government to spend billions of dollars on drones, helicopters, cameras and infrared sensors.

Under what’s come to be known as the "border surge," undocumented immigrants would only be allowed to become legal permanent residents once the added resources are put in place and a nationwide employment verification system and a better entry-exit system at the nation’s airports and seaports has been implemented.

The package also includes amendments by Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, whose vote has been vigorously courted by Democrats for weeks. They would ban Social Security benefits to undocumented workers and prevent any cash welfare payments from going to non-citizens.

CQ reporters David Harrison and Humberto Sanchez will be on hand for the vote and watching whether Reid wins agreements for votes on other amendments. Hundreds of amendments have been filed but senators have not been able to agree on a pared-down list.

BUSY WEEK FOR APPROPRIATORS: It’s shaping up to be a full week for appropriators in both chambers. Senate Appropriations subcommittees mark up the fiscal 2014 Energy-Water and Transportation-HUD spending bills on Tuesday, with full committee consideration of both measures scheduled on Thursday.

In the House, the full Appropriations Committee marks up the same pair of bills on Wednesday.

The $44.1 billion House Transportation-HUD measure has received attention for its $1.3 billion in recommended cuts to the Community Development Block Grant program compared with the fiscal 2013 enacted level, or a roughly 45 percent reduction. Funding for Amtrak, which would get $950 million, would also be slashed by $468 million compared with the fiscal 2013 enacted level.

HUD’s Public and Indian Housing account, which contains funding for Section 8 vouchers, would see $24.9 billion under the bill, a $953 million cut. And the Federal Aviation Administration, which would be funded at $11.8 billion, would see a $ 756 million cut compared with the fiscal 2013 enacted level.

SUPREME COURT DECISIONS LOOM: Saving its best for last, the Supreme Court this week may decide high-profile cases involving same-sex marriage, voting rights and affirmative action before the current term comes to a close.

We’ll be watching for congressional reaction if the justices rule on the constitutionality of a 1996 federal law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as well as a 2008 California ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage. Challenges to both measures were argued in March.

The 17-year-old U.S. law, which was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, denies more than 1,000 federal benefits to gay couples, even if those couples are married legally under state law. A ruling against it could lead to nationwide legalization of such unions.

The high court also is likely to rule on a challenge to a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires areas with a history of discrimination to "preclear" any changes to their voting procedures with the Justice Department. The outcome of the case, argued in February, could be influenced by steps Congress took when it reauthorized the provision in 2006.

The court may additionally decide a case argued last year dealing with whether the University of Texas may consider the race of its applicants in trying to ensure a diverse student body. The prospect of a decision striking down such racial preferences spurred members of Congress to file legal briefs defending the practice.

Justices could still decide to extend the term another week and stretch out the release of decisions.

SENATE PLOTS JULY STRATEGY: Senate Democrats are planning a narrow agenda after the Fourth of July break, focusing on infrastructure and other domestic needs through action on fiscal 2014 spending bills and attempts to confirm presidential nominees.

CQ’s Alan K. Ota writes that Reid is unlikely to act on several items on Obama’s middle-class agenda, including a proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage of $7.25.

Reid can instead select from four appropriations bills — Agriculture, Military Construction-VA, Energy-Water, and Transportation-HUD. Of those, the Agriculture and Military Construction-VA bills offer the best chance for bipartisan Senate agreement. Appropriations marked up both last week with 23-6 bipartisan tallies, even though their funding levels would outstrip both the administration requests and the House versions of the bills.

Democrats reassessed their near-term strategy after last week’s House defeat of a farm bill (HR 1947), which aides said suggests stalemate is likely to continue on prominent issues such as a fiscal 2014 budget resolution and a possible plan to raise the federal borrowing limit. Reid expressed new doubts about cutting deals with House Republican leaders after the vote.

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

Court makes it harder to sue businesses

WASHINGTON (AP) — A sharply-divided Supreme Court on Monday made it more difficult for Americans to sue businesses for discrimination and retaliation.

The court’s conservatives, in two 5-4 decisions, ruled that a person must be able to hire and fire someone to be considered a supervisor in discrimination lawsuits, making it harder to blame a business for a coworker’s racism or sexism. The court then decided to limit how juries can decide retaliation lawsuits, saying victims must prove employers would not have taken action against them but for their intention to retaliate.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote both dissents for the court’s liberal wing and in a rare move read one aloud in the courtroom, said the high court had "corralled Title VII," a law designed to stop discrimination in the nation’s workplaces.

"Both decisions dilute the strength of Title VII in ways Congress could not have intended," she said.

In the first case, Maetta Vance, who was a catering specialist at Ball State University, accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation in 2005. Vance sued the school under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying the university was liable since Davis was her supervisor. But a federal judge threw out her lawsuit, saying that since Davis could not fire Vance, she was only a co-worker, and since the university had taken corrective action, it was not liable for Davis’ actions. The 7th Circuit upheld that decision, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.

But Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, said for the university to be liable, Davis must have had the authority to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline" Vance.

"We hold that an employee is a `supervisor’ for purposed of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim," Alito said. "Because there is no evidence that BSU empowered Davis to take any tangible employment actions against Vance, the judgment of the Seventh Circuit is affirmed."

In the second case, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center wanted a discrimination lawsuit won by Dr. Naiel Nassar thrown out. Nassar left in 2006 after complaining of harassment, but Parkland Hospital withdrew its job offer after one of his former supervisors opposed it. Nassar sued, saying the medical center retaliated against him for his discrimination complaints by encouraging Parkland to take away his job offer. A jury awarded him more than $3 million in damages.

The medical center appealed, saying the judge told the jury it only had to find that retaliation was a motivating factor in the supervisor’s actions, called mixed-motive. Instead, it said, the judge should have told the jury it had to find that discriminatory action wouldn’t have happened "but-for" the supervisor’s desire to retaliate for liability to attach.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, agreed with the lower court and the university, saying people "must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer." But he didn’t rule completely for the medical center, sending the case back to the lower courts after saying a decision on the resolution of the case "is better suited by courts closer to the facts of this case."

Kennedy, Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted together in those cases.

Ginsburg, and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented together both times.

Ginsburg said she hopes Congress intervenes in both cases, just as it did in past Title VII cases. "Today, the ball again lies in Congress’ court to correct this court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII," she said.

The cases are Vance v. Ball State University, 11-556 and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar.

Follow Jesse J. Holland at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland

©2012 The Associated Press

Obama to announce new rules aimed at coal and blunting climate change

WASHINGTON _ President Barack Obama on Tuesday will announce a long-awaited federal strategy that not only is expected to rein in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions but also will address the sweeping effects of climate change already occurring.

The strategy will put in place a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, Obama said this weekend in a video address previewing his speech. The centerpiece is expected to establish new rules that limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, the source in the U.S. of 40 percent of the gases that lead to global warming. Most of those plants are coal powered.

“There’s no single step that can reverse the effects of climate change,” Obama said Saturday. “But when it comes to the world we leave our children, we owe it to them to do what we can.”

Obama’s move, long awaited by environmentalists, makes good on a pledge in his second inaugural address to respond to climate change. At the time, he cast it as a moral obligation and warned that failing to take action “would betray our children and future generations.” It’s not just a responsibility to his fellow Americans, Obama said, but to “all posterity.” Last week in Germany, he called it “the global threat of our time.”

Environmental groups have been pressuring Obama to act on the promises laid out in that speech, which included a pledge to take executive action if Congress did not act. The Natural Resources Defense Council launched ads featuring actor Robert Redford calling on the president to act on the “courage of his convictions.”

Until now, there has not been a cohesive strategy to reduce emissions to meet U.S. targets, said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. It’s important for private investors and ordinary people to have a clear sense of where the government is heading, he said.

“President Obama is really resetting the climate agenda tomorrow. And it’s a wonderful thing to see that he is reclaiming this issue,” Steer said.

The administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency, already has drafted rules that curtail emissions at new power plants. What it hasn’t done yet is issue rules that apply to existing power plants.

Those rules are likely to be the most controversial piece of the proposal in the president’s speech, since many of the dirtiest, carbon-intensive power plants are fueled by coal. Regional energy interests, among others, are likely to object.

Courts have determined that carbon emissions are a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and that the EPA has the authority to pursue regulation of them. A number of major environmental groups have given the White House plans that outline what sort of legal authority they think the agency has to act.

The U.S. has more than 1,142 coal-fired plants and 3,967 gas-fired plants across the country, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group that represents many of the nation’s power producers. About 37 percent of all of U.S. electricity is generated from coal. About 30 percent came from natural gas in 2012. Natural gas, because it is cheaper, has been rapidly overtaking coal as a preferred fuel.

The Clean Air Act “authorizes EPA to do a lot with respect to greenhouse gases” and also demands a great deal of the agency, said Jason Schwartz, the legal director at New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity, the law school’s advocacy arm. Schwartz’s group is going to be looking for so-called market mechanisms that allow power plants to trade or borrow emission credits, for example.

“What we’re going to be listening for is to hear which of these many actions the president and EPA are going to be prioritizing, and what sort of their general approach to regulation is going to be,” he said.

Many industry groups, including those that represent coal and mining, declined to comment until they had heard more details of the president’s speech.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Utilities had no formal role in developing the policies expected to be announced Tuesday, said Quin Shea of the Edison Electric Institute. But many of the pieces are familiar, he said, and as the details emerge utilities will have a better sense of what it means for the industry.

“Our understanding of the contours of the policy is that there are a number of pieces,” he said. “None of which is particularly new, whether you’re talking about energy efficiency, increased use of renewables, development and greater expansion and marketability of new technologies, and new source performance standards. All of those pieces have been in play for several years.”

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

The proposal met with immediate political opposition, however. The office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the president was about to “roll out a new ream of red tape that will make American energy more expensive and destroy jobs.” And the National Republican Senatorial Campaign sent out an alert that targets Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014.

“Rather than focusing on means to strengthen the economy, President Obama is embracing the most extreme environmentalists on the left and forcing his own agenda of radical climate change policies, blatantly ignoring the priorities of Americans,” said the group, which is charged with electing Republican senators.

The president’s proposal also is expected to include what’s known as mitigation _ addressing the impacts of climate change that many American communities are already experiencing, whether it’s rising sea levels on the East Coast or melting sea ice in the Arctic. Obama also will pledge to lead global efforts in fighting climate change.

___

(c)2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Bully Pulpit Myth Reveals Limits Of Presidential Persuasion

When Chris Cillizza writes, as he did Monday, that the “bully pulpit just ain’t what it used to be,” it primes me to expect that some exciting news is coming. Specifically, that somehow, the “bully pulpit” has been transformed into some incredibly effective tool for moving opinion. I mean, I can’t point to any recent examples of that happening, but I’ve been binge-watching “Arrested Development” lately, so it’s possible I may have missed some huge, dramatic turnaround in the power of the bully pulpit.

As it turns out, however, the status quo ante seems to be in place. Cillizza goes on at length to say that the “bully pulpit is less bully these days.” He takes a good stab at explaining why this is. In his brief, Cillizza says that there are a lot of news organizations now — “a million smaller shards [of media] makes that sort of agenda-driving incredibly difficult.” He also says that the news moves at a frenetic pace that precludes “pro-activeness,” and forces “reactiveness.” Also, “America is so polarized,” et cetera. But the plain and simple truth is that the bully pulpit is already zero bully, and it has been for a long time, so it is really hard to see how it can get less bully than “no bully.”

If you want definitive proof that the bully pulpit is a pretty ineffective tool for convincing or persuading people, one need only look at the fact that political scientists keep on seizing their bully pulpit to point out how little impact the bully pulpit has, and they’ve failed to convince people! For once, we have a tautology that you can believe in.

Remember FDR’s “fireside chats?” If you do, you are probably remembering them way too fondly. Here’s Ezra Klein, citing George Edwards and his book On Deaf Ears: The Limits Of The Bully Pulpit:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats are perhaps the most frequently cited example of Presidential persuasion. Cue Edwards: “He gave only two or three fireside chats a year, and rarely did he focus them on legislation under consideration in Congress. It appears that FDR only used a fireside chat to discuss such matters on four occasions, the clearest example being the broadcast on March 9, 1937, on the ill-fated ‘Court-packing’ bill.� Edwards also quotes the political scientists Matthew Baum and Samuel Kernell, who, in a more systematic examination of Roosevelt’s radio addresses, found that they fostered “less than a 1 percentage point increase� in his approval rating. His more traditional speeches didn’t do any better. He was unable to persuade Americans to enter the Second World War, for example, until Pearl Harbor.

And here is John Sides, bringing Edwards’ work to a more recent presidency:

Presidential speeches don’t tend to persuade people on policy either. Take the “Great Communicator,â€? Ronald Reagan. In “The Strategic President,” George Edwards shows that Reagan could not move opinion on signature issues like aid to the contras. And Reagan’s advocacy for increased defense spending was soon followed by a decrease in support for additional defense spending. Public opinion on government spending often moves in the opposite direction as presidential preferences and government policy.

What about a sustained campaign of persuasion, though, John?

Chances are, it won’t. Even Reagan realized this. In his own words:

“Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans … But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America … and, among those who did care, too few cared … to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.”

And you can also think about George W. Bush and the effort to reform Social Security.

Smash cut to Brendan Nyhan!

As Atrios points out, polling suggests President Bush’s speech failed to overcome the public’s opposition to an increase in troop levels in Iraq:

“President Bush’s address to the nation last week failed to move public opinion in support of his plan to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq and left Americans more pessimistic about the likely outcome of the war.

In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday, more than 6 of 10 people back the idea of a non-binding congressional resolution expressing opposition to Bush’s plan to commit an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq.”

But we shouldn’t be surprised by this. As I pointed out back in February 2005, in the context of President Bush’s push for private accounts in Social Security, the evidence indicates that presidents and political elites can rarely move public opinion significantly in their direction through PR campaigns. But the myth of the bully pulpit persists because journalists are generally ignorant about political science or quantitative evidence more generally.

More broadly, let’s engage in a thought exercise. Let’s say that the current occupant of the White House is a silver-tongued devil of a speaker — just the most gorgeous orator in the history of the realm. And let’s say that I am not blogger Jason Linkins, let’s say that I am Sen. Jason Linkins (I-WTFistan). Give all the speeches you want, Mr. President Silver Tongued-Devil. Go out there and emote. Rend your garments. If I can rustle up a super-minority of senators to quietly filibuster what you want to do, I beat you and your bully pulpit every time.

That’s largely what’s happening now. (Though occasionally you can defeat Obama’s bully pulpit remonstrations about closing Gitmo by simply assembling a coalition of Democrats unwilling to risk being called “soft on the war on terror” to simply block the provision of funding for your Gitmo-closing ambitions.)

The word “filibuster” never appears in Cillizza’s column, and it really should, because that right there’s the whole shooting match.

Now, I suppose that if enough influential people in the political media gradually presented the case that filibustering everything under the sun is not normative, perhaps over time, a political cost could be attached to filibustering everything under the sun. But for the most part, the influential voices in the political media are neutral on the filibuster. They correctly point out that if you examine the history of using the filibuster tactic, you can find examples of “both sides doing it too.” But the sort of people who will tell you that it’s getting abused don’t get booked on Sunday shows to talk about it. And so, no political cost is ever paid for obstruction. (And by the way, there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue as the way of doing business in the Senate, unless a self-sacrificing band of Democrats decide to deny themselves the tool.)

The good news here is that persuasion from a sort of “pulpit” is possible. As Sides has pointed out many a time, “What presidents can do, Edwards argues, is ‘facilitate’ change in favorable environments.” The takeaway then, is that “bully pulpit persuasion” doesn’t have a short game. It’s a long and circuitous and time-consuming process, in which a president does not so much “persuade lots of recalcitrant voters or members of Congress,” as merely “signal the president’s intention to push for these policies and, equally if not more important, to bargain about these policies.”

Per Sides:

In other words, the speech, whatever its tone, was not laying proposals that are set in stone. Expect the speech simply to spawn additional debate and negotiation.

If the end result is a bill on the president’s desk, we’ll have an excellent example of how presidential leadership really works. It’s not about magic words or eloquent moments. As Edwards said, it’s about facilitating change.

Let me give you a cheap, side-of-the-cereal-box example of how “facilitating change in a favorable environment” works. One day, Vice President Joe Biden is on Meet The Press, and he says, “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights.” The next thing you know, Obama is forced to respond to this (my God, he has to be “reactive” and not “pro-active!”) and he, too, comes out in favor of marriage equality. And the next thing you know, Jay-Z is on board and a bunch of states are successfully making marriage equality legal and Mark Kirk is offering gorgeously poetic support for the same and now even Lisa Murkowski is on board.

Power of the bully pulpit? Nay, friends. Marriage equality was already very broadly popular at the time Biden went on Meet The Press. Biden just took that favorable environment and facilitated himself a little change! Had Biden come out in favor of something that wasn’t popular, like, “Let’s bomb Ontario” or, “Can we maybe stop putting ramps in every recipe,” it wouldn’t have moved the needle.

Now, unfortunately, here is where what Cillizza mentions — about the splintered media, and the relative speed of the news — really does come into play. If the media game is all about “jump on the shiny shiny,” there is not going to be a whole lot of drive or effort put behind covering or explaining the long process of “facilitating change in favorable environments” or the bargaining or the trade-offs. Usually, you get that story after something has already been accomplished.

So you will get really good after-the-fact stories, like this one from Carrie Budoff Brown and Manu Raju, titled “Inside the border deal that almost failed.” If more people took these stories seriously, and understood all the complicated wheeler-dealing that actually resolves these kinds of matters, people would feel okay about letting go of the myth of the bully pulpit.

(By the way: What would happen if President Barack Obama took to the bully pulpit to loudly praise Marco Rubio effusively for his work on comprehensive immigration reform? The reform bill would fail. So much for the bully pulpit! Sometimes you facilitate change in a favorable environment by not seeming to do anything at all.)

So, in the end, where and on what occasion does the presidential “bully pulpit” work? Basically, in the movies, when you only have two hours of plot to resolve matters that normally take months, and you need a cool plot device for the final reel.

That’s where the bully pulpit works, and nowhere else, and it has always been this way, and it always shall be, the end.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

For secretive surveillance court, rare scrutiny in wake of NSA leaks

Wedged into a secure, windowless basement room deep below the Capitol Visitors Center, U.S. District Court Judge John Bates appeared before dozens of senators two weeks ago for a highly unusual, top-secret briefing.

The lawmakers pressed Bates, according to people familiar with the session, to discuss the inner workings of the United States’ clandestine terrorism surveillance tribunal, which Bates oversaw from 2006 until earlier this year.

Bates had rarely spoken of his sensitive work. He reluctantly agreed to appear at the behest of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who arranged the session after new disclosures that the court had granted the government broad access to millions of Americans’ telephone and Internet communications.

The two-hour meeting on June 13 featuring Bates and two top spy agency officials ? prompted by reports days earlier by The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper about the vast reach of the programs ? reflects a new and uncomfortable reality for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and its previously obscure members. Within the past month, lawmakers have begun to ask who the court’s judges are, what they do, why they have almost never declined a government surveillance request, and why their work is so secretive.

The public is getting a peek into the little-known workings of a powerful and mostly invisible government entity. And it is seeing a court whose secret rulings have in effect created a body of law separate from the one on the books ? one that gives U.S. spy agencies the authority to collect bulk information about Americans’ medical care, firearms purchases, credit card usage and other interactions with business and commerce, according to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

“The government can get virtually anything,” said Wyden, who as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee is allowed to read many of the court’s classified rulings. “Health, guns, credit cards ? my reading is not what has been done, it’s what can be done.”

Members of Congress from both parties are pursuing legislation to force the court’s orders into the open and have stepped up demands that the Obama administration release at least summaries of the court’s opinions.

Critics, including some with knowledge of the court’s internal operations, say the court has undergone a disturbing shift. It was created in 1978 to handle routine surveillance warrants, but these critics say it is now issuing complex, classified, Supreme Court-style rulings that are quietly expanding the government’s reach into the private lives of unwitting Americans.

Surveillance court judges are selected from the pool of sitting federal judges by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, as is required by the law that established the panel. There is no additional confirmation process. Members serve staggered terms of up to seven years.

Typical federal courts are presided over by judges nominated by presidents and confirmed by the Senate. Cases are argued by two opposing sides; judges issue orders and opinions that can be read, analyzed and appealed; and appellate opinions set precedents that shape American jurisprudence.

The surveillance court is a different world of secret case law, non-adversarial proceedings, and rulings written by individual judges who rarely meet as a panel.

Judges generally confer only with government lawyers, and out of public view. Yet the judges have the power to interpret the Constitution and set long-lasting and far-reaching precedent on matters involving Americans’ rights to privacy and due process under the Fourth Amendment. And this fast-growing body of law is almost entirely out of view of legal scholars and the public. Most Americans do not have access to the judiciary’s full interpretation of the Constitution on matters of surveillance, search and seizure when it comes to snooping for terrorist plots ? and are limited in their ability to challenge it.

All 11 of the current members were tapped by Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Ten were originally appointed to the federal bench by Republican presidents. Six are former prosecutors.

“The judges that are assigned to this court are judges that are not likely to rock the boat,” said Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge from Massachusetts who teaches at Harvard Law School. Gertner, a former defense and civil rights lawyer named to the bench by Democrat Bill Clinton, added: “All of the structural pressures that keep a judge independent are missing there. It’s one-sided, secret, and the judges are chosen in a selection process by one man.”

Steven Aftergood, director of the government secrecy program at the Federation of American Scientists, called the court “an astonishing departure from what we thought we knew about the judiciary.”

Several current and former members of the court, as well as government officials, reject the criticism. They say internal checks are built into the system to assure Americans’ rights are not violated.

The court’s current chief, D.C. District Court Judge Reggie Walton, was so perturbed about recent critiques of the court that he issued a rare public statement in the wake of newspaper reports about the court’s approval of the phone and Internet surveillance programs.

“The perception that the court is a rubber stamp is absolutely false,” Walton said. “There is a rigorous review process of applications submitted by the executive branch, spearheaded initially by five judicial branch lawyers who are national security experts and then by the judges, to ensure that the court’s authorizations comport with what the applicable statutes authorize.”’

Administration officials echoed those sentiments last week during a public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, telling lawmakers that the process of seeking approval for a new warrant takes extensive time and effort. The judges “push back a lot,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole. “These are very thick applications that have a lot in them. And when they see anything that raises an issue, they will push back and say, ‘We need more information.’”

Roberts and an aide vet judges as candidates for the secret court. The contenders, who have undergone Senate confirmation for their original judicial posts, are screened again using an unusually exhaustive FBI background check that examines their lives “going back to birth,” according to a person with knowledge of the process. Candidates are told to withdraw if anything in their lives could prove embarrassing ? the chief justice reads each FBI report. He has rejected contenders for traits such as excessive alcohol use, the person said.

The court was expanded from seven judges after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At least three of the judges must live in the Washington area to ensure that a judge is always personally reachable by government officials in case of emergencies. Court members also continue to manage their regular dockets as district judges.

One of the most recent appointees, Judge Michael Mosman of Oregon, drew attention in 2008 when, in his position as a district court judge, he temporarily blocked a new state law allowing gay people to obtain domestic-partnership status.

Days after U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer’s March appointment to the secret court, her decision in a high-profile case involving government secrecy was overturned. She had ruled that the CIA could keep secret its list of drone targets, but a higher court overruled her.

Another member is Susan Webber Wright, the Arkansas judge who presided over the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit against Clinton and famously held the president in contempt.

Walton is a former prosecutor who sentenced former Richard B. Cheney adviser I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby to more than two years in prison for his role in the Valerie Plame leak case. President George W. Bush later commuted Libby’s sentence.

Court officials reject suggestions that the judges reflect any partisan or ideological bent. They note that two former presiding judges ? Joyce Hens Green and Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ? were appointed to the federal bench by Democratic presidents. Neither is currently on the surveillance court.

Judges say they take the roles seriously.

“There’s no question that every judge who has ever served on this court has thought it was the most significant thing they’ve ever done as a judge,” U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said in a rare public interview on the subject posted on a federal court Web site in 2002. “When I did the hearings on the embassy bombings in Africa, we started the hearings in my living room at 3:00 in the morning. And some of the taps I did that night turned out to be very significant and were used in the New York trials of the people indicted for the bombings.”

Tensions have bubbled to the surface in recent days, with some of the court’s judges privately expressing frustration that it has become the center of attention and an object of criticism. They note that Congress helped pass the laws allowing the government’s broad spying powers and that the administration instructs the court to keep its inner workings secret.

Walton, who took over as chief earlier this year, issued an order last month demanding the Obama administration respond to a request from a civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for the release of a classified ruling in which the court found that the government had engaged in unconstitutional surveillance of Americans. The court has even taken the rare step over the past two weeks of creating a public docket Web page featuring the Electronic Frontier Foundation case as well as a separate, new motion brought by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking records of the phone surveillance program.

Bates’s June 13 appearance before lawmakers came after Feinstein, a staunch defender of the program, called Roberts to request that he dispatch Bates to the briefing. The session was open to all senators; 47 attended, according to someone familiar with the meeting.

Bates, a former prosecutor and Bush-appointed judge in the D.C. district court, rebuffed several questions about the court’s orders, telling senators they should address their questions to executive branch officials, according to people briefed on the session. He stressed that the government’s collection and surveillance programs were classified as top-secret by the Obama administration, not by the judiciary.

Still, the government almost always gets much of what it wants from the court. In 2012, the court received 1,789 requests for electronic surveillance, according to the annual report it files with the Senate. One was withdrawn. The rest were approved, sometimes after back-and-forth interactions in which judges required the government to tweak or scale back its plans. Significant opinions in recent years have been sent to congressional intelligence committee members but remain classified.

Now, outside critics, lawmakers and some with internal knowledge of the court are starting to push for an overhaul.

Wyden said the surveillance court has issued “pretty stunning rulings, rulings that I think are about as expansive as anything you can imagine.”

Wyden pointed to court orders authorizing collection of bulk phone data, which The Post reported had dated to 2006, as indicators of the court’s broad view of government powers. At issue is a provision of the Patriot Act, passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, which permitted the FBI to compel the production of “business records” deemed relevant to terrorism and espionage investigations and to share those with intelligence officials.

Those orders followed a turbulent time for the secret court. Some judges were outraged that they had not been aware of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping operation, which was first reported by the New York Times in late 2005. One member of the panel, U.S. District Judge James Robertson, resigned in protest, confiding to colleagues that he was concerned the program may have been illegal and could have tainted the court’s work.

One person close to the court, requesting anonymity to discuss the secretive body, said the newly revealed orders indicate a shift in which the court blesses the bulk collection of Americans’ communications data to make investigations easier rather than weighing the merits of violating the privacy of one person on a case-by-case basis. Before this change, the person said, “ it was one warrant at a time.”

The court’s under-the-radar approach proved a particular challenge this spring to the Electronic Frontier Foundation when it sought to file its motion seeking release of the prior finding of the unlawful government surveillance. It turned out that the mere act of finding the court proved a steep hurdle. Repeated calls to the court clerk from the foundation went unreturned, said David Sobel, an attorney for the group. The group wound up submitting the motion through a staffer at the Justice Department, whose officials were actively opposing the group’s efforts.

“We never had any direct contact with the court,” Sobel said, “and the other party in the proceeding was the gatekeeper.”

Chief Justice Roberts himself signaled some discomfort with the system during his 2005 confirmation hearings.

“I’ll be very candid,” he told senators. “When I first learned about the FISA court, I was surprised. It’s not what we usually think of when we think of a court. We think of a place where we can go, we can watch, the lawyers argue, and it’s subject to the glare of publicity. And the judges explain their decision to the public and they can examine them. That’s what we think of as a court.”