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Topic: Ron Wyden

Wyden’s Stunt Was Congress at its Worst

On the face of it what happened in March was an example of everything that is wrong with government. When asked a straightforward question about whether the government collects data on millions of Americans, the director of national intelligence said the answer was no. In the wake of the revelation of the PRISM program that we know involves the capture of such data, James Clapper’s answer to Senator Ron Wyden’s question appears to be a big fat lie for which the DNI should pay with his job. Clapper’s deception seems to be just one more instance of governmental misbehavior along with Benghazi, the IRS scandal and the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. His dishonest answer is seen by many as little different from Attorney General Eric Holder’s lie when he was asked whether the government contemplated prosecutions of journalists even though he had already signed off on a court document in which Fox News’s James Rosen was labeled a “co-conspirator” and a flight risk.

But though I have little sympathy for Clapper, whose policy positions on the Islamist threat are highly questionable, lumping him together with Holder would not be fair. Far from being an honest probe into what the government was doing, it’s actually yet another example of how congressional grandstanding does the country little good. Wyden, who was already well briefed on PRISM and other intelligence operations, already knew the answer to the question when he asked it. But he also knew that it would have been inappropriate, if not illegal, for Clapper to answer the question honestly since doing so would have required him to publicly reveal highly classified information that ought not to be made available to America’s enemies. Wyden’s purpose wasn’t to shed light but to merely embarrass Clapper and the administration.

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On the face of it what happened in March was an example of everything that is wrong with government. When asked a straightforward question about whether the government collects data on millions of Americans, the director of national intelligence said the answer was no. In the wake of the revelation of the PRISM program that we know involves the capture of such data, James Clapper’s answer to Senator Ron Wyden’s question appears to be a big fat lie for which the DNI should pay with his job. Clapper’s deception seems to be just one more instance of governmental misbehavior along with Benghazi, the IRS scandal and the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. His dishonest answer is seen by many as little different from Attorney General Eric Holder’s lie when he was asked whether the government contemplated prosecutions of journalists even though he had already signed off on a court document in which Fox News’s James Rosen was labeled a “co-conspirator” and a flight risk.

But though I have little sympathy for Clapper, whose policy positions on the Islamist threat are highly questionable, lumping him together with Holder would not be fair. Far from being an honest probe into what the government was doing, it’s actually yet another example of how congressional grandstanding does the country little good. Wyden, who was already well briefed on PRISM and other intelligence operations, already knew the answer to the question when he asked it. But he also knew that it would have been inappropriate, if not illegal, for Clapper to answer the question honestly since doing so would have required him to publicly reveal highly classified information that ought not to be made available to America’s enemies. Wyden’s purpose wasn’t to shed light but to merely embarrass Clapper and the administration.

Edward Snowden’s leak about the existence and purpose of PRISM made sure that Wyden’s questioning of Clapper would become a major story, thus giving the Oregon senator the prize he sought. As the clip of Clapper’s lie is shown in a seemingly endless loop on the cable news stations, Wyden is back in the spotlight posturing about the need for “straight talk” from the administration. But the senator, who has carefully built up a reputation as a sober advocate of civil liberties, is the one who is being disingenuous, not Clapper.

Clapper’s attempts to wriggle out of the corner into which Wyden put him are laughable. The attempts to parse his answer to Wyden’s question as being technically truthful don’t work and he should stop trying to claim that he didn’t lie. But a dispassionate view of these circumstances shows that there are times when honesty is not always the best policy.

As guardian of the nation’s secrets, Clapper’s first duty is to ensure that efforts to combat Islamist terror are protected. Whether one likes PRISM or not—and count me among those who regard efforts to depict it as an Orwellian scheme as wrongheaded—the whole purpose of the program would have been undermined had it been made public. Wyden’s goal that day was not to elicit information so much as it was to force Clapper to choose between trashing a legal and necessary security measure and to lie. Though he must have hated doing it—something that showed up clearly in his body language as he told the lie—I can’t blame him for sacrificing his own credibility in order to protect a national secret.

Unlike Holder, who had no security or policy reason to lie about his targeting of James Rosen when he lied to Congress about that issue, Clapper was faced with a real dilemma and probably chose the lesser of two evils.

The real culprit that day was Wyden, who used the bully pulpit of a Senate committee hearing to create a sound byte. His pious declamations about his goals notwithstanding, by asking that question in public, he was seeking to trash a measure that by all accounts has been helpful in defending the nation. Like so many senators and members of Congress who have used hearings to posture more than legislate, Wyden’s question was pure theater. Rather than this episode being an example of administration misconduct, it was actually one that illustrated what happens when a senator gets the chance to grandstand in front of a television camera.

Whatever we may think of Clapper, he doesn’t deserve the opprobrium he has been getting on this issue. If anyone deserves our disdain here it is the senator who placed his ideological agenda ahead of the country’s national security needs.

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Dems Block Resolution on WH Leak Probe

Sen. John McCain, who has been out in front on the White House leaking scandal, introduced a resolution earlier today calling for a special counsel to investigate. The Hill reports it was immediately blocked by Senate Democrats:

McCain introduced a resolution Tuesday expressing the Senate’s support for [Attorney General Eric] Holder to appoint a special prosecutor. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) objected after McCain asked for unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to consideration of his resolution.

“What is at issue here is whether or not we are going to give an opportunity for U.S. attorneys, professionals in their fields, to handle this particular inquiry,” Wyden said. “And I see no evidence, Mr. President, that the way U.S. attorneys are handling this investigation at this time is not with the highest standards of professionalism.”

Democrats are (to their credit) willing to criticize the White House for the leaks, but so far they’ve lacked the political courage to call for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the most vocal of these Democratic critics, announced her opposition to a special counsel appointment today. Feinstein said that the two attorneys appointed by the Department of Justice can handle the investigation — despite concerns over conflict of interest — and insisted that appointing a special prosecutor would needlessly prolong the investigation.

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Sen. John McCain, who has been out in front on the White House leaking scandal, introduced a resolution earlier today calling for a special counsel to investigate. The Hill reports it was immediately blocked by Senate Democrats:

McCain introduced a resolution Tuesday expressing the Senate’s support for [Attorney General Eric] Holder to appoint a special prosecutor. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) objected after McCain asked for unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to consideration of his resolution.

“What is at issue here is whether or not we are going to give an opportunity for U.S. attorneys, professionals in their fields, to handle this particular inquiry,” Wyden said. “And I see no evidence, Mr. President, that the way U.S. attorneys are handling this investigation at this time is not with the highest standards of professionalism.”

Democrats are (to their credit) willing to criticize the White House for the leaks, but so far they’ve lacked the political courage to call for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the most vocal of these Democratic critics, announced her opposition to a special counsel appointment today. Feinstein said that the two attorneys appointed by the Department of Justice can handle the investigation — despite concerns over conflict of interest — and insisted that appointing a special prosecutor would needlessly prolong the investigation.

The strong opposition from Democrats is interesting. They certainly didn’t have the same concerns about DOJ appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the Valerie Plame leak, which had far fewer national security implications. Resolving this case as quickly as possible is important, but the overriding concern should be to get it right.

By opposing the special counsel appointment, Democrats are basically demanding that we blindly believe the White House’s claim that the leaks were unauthorized. Of course there’s no way to know for sure. Even if you’re inclined to trust the White House, there is still always a chance – slim as we might hope — that the leaks were approved at the highest level. And, if that’s the case, should we really let the administration control an investigation of itself?

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A Model for Medicare Reform

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held a hearing today with Richard Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. During the hearing, this important exchange took place:

CHAIRMAN RYAN: As you may know, I’ve been working across the aisle with a member of the Oregon delegation from the Senate on a premium support plan that uses competitive bidding to help determine the contribution. Competitive bidding we’ve seen has worked well in Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage. I’d like to get your thoughts on choice and competition as it relates to these previous successful reform plans. Given what we’ve seen in these aspects of Medicare, do you believe that competitive bidding is a process that can be successfully applied Medicare-wide?

CMS CHIEF ACTUARY FOSTER: Yes, I think it can. Obviously, it would represent a large change from the status quo, but I think it could work. We’ve seen the signs of this – you mentioned the Part D prescription drug program, for example, where the different drug plans compete against each other on the quality of their benefit package and the premium level. And we’ve seen – every year since Part D started – a migration of beneficiaries to more efficient plans with lower premiums. So that can help. We’ve also seen for durable medical equipment that competitive bidding, in this particular area of Fee-For-Service Medicare, reduced prices that we had to pay by 40 percent.

RYAN: By forty percent?

FOSTER: Forty percent, that’s right.

RYAN: Those are the kinds of cost savings we’re going to have to achieve if want to make good on the promise of the Medicare guarantee.

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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held a hearing today with Richard Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. During the hearing, this important exchange took place:

CHAIRMAN RYAN: As you may know, I’ve been working across the aisle with a member of the Oregon delegation from the Senate on a premium support plan that uses competitive bidding to help determine the contribution. Competitive bidding we’ve seen has worked well in Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage. I’d like to get your thoughts on choice and competition as it relates to these previous successful reform plans. Given what we’ve seen in these aspects of Medicare, do you believe that competitive bidding is a process that can be successfully applied Medicare-wide?

CMS CHIEF ACTUARY FOSTER: Yes, I think it can. Obviously, it would represent a large change from the status quo, but I think it could work. We’ve seen the signs of this – you mentioned the Part D prescription drug program, for example, where the different drug plans compete against each other on the quality of their benefit package and the premium level. And we’ve seen – every year since Part D started – a migration of beneficiaries to more efficient plans with lower premiums. So that can help. We’ve also seen for durable medical equipment that competitive bidding, in this particular area of Fee-For-Service Medicare, reduced prices that we had to pay by 40 percent.

RYAN: By forty percent?

FOSTER: Forty percent, that’s right.

RYAN: Those are the kinds of cost savings we’re going to have to achieve if want to make good on the promise of the Medicare guarantee.

There are two important things to take away from this exchange.

The first is that the market mechanisms put in place when the Medicare prescription drug plan (Medicare Part D) was passed have worked spectacularly well.

As I pointed out in a Weekly Standard article with my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague James Capretta, pro-market reformers have long contended that, with the right policies, health care could operate more like other sectors of the economy, with strong price and quality competition rewarding those market participants who improved productivity while also satisfying the consumer. The Medicare prescription drug plan allowed us to test that theory against reality.

Medicare beneficiaries choose every year from among competing, privately run drug-coverage plans. The government’s contribution toward this coverage is set at a fixed percentage of the average premium, and no more. If beneficiaries want to enroll in a plan that costs more than the average, they can do so–but they, not the government, must pay the additional premium. This structure provides strong incentives for the drug coverage plans to secure discounts from manufacturers and encourage use of lower cost products over more expensive alternatives. Drug plans that fail to cut costs risk losing enrollment to cheaper competitors. The program’s competitive design is holding down costs for both Medicare beneficiaries and for government – fully 40 percent, according to Foster.

More importantly, the choice and competition that has worked for Medicare Part D can be applied to Medicare more broadly, which is precisely what Chairman Ryan and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden are advocating, against the fierce opposition of reactionary liberals like President Obama.

In the midst of a political year in which many silly things are being said, it’s useful from time to time to pull back to the substance of governing and learn from what works. George W. Bush did what no other president before or since has done: provide a successful, groundbreaking template for addressing the most urgent domestic issue facing America — structurally reforming the entitlement state in general and Medicare in particular. This is the kind of reform that a serious conservative governing movement would celebrate, highlight, and attempt to replicate. Which is precisely what Paul Ryan, conservative-policy-wonk-turned-budget-chairman, is attempting to do.

 

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Eric Cantor blasts Obama’s change in Israel policy: “While Israel continues its search for a reliable partner in peace, Palestinian terrorism is still celebrated in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite this reality, since day one the White House has applied a severe double standard that refuses to hold the Palestinians accountable for their many provocations. It makes one wonder where the responsible adults are in the administration? The administration’s troubling policy of manufacturing fights with Israel to ingratiate itself with some in the Arab world is no way to advance the cause of Mideast peace.  What kind of message is sent to the world when our country appears to turn its back on key strategic allies who share our values?”

Michael Rubin dissects Daniel Kurtzer’s defense of Syria engagement: “Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and a proponent of engagement, argues that recent concerns about Syrian behavior should not stop the Obama administration from sending its ambassador nominee to Syria. … The simple fact is that restoring an ambassador legitimizes Syria and its stonewalling into the investigation surrounding Rafik Hariri’s assassination as well as its support for Hezbollah, a terrorist group responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other but Al Qaeda. The simple fact is that engagement with the Assads of Syria is a fool’s game with a record of consistent failure (in contrast to a spotty but still more positive record of coercion against Syria).”

John McCain unloads on Obama for his “whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower” comment: “That’s one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard a president of the United States make in modern times. We are the dominant superpower, and we’re the greatest force for good in the history of this country, and I thank God every day that we are a dominant superpower.”

Voters in New Jersey want to uproot ObamaCare: “Fifty-one percent (51%) of voters in New Jersey, a state Barack Obama carried handily in 2008, now favor repeal of the recently-passed national health care bill. That includes 41% who strongly favor repeal.”

More bad news for Democrats in 2010 (subscription required): “Red states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming will once again have Republican Governors, while bluer states like Hawaii seem on track to elect a Democrat. At the end of the day, though, it appears that Republicans will gain between three and five governorships, giving them a majority.”

This has been clear for some time: “companies aren’t on a hiring binge.”

Sens. Judd Gregg and Ron Wyden propose a tax-simplification plan that “reduces the number of tax brackets for individuals from six to three – namely, 15 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent — and eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax, which forces millions of taxpayers to calculate their taxes twice and pay the higher amount. This simplification will save taxpayers the considerable time and money they currently spend on tax compliance.”

Creative: “An Ohio death row inmate is attempting to postpone his imminent appointment with the lethal injection gurney by claiming a possible allergy to the anaesthetic used by the state to dispatch its condemned prisoners.”

Eric Cantor blasts Obama’s change in Israel policy: “While Israel continues its search for a reliable partner in peace, Palestinian terrorism is still celebrated in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite this reality, since day one the White House has applied a severe double standard that refuses to hold the Palestinians accountable for their many provocations. It makes one wonder where the responsible adults are in the administration? The administration’s troubling policy of manufacturing fights with Israel to ingratiate itself with some in the Arab world is no way to advance the cause of Mideast peace.  What kind of message is sent to the world when our country appears to turn its back on key strategic allies who share our values?”

Michael Rubin dissects Daniel Kurtzer’s defense of Syria engagement: “Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and a proponent of engagement, argues that recent concerns about Syrian behavior should not stop the Obama administration from sending its ambassador nominee to Syria. … The simple fact is that restoring an ambassador legitimizes Syria and its stonewalling into the investigation surrounding Rafik Hariri’s assassination as well as its support for Hezbollah, a terrorist group responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other but Al Qaeda. The simple fact is that engagement with the Assads of Syria is a fool’s game with a record of consistent failure (in contrast to a spotty but still more positive record of coercion against Syria).”

John McCain unloads on Obama for his “whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower” comment: “That’s one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard a president of the United States make in modern times. We are the dominant superpower, and we’re the greatest force for good in the history of this country, and I thank God every day that we are a dominant superpower.”

Voters in New Jersey want to uproot ObamaCare: “Fifty-one percent (51%) of voters in New Jersey, a state Barack Obama carried handily in 2008, now favor repeal of the recently-passed national health care bill. That includes 41% who strongly favor repeal.”

More bad news for Democrats in 2010 (subscription required): “Red states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming will once again have Republican Governors, while bluer states like Hawaii seem on track to elect a Democrat. At the end of the day, though, it appears that Republicans will gain between three and five governorships, giving them a majority.”

This has been clear for some time: “companies aren’t on a hiring binge.”

Sens. Judd Gregg and Ron Wyden propose a tax-simplification plan that “reduces the number of tax brackets for individuals from six to three – namely, 15 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent — and eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax, which forces millions of taxpayers to calculate their taxes twice and pay the higher amount. This simplification will save taxpayers the considerable time and money they currently spend on tax compliance.”

Creative: “An Ohio death row inmate is attempting to postpone his imminent appointment with the lethal injection gurney by claiming a possible allergy to the anaesthetic used by the state to dispatch its condemned prisoners.”

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