Signs of the Times (6/29/12)

Supreme Court Upholds Obama Health Care Plan

President Obama’s landmark health care law remains standing today because of one Supreme Court justice’s unlikely vote. In a splintered 5-4 decision with momentous consequences for the nation’s health care system, balance of government power and politics, the high court handed Obama a stunning election-year victory. Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four liberal-leaning justices held that the law’s insurance mandate represents a tax on people who do not get health coverage — a tax the Constitution gives Congress the power to impose. Using that logic, the chief justice saved “Obamacare” — the most sweeping overhaul of the U.S. health care system since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, one that presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton tried and failed to achieve.

Now it’s full steam ahead for the law, which already has provided limited benefits for some seniors, young adults and people with pre-existing conditions. By January 2014, unless Congress intervenes, millions of Americans will have to obtain insurance or pay penalties, insurers will be banned from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, states will have to decide whether to expand Medicaid and create new insurance exchanges where people can shop for affordable coverage, and many small businesses will have to cover workers with the help of tax credits or pay penalties.

Court’s Health Law Ruling Could Limit Congress’ Powers

The insurance mandate survives, but Congress’ power might never be the same. That was the upshot of the Supreme Court’s complex decision on Thursday, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, upholding the core of President Obama’s landmark health care overhaul, while simultaneously embracing potentially significant new limits on the sweep of the federal government’s authority to regulate commerce and spend money. Roberts joined the court’s conservatives and Justice Anthony Kennedy in finding that Congress’ separate power to regulate commerce did not give lawmakers the authority to force people to buy insurance if they don’t want to except as a tax. And he joined six other justices in saying that Congress could not use its checkbook to coerce state officials into going along with policies they don’t like, the first time in more than a generation that the court had put any real limits on the federal government’s power to spend money.

  • While this distinction may or may not impose future limitations on government spending, calling the mandate forcing people to buy health insurance under any definition is a major expansion of the government’s reach into individual freedom, the free-market system and states’ rights. Chief Justice Roberts is a major disappointment.

States Face a Challenge to Meet Health Law’s Deadline

The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act shifts the focus from whether sweeping changes to the health insurance market should take place to a scramble to meet the law’s rapidly approaching deadlines. A number of largely Republican-led states that gambled on delay now face the unsettling prospect that the federal government could take over their responsibilities, particularly in setting up the health insurance marketplaces known as exchanges, where people will be able to choose among policies for their coverage. Under the law, individuals must be able to buy insurance coverage through the new state exchanges by Jan. 1, 2014. But a more immediate deadline is less than six months away, on Jan. 1, 2013, when states must demonstrate to the Department of Health and Human Services that the exchanges will be operational the next year. If they do not, the secretary, the federal government, “shall establish and operate” the exchanges for the states, according to the statute.

  • The Constitutional mandate for states’ rights continues to get trampled by federal power plays

Court Upholds EPA’s Global Warming Rules

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the first-ever U.S. government regulations aimed at reducing the gases blamed for global warming. The rules, which were challenged by industry groups and various states, will reduce emissions of six heat-trapping gases from large industrial facilities such as factories and power plants, as well as from automobile tailpipes. The court on Tuesday denied two challenges to the administration’s rules, including one arguing that the agency erred in concluding greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. The ruling is perhaps the most significant to come on the issue since 2007, when the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases could be controlled as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. President Obama’s administration has come under fierce criticism from Republicans, including Mitt Romney, his almost certain opponent in November, for pushing ahead with regulations after Congress failed to pass climate legislation.

  • End-time heat and weather extremes will continue to build as we draw closer to the Great Tribulation

Attorney General Holder Held in Contempt by Congress

In a mostly partisan vote Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives held Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to release records from the 2009 Operation Fast and Furious gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. It was the first time in history that a sitting Cabinet member has been so sanctioned. Thursday’s action capped 16 months of politically charged congressional inquiry into a Phoenix-based firearms case that allowed an estimated 2,000 weapons to get into the hands of criminals, mostly south of the border. President Obama’s administration has argued that the records, about 140,000 pages, are privileged because they are part of the executive branch’s deliberative process and immune to congressional scrutiny under the separation of powers. The House also authorized civil litigation to seek a court order that would force the Obama administration to release records from the case.

Security Lapses Found at CDC Bioterror Lab

A federal bioterror laboratory already under investigation by Congress for safety issues has had repeated incidents of security doors left unlocked to an area where experiments occur with dangerous germs, according to internal agency e-mails obtained by USA TODAY. The e-mails document doors being left unlocked in the building’s high-containment lab block, which includes an animal-holding area and Biosafety Level 3 labs where experiments are done on microbes that can cause serious or potentially fatal diseases and can be spread through the air. Anthrax, monkeypox, dangerous strains of influenza and the SARS virus are examples. For safety and security, access to BSL-3 labs is restricted and they are supposed to have special airflow systems designed to help keep organisms inside. Problems with the airflow systems revealed by USA TODAY, including a February incident where air briefly blew out of a lab into a “clean” hallway, prompted the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week to launch a bipartisan investigation into safety issues.

  • Given human fallibility in a fallen world, it’s only a matter of time before one or more of these biotoxins escape into the general population

Bat Plague Continues Unabated

A plague killing bats nationwide shows no sign of slowing, say biologists whose winter cave surveys indicate the “white-nose syndrome” that decimates bat populations is still spreading. Starting from one cave in New York state in 2006, the fungal infection that preys on hibernating bats, has killed more than 5.5 million bats in 19 states. The bat deaths could cost farmers $3.7 billion in losses, biologists estimate, given the flying mammals eat insect crop pests, such as beetles, and pollinate plants. Until recently, most of the losses took place in Northeastern states and eastern Canadian provinces. But over the winter, the syndrome struck bats in Missouri, as far west as it has been documented, and in Alabama, as far south.

Persecution Isn’t Just ‘Over There’

Author David Limbaugh raised awareness with his big-selling book, Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity. The book went into great detail about a growing pattern of legal and cultural discrimination against Christians in the U.S. Christians in the West are encountering a growing wave of religiously based opposition, mockery or hardships in government and on the job. It’s still happening, and on an increasing scale. Although such persecution may seem minor compared to those whose lives are threatened abroad, it underscores the pervasive anti-Christ attitude that is growing at an accelerated pace.

Natural Gas Gold Rush

Since the late 1990s, American landscapes have become dotted with a small forest of shale gas wells — 13,000 new ones a year, or about 35 a day, according to the American Petroleum Institute. In the past decade, this steady stream of development has become a gusher as nearly half the country has staked claim to these energy riches. In 2000, the USA had 342,000 natural gas wells. By 2010, more than 510,000 were in place — a 49% jump. Twenty states have shale gas wells, so-named because they tap rock layers that harbor the gas in shale formations through controversial fracking techniques The process pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to fracture shale layers and release its natural gas..

U.S. Opens More Arctic, Gulf Areas for Oil, Gas Drilling

To spur domestic energy production and quiet GOP critics, the Obama administration announced Thursday that it’s opening more areas in the Arctic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. Angering some environmentalists, the Department of Interior plans 15 potential lease sales from 2012 to 2017, including 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet Planning Areas. It’s on track to hold the first sale later this year. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the “targeted” leasing strategy will put a few sensitive areas off-limits to minimize environmental risks. They include two whaling areas in Beaufort, a hunting and fishing area in Chukchi near Barrow, Alaska, and a 25-mile buffer area near Chukchi’s coast.

Large Cities Got Larger Despite Downturn

The nation’s largest cities are growing faster than the country as a whole, according to 2011 population estimates released by the Census Bureau Thursday. All but two (Baltimore and Detroit) of the 33 cities that have 500,000-plus people grew since 2010. Of the 100 most-populous cities, almost three-fourths are growing at or above the national average of 0.9%.In the 1960s and 1970s, economic downturns used to impact the central city more than its suburbs. Now the reverse is true. Growth slowed the most in the Sun Belt, especially in areas hard hit by the housing bust and foreclosures.

Stockton is Largest U.S. City to Declare Bankruptcy

Officials in Stockton said Tuesday that mediation with creditors has failed, meaning the city is set to become the largest American city ever to declare bankruptcy. Officials were unable to reach a deal to restructure hundreds of millions of dollars of debt under a new state law designed to help municipalities avoid bankruptcy. The river port city of 290,000 in Central California has seen its property taxes and other revenues decline, while expensive investments and generous retiree benefits drained city coffers. The bankruptcy of Stockton, Calif., could be the crucial test case that determines whether local governments can use the federal courts to shed burdensome retirement benefits in a way that corporations often do. The struggling city has been firing police, firefighters and other workers for several years to reduce payroll costs so it can pay retirement benefits and debt.

Economic News

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week, but the level of applications remains too high to signal a pickup in hiring. The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications fell to a seasonally adjusted 386,000, down from 392,000 the previous week.

The Commerce Department says the overall economy grew at an annual rate of 1.9% in the January-March quarter. Economists believe economic growth in the nearly completed April-June quarter will also come in around 1.9%, a modest pace not strong enough to make a significant improvement in unemployment.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that orders for long-lasting manufactured goods rose 1.1% in May after two months of declines. The increase suggests companies remain somewhat confident in the U.S. economy despite a weaker job market and a likely recession in Europe. Durable goods are items expected to last at least three years. Orders in May rose to $217.2 billion, 46% above the recession low hit in April 2009. Orders are still 11.4% below their 2007 peak.

Barclays and its subsidiaries have agreed to pay more than $400 million to settle charges that it tried to manipulate key global interest rates. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission said Barclays senior management and multiple traders were involved in the matter and they also coordinated with traders at other banks to make false submissions from 2005 to 2009. The false data was used in determining many derivative interest rates. Four more global banks are being investigated for the alleged financial market manipulation.

Shares of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) tumbled in trading Thursday as a published report said the bank’s losses on a bad trade may be as much as $9 billion — far higher than the estimated $2 billion loss disclosed last month.

China is gobbling up U.S. real estate and U.S. assets at an astounding pace. In fact, some cities are in danger of becoming completely dominated by Chinese ownership. One of those cities is Toledo, Ohio. In many “rust belt” areas, real estate can be had for a song, and the Chinese are taking full advantage of this.

Eurozone

After 18 disappointing summits, Europe’s leaders unexpectedly appeared Friday to have finally come up with a set of measures that show they are serious about solving their crippling debt crisis. Leaders of the 17 countries that use the euro currency agreed to let funds intended to bail out indebted governments funnel money directly to struggling banks as well. The move is intended to stop banks from piling debt onto already stressed governments. The leaders also agreed to ease austerity requirements for countries that take bailouts — a victory for Spain and Italy, both of which say they have done much already to clean up their economies. The move is also a sign that Germany may be easing in its insistence on brutal austerity measures in exchange for loans. Leaders of the full 27-member European Union, which includes non-euro countries such as Britain and Poland, also agreed to a long-term plan for a tighter budgetary and political union.

Egypt

Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, received his doctorate in engineering at the University of Southern California. Two of his five children are U.S. citizens. But his years spent studying in America have not dissuaded him from the extreme beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has called for religious law, segregation of the sexes and scorns the influence of the West and Israel, experts say. His public statements over time tend to say provocative things about the U.S. and Israel. The Brotherhood is clear on its goal of a global Muslim caliphate in which the Quran is the source of all law. Now that one of its own has attained a presidency, what that means for Egypt is unclear. However, his recent internal statement not meant for public distribution is quite troubling: “We say it loud and clear our capital shall not be Cairo or Mecca or Medina—it shall be Jerusalem. Our cry shall be millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem. Banish the sleep from the eyes of all Jews. Come on you lovers of martyrdom—you are all Hamas!”

Syria

A strong explosion rocked the Syrian capital Thursday, sending black smoke billowing into the sky. The explosion was in the parking lot of the Palace of Justice, a compound that houses several courts. Syria has been hit by a wave of massive explosions in recent months, killing dozens of people. Most of the explosions targeted the security agencies of President Bashar Assad, who is fighting to end a 15-month-old uprising against his rule. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared that his country was at war and ordered his new government to spare no effort to achieve victory, as the worst fighting of the 16-month conflict reached the outskirts of the capital. Major world powers will meet Saturday in Geneva for talks on Syria, but few observers expect a major breakthrough. Syria has the protection or Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, and has so far been impervious to international pressure.

Turkey

Turkey deployed anti-aircraft guns and other weapons alongside its border with Syria, state television reported on Thursday, days after the downing of a Turkish military jet by Syrian forces heightened the tensions between the two countries. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Tuesday that any Syrian military unit approaching its border will be treated as a direct threat. Turkey’s NATO allies have expressed solidarity with Turkey and condemned the Syrian attack but made no mention of any retaliatory action against Syria.

Iran

Over the next four days, Western governments will launch their toughest sanctions yet against Iran. The steps are designed to eviscerate the oil-based economy, and to test Tehran’s determination to keep enriching uranium in defiance of United Nations resolutions. The United States and European Union will impose an oil embargo, as well as a ban on tanker insurance and other measures that analysts say could slash Iran’s foreign sales of oil – its largest source of revenue – by more than half. That would cost Iran about $4 billion a month, experts say, a substantial amount given the country’s estimated foreign currency reserves of $60 billion to $100 billion. Western governments hope the added pressure will help break the deadlock in a decade-old struggle to persuade Iran to accept limits on nuclear development – before it completes research that many nations fear is aimed at learning how to build a nuclear weapon.

Afghanistan

U.S.-led troop deaths from makeshift bombs in Afghanistan are dropping sharply even though the number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by insurgents are near record levels. Now, less than half of troop deaths come from the bombs, although there has been a 5% spike in homemade bomb incidents since March. Part of the decline in deaths can be traced to the changing nature of combat there. Attacks have shifted from southern to eastern Afghanistan where allied forces are focusing on insurgents in rugged, mountainous terrain. Troops in the east tend to travel in armored vehicles, which have experienced a 17% increase in attacks over the last three months, according to the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization. In the south, troops tend to touch off bombs while on foot.

Iraq

Two bombs have exploded in a Baghdad suburb, killing at least eight people and wounding 19 others in another attack against Shiites by al Qaeda. It is the latest attack in a particularly bloody month as the Iraqi government struggles to provide security.

Wildfires

A raging wildfire near Colorado Springs that forced tens of thousands to flee has left at least one person dead and destroyed an estimated 346 homes this week, making it the most destructive fire in the state’s history. The towering wildfire jumped firefighters’ perimeter lines and moved into the city of Colorado Springs, forcing frantic evacuation orders for more than 32,000 residents, including the U.S. Air Force Academy, and destroying an unknown number of homes. Heavy smoke and ash billowed from the foothills west of the city as the Waldo Canyon Fire became the top challenge for the nation’s firefighters.

In the Rocky Mountain West, firefighters say they’ve never seen the trees and grasses this dry so early in the summer, calling it “epic dryness.” Nationally, firefighters were battling 47 major fires Friday.  Throughout the West, firefighters have toiled for days in searing, record-setting heat against fires fueled by prolonged drought. Most of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Arizona were under red flag warnings, meaning extreme fire danger.

Weather

Across the United States, hundreds of heat records have fallen in the past week. From the wildfire-consumed Rocky Mountains to the bacon-fried sidewalks of Oklahoma, 1,011 records have been broken around the country, including 251 new daily high temperature records on Tuesday. It’s startling given that heat records usually aren’t broken until the scorching months of July and August. A record heat wave will continue to roast much of the USA through the weekend.

Florida officials said Thursday that Tropical Storm Debby was responsible for seven deaths in the state, including a 41-year-old woman caught in a riptide Wednesday at St. Pete Beach. She was among eight people pulled from rip currents. A Highlands County woman died in a tornado spawned by the storm.

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