Liberal Justices Rally to Defend Health-Care Law

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
      The Supreme Court ended three days of arguments on President Obama’s health-care reform on Wednesday as liberal justices worked aggressively to uphold most of the law even if its individual mandate is struck down.
      The four liberal justices sharply questioned the lawyer for the states and private parties challenging the law on whether the requirement to have health insurance or pay a penalty is so central that if it is held unconstitutional, the entire law must be struck down.
      In a second session held after a lunch break, liberal justices again vigorously challenged former solicitor general Paul Clement in his separate argument on behalf of the states that the act’s expansion of the joint state-federal Medicaid program is unconstitutional because it effectively coerces states into agreeing to the change.
      The combined three hours of courtroom arguments on Wednesday closed an extraordinary week that brought more attention to the Supreme Court than at any time since the Bush v. Gore election contest in November and December 2000. Demonstrators for and against the law massed on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court plaza each day. The court posted audio recordings of the arguments on its web site within hours after the close. And TV journalists raced to their positions as soon as arguments ended to provide instant accounts and analysis.
      In Tuesday’s session, the court’s five conservative justices signaled in their critical questioning of the administration’s lawyer, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, that they could form a majority to strike down what opponents call the individual mandate and the administration labels the “minimum coverage.” Court watchers generally agreed that the administration’s hopes for upholding the provision depend on Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who both asked some questions somewhat receptive to the administration’s case.
      On Wednesday, the court turned to the “what if” question of whether the entire law would fall with the individual mandate or if all, or almost all, of it could survive anyway. In the case that reached the court, the trial judge ruled the entire law invalid, but the federal appeals court in Atlanta disagreed and ruled the rest of the law could stand.
      At the Supreme Court, the government adopted an unusual position that two other parts of the law would fall if the individual mandate is struck down. Those provisions would require insurers to cover individuals despite pre-existing medical conditions – called “guaranteed issue” – and to charge premiums based on group instead of individual rates, the so-called “community rating” provision. With neither party arguing to save all the law except the individual mandate, the court appointed Washington attorney H. Bartow Farr III to advocate that position.
      Clement opened the argument Wednesday by stressing the government’s concession that the individual mandate was “essential” to the other two insurance-industry reforms. Without the mandate, Clement said, rates would “skyrocket” because guaranteed-issue and community-rating would “counteract Congress’s basic goal” of lowering overall health care costs.
      Liberal justices pointed to other provisions in the law aimed at controlling premiums, including the requirement to establish insurance exchanges for individuals without employer-provided coverage. But more generally they questioned Clement’s argument that Congress would not have wanted the rest of the act to stand without the individual mandate. “Is half a loaf better than no loaf?” Justice Elena Kagan asked.
      Many of the provisions are not controversial, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted. Why should Congress have to “start from scratch?” she asked.
      For the government, Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler opened by reiterating a brief defense of the individual mandate, but then attacked what he called Clement’s “sweeping proposition” to strike the entire law. Kneedler said the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions were tied to the mandate, but said the “huge” act had many other provisions “unrelated to market reform.”
      Some conservative justices, however — significantly including Kennedy — indicated concerns about carving out only a few parts of the law. “We would have a new regime that Congress did not provide for, did not consider,” Kennedy said.
      In his turn, Farr spent most of his time defending the two provisions the government was willing to jettison with the individual mandate. That argument, he said, was “an example of the best driving out the good.” Even without the mandate, Farr said, the insurance reforms would “open insurance markets” and “lower prices” for “millions of people.”
      Clement again went first in the afternoon since both lower courts had upheld the act’s expansion of Medicaid to cover individuals with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Medicaid, established in 1965 to provide health care to the needy, is administered by the states, but the federal government picks up most of the cost — varying state to state from 50 percent up to as much as 83 percent.
      The program has been expanded through the years both in the numbers of people eligible and in the benefits provided. The new law provides that the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of covering the newly eligible individuals through 2016, declining to 90 percent after 2020. Even so, 26 states, led by Florida, have challenged the provision as impermissibly coercive, contending they have no practical choice but to accept the new requirement because they could be penalized by the loss of all Medicaid funding.
      Clement got no further than to pose the question whether the provision was “coercive” before he was sharply attacked by Kagan. “Why is a big gift from the federal government coercive?” she asked, later describing the funds as “a boatload of federal money.” Other liberal justices, including Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined later in questioning Clement’s position.
      For the administration, Verrilli drew sharp questions from conservative justices, including Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr., who echoed Clement’s suggestion that states effectively had no choice but to take the money. “Can you conceive of a state saying no?” Scalia asked. “If you can’t, that sounds like coercion to me.”
      With the Medicaid argument running nearly half an hour over the scheduled time, the sessions over three days took nearly six-and-a-half hours altogether, longer arguments than any case since the mid-1960s. Roberts closed the session in unusual fashion by individually thanking each of the lawyers by name, including Farr and Robert A. Long, who had been appointed to argue a preliminary issue on Monday.
      As is the custom, Roberts gave no indication when the court will decide the cases, but court watchers expect it to be one of the final rulings in the term before the justices break for a summer recess at the end of June. The cases are National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, and Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services, 11-393, -398, -400.

Insurance Mandate in Doubt After High Court Session

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
      Supreme Court justices divided along familiar liberal-conservative lines Tuesday in a spirited two hours of argument that left the constitutionality of the individual insurance mandate provision in President Obama’s health care law seriously in doubt.
      Seeking to uphold the law, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli faced pointed questioning from all four of the conservative justices who participate in oral argument. From their questions, the four appeared to embrace the arguments that Congress exceeded its power in requiring virtually everyone to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.
      As is his custom, Justice Clarence Thomas asked no questions, but court watchers universally agree that he is a certain vote for rejecting what opponents call the individual mandate and what the administration labels the “minimum coverage” provision.
      On the opposite side, the four liberal justices appeared equally certain votes for upholding the law based on the critical questions they put to the lawyers representing the law’s challengers: 26 states led by Florida and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
      By the end of the expanded two-hour session, the administration’s chances to uphold the law as written appeared to depend on Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Both directed some questions to challengers indicating some openness to the administration’s arguments that the individual mandate was a necessary complement to insurance industry reforms acknowledged to be within Congress’s power to enact.
      The session played to a capacity courtroom crowd that included key members of Congress from both parties. Outside, for the second day in a row, hundreds of placard-carrying demonstrators representing both sides of the debate turned the sidewalks in front of the Supreme Court building into a raucous free-speech zone.
      The scene is expected to be much the same on Wednesday for the third and final day of arguments in the three consolidated cases challenging the law. On tap in the morning are arguments whether other parts of the Affordable Care Act can stand if the individual mandate is struck down. In the afternoon the court will hear the states’ effort to strike down as financially burdensome the act’s expansion of Medicaid coverage for the near-poor.
      Verrilli opened his allotted 60 minutes by stressing the act’s goal of bringing affordable health insurance to the 40 million Americans currently uninsured. Most Americans get health insurance through their employers or through government programs such as Medicare or Medicaid, he told the justices. But for others, “the market does not provide affordable health care,” he said, in part because the uninsured receive “many billions of dollars” in health care that are paid through higher premiums for everyone else.
      Conservative justices took up arguments from the challengers that Congress exceeded its power to regulate commerce in forcing individuals into the insurance market. “Can you create commerce in order to regulate it?” Kennedy asked early on. Later, Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. both suggested that upholding the law could allow Congress to require everyone to buy burial insurance (Alito) or cell phones (Roberts).
      Justice Antonin Scalia similarly saw the government’s position as open-ended. He challenged Verrilli to define a “principled basis” for limiting the argument to avoid going beyond “what the system of enumerated powers allows the government to do.” Verrilli got help in answering from liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who echoed his description of the health care market as “unique.”
      “It's not my choice whether I want to buy a product to keep me healthy,” Ginsburg said, “but the cost that I am forcing on other people if I don't buy the product sooner rather than later.”
      Representing the states, Paul Clement, who served as solicitor general under President George W. Bush, opened his allotted 30 minutes by depicting the individual mandate as “unprecedented” and the theory for upholding it as “lacking any limiting principle.”
      “The Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate existing commerce,” Clement said. “It does not give Congress the far greater power to compel people to enter commerce to create commerce essentially in the first place.”
      Ginsburg and the other liberal justices — Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — challenged both Clement and the NFIB’s lawyer, former Reagan administration official Michael Carvin, by echoing Verrilli’s view of the economics of the health care market.
      “The theory behind this law,” Kagan said, “is that people are in this market right now, and they are in this market because people do get sick, and because when people get sick, we provide them with care without making them pay.”
      Both Sotomayor and Kagan wrung concessions from Clement and Carvin that the government could require proof of insurance when someone shows up at a hospital or doctor’s office for medical care. “It seems as though you’re just talking about timing,” Kagan said.
      Twice, Ginsburg likened the challenged provision to Social Security, a mandatory retirement insurance program enacted in the 1930s in the face of constitutional challenges but now widely accepted. If Congress could create a mandatory government-run insurance program, she asked Clement, why could it not accomplish the same thing through the private market?
      Clement answered by suggesting that Congress could instead provide a tax subsidy to insurers to cover the cost of uncompensated care. But both he and Carvin returned repeatedly to their main point of objecting to forcing people into the health insurance market. “If Congress has the power to compel you to buy this product,” Carvin said as he wrapped up, “then obviously, they have got the power to compel you to buy any product.”
      Verrilli got an uninterrupted four minutes for rebuttal that he used to urge the justices to defer to Congress on how best to solve what he called the “grave problem” of providing affordable health care to the insured. Requiring insurance at the time of medical care, he said, was “utterly unrealistic.” The decision to require insurance in advance, he said, was “exactly the kind of thing that ought to be left to the judgment of Congress and the democratically accountable branches of government.”

Justices See No Obstacle to Ruling on Health-Care Law

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
      Justices across the ideological spectrum appeared ready on Monday to overcome a potential jurisdictional obstacle to hearing and deciding a constitutional challenge to President Obama’s health care law.
      The Supreme Court opened an extraordinary six hours of arguments on the Affordable Care Act with a preliminary question whether the case is premature. The issue is whether an 1867 law intended to protect the government’s collection of taxes prevents federal courts from hearing a challenge to the law until after the law goes into effect — and the penalty provision for not buying health insurance kicks in.
      The Obama administration and the law’s opponents alike want the court to rule on the constitutional challenges now. But one of the four federal appeals courts to rule on the various challenges held that the suits were premature because the Anti-Injunction Act generally prohibits legal challenges to federal taxes until after the tax has been paid.
      With neither side taking that view, the Supreme Court followed a recognized but rare practice of appointing a lawyer with no other connection to the case to argue that position. The justices chose Robert Long, an appellate lawyer in Washington and former Supreme Court law clerk, who spent 40 minutes at the lectern Monday fielding mostly skeptical questions from conservative and liberal justices alike.
      Long contended that the act was “jurisdictional” — a legal term of art signifying that a court has no power whatsoever to hear a case even if neither party raises the issue. But he ran into questions from several justices who noted inconsistency in the Supreme Court’s treatment of the law. “We’ve kind of gone back and forth on whether this is a jurisdictional provision or not,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said.
      In the same vein, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she counted “at least four cases” where the court decided to hear a tax-related challenge early after the government had decided not to object. Sotomayor seemed satisfied that courts could use other principles of civil procedure to weed out most premature tax challenges.
      Circumventing the jurisdictional obstacle in a different way, several justices insisted that the penalty for not buying health insurance was not a tax at all. “Congress has nowhere used the word ‘tax,’” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said. “What it says is penalty.”
      Long countered that the law gives the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) the responsibility for collecting the penalty just like other taxes. But Justice Elena Kagan answered by noting that the IRS also collects other penalties for a violation of what she called a “regulatory command.”
      Lawyers for the opposing parties had an easier time at the lectern. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. stepped around the jurisdictional problem by arguing that the law imposed a “tax penalty,” not a “tax.” At one point, he slipped and spoke of it only as a “tax.” Breyer helpfully corrected him.
      For the challengers, Gregory Katsas, a Washington lawyer and former Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, argued the law was not “jurisdictional” at all and allowed courts discretion to create exceptions for cases such as “constitutional challenges to landmark legislation.”
      The 90-minute session was played to a courtroom packed to capacity as hundreds of supporters, opponents and general spectators massed on the sidewalks outside. The press gallery was expanded to accommodate 117 reporters, with 12 others listening via closed circuit in the ground-floor public information office. Audio tapes were posted on the court’s web site about an hour after the argument ended.
      Roberts thanked Long for “ably” carrying out his assigned role and then adjourned the case until Tuesday morning. That two-hour session is the main event in the case: the constitutional challenge to the act’s provision that virtually everyone have health insurance or pay a penalty. Verrilli will again be defending the law, facing two opponents: former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, representing Florida and other states, and former Reagan administration Justice Department official Michael Carvin, representing the National Federation of Independent Business and individuals contesting the insurance mandate.

Weekly Roundup 3/26/2012

Twenty years on, ‘Year of the Woman’ fades
Karen Tumulty, The Washington Post, March 24, 2012

Synopsis: An “unprecedented” wave of women swept into office in Washington in 1992, the Post’s national political correspondent Karen Tumulty recalls. It was an election “that was supposed to change everything.” But 20 years later – after Nancy Pelosi served as speaker of the House and Hillary Clinton came close to the Democrats’ presidential nomination – the advances for women in politics appear to have stalled.

Takeaway: Women who run for office still face some questions that men do not, such as who will take care of small children if they win. But the bigger obstacle, experts say, is that the surge in women running for office has ended and fewer women are planning a career in politics than did in the heady days of the ’90s.

For background, see these and earlier reports from the CQ Researcher-plus archives: Kenneth Jost, “Women in Politics,” March 21, 2008; Robert Benenson, “Women and Politics,” Sept. 17, 1982; “Women Voters,” Mary Costello, Oct. 11, 1972.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Khan Academy: Good, Bad or Ugly?
Keith Devlin, Huffington Post, Mar. 20, 2012

Synopsis: Khan Academy, the booming online math-tutorial website founded by former hedge-fund manager Salman Khan, is good as far as it goes, but instructional video can go only so far, writes Stanford University math professor and educational-media researcher Keith Devlin.

Takeaway: "For those of us who find ourselves with the ability to learn math, we will do so with whatever tools we can find... For people like us, Sal Khan's videos are a great resource. Unfortunately...a school teacher has the responsibility of teaching all children. And there's the rub. For the majority who find mathematics extremely difficult...we currently know of no approach that comes close to regular group interactions with a good, inspiring, human teacher. Changing the way a human mind works, which is what teaching amounts to, is a difficult task. Moreover, it involves emotional, psychological and social factors."

For more on this and related topics, see my CQ Researcher report, “Digital Education,” Dec. 2, 2011.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer

Supreme Court Showdown on Health Care

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
      As the Supreme Court listens to an extraordinary six hours of arguments this week (March 26-28) on the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care reform, the justices will face the challenge of finding their way to a legal ruling on a case with politics written all over it.
      Never before has a president’s signature domestic policy initiative been pending at the Supreme Court just as the president is facing re-election before a closely divided nation. And never before have the justices been so predictably divided on legal issues based on the political party of the president who appointed them.
      Both sides in the debate over the law — fully entitled, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — are doing their best to remind the justices of the political stakes. Placard-carrying demonstrators, pro and con, will mass on the sidewalks in front of the Supreme Court building all three days. Liberal groups have secured use of the United Methodist Church building across the street to set up a media center, where supporters of the law will be readily available to reporters and talk show hosts for comment (read: spin) on the case.
      The cases — three of them: Dep’t of Health and Human Services v. Florida, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, and Florida v. Dep’t of Health and Human Services — have attracted a record-busting 136 friend-of-the-court briefs, way past the previous record of 103 amicus briefs in the 2003 affirmative action cases. One news organization calculated that vertically stacked the briefs would stand about two feet high.
      The court acknowledged the stakes in the case with its decision to post an audio recording of the arguments on the court’s web site within hours after the end of each session. The press release announcing the same-day availability noted the “extraordinary interest” in the case.
      Would-be spectators hoping for a seat in the courtroom were already camped out on the Supreme Court plaza on Friday, three days in advance of Monday’s session. Those who get in will be disappointed perhaps to learn that the issue that day is whether the challenge to the provision requiring everyone to have health insurance is premature under a law called the Anti-Injunction Act.
      The big showdown on the individual mandate — supporters call it the “minimum coverage” provision — comes in a two-hour session on Tuesday that will pit Solicitor General Donald Verrilli for the government against former solicitor general Paul Clement for the states and former Reagan administration Justice Department official Michael Carvin for the National Federation of Independent Business and individual challengers. Verrilli and Clement will go head-to-head again on Wednesday in the states’ somewhat overlooked challenge to the law’s expansion of Medicaid coverage.
      The first-level handicapping of the justices’ votes puts the four Republican-appointed conservatives on one side, ready to rule for the challengers, and the four Democratic-appointed liberals on the other, locked in for the administration. The tie-breaking vote belongs, as it often does, to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the Republican appointee nominated in 1987 only after the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected the ardent conservative Robert Bork.
      Kennedy’s pivotal role was exemplified in the 5-4 decisions just last week (March 21) newly recognizing a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel for criminal defendants in plea bargaining. Kennedy’s alignment with the liberal bloc, over a vigorous dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia for the conservatives, reflected Kennedy’s instinctive support for fairness in court proceedings.
      Opponents of the health-care law hope instead to appeal to two of Kennedy’s other instincts seen in his opinions through the years: support for individual liberty and for states’ sovereignty. Under their analysis, Kennedy could lead a five-vote majority to find the individual insurance mandate an impermissible intrusion on individual freedom and the Medicaid expansion an impermissible financial mandate on the states.
      All along, supporters of the law have been pushing a second-level handicapping that views Kennedy, Scalia, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. as possible, maybe even likely, votes to uphold the law. They point to Kennedy’s opinions stressing the importance of a national economy as evidence of his broad view of Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause. They note that Scalia took a broad view of Congress’s powers under the Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause in the 2005 decision elevating the government’s anti-drug laws over California’s medical marijuana initiative (Gonzales v. Raich). And they note that Roberts similarly evinced a broad view of the Necessary and Proper Clause in joining the 2010 decision upholding Congress’s power to require civil commitment of sexual offenders after completion of prison sentences (United States v. Comstock).
      Supporters of the law believe they have the weight of legal precedent on the side. Opponents argue the individual health insurance mandate is literally unprecedented and the Medicaid expansion an exponentially greater financial imposition on the states than any previous federal spending mandates.
      On the eve of the arguments, Supreme Court watchers are predicting the law will be upheld. Some in the press corps, such as the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes and the New York Times’s semi-retired Linda Greenhouse, were emphasizing legal analysis. Others, such as Huffington Post’s Michael Sacks and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, view Roberts as likely to lead the court away from a political confrontation on this issue in order to save the court’s political capital for later fights on bigger issues, including the new challenge to racial preferences in college admissions set for next term.
      The justices will vote on the cases this week, but the rest of us will not know the results until the written decisions are issued, presumably on the court’s final decision day at the end of June.

      For background, see Marcia Clemmitt, "Health-Care Reform," CQ Researcher, June 11, 2010, updated May 24, 2011.

This Week’s Report: "U.S.-Europe Relations"

As U.S. political and security priorities pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region, Western Europe is concerned that its historic alliance with the United States may be fraying, veteran foreign-affairs journalist Roland Flamini writes in this week’s Researcher.

Helping to define the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance will be two important meetings that President Obama will host in May: a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Chicago and a summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Those interested in international relations, global economics, national defense and the influence of emerging nations will find this report especially useful and informative.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 3/19/2012

Health Care Reform: Why It’s Safe at the Supreme Court
Mike Sacks, Huffington Post, March 18, 2012

How the Roberts Court could save Obama’s health-care reform
Robert Barnes, The Washington Post, March 18, 2012

Synopsis: With the Supreme Court getting ready for an extraordinary six hours of oral arguments the week of March 26 on the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care reform, two Supreme Court correspondents weigh in with tentative predictions that the law will be upheld.

Takeaway: Barnes qualifies his prediction with a “reality check” by noting that supporters of the law had earlier forecast that the challenges to the law would be easily disposed of.

For CQ Researcher coverage, see Marcia Clemmitt, “Health Care Reform,” Aug. 28, 2009

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


The Story of a Suicide
Ian Parker, The New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2012

Synopsis: Parker interviewed friends and acquaintances of young Rutgers University suicide victim Tyler Clementi and his roommate, Dharun Ravi, convicted last week of bias crimes that likely played a role in driving Clementi, who was homosexual, to take his own life.

Takeaway: Parker also interviewed Clementi's parents. ”They never saw any sign of depression, and can’t even see it retrospectively," he writes. "'As a parent, what it says to me is that what you think you know, you don’t know,' Joseph Clementi said.’And that’s a hard thing, because we all think, I know what my kid’s up to. You don’t.'"

For related topics, see the following CQ Researcher reports: “Youth Suicide,” Feb. 13, 2004, by David Hosansky; “Preventing Bullying,” Dec. 10, 2010, by Thomas J. Billitteri, and “Cyber Bullying,” May 2, 2008, by Thomas J. Billitteri.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


U.S. Faces a Tricky Task in Assessment of Data on Iran
By James Risen, The New York Times, March 17, 2012

Synopsis: Two years ago, according to investigative reporter James Risen, U.S. intelligence officials said that intercepted communications from Iran officials indicated they had revived efforts to build a nuclear weapon. But after a thorough review, U.S. officials decided to stick to their original conclusion – that Iran had decided not to go ahead with developing a nuclear weapon.

Takeaway: Today, top U. S. intelligence officials administration officials have said that Iran still has not decided to pursue a weapon. However, Risen adds: “Still, some acknowledge significant intelligence gaps in understanding the intentions of Iran’s leaders.” According to a former senior intelligence official Risen interviewed: “I’d say that I have about 75 percent confidence in the assessment that they haven’t restarted the program.”

For background see the following CQ Global Researcher report: “Rising Tension Over Iran,” Feb. 7, 2012, by Roland Flamini.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

This Week’s Report: “Arts Education”

Classes in music, drama, dance and visual arts are big hits among K-12 students and parents, and educational theorists say arts training – with its emphasis on precision and creativity -- can help students excel in subjects such as math and science.

But as author Beth Baker explains in this week’s report, “schools are struggling to maintain arts programs in the face of eroding school budgets and government mandates to concentrate on raising math and reading test scores.” The percentages of 18-year-olds who received childhood education in music, visual arts and creative writing – the most popular forms of arts education – have dropped sharply from the early 1980s, and African-American and Hispanic students receive significantly less arts training than whites.

This report is a must-read for classes and papers on education policy, arts training and administration, early-childhood development and state and local budget issues.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 3/12/2012

Japan’s Nuclear Energy Industry Nears Shutdown, at Least for Now
Martin Fackler, The New York Times, March 8, 2012

Nuclear Pushes On Despite Fukushima
Chester Dawson, Brian Spegele and Selina Williams, The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2012

Synopsis: One year after the devastating accident at the Fukushima nuclear reactor, Japan’s nuclear energy industry is all but shut down, according to the Times’ Tokyo bureau chief Fackler. In the developing world, however, nuclear power is “pushing on,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s report. Sixty nuclear reactors are currently under construction, and another 163 more are on order or planned.

Takeaway: With the post-Fukushima radiation cleanup expected to last decades, many Japanese are rethinking the use of nuclear power, but the stringent conservation measures introduced to offset the power lost from the idled reactors also weigh on people’s minds. “Fukushima showed us that nuclear power is dangerous,” a fisherman told the Times correspondent, “but we still need it.”

For CQ Researcher coverage, see Marcia Clemmitt, “Nuclear Power,” June 10, 2011; and archived reports dating to the 1950s.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Wall Street's Broken Windows
William K. Black, New Economic Perspectives, March 4, 2012

Synopsis: Several years ago, criminologist James Q. Wilson proposed the so-called "broken windows" theory of policing — which held that cracking down on vandalism and other low-level crime would ultimately reduce more serious crime as well. Now law professor Bill Black, who helped expose congressional corruption during the savings-&-loan-debacle, suggests that the broken windows approach might be more effective at controlling rampant white-collar crime than it has been at stopping street crime.

Takeaway: Wilson's "research focus in criminology was almost exclusively blue-collar crime. That was a shame because ‘broken windows’ theory is most compelling in the context of elite white-collar crime," writes Black. Wilson, who died this month, "predicted in his work on “broken windows” that tolerating widespread smaller crimes would lead to epidemic levels of larger crimes because it undermined community and social restraints. The epidemics of elite white-collar crime that have driven our recurrent, intensifying financial crises have proven this point."

For related material, see Kenneth Jost's Jan. 20, 2012, CQ Researcher report, “Financial Misconduct,” and Maryann Hagerty's May 6, 2011, report, “Business Ethics.”

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Adventures of a Teenage Polyglot
By John Leland, The New York Times, March 12, 2012

Synopsis: If you’re like me, you struggled with Spanish in high school, squeaked past your final exam and moved on. Then there’s 16-year-old Timothy Doner of New York City. “After studying for his bar mitzvah, he decided he wanted to learn modern Hebrew,” writes John Leland. “Then he felt drawn to learn Arabic. It took him four days to learn the alphabet, a week to read fluidly. Then he dived into Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian and German.”

Takeaway: “Hyperpolyglots have been the objects of curiosity at least since the 19th century, when Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti of Bologna was said to have mastered more than 50 languages. For nearly as long, people have debated whether their ability was innate or learned. The answer, neurolinguists are now discovering, is a bit of both, said Loraine Obler, a linguist who has studied bilingualism’s effect on the brain. “ ‘There are people whose brains are set up to do language learning,’ she said, ‘the same way some people are more talented at drawing.’ Also, she added, ‘The brain’s ability to absorb increases as we know more languages.’”

For background see the following CQ Researcher reports: Kenneth Jost, “Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion,” Dec. 11, 2009, and Marcia Clemmitt, “Preventing Memory Loss,” April 4, 2008.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

This Week’s Report: “Immigration Conflict”

Illegal immigration remains an issue of deep concern to Americans, but one they are ambivalent about solving, Associate Editor Kenneth Jost writes in this week’s Researcher.

Some 11 million immigrants reside in the United States illegally, and six states – led by Arizona and Alabama – have passed stiff laws allowing police to look for immigration law violators. But civil rights organizations say the laws will lead to ethnic profiling of Latinos, and business and agricultural groups argue that harsh crackdowns on unlawful immigrants make it hard to find workers for difficult jobs.

Jost’s report is an in-depth and up-to-the-minute examination of one of the most important – and intractable – policy issues in the nation. It is ideal for classes and papers on social policy, civil rights, economics, law enforcement and political science.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

This Week’s Report: Attracting Jobs

State and local governments seeking to attract jobs hand out as much as $70 billion in tax breaks and other incentives to business annually, and proponents say such incentives help localities prosper. But as staff writer Marcia Clemmitt notes in this week’s Researcher, many economists argue that subsides are poor investments of taxpayer dollars.

“Economists say many companies that receive perks fail to deliver promised jobs,” she writes. “And many also question whether the intense rivalry for jobs among states leads to little more than an economic shell game, with jobs moving from one place to another without a significant net national gain in employment.”

This report is ideal for classes and papers on economic policy, state and local governance, political science and labor relations.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 3/5/2012

Bearing Witness in Syria: A War Reporter’s Last Days
Tyler Hicks, The New York Times, March 4, 2012

      Synopsis: Climbing through the barbed wire fence separating Turkey from Syria, Times photographer Hicks and the Times’ two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid embarked on a dangerous mission to bring back the story of the Syrian government’s brutal repression of Syrian anti-government rebels. One of the most celebrated war correspondents of his era, Shadid never made it back: he died of an acute asthma attack, touched off by an allergic reaction to the horses he and Hicks were supposed to ride back to safety.
      Hicks writes in his riveting account: “Our journey in took us to a group of men who would be our guides in Syria. They call themselves activists, and unlike the fighters, they're the civilian side of the revolution. They, too, are risking their lives to tell the world what is happening to their country.
      “It was clear that they understood the importance of having Anthony there. Foreign journalists are valuable for getting news out of Syria and into a wider world that might be able to help them (though that wider world seems uncertain about how to do so). His Arabic allowed him to speak directly to people without the buffer of an interpreter. As always, he conveyed a genuine interest that made people open up to him; everyone was equal, no story insignificant.”

      Takeaway: “What did the two journalists learn on their ill-fated trip? Hicks writes: “There are mixed emotions among the civilians living in these towns. Most say they favor the revolution and want Assad out of power. While hundreds of people gather daily to protest in some towns, with Friday gatherings for prayers swelling into the thousands, their rally to the cause is bittersweet. People know that the fighters, and the revolt, will draw the army to them, and some are not shy about saying they do not want to invite a crisis to their doorstep. They know what happened in Homs. The images on Arabic news channels are a constant stream of bloody scenes. They also know that they are probably next on the list as the Syrian army tries to crush the rebellion.”

      For related CQ Researcher coverage, see Tom Price, “Future of Journalism,” March 27, 2009 (updated Sept. 3, 2010) and in the CQ Global Researcher: Jennifer Koons, “Press Freedom,” November 2010, and Roland Flamini, “Turmoil in the Arab World,” May 3, 2011.

Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

For America’s Least Fortunate, Poverty Spans Generations
Tom Zeller Jr., Huffington Post, March 1, 2012

      Synopsis: In this must-read piece of long-form journalism, Huffington Post senior writer Zeller explores at ground level the facts of, and reasons for, the persistence of poverty in the United States. Zeller, a former New York Times reporter and editor, introduces the reader to Brooklyn Davis, born into poverty and blocked from escaping it despite best efforts and resolute attitude. “Culture of poverty” sociologists, and many politicians, blame it all on bad character and bad behavior. But as Zeller shows, Davis is trapped by circumstance: even if he’s lucky enough to get a minimum-wage job that he’s applied for, he won’t be able to afford the daily bus fare and still pay child support, old debts, etc. And let’s be clear: poverty is increasing – with 20 million Americans (6.7 percent of population) living at less than half the poverty rate. No policy solutions here: just thorough reporting, insightful writing, and much to think about.

      Takeaway: Unsympathetic views of poverty ignore the more nuanced picture that Zeller says is recognized by social workers, activists, poverty researchers and the poor themselves: “From their view, the so-called safety-net, while effective in preventing atrocities of hunger familiar to other continents, can also act like a web, trapping its poorest patrons in a tangle of conditional services, conflicting requirements and punishing penalties that conspire to keep them poor -- often very poor.

      For CQ Researcher coverage, see Thomas J. Billitteri, “Domestic Poverty,” Sept. 7, 2007 (updated April 27, 2011), and Peter Katel, “Child Poverty,” Oct. 28, 2011.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor

Why an MRI costs $1,080 in America and $280 in France
Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, March 3, 2012

      Synopsis: Economic-policy blogger Klein reviews the evidence -- which is strong -- that high prices are the key driver of U.S. health-care costs, which far outstrip costs elsewhere in the world. Other developed nations budget to cover basic care for all with taxpayer funding. And the consolidated funding serves a second, important purpose. With taxpayers footing the bill for everyone's care, the government has a strong incentive to bargain hard over prices. In the U.S. system, fragmented among many payers, no payer, public or private, has had the market power to keep prices in check.

      Takeaway: As a result, "two of the five most profitable industries in the United States” are "the pharmaceuticals industry and the medical device industry....With margins of almost 20 percent, they beat out even the financial sector for sheer profitability. The players sitting across the table from them — the health insurers — are not so profitable. In 2009, their profit margins were a mere 2.2 percent. That’s a signal that the sellers have the upper hand over the buyers."

      For CQ Researcher coverage of this topic, see my June 11, 2010, report, “Health Care Reform” (updated May 24, 2011), and my April 7, 2005 report, “Rising Health Costs.”

Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer