January 2nd, 2011
By KATE ZERNIKE
As Tea Party politicians prepare to take their seats when the 112th Congress convenes this week, they are already taking issue with Republicans for failing to hold the line against the flurry of legislation enacted in the waning weeks of Democratic control of the House of Representatives and for not giving some candidates backed by Tea Party groups powerful leadership positions.
Just a month ago, Tea Party leaders were celebrating their movement’s victories in the midterm elections. But as Congress wrapped up an unusually productive lame-duck session last month, those same Tea Party leaders were lamenting that Washington behaved as if it barely noticed that American voters had repudiated the political establishment.
In their final days controlling the House, Democrats succeeded in passing legislation that Tea Party leaders opposed, including a bill to cover the cost of medical care for rescue workers at the site of the World Trade Center attacks, an arms-control treaty with Russia, a food safety bill and a repeal of the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military.
“Do I think that they’ve recognized what happened on Election Day? I would say decisively no,” said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which sent its members an alert last month urging them to call their representatives to urge them to “stop now and go home!!”
“We sent them a message that we expect them to go home and come back newly constituted and do something different,” Mr. Meckler said. “For them to legislate when they’ve collectively lost their mandate just shows the arrogance of the ruling elite. I can’t imagine being repudiated in the way they were and then coming back and saying ‘Now that we’ve been repudiated, let’s go pass some legislation.’ ”
“I’m surprised by how blatant it was,” he added.
But Tea Party activists did not reserve their criticism for Democrats. “The Republicans, frankly, have been a disaster,” Mr. Meckler said. “They stood strong on some things, but the only reason they stood strong is because we stood behind them with a big stick.”
Still, the Tea Party could point to some impact already. Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, who will become House speaker when the Republicans assume the majority, has proposed new procedural rules that acknowledge Tea Party demands. House members will not be able to introduce a bill or a joint resolution without “a statement citing as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact it.”
This was a leading demand of the Contract From America, a Tea Party manifesto that was issued as a prelude to the midterm elections. Proposed legislation will have to be posted online for three days before any vote, reflecting Tea Party demands for greater transparency.
More ceremonially, the rules call for the Constitution to be read aloud on the House floor when the session opens.
Tea Party pressure prevailed in blocking the Senate from passing a $1.2 trillion spending bill and a measure that would have created a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.
But Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, a social-networking Web site, declared after the approval of the arms-control treaty that “the G.O.P. has caved.”
Mr. Phillips, too, had urged his members to inundate their lawmakers with phone calls, e-mails and faxes urging them to stop considering legislation. “Give them no rest until they are out of town,” he wrote.
Tea Party leaders scoffed at the Republicans’ greatest victory from the lame-duck session — the extension of the Bush tax cuts as part of a compromise with the White House. Instead, Tea Party leaders complained that Republicans had abandoned a push for a full repeal of the estate tax.
Mr. Phillips said the tax cuts were more accurately described as “maintaining the status quo” because the lower rates had been in place for several years.
Despite its victories in November — more than 40 candidates supported by the Tea Party were elected to the House and Senate — the Tea Party lost battles for important leadership positions. Tea Party Patriots, for instance, had backed Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia to be chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Mr. Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin, also a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, criticized Republicans for choosing Representative Harold Rogers of Kentucky instead, saying he was likely “to continue the big-spending, pork-barrel ways that lost Republicans the majority four years ago.”
In an opinion article on Politico, the two also criticized Republican leaders for choosing Representative Fred Upton of Michigan to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee, saying the choice “indicated they are not serious about expanding the nation’s energy-producing capability” through expanded oil drilling and a relaxation of regulations on nuclear power and coal.
The collapse of the spending bill, which would have financed government agencies through September, also means that the next Congress will have an almost immediate effect on decisions about government spending. Under a stopgap measure, the current Congress extended financing for government agencies until only March.
Incoming Tea Party lawmakers said they would push for drastic cuts to federal agencies whose functions they believe would be better handled at the state level, like the Department of Education.
Mike Lee, a senator-elect from Utah who had Tea Party support and defeated an incumbent Republican, Robert F. Bennett, said that he, along with other incoming senators, had signed letters to Senate Democrats asking them to delay voting on the arms-control treaty until the new Congress was seated. Mr. Lee was disappointed that the Senate approved the treaty anyway.
Still, he said he believed that the vote to extend the Bush tax cuts signaled that Congress had heard the demands of the Tea Party in the midterm elections.
“This changes by degrees,” Mr. Lee said. “As long as you have a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Senate, I don’t think there are many people who are expecting that the government’s going to be transformed overnight into something in the image of the Tea Party. That would be delusional.”
More From The NY Times
January 2nd, 2011
By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
Washington (CNN) -- The Navy has opened an investigation into how a series of raunchy videos, full of sexual innuendo and anti-gay remarks, were produced and shown to the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise while on deployment supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Navy spokesman Cmdr. Chris Sims said the videos, which were shown to the crew in 2006 and 2007, are "inappropriate."
Excerpts from the videos and descriptions of their content were first published Saturday by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia.
The videos on the paper's website, reviewed by CNN, feature a man identified by two Navy officials and The Virginian-Pilot as Capt. Owen Honors, who at the time was the executive officer, or second-in-command, of the Enterprise. He recently took command of the carrier, winning one of the most coveted assignments in the U.S. Navy, which has only 11 aircraft carriers.
Honors is shown cursing along with other members of his staff in an attempt to demonstrate humor, according to videos. There are also anti-gay slurs, simulated sex acts, and what appear to be two female sailors in a shower together.
The investigation was ordered Friday by Adm. John Harvey, the four-star head of the Navy's Fleet Forces Command, after the videos were detailed in The Virginian-Pilot. The paper also posted a link to some of the material, but edited it so that expletives were censored and some identities of junior Navy crew were disguised.
CNN left a message for Honors on Saturday. The Virginian-Pilot said he did not respond to requests for comment.
The Navy issued a statement Saturday, saying in part "production of videos, like the ones produced four to five years ago on USS Enterprise and now being written about in the Virginian-Pilot, were not acceptable then and are still not acceptable in today's Navy. The Navy does not endorse or condone these kinds of actions."
The statement also said, "U.S. Fleet Forces Command has initiated an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the production of these videos; however, it would be inappropriate to comment any further on the specifics of the investigation."
But the Saturday statement was an about-face from the initial military statement to the newspaper. In that statement, the Navy said the videos were "not created with the intent to offend anyone. The videos were intended to be humorous skits focusing the crew's attention on specific issues such as port visits, traffic safety, water conservation, ship cleanliness, etc."
Sims said senior officers had not yet seen the videos when they issued the first statement. It was after viewing them that the investigation was ordered, he said.
When the videos first came to light the "leadership" of the Enterprise was "directed" to make certain future videos were appropriate, the Navy said. Sims said he was not aware if Honors was ever reprimanded. In the videos, Honors repeatedly jokes that his superior officers were unaware of the content of the videos and "they should absolutely not be held accountable."
The Virginian-Pilot says the videos were shown over the ship's internal broadcast system to its nearly 6,000 crew.
CNN Most Popular
January 2nd, 2011
NEW YORK – Expedia Inc. has stopped selling tickets on American Airlines flights, the latest twist in a simmering pricing dispute between American and travel websites.
"Expedia has chosen to no longer offer American Airlines fares on its website," American said in an statement posted on its website. "Customers looking to compare flights or fares online should visit other travel sites such as Kayak.com or Priceline.com for the most accurate and up-to-date information."
The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline has said that it would like to sell more tickets through its own website, as paying to have its flights listed on sites such as Expedia can be costly. Airlines have to pay a commission every time people search a particular flight, look up a fare or book a trip.
American, which is owned by AMR Corp., also claims it can offer more personalized packages such as hotel and flight deals to fliers who purchase tickets directly from the airline.
Expedia's removal of American flights marks an escalation in a months-long dispute between the airline and various travel sites. Last month, American Airlines pulled its flights from travel website Orbitz, saying consumers could just as easily buy tickets from American's website and "we won't have to pay as much for it."
Last week, Expedia made American flights more difficult to find on its website, an apparent response to the airline's decision to drop Orbitz. Expedia warned that it "cannot support efforts that we believe are fundamentally bad for travelers."
Experts have cautioned that while American might save money in commission fees, its sales will drop if its flights don't appear on travel sites such as Orbitz and Expedia. About a third of Americans book their tickets on independent travel sites.
Analysts have added that only smaller airlines such as Southwest Airlines Co. can get away with selling tickets exclusively on their own websites, as these airlines already have a reputation for offering cheap fares.
Bellevue, Wash.-based Expedia did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on Saturday.
January 2nd, 2011
By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 12:00 AM
Every spring, private security officers at San Francisco International Airport compete in a workplace "March Madness"-style tournament for cash prizes, some as high as $1,500.
The games: finding illegal items and explosives in carry-on bags; successfully picking locks on difficult-to-open luggage; and spotting a would-be terrorist (in this case Covenant Aviation Security's president, Gerald L. Berry) on security videos.
"The bonuses are pretty handsome," Berry said. "We have to be good - equal or better than the feds. So we work at it, and we incentivize."
Some of the nation's biggest airports are responding to recent public outrage over security screening by weighing whether they should hire private firms such as Covenant to replace the Transportation Security Administration. Sixteen airports, including San Francisco and Kansas City International Airport, have made the switch since 2002. One Orlando airport has approved the change but needs to select a contractor, and several others are seriously considering it.
For airports, the change isn't about money. At issue, airport managers and security experts say, is the unwieldy size and bureaucracy of the federal aviation security system. Private firms may be able to do the job more efficiently and with a personal touch, they argue.
Airports that choose private screeners must submit the request to the TSA. There are no specific criteria for approval, but federal officials can decide whether to grant the request "based on the airport's record of compliance on security regulations and requirements." The TSA pays for the cost of the screening and has the final say on which company gets the contract.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has written to 200 of the nation's largest airports, urging them to consider switching to private companies.
The TSA was "never intended to be an army of 67,000 employees," he said.
"If you look at [the TSA's] performance, have they ever stopped a terrorist? Anyone can get through," Mica said in an interview. "We've been very lucky, very fortunate. TSA should focus on its mission: setting up the protocol, adapting to the changing threats and gathering intelligence."
The differences between private firms' employees and federal workers are often imperceptible to the everyday traveler. Covenant security details use different badges and insignia and have higher pay for new employees.
Procedures in airport security lines do not change. Thirty private firms are contracted by the TSA to potentially work as screeners, and their employees are required by federal law to undergo the same training, use the same pat-down techniques and operate the same equipment - such as full-body scanners - that the TSA does.
With a reduced role, the TSA could become more of a regulatory agency, leaving much of the daily work on the ground to for-profit companies. But federal officials say the expertise and training offered at the 457 TSA-regulated airports are unparalleled.
"U.S. aviation security technology and procedures are driven by the latest intelligence and give us the best chance to detect and disrupt any potential threat, given the tools currently available," TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said.
It's unclear whether private screeners cost the TSA more. One independent report found that private security contracts were 9 to 17 percent higher than the TSA's costs. Mica says the difference is "concocted."
The TSA also offers performance-based incentives. Employees who reach the highest performance rating can get a pay raise and a $2,500 bonus.
Many security and airline industry officials say the switch to a network of privately run screeners could hinder much of the government's progress since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Robert W. Mann, an industry analyst and former airline executive based in New York, said airports who are considering a switch to private screeners are simply responding to "consumer outrage." Mann says a a better solution is tougher regulations and training for federal security officers.
"We can't go back to the late '90s when private screeners had McDonald's-level wages and attention spans to match," Mann said. "A uniform, tough government system makes a lot of sense."
The American Federation of Government Employees, the labor union for TSA employees, has questioned the privatization of airport security as well, calling it an ineffective "patchwork quilt."
Passenger-rights groups' opinions are mixed. Weary of big business but locked in a long-running fight over federal security methods, many travelers say they would like to see far-reaching government reforms and a limited amount of privatization.
"The private security is pretty good and rigid," said Kate Hanni, who runs Flyers Rights out of Napa, Calif., which counts more than 30,000 members. "But as long as the scanners and pat-downs are in place, the experience is going to be the same."
Hanni said trade groups, nonprofit organizations, airports and federal officials are working to "get on the good side of Mica" as he becomes chairman of the House transportation committee.
But what the debate over private-vs.-government security most clearly shows is TSA's customer-service issues, said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has followed the TSA since it was created in 2001. In its early days, the TSA consulted Marriott International, the Walt Disney Co. and Intel on ways to speed people through checkpoints and make fliers happy.
"TSA forgot about customer service," Light said. "The early executives were worried about smiley faces, wait times. They've lost sight of that."
Covenant, based in Mica's home district in northeastern coastal Florida, has airport screening contracts in Sioux Falls, S.D., Tupelo, Miss., and seven small airports in northern and eastern Montana. Its deal at San Francisco International is by far its largest. Covenant employs nearly 1,100 people in the bay area, who make up nearly all of its 1,150 workers. The last four-year contract, from 2006 to 2010, totaled $314 million. A new contract has been put out for competitive bids. Meanwhile, Covenant is operating on a two-month contract ending in February.
San Francisco airport officials say that they are happy with the Covenant contract and that "by allowing Covenant to worry about staffing, TSA can focus on the security," airport spokesman Michael C. McCarron said.
Berry, Covenant's president and a former Marine colonel who served two tours flying helicopters in Vietnam, has become the face of the private security movement, extolling the virtues of private business in fostering better and safer environments on television news programs and before congressional panels.
"We're smaller, we can react much quicker to things and I think a lot of airports want to be more customer service-oriented," he said. "There's a reason not one of the 16 airports that have opted out have gone back to TSA."
Few government or third-party reports have been produced in the past eight years that compare the performance of private companies with that of the government in airport security. The lone outside study, commissioned by the TSA and written by an Arlington County information technology firm, compared a dozen airports and looked at data from 2004 through 2007. It found that private screeners perform at a level "equal to or better" than their government counterparts.
The full study's findings have never been released.
Orlando's two commercial airports, Orlando International and Orlando Sanford International, were bringing in Covenant and FirstLine last month for presentations on taking over airport security. Orlando Sanford approved the change to privatization in October, before the uproar over the TSA's screening methods even began.
Orlando Sanford President Larry Dale said private screening would be "more enjoyable" for the traveling public and potentially spur business.
"This country was built on competition, on private investment," Dale said, "and I've gotten a lot of complaints from passengers about the new screening. We're a business after all, and we have to look out for our customers."
Other airports, including Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport and Indianapolis International Airport, have said publicly they are studying whether a change would improve their bottom line.
The Kansas City airport, which was one of the first tochoose a private security operator, said the biggest difference in using private screeners is the ability to get security issues resolved quickly.
"Unlike a government job, these contract employees can be removed immediately with poor performance, attitude or unsuitability," said Kansas City airport director Mark VanLoh. "It shows in our passenger surveys for customer satisfaction each year."
January 1st, 2011
Rescue efforts are under way to evacuate more than 600 crew on 10 ships trapped in ice in the Sea of Okhotsk.
The ice is up to 30cm (12 inches) thick in some places, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
Signals are reported to have been received from a fishing boat and a research vessel which are in the greatest distress, stuck in the ice about 12 miles (19km) from the coast.
The sea rescue centre says three tugboats have been dispatched.
One of the tugboats is expected to reach the edge of the ice on Friday evening, and the others could be there by Sunday.
The temperature in the area is -22C, according to Itar-Tass, and forecasts suggest it will fall even lower.