White House Petition Goose Eggs

Over at the cyber-equivalent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House has a website devoted to allowing citizens to petition the government on various issues. The hook to this site, titled We the People, is that if enough signatures are gathered, the White House will issue an official response. As of this writing, the threshold is 100,000 signatures, but when this website first went on-line, the bar to clear was much lower.

In the past few weeks, there have been petitions that have met the 100,000 limit and are awaiting a response from the Executive Branch. Examples include a request to file charges against 47 Senators who sent a letter to Iran and one requesting laws that forbid mandatory vaccination.

At the moment, this website has on display 168 responses including the response as to why the Obama Administration will not be building a Death Star.

Here is what I found interesting and it deals with zeroes.

When petitions are created, the author can select from a list of categories that cover the issue mentioned by the petition. For example, the petition about the Senators was filed under three issues (Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, Foreign Policy, and Government Reform). The anti-vax petition also covered three issues (Civil Rights and Liberties, Health Care, Human Rights).

The official responses to petitions have their own page on the We the People website and they are sortable by issue. Of the thirty-nine issue categories, there is one issue that is a runaway favorite. The issue of “Foreign Policy” has thirty official responses, which is the highest number for any issue category. Number two on the list is a tie at nineteen between “Civil Rights and Liberties” and “Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement”. The Foreign Policy responses deal with issues pertaining to Sri Lanka, Venezuela, and the Middle East.

As I said before, it is the zeroes that intrigue me. Of the thirty-nine categories, there are six that have no official responses. It is possible that people have created petitions for one of these forgotten issues, but they have not crossed the signature threshold. Those issues are…

…Arts and Humanities;
…Climate Change;
…Disabilities;
…Labor;
…Poverty; and
…Urban Policy.

I certainly could read the above orphan categories to mean that it appears that the folks of the United States (at least, the cyber-capable members) do not care all that much about the arts, melting glaciers, the plight of the disadvantaged, workers, or cities.

I could also read the above list to mean that folks in the e-world see nothing wrong with the state of those forgotten issues and so do not need to petition the government for redress.

I wonder which reading is correct.

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TIL – Statue Dressing

Today is March 13, 2015, and I am standing in the courtyard of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand.

On our tour of this complex, our English-speaking guide tells us that inside this building is a statue of the Buddha that is not actually made of emerald, but is made of jade. He then tells us that the status is in its summer wear. Here is a picture…

DSCN7860

Our guide continued and…

TILThe Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand, is dressed in raiment depending on the season. The statue has a summer outfit, a rainy outfit, and a winter outfit. When each season begins, the clothes are changed by the King himself.

It’s a good day when you learn something new.

Budget Percentages

With the passage of the first continuing resolution, the United States federal government has spending authority until December 11, 2014.

House Joint Resolution 124 (HJR 124) allows Uncle Sam to spend money through the first quarter of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. Instead of going through all of the federal programs one by one and allocating money, HJR 124 mandates that federal programs have their spending levels set at FY14 levels.

Except, that’s not entirely true. Section 101(b) of HJR 124 says that all spending levels for FY15 will be cut by 0.0554 percent of FY14 levels.

Not 1%.

Not even 0.1%.

Congress slashed spending across the board by one-half of 0.1%.

In other words, for every $100 spent, spending has been cut by a nickel. In other other words, for every Ben Franklin bill, subtract a Thomas Jefferson coin.

How does that work in the real life of the federal government? Here are some examples.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate of FY14 spending (here in PDF form), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was authorized to spend $20,880,000,000 (or $20.88 billion for those who like their numbers in words). With the ax wielded by HJR 124, the folks over at 1400 Independence Avenue SW in Washington D.C., now have $11.56 million less to spend in FY15.

The Department of Defense was authorized in FY14 to spend $572,042,000,000 ($572.042 billion…or 27.39 times more than the USDA). Courtesy of HJR 124, the Pentagon now only has $571.725 billion to work with.

And so on down the line.

According to the CBO, discretionary spending for FY14 was set at a level of $1,110,725,000,000 (or $1.110 trillion). Therefore, using a bit of math, the federal government has its FY15 spending authority cut by $615,341,650 and now can only spend $1,110,109,658,350 (or $1.110 trillion).

But how much of this cutting, hacking, and slashing of 0.0054% by Congress actually accomplished anything?

With the start of October, FY14 ended and the CBO has come out with its preliminary look at the fiscal year just passed. According to the CBO Monthly Budget Review for September 2014 (jump to the graph entitled “Total Outlays”), the federal government spent $1.608 trillion on discretionary spending ($578 billion for Defense, $1,030 billion for everything else). However, Uncle Sam spent a grand total of $1.651 trillion on only three programs ($840 billion for Social Security, $509 billion for Medicare, and $302 billion for Medicaid). That $1,651,000,000,000 of mandatory spending – or almost half of all FY14 spending – was untouched by the Congressional ax for FY15.

In fact, those three mandatory programs increased their spending. Once again, according to the CBO, Defense spending shrunk 4.9% from FY13 to FY14. In that same time period, all the other discretionary spending shrunk 2.3%. Meanwhile, over the twelve months from September 2013 to September 2014, Social Security grew 4.6%, Medicare grew 2.7%, and Medicaid grew 13.6%.

All of those figures for mandatory spedning are greater than 0.0554%

TIL – Driving in China

Today is August 1, 2014, and I am sitting in a restaurant in Long Beach, California.

Along with my lovely wife, my dining companions include my oldest friend (and by that I mean the friend I have known the longest in my life) and his wife.

While dining on the fabulous food this eatery has to offer, my friend and his wife are telling me about their most recent trip to China. One of the stories they told us made my eyes widen and jaw drop.

TILSome drivers in China are insane.

According to their tale, they were in a car on a Beijing highway when their driver announced that they were approaching a fog bank. The drive began to slow down, but not because the decreased visibility mandated a slower (and thus safer) speed. No, the driver began to reduce his speed because he knew what was coming up. Because the fog made driving on the highway difficult if not impossible, the drivers in front of my friends simply did U-turns and began to drive the wrong way on the highway to find an alternate route. As the car bearing my friends slowed down, they began to see cars coming towards them. My friends’ driver, determined to go with the flow, did the same as he executed a U-turn and also went the wrong way on a one-way section of the highway. Well, when in Rome…er, Beijing.

Although, as my grandfather joked years ago when he went the wrong way on a one-way street, “Hey, I’m only going one way so what’s the problem.”

As much as living internationally for the past three years has shown me that different folks and countries have different mores, this tale left me with the desire to do some further research to receive a second opinion on this Sino-behavior.

I found it.

From this article from Wikitravel on Chinese driving comes this tidbit:

Another situation where they [Chinese motorists] drive the wrong way is if a vehicle wants to make a left turn off a two-way road with the center median or fence and drive into a driveway, but the driveway is not conveniently located near a gap in the median or fence. They will cross the center median in a gap before their destination driveway, drive the wrong way in the oncoming traffic lane, and exit the road when they reach their driveway. These maneuvers save the effort of travelling a distance and making a u-turn.

While words are helpful, pictures can seal the deal.

I found this 2010 video (courtesy of Gawker) of a Chinese driver going the wrong way down a highway. Granted, he’s using the shoulder, but you get the idea.

After that video, I will not gripe about Bangkok drivers ever again.

It’s a good day when you learn something new.

First Monday in October

It was the first Monday in October and that means the Supreme Court of the United Status (SCOTUS to all the cool kids) is back in session.

John, Antonin, Anthony, Clarence, Ruth, Stephen, Samuel, Sonia, and Elena are all back in black (robes) and ready to kick off the 2014-2015 judicial season.

There was definitely no lollygagging for this Gang of Nine as their first day back on the bench saw them hearing oral arguments in the case known as Heien v North Carolina.

This case is a Fourth Amendment case about the legality of a search that was based on a mistake.

The facts of the case are thus and thus. Mr. Heien was driving his car when he was stopped by a police office for having a broken brake light. The officer asked if he could search the car and Mr. Heien consented. Why he consented I’m not sure because the officer discovered drugs in the car and then arrested Mr. Heien for possession.

However, this is where the case takes a twist. Mr. Heien did some digging and found that in North Carolina it is not illegal to drive with a broken brake light so as long as least one other brake light is operational. Therefore, since Mr. Heien’s car was not in violation of state law, the officer had no right to stop him and subsequently search the car. The state makes the case that the officer made an honest mistake in not knowing all the minute details of North Carolinan traffic laws and that his mistake should be overlooked for the greater good of having found illegal narcotics in Mr Heien’s possession.

In other words, North Carolina is turning the adage on its head and stating that ignorance of the law is an excuse.

A few days as I read about this case, and before oral arguments, I would have predicted that the Court would rule 6-3 in favor of Mr. Heien. I based this prediction on the original adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse. If I can’t use the “Hey, I didn’t know it was illegal” card, then neither should an officer of the peace.

However, after reading the transcipt from the oral arguments, I am revising my prediction and now opine that the Court will rule 5-4 in favor of North Carolina.

I make this new assertion based on the fact that the lawyer representing the state produced a section of North Carolina law that stated that a car needed to have all of its originally equipped rear lamps in good working order. While that section conflicts with another section of state law, the “originally equipped” section is in state law, which means (to my un-legally trained mind) the police officer was correct in stopping Mr. Heien’s car because not all of the originally equipped lamps were in good working order.

We’ll see what happens when the Court makes it decision, but in the meantime, make sure all of your rear lamps are in good working order.

TIL – Matterhorn

Today is July 31, 2014, and I am standing outside of the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

It is late at night and the fireworks spectacular has already happened. Our large group of extended family members of the Sandosen name (my parents, my siblings, their spouses, and all of their kids…including the five members that make up my immediate brood) are taking one last stab on the bobsleds.

Well, not all of us.

I grew up in Southern California and Disneyland was like a third or fourth home to me. I can remember a time when the Star Tours ride was Monsanto’s Adventure Through Inner Space. I remember when Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters was the theater showing the film America The Beautiful in a full 360 degrees. I remember when Big Thunder Mountain was the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train.

I can also remember a time when the Bobsled ride was comfortable. In 2012, the designers at the House of Mouse thought it would be a darling idea to replace the seats on the ride that could fit two people with seats that only fit individuals. I heartily agree with the line in this article that says, “…many riders have found them [the new seats] to be a bit too cramped for comfort.”

I would be one of those riders.

I had experienced the bobsleds earlier in the day and my knees and back were still reminding me that they did not enjoy the cramped spaces of the updated seats. So, I decided to take a pass when our large group wanted to take a second, and final, crack at the roller coaster that features a Yeti.

However, our group – and everyone behind them – was never able to scream on the Matterhorn because…

TILHow to shut down the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland.

For reasons of privacy, liability, and because he is my brother, let’s call our protagonist in this story Mr.X. Our hero, the aforementioned Mr.X, dutifully waited in line and when his turn came, he stepped into his individual seat at the front of his bobsled. He was not riding alone as he had taken it upon himself to enter the Matterhorn with an inflatable, light-up thunderstick. For those who are unaware and are too lazy to click on the previous link, a thunderstick is an air-filled plastic cylinder that is used to create noise by banging it against another thunderstick. After climbing aboard the bobsled and ensuring that his seatbelt was securely fastened, the sled with Mr.X entered a tunnel and also climbed upward along its tracks. This is when Mr.X thought it would be smashing idea to wave his thunderstick over his head.

This is when the ride stopped.

In the history of the Matterhorn, there have two deaths and that has been two too many. So, to stop a third fatality, the designers have embedded a series of sensors in the ride to determine if anyone stands up or extends an arm or a leg outside of a certain safe zone. Mr.X’s thunderstick tripped this sensor causing an automatic stop to the ride. From what I can deduce, D-Land protocol then called for everyone to be evacuated off the ride and then for personnel to walk the length of the tracks to ensure that no person was left stranded. Since this occurred around 10:15pm and since it would take about an hour to complete this safety procedure, the cast members dressed in lederhosen announced that the ride was closed for the remainder of the night.

While our family members were disappointed at the loss of another spin on the bobsleds and while some were sheepish over the fact that they were the cause of the ride stoppage, it’s still a good day when you learn something new.

Governmental Gridlock

Once again I will be exploring the concept of the “do nothing” Congress, the charge levelled against the legislative branch of the United States government when people feel Congress hasn’t passed enough legislation, approved enough presidential nominations, or failed to even debate proposed laws.

The appellation of “Do Nothing” was first applied to the 80th Congress by President Harry S. Truman during the 1948 elections.

The charge of “Do Nothing” has been levelled against the most recent sessions of Congresses as both the 113th (here and here for examples) and the 112th (example here) have been accused of being even more lazy than the 80th.

However, is such a charge of do-nothingness even true or even reasonable?

Congress does much more than pass legislation, which is one way of measuring effectiveness. For all of the vitriol dumped against the 80th Congress, that legislative session did pass 906 public laws. For comparison, the 112th passed 283 and the 111th passed 383.

As part of its additional duties, Congress debates legislation, hold committee hearings and subcommittee hearings, and hears from their constituents.

There is also one part of the job of Representatives and Senators that could, in my estimation, be part of the reason why things are so gummed up over at the Capitol Building. Congress is inundated with communications from the Executive Branch. Granted, this is the fault of Congress as each one of the official communications that finds its way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol is required by federal law so if any Representative has any complaint, they only have themselves to blame.

I will use only one day from the Congressional Record as an example. On Friday, September 19, 2014, Congress received seventy-six letters from different agencies of the Executive Branch. I would fathom the guess that members of Congress are expected to read all of these missives (or at least the ones directed their committees and sub-committees).

So what are some of the things the executive agencies need to tell their legislative counterparts? Let’s take a look.

There is a letter from the Under Secretary for Rural Development, Department of Agriculture, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Eliminate the 6-Day Reservation Period Requirement for Rural Development Obligations (RIN: 0575-ZA01) received September 18, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Agriculture.

There is a letter from the Deputy Director, ODRM, Department of Health and Human Services, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; Annual Eligibility Redeterminations for Exchange Participation and Insurance Affordability Programs; Health Insurance Issuer Standards under the Affordable Care Act, Including Standards Related to Exchanges [CMS-9941-F] (RIN: 0938-AS32) received September 3, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

There is a letter from the Assistant Secretary, Legislative Affairs, Department of State, transmitting Transmittal No. DDTC 14-089, pursuant to the reporting requirements of Section 36(c) of the Arms Export Control Act; to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

There is a letter from the Chief, Branch of Endangered Species Listing, Department of the Interior, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Threatened Status for Oregon Spotted Frog [Docket No.: FWS-R1-ES-2013-0013] (RIN: 1018-AZ04) received September 19, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Natural Resources.

There is a letter from the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, NMFS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, transmitting the Administration’s final rule — Atlantic Highly Migratory Species; North and South Atlantic 2014 Commercial Swordfish Quotas [Docket No.: 000007123-4657-02] (RIN: 0648-BD96) received September 18, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Natural Resources.

Those are just five examples and you may have noticed something similar in all of the above correspondences. The item common to all of them is the phrase “pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A)”. So what does that mean?

That phrase is referencing the United States Civil Code – specifically Title 5 (Government Organization and Employees), Chapter 801 (Congressional Review), Section (a), Paragraph (1), Line (A) which basically states that before a new rule from a federal agency can take effect, that agency has to submit to Congress a copy of said rule.

Read that again.

Every rule. To Congress.

With all that mail to read, it’s more of a wonder why less isn’t done in the halls of Washington.

TIL – Nostalgia

Today is July 30, 2014, and I am sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Orange, California.

This eatery has just reopened after a multi-decade long hiatus.

When I was growing up and living in the Golden State, my parents would bring home food (usually burritos, tacquitos, enchiladas, and great heaps of chips) from this establishment and we would devour the fine vittles.

I was already gone from Orange County when this restaurant closed, so I was never able to miss it. However, my parents did and when me and my family came to visit this summer, they were eager to take me back to a place from my youth.

Back at the restaurant, I ordered a red enchilada which I seem to recall was one of my favorites. I took the food back to my table and drove my teeth into the meat-filled tortilla and it was there and then that I learned today’s lesson.

TILSome things are better left as memories.

In the two decades since this restaurant closed and opened, I have had the opportunity to eat food prepared by Mexicans and even dine in Mexico City. In other words, I have had authentic Mexican food.

What now filled my mouth was as far from Mexican cuisine as I was from being a Latvian neurosurgeon (which, if you don’t know me, is an extremely long way). Whether the food at this establishment had always been this lackluster (and my inexperience knew no better) or whether the new owners and cooks were at fault is beside the point. What I took away from this adventure as I slowly chewed my way through a flavorless meal was that the land of Nostalgia is a nice place for the brain to visit, but I don’t want to live (or eat) there.

It’s a good day when you learn something new.

TIL – Teff

Today is Monday, July 28, 2014, and I am sitting on a couch in the living room of my sister-in-law and her husband in Rockville, Maryland.

I am devouring game after game of QuizUp, an app that I was introduced to on Friday by my nephew (as previously seen on Mr. Sandosen).

I am working my way through the Science category to achieve Level 5. I am attempting to earn the achievement that shows that I have climbed to the fifth level in three topics in each and every category.

I am winning about two out of every three quizzes that I play and so I am climbing up the ladder towards unlocking the Voyager I badge. While unlocking achievements feels good, what I also like about this app is the ability to learn something new. It was while I was in the Science category – and the exact question eludes me for the moment – where I discovered today’s nugget of knowledge.

TILTeff is a grain from Ethiopia.

I had never heard of teff before, but the Internet is all over it. There is The Guardian proclaiming that teff will supplant quinoa as the “next big thing” in Western groceries. The Washington Post chimes in with an introduction to the grain (and also tells quinoa to watch out).

There’s even a place out in the Snake River area of Idaho that grows the grain. Not surprisingly, it is called The Teff Company.

Oh, and teff is gluten-free.

It’s a good day when you learn something new.

Nonprofit Tax Havens Are a Thing?

While the news is full of stories about the current do-nothing Congress (see here and here and here for examples) and even this here little blog pokes light at the lack of working days under the dome of the United States Capitol, there are moments when the members of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate (and even…gasp…the President of the United States) can actually come together and pass legislation.

Although funding the federal government doesn’t seem to be one of those things.

However, in the lane of cooperation, the federal government did pass Public Law 113-163, which started life as S.1799 and which is officially known as the Victims of Child Abuse Reauthorization Act of 2013.

The Victims of Child Abuse Act (VOCA) of 1990 created a program that would allow the Department of Justice (DoJ) to “…make grants to develop multidisciplinary child abuse investigation and prosecution programs.” The DoJ created the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to distribute those grants to establish regional and local children’s advocacy centers, strengthen court appointed special advocate programs, and improve the prosecution and court management of child abuse cases. The head of the OJJDP is the Administrator and it is this position’s role to make those grants (and if you like to see the actual law, you can pop on over to Title 42, Chapter 132, Subchapter I, Section 13003 of the United States Civil Code to see the technical legal language concerning the Administrator and grants).

The reason the word “Reauthorization” is in the title of Public Law 113-163 is because funding for VOCA was not included in President Obama’a budget for Fiscal Year 2014 (FY14). In 2013, the junior Senator from Delaware, Democrat Chris Coons, introduced legislation that would restore $20 million in funding to VOCA programs for FY15.

Helping abused kids is a rather non-partisan issue in the halls of Washington so it is not surprising that in June of 2014, the Senate passed S.1799 by unanimous consent and on the next month, the House passed the legislation by voice vote. The President signed the bill in August and the OJJDP is back in the grant-making business until the end of FY18.

But none of the above is why I chose to write about VOCA, the OJJDP, Senator Coons, or child advocacy centers. Instead, what I found intriguing about S.1799 is some of the wording that happens after the text that extends funding through the end of Fiscal Year 2018.

Section 2(b) of Senator Coon’s legislation adds text to the original 1990 law that created VOCA (also known as Public Law 101-647 which was first known as S.3266 and was introduced by the then-junior Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden, the current Vice President).

Section 214(c)(1) has now been added to PL 101-647 that mandates that the DOJ’s Inspector General conducts audits “of recipients of grants under this subtitle to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse of funds by grantees.” Obviously, these audits weren’t being done before which is why the Senator from Delaware had to add this language to look for malfeasance on the part of grant recipients.

Has the news been filled recently with child advocacy center grant recipient using federal money in a wasteful manner? I have not been able to find any, but then I must admit my on-line search was not entirely exhaustive.

In a like vein, section 214(c)(2)(b) states that the “Administrator may not award a grant…to a nonprofit organization that holds money in offshore accounts for the purpose of avoiding paying the tax described in section 511(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.”

Basically said, if you are a nonprofit helping abused children and you also store money in a bank outside of the United States to avoid paying a certain tax, the OJJDP wants nothing to do you.

Again, has the news been filled recently with nonprofits stashing dollars in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying Uncle Sam?

I find it weird that the United States government would let it be known via legislation that nonprofits are not welcome to park their cash outside America. However, this same government has absolutely no issue with giving the green light to companies that do make a profit to put money away in international banks to avoid paying federal business taxes.

According to this Newsweek article, “Apple and GE owe at least $36 billion in taxes on profits being held tax-free offshore, Microsoft nearly $27 billion and Pfizer $24 billion…” all in perfectly legal and Congress-approved ways. This article from Bloomberg states that companies like Apple and IBM have parked a combined $1.95 trillion (yes, with a “T”) overseas to avoid paying taxes. These companies still can play with the United States government.

But if you’re the Pennsylvania Alliance for Child Advocacy (or a similar-named outfit), don’t even think about opening up a bank account in Ireland…you tax dodger, you.