- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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HOLLYWOOD JOURNALIST: SEAN PENN UNWITTINGLY HELPS TO REEL IN EL CHAPO, Jan. 13

Sean Penn is a brilliant actor and, judging by his relief work in Haiti, a serious humanitarian. As a journalist, though, he’s an entertaining stenographer.

His Rolling Stone article about meeting up with drug lord Joaquin Guzman in Mexico is a tour de force of self-indulgence and obfuscation, painting the brutal gangster as a “simple man from a simple place.” The magazine’s website published the account Saturday night, a day after Mexican authorities captured the Sinaloa syndicate leader known as “El Chapo,” whose legend had been enhanced by two escapes from top-security Mexican prisons.



Law-abiding American citizens may ask: Did Mr. Penn break laws by consorting with a major criminal who is wanted on numerous charges in the United States? Didn’t he have an obligation to report the kingpin’s whereabouts to the FBI?

This is a less-than-ideal case, but journalists must defend First Amendment rights, resist pressure to reveal a source and refuse to collect intelligence on behalf of government agencies. Fortunately, in this case, Mexican authorities have said Mr. Penn unwittingly helped them locate Guzman; the journey to his lair, made with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, may have created a visible trail.

Journalists would have a harder time defending an interview with someone who poses an imminent lethal threat. In March 1997, two CNN reporters managed to score an exclusive with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The same interview, conducted post-9/?11, would have resulted in outrage.

Despite Mexico’s pervasive corruption, Guzman was bound to be located by law enforcement, which had been humiliated by his July 2015 escape. Mr. Penn’s excursion, linked to Ms. Del Castillo’s intention of producing a biopic about the notorious drug purveyor, is best understood as Hollywood business at the extreme.

As actor Matt Damon told Entertainment Weekly, “It’s nothing new, actors going and seeking out meetings like this. … Sean somehow figured out that he had an audience with this person and I’m sure was pursuing something creatively.” We look forward to Mr. Penn getting back to his day job.

-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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OBAMA’S MINOR ACTIONS ON GUNS ARE BETTER THAN NO SAFETY IMPROVEMENTS AT ALL, Jan. 10

Executive actions are a terrible means of effecting change.

They’re temporary: Once a president leaves office, his executive actions can be reversed.

And they generally are viewed as a last-ditch means of circumventing Congress- and often seen as illegitimate, if not illegal, by the opposition party.

Hence the assertions last week by congressional Republicans that Obama’s executive actions on guns were unconstitutional.

But even law professor David Bernstein- author of the book “Lawless: The Obama Administration’s Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law” -wrote in The Washington Post that he didn’t “see anything lawless here.”

The National Rifle Association agreed that these were modest measures.

“This is it, really?” Jennifer Baker, an NRA official, said to The New York Times. “They’re not really doing anything.”

The Obama administration is doing what it can, little as it is, because Congress hasn’t been willing to take on the gun lobby. Neither has Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.

As LNP reported last Sunday, 54 gun-related bills were introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature last year. None came close to becoming law.

Gun safety bills, in particular, are to lawmakers what kryptonite is to Superman- something to be avoided at all costs.

And there are indeed costs. Terrible ones.

In 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were a total of 33,636 firearm deaths in the United States- mostly suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Polls show Americans- including significant majorities of Republicans and NRA members -favor background checks to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness, as well as domestic abusers and terrorists.

Yet most politicians won’t vote to close loopholes in the background-check system.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, and Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, have been braver than most. In 2013, they authored a bill that would have expanded background checks to firearms sales at gun shows and over the Internet.

Pennsylvania law already requires background checks on all handgun sales; Toomey-Manchin would have extended those checks to Internet and gun show sales of long guns, including the military-style, semi-automatic rifles often referred to as assault weapons.

Their bill failed to pass in 2013, only months after the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 first-graders and six educators were killed.

Essentially the same bill was defeated again in the U.S. Senate the day after the Dec. 2 San Bernardino shooting, in which 14 people were killed and 22 were injured.

As an Associated Press analysis pointed out last week, Obama’s executive actions wouldn’t have prevented Sandy Hook, or any of the most devastating mass shootings.

Obama seemed to acknowledge that himself. “We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some,” the president said.

This is what we’re left with- small measures that likely won’t do much, but might do something.

As columnist Doyle McManus notes in today’s Sunday Conversation, Obama’s request for 200 new ATF agents likely won’t be granted by Congress. We’re hoping that at the very least, his request for a new $500 million investment in mental health care wins congressional approval.

Obama said the FBI would immediately begin to hire more employees to make the National Instant Criminal Background Check System more efficient.

The president also wants to redefine “gun dealer” so all those engaged in the business of selling firearms- regardless of where they’re selling them -would be required to be licensed and to do background checks. This seems reasonable.

Obama also wants his administration to increase research into smart gun technology.

What we really would like to see is for Congress to fund research on gun violence and its impact on public health. A 1996 ban prohibiting the CDC from conducting such research was lifted by Obama in 2013 by executive order. But, as The Washington Post has reported, the ban remains effectively in place because Congress won’t fund gun research.

Even the former congressman responsible for the ban regrets it.

“Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile,” wrote former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey, of Arkansas, in a recent letter to a congressional task force. “It is my position that somehow or some way we should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached.”

The facts should guide any debate, so let’s seek them.

-LNP

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GOP OFFERING NO ALTERNATIVE TO THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT, Jan. 12

Regardless of how you view the Affordable Care Act, derisively called Obamacare, the congressional attempt to repeal it last week was an exercise in futility and politics.

After more than 60 votes over five years in the House to end President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, all of which died in the Senate, Republicans in the upper chamber used a legislative tactic called reconciliation to prevent a Democratic filibuster and approve the measure.

There were just two problems:

The action was taken knowing full well that Obama would veto the measure and that neither chamber had the two-thirds GOP majority to override that veto. Nevertheless, even before the measure was sent to the president, Republicans scheduled the override vote, another exercise in futility and politics, to coincide with the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

The Republicans voted to rescind Obamacare without offering an alternative, something they have been promising to deliver since 2011, before Obama was re-elected. Without an alternative, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the number of uninsured people in this country would jump from about 29 million to roughly 48 million.

But House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders said the vote was intended to drive home the point that the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed until there is a Republican in the White House, and they hoped their move would help elect a GOP president.

“The people deserve a truly patient-centered health care system, and ultimately, ultimately, this is going to require a Republican president,” Ryan said. “That’s why our top priority in 2016 is going to be offering the country a clear choice with a bold pro-growth agenda.”

Was that choice not clear prior to last week’s vote?

The measure also included a provision to bar any federal money for Planned Parenthood, something conservatives in Congress vowed to do after an anti-abortion group released a secretly recorded video that it claimed showed an official from Planned Parenthood negotiating the sale of aborted fetal tissue. That is why the override vote is scheduled for the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

It is unfortunate that our national debates in this country have been reduced to such sophomoric activities. Although Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell touted the unprecedented demand for coverage under Obamacare, few people outside the administration would call it an unqualified success.

Premiums have soared, and options have declined. But the number of people without health insurance has been cut nearly in half.

If there were an alternative offered that continued to reduce the number of uninsured without the increase in costs and the decrease in offerings, even Obama might support it. Thus far, however, the only alternative that has been offered has been a return to the way things were before Obamacare. Going back to the future is not a viable option.

Voters know the differences between the two parties and among the candidates who are running for president. They don’t need their lawmakers transforming the halls of Congress into a political rally.

-The Reading Eagle

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COPS PUT THEIR LIVES IN PERIL, Jan. 12

The FBI and local authorities continue to investigate whether last week’s attempted assassination of a Philadelphia police officer was a terrorist attack. No matter their conclusion, it won’t change the inherent danger of being a police officer in cities where the threat of violence is constant.

Officer Jesse Hartnett was in his patrol car at 60th and Spruce on Thursday night when a man wearing a long, white tunic and wielding a 9mm Glock fired more than a dozen shots at him. Three of the bullets hit and fractured Hartnett’s arm, but he managed to return fire and wound the suspect, who ran away but was later apprehended.

The man arrested in the attack, Edward Archer, reportedly told police, “I pledge my allegiance to the Islamic State, and that’s why I did what I did.” No doubt Islamic State would be happy to take credit for another fear-inspiring attack on a symbol of American authority. Such is the nature of today’s terrorist groups, which are as satisfied with inspiring violence as they are with orchestrating it.

That includes violence committed by individuals whose mental state may have a bearing on acts they link to a particular ideology. Archer’s mother, Valerie Holliday, told The Inquirer that her son had “been acting kind of strange lately … talking to himself” and “hearing voices.”

His assault joins a number of recent shootings that have raised the public’s awareness of cops’ vulnerability. Police Commissioner Richard Ross says all Philadelphia officers will pair up on patrol as a precautionary step until the apparent risk dissipates. That makes sense given a tipster’s claim that associates of Archer may be plotting more attacks on police.

It is important, however, to put in perspective the possibility that police officers in Philadelphia and elsewhere are being targeted by terrorists or- if you believe right-wing pundits -adherents of the Black Lives Matter movement. Data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show 42 fatal shootings of police officers last year, a 14 percent drop from 2014.

Does that mean there’s no need for police officers to worry when they put on their uniforms and enter situations that could, as in Officer Hartnett’s case, unexpectedly and inexplicably become violent? No, it doesn’t. They must always be on guard. But the fund’s numbers do suggest that much of today’s “war on cops” rhetoric is politically calculated and disconnected from reality.

There’s no need to exaggerate the dangers that police officers face every day. Their willingness to protect and serve even when it means putting their lives in danger is worthy of praise, not political exploitation.

-The Philadelphia Inquirer

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TALLY COST OF LEGISLATIVE MALPRACTICE, Jan. 12

After a series of credit downgrades for the state government and chaos for public school districts and social service agencies, Pennsylvania’s government still is without an actual budget as the state staggers into a legislative election year.

The Republican majorities in both houses signed off on a $30-billion-plus, unbalanced budget that maintains a yawning deficit while failing to slow the exponential increase in public pension costs or modernize an antiquated tax structure. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf authorized enough spending to partially fund schools and social services, but used his line-item veto authority to eliminate about $7 billion in other spending. The state still does not have a budget.

Some of the cost of the legislative malpractice that has resulted in a six-month-plus impasse is well-established. But Pennsylvanians deserve a full accounting before they go to the polls later this year to render judgment on this woeful legislative performance.

The state, for example, will not fund the cost of borrowing for more than 200 school districts that had to borrow more than $1 billion to cover the absence of state subsidies. But there are many more ways that the absence of a state budget has cost Pennsylvanians.

Credit downgrades for school districts and the state government itself will increase the cost of borrowing for years. The failure to address pension costs now keeps that meter running in the wrong direction. The failure to reform property taxes keeps local school districts chained to tax bases that cannot sustain them.

There are other costs. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently reported that Pittsburgh lost a movie production because the film tax credit was unavailable due to the budget impasse. And there are many such spin-off losses for an array of local governments and businesses across many aspects of the unfunded budget.

Academicians who study state government, good-government advocates or other analysts should establish a clearinghouse to collect all of the direct and ancillary costs of the ongoing legislative malpractice and arm voters with the information.

-The (Pottsville) Republican-Herald

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