Drunk drivers: Congress gets behind breath-test ignition devices

InterlockAn effort to get more states to require convicted drunk drivers to test their breath for alcohol before they can start their cars is gaining support in Congress.

A House transportation bill unveiled Tuesday would offer additional highway funds to states that require ignition interlock devices for DUI offenders. A similar measure is expected to come before the Senate.

Fifteen states require all convicted drunk drivers, including first-time offenders, to use the devices, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has promoted use of the devices. The ignition interlock prevents a driver from starting the engine if his or her blood-alcohol content exceeds a preset limit.

In a pilot project that runs through 2016, DUI offenders in Los Angeles County and three other California counties were required to install the devices in their cars beginning in 2010.

The idea of requiring the devices for all drunk drivers is opposed by the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association.

The group said in a statement that making all DUI offenders use the interlocks would "deny judges the ability to distinguish between a driver one sip over the limit and high-BAC, repeat offenders."

Spokeswoman Sarah Longwell said the association supports the route taken by a number of states to "target the hard-core offenders" by requiring the devices for those convicted with high blood-alcohol contents.

Dangling money in front of financially strapped states to nudge them into requiring the devices has emerged as one area of agreement in a divided Congress trying to write a new transportation spending bill in a politically charged election year. The House bill, like the measure headed for the Senate, also includes a big increase in a federal loan program that has been crucial to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s efforts to speed local transportation projects.

Lawmakers from both parties have portrayed the transportation funding measure as a jobs bill.

But plenty of disagreements have emerged that could make it difficult to pass a bill this year, perhaps most significantly over how highway projects should be funded at a time when gas tax funds have fallen because of more fuel-efficient cars.

Senate Democrats have come out against a Republican proposal to open up more of the coast to oil drilling in order to generate more money for highway projects. A fight also is emerging over efforts to allow larger and heavier trucks on interstate highways.

In unveiling the House Republicans’ five-year, $260-billion measure, Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) said it "cuts red tape and bureaucracy that delays projects across the country" and "gives states more flexibility to determine their most critical transportation needs," among other things.

He also boasted that the bill has none of the earmarks eagerly sought by lawmakers in the past, such as Alaska's much-derided "bridge to nowhere" that was among more than 6,300 earmarks in a previous transportation bill.

"Do any of you have any idea how difficult it is to do a transportation bill without earmarks?" he joked.


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Judge tells officials to give notice before clearing Occupy D.C.

-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: The ignition interlock device requires drivers to breathe into the unit before starting a car. Credit: LifeSafer

Tensions run high at Occupy D.C. site in anticipation of crackdown

Tensions run high at Occupy D.C. site in anticipation of crackdown

Tensions ran high at an Occupy D.C. site Monday as protesters vowed to defy a federal crackdown on camping in a small park near the White House.

Signs like "Eviction? Bring It" and "You can’t evict an idea" were posted on tents at McPherson Square, as a Monday noon deadline passed without incident.

Sgt. David Schlosser of the U.S. Park Police said Monday that officers are going tent-to-tent explaining "our expectations for compliance with the regulations." But by early afternoon Monday, police had yet to move through the park to remove bedding.

PHOTOS: Occupy D.C.

Earlier, scores of protesters demonstrated before a large crowd of media and office workers, many in business suits who wandered by during their lunch break.

Protesters pulled a blue tarp with the words "Tent of Dreams" over a statue of Civil War Gen. James McPherson and chanted: "Get up, Get down, There’s a revolution in this town." One sign read: "I'm dreaming....of my First Amendment rights."

The protesters can maintain a 24-hour vigil in McPherson Square and another Occupy D.C. site at nearby Freedom Plaza, but cannot sleep there, according to the National Park Service, which has come under pressure from congressional Republicans to enforce the sleeping ban.

Occupy DC said in a statement that they will "peacefully resist this politically motivated attempt to suppress the free speech of the disenfranchised 99%."

Another sign on a tent read: "This is a workspace."

Washington officials have complained about a rat infestation at the McPherson Square encampment as well as more than $1.6-million cost to the city from the Occupy D.C. protest.


Occupy D.C. protesters warned: Stop camping or risk arrest

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: A man walks in front of a sign advising of a noon deadline to remove camping materials from the Occupy D.C. encampment in McPherson Square on Monday. Credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images 

Occupy D.C. protesters warned: Stop camping or risk arrest

Federal authorities, under pressure to crack down on the 4-month-old Occupy D.C. encampments, warned protesters Friday that they must stop camping in two parks near the White House or risk arrest

Federal authorities, under pressure to crack down on the 4-month-old Occupy D.C. encampments, warned protesters Friday that they must stop camping in two parks near the White House or risk arrest.

Authorities distributed fliers advising protesters that the U.S. Park Police on Monday will begin enforcing a ban on camping in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza.

"If camping violations are observed, individual violators may be subject to arrest and their property subject to seizure as evidence," the fliers warned. "Any temporary structure used for camping also will be subject to seizure as an abatement of a public nuisance."

The warning comes days after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, lashed out at National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis for "turning a blind eye'' to lawbreaking in McPherson Square.

Washington officials have complained about rat infestation at the McPherson Square encampment as well as more than $1.6-million cost to the city from the Occupy D.C. protest. D.C. Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Barbara Lang wrote this week on her blog that the protest has become "a burden on our city's economy," hurting businesses and residents who are "all a part of the 99 percent."

A crackdown on camping won't necessarily end the protest or even lead to removal of all the tents.

Park Service officials have said the protesters have a 1st Amendment right to stage a 24-hour vigil in the parks. Jarvis told a House hearing earlier this week that although camping is prohibited, "temporary structures, including tents, are permissible as part of a demonstration." Authorities will have to figure out which tents are being used for sleeping, possibly by the presence of bedding. 

The Park Service "has a long and proud tradition of providing opportunities for the exercise of First Amendment rights, but it also is obligated to protect our important cultural and natural resources," say the fliers distributed to protesters.

Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said the enforcement action has been in the "planning process for some time as part of our measured and progressive approach" for enforcing the camping ban while protecting 1st Amendment-protected activities.


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Bill to require steel pennies, nickels makes cents, says sponsor

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: A sign at the Occupy D.C. encampment in McPherson Square in Washington. Credit: Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images

Bill to require steel pennies, nickels makes cents, says sponsor

A penny-pinching member of Congress is taking aim at the cost of producing 1-cent coins.

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) has introduced the Cents and Sensibility Act to require pennies to be made primarily from American steel.

No worries, however, about the nation losing one "red cent." Steel pennies would be dipped in copper and look the same. 

Stivers has also introduced similar legislation to change the composition of the nickel, the STEEL bill (for Saving Taxpayer Expenditures by Employing Less Imported Nickel Act).

The legislation is needed, Stivers said, because the cost to produce pennies and nickels now exceeds their face value.

"In these times of fiscal strain, Americans could save millions by simply changing the composition of our coins," Stivers said in a fact sheet distributed to House colleagues in support of the legislation.

A penny, which consists of 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper, cost 2.41 cents to produce last year, up from 1.79 cents the previous year, according to the U.S. Mint. A nickel, which is 75% copper and 25% nickel, cost 11.18 cents to make, up from 9.22 cents.

The measures are similar to legislation that passed the House in 2008 but languished in the Senate, even though proponents said it could save taxpayers $100 million a year.

The U.S. Mint Director Edmund C. Moy at the time expressed concern to lawmakers that requiring steel pennies "eliminates any consideration of other alternatives that may prove more cost effective."

He said that legislation mandating the use of certain materials could make the Mint vulnerable to volatile metal prices and suggested that Congress leave it to determine the composition of coins.

Under 2010 legislation, the Mint is studying changes to the metallic content of coins in an effort to save money, with a report due to Congress by the end of the year.

Stivers and co-sponsors of the bill hail from a steel-producing state.

"At a time when too many of our products are being manufactured in other countries, we should at least be able to buy those products with money produced using materials made in America," Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a co-sponsor, said in a statement.  Stivers said that much of the copper, zinc and nickel used in coins comes from Canada.

George Vary, executive director of the International Zinc Assn. – America, said, "This is the dead horse that keeps getting beaten," adding that similar legislation has been introduced before when the price of zinc went up but lost steam after it went down.

In 1943, pennies were made out of zinc-coated steel because of World War II demand for copper.

The Mint produced 4.9 billion pennies last year.

The legislation comes as a separate effort has been launched in Congress to phase out the paper dollar in favor of a more durable dollar coin.

Stivers’ bill has been assigned to the House financial services subcommittee on domestic monetary policy and technology.


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Fire them? Federal employees, retirees owe $3.4 billion in taxes


A recent IRS report showing that current and retired federal employees owe more than $3.4 billion in income taxes is fueling a drive on Capitol Hill to fire -- and prohibit the hiring of -- tax delinquents on Uncle Sam's payroll.

The report shows that about 98,000 federal civilian workers and postal employees -- or roughly 3% of the federal civilian and Postal Service workforce -- owed about $1 billion to Uncle Sam in 2010, including 684 congressional staffers who owed more than $10 million.

While the total number of delinquent federal employees has dropped, the $1 billion in tax debt for current civilian workers has increased from about $600 million in 2004. When retirees and military personnel are included, nearly 280,000 people owed $3.4 billion, according to the data.

"If you work for the federal government and you don't pay your taxes, you should be fired," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who has sponsored the Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act.

The measure, which cleared a committee last year and awaits a House vote, would make anyone "seriously delinquent" -- that is, with a debt for which a notice of lien has been filed in public records --  ineligible for federal work. It would exempt active military personnel and federal workers who enter installment arrangements to pay off their tax debts. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

During a hearing last year, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that the tax compliance rate in the federal community is much higher than in the general public.

The IRS was owed more than $114 billion by all individual taxpayers as of last Sept. 30, according to the agency.

Critics of the legislation have said that firing employees who owe taxes would make it more difficult to collect the money. The unemployed hardly make for very good taxpayers,'' the Federal Managers Assn. said in a letter to lawmakers last year.

Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), whose district includes many federal workers, complained during the hearing that the bill sought to make public employees, the overwhelmingly majority of whom pay their taxes, a "punching bag."

Perhaps, he said, the bill should to apply to members of Congress. "Any member of Congress delinquent in his or her taxes is automatically suspended from Congress," he suggested. "That would be as much due process as we’re giving federal employees."


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Washington, D.C. -- not New York -- is 'most literate' city in U.S.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: Federal tax forms. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press

Washington, D.C. -- not New York -- is 'most literate' city in U.S.


The nation's capital has scored top literacy honors for the second year in a row, ranking No. 1 as the "most literate" city in America.

(We'll pause here for snarky commentary, such as this one making the rounds: "Considering the fact that it appears that no one in Congress reads the laws they vote on, this is remarkable news.")

Perhaps even more remarkable? New York City didn't even make the Top 10, tying with Austin, Texas, for the No. 22 slot.

That's puzzling if you've ever been on a New York City subway: It seems as if half the riders spend their commute buried in a bestseller, an e-book, a tabloid newspaper, or a smartphone screen. (That's still reading, right?) That's gotta sting a city that prides itself as being the heart of the publishing world, not to mention home of the literary elite.

Rounding out the Top 5 on the list at Nos. 2 through 5 are Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Boston.

The list is put together by Central Connecticut State University, which ranks the literacy of the nation's largest communities based on several indicators including number of bookstores, e-book sales, library resources, newspaper circulation, other periodical publishing resources, Internet resources and education.

Los Angeles lands at No. 59 in the rankings. And at the end of the list? Three of the bottom five are in California: Fresno (No. 71), Stockton (No. 72) and Bakersfield (No. 75).

Dr. Jack Miller, university president and study author, said the 2011 edition of the annual survey also took a look at the relationship between wealth and literacy by using income data from the U.S. census. Perhaps surprisingly, he said in a statement: "I learned that wealthier cites are no more likely to rank highly in literacy than poorer cities."

He cited the following example: Cleveland ranks second-lowest for median family income according to the research, yet boasts a thriving library system, local newspaper and magazine, and as a result lands at No. 13 on the survey.

"This demonstrates that if cities are truly committed to literacy, they can find a way past poverty and other socio-cultural challenges to create and sustain rich resources for reading," he said.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

House approves bill to allow religious symbols on war memorials


Mt. Soledad cross

The House Tuesday approved a measure that seeks to permit religious symbols on federal war memorials, a response to a court ruling that declared a cross atop a San Diego war memorial violated the Constitution.


The War Memorial Protection Act passed on a voice vote in the Republican-controlled House, but it faces uncertainty in the Senate.

The measure, which would allow religious symbols to be included in military monuments, was introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the 43-foot cross atop Mt. Soledad an unconstitutional "government endorsement of religion."

The measure’s approval came the same day the House passed a separate bill, the World War II Memorial Prayer Act, to authorize installation of a plaque or inscription at the World War II Memorial in Washington of the prayer that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on the morning of D-Day.

Hunter said his legislation was needed in the face of legal challenges against the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial "and the likelihood of more to come.’’

"Our Constitution protects the freedom of religion, not freedom from it," Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Carlsbad), a bill co-sponsor, told colleagues Tuesday. "This issue is one that has gone so far that we’re actually talking about tearing crosses down over war memorials."

But Dena Sher, legislative counsel in the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, called the bill "a misguided attempt to sanction government promotion of religion.''

"When a religious symbol is included in a war memorial favoring one religion over others, it’s simply unconstitutional,'' she said. "Congress cannot legislate around the Constitution, nor should it be using religion to score political points.''

The House vote was the latest effort in Congress to preserve the cross. In 2006, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation transferring the land beneath the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial to the federal government.

 "War memorials, including those with religious symbols, deserve to be protected for what they are: testaments to military service," Hunter said at a hearing on the bill last year.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, dismissed the vote as political posturing, saying it won’t affect the court case.

The court did not order the cross removed. Instead the case was sent back to a federal trial judge on the issue of whether it can be modified to "pass constitutional muster." But the court did not suggest how the cross and surrounding property could be reconfigured.


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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: The cross atop Mt. Soledad. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

Tim Thomas guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct, snubbing teammates?

Boston Bruins goalkeeper Tim Thomas

Tim Thomas' decision to boycott a White House ceremony to honor the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup victory has some critics accusing the team's MVP goalie of being a sore loser, and snubbing not just President Obama, but Thomas' teammates as well.

The White House ceremony saw Obama joshing with the Bruins players and honoring the team for its charitable work off the ice. But Thomas, who is conservative, cited politics for his decision to skip the White House gathering. Here's the comment that he posted on his Facebook page, and he gets all the credit for the creative capitalization:

"I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People. This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.

"Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.

"This is the only public statement I will be making on this topic. TT"

Many are blasting the athlete for snubbing not just the president, but the teammates who helped him win the 2011 Stanley Cup.

Here is a sampling of comments:

-- "...bottom line is that he should be there with his teammates that won him a cup," said one comment on ESPN.com

-- "His TEAM was being honored for the most part. He needs to open a dictionary and look up the words TEAM, HONOR, RESPECT, GRACE, etc....BAD MOVE, Tiny Tim!" said a comment on WSJ.com.

-- "Thomas is an idiot and selfish. You attend with your TEAM. He didn't and HE became the story. Gimme a break saying its not political," chimed in a comment posted at our sister blog Fabulous Forum.

On Tuesday night, Thomas might not start as goalie against the Washington Capitals. But team management says that decision has nothing to do with the White House flap, according to ESPN.com. Club policy keeps the starting goaltender away from the media on game day.


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--Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Bruins goalkeeper Tim Thomas. Credit: Grant Halverson / Getty Images

Occupy D.C. protest draws congressional scrutiny

The head of the National Park Service on Tuesday defended his decision to allow Occupy D.C. protesters to remain in a park near the White House, where they have camped out for nearly four months, in the face of congressional Republican criticism that he was "turning a blind eye" to lawbreakers.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista.), chairman of the House oversight committee, assailed Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis for permitting the tent city at McPherson Square in spite of a ban on camping at the park.

"I find it curious that tourists cannot come and pitch a tent in McPherson Square if they're camping for fun, but if they're camping in protest of fun, the National Park Service would welcome them," Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) added during a Capitol Hill hearing.

Park service officials have said the protest is more akin to a 24-hour vigil, allowed under park rules.

Jarvis acknowledged that some protesters were sleeping in the park, but said their protest was an example of a tradition of demonstrations in the nation’s capital –- more than 600 on the National Mall last year –- protected by the 1st Amendment.

"I could care less what their cause is," Jarvis told lawmakers. "My job, as a 35-year veteran of the National Park Service, is to protect the individuals' rights under the 1st Amendment."

But he also indicated that the park service would be moving soon to enforce the camping prohibition. "We've given them plenty of warning," he said.

While Occupy D.C. protesters were not invited to testify, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) read a statement   from the demonstrators: "That we have to ask a member of Congress to speak for us here is symbolic of the disenfranchising top-down nature of the government that we're fighting to democratize."

The top Democratic on the oversight committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, observed: "I find it curious that this particular demonstration has risen to the level of a congressional hearing."

Washington officials have become increasingly concerned about the encampment at McPherson Square because of a rat infestation, colder weather and the expense, more than $1.6 million, to the city.


Occupy D.C. rat infestation prompts calls to clear out protest


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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: Three Washington officials, from left, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander, Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Department of Health Director Mohammed Akhter, are sworn in at a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday. With them are William and Mary law professor Timothy Zick, second from right, and National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. Credit: Evan Vucci / Associated Press

Virginia to Washington, D.C.: Keep your rats to yourself

The message to Washington, D.C., from neighboring Virginia: Rats to you.

That would seem to sum up Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli’s view of a Washington law that he says could lead the nation’s capital to send its rats across the Potomac.

Cuccinelli told CNSNews.com that Washington’s Wildlife Protection Act of 2010 requires pest control companies to capture rats "and capture them in families -- you figure out how you’re going to do that with rats -- and then you’ve got to relocate them." He's worried they’ll end up in Virginia.

"Not true," said Mary Cheh, the Washington councilwoman who sponsored the law, which she said seeks to require that other forms of wildlife, not rats, be treated as humanely as possible.

The law expressly exempts rats, she said in a statement. "I would have hoped that people would have been inclined to read the bill before raging against it."

In spite of that assurance, Maryland State Delegate Patrick McDonough said in an interview Friday that he plans to introduce the Rat Trafficking Act to block the relocation of any rats to his state.

The controversy comes as Washington’s mayor has complained about rats at the Occupy DC sites.

Cheh has been receiving nasty emails from around the country since Cuccinelli made his comments, which were picked up by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“ ‘Babe,' " she said, was "not the only four-letter word I was called in the emails."


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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Washington, D.C.'s, Wildlife Protection Act of 2010 has Virginia and Maryland worried that the district might capture its rats and send them to neighboring states. The sponsor of that law dismisses such fears, suggesting critics actually read the law. Credit: Julie Jacobson / Associated Press


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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