Today's Papers

Medicare’s New Expiration Date

The Los Angeles Timesleads with word that the U.S. military has started working with the Pakistani government on a new program that uses armed Predator drones to go after Islamist insurgents inside Pakistan. By cooperating with Pakistani officers, the hope is that the government in Islamabad will be more open to using drones to go after militants. But that’s hardly the only reason this new program is significant. It also marks the beginning of a new role for the U.S. military since the CIA has been the agency that has used drones along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The CIA drones won’t cease operating, but a separate group of drones will now be under the purview of the Defense Department and, for the first time, will be allowed to venture beyond the border areas.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsboxlead with a new government report that paints a dire picture of the financial situation of the nation’s two largest benefit programs. Partly as a result of the recession, the Medicare fund for hospital care will run out of money in 2017, two years earlier than the government had predicted a year ago. The Social Security trust fund is in a bit better shape but will still start spending more money than it receives in 2016 and will be depleted by 2037, four years sooner than projected last year. At a time when lawmakers are arguing over whether the country can really afford expanding health insurance coverage, the report sparked calls for the administration to start working on a plan to prevent the two entitlement programs from becoming insolvent. USA Todayleads with news that the pilots of the plane that crashed Feb. 12 in Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people spent their last few moments chatting with each other about the icy conditions and their careers. According to a transcript of the cockpit recorder released yesterday, the pilots bantered away and didn’t seem to realize that the airplane had slowed dramatically.

When Pakistan’s president visited Washington last week, he once again said his country wanted its own drones. U.S. officials never liked that idea but see this new joint partnership as a compromise that can serve the interests of both nations. Pakistani military officials will be able to direct the drones inside Pakistan. As opposed to the drones run by the CIA, the new program would go after local militants who are threatening to take over Pakistan rather than al-Qaida targets. Still, the Pakistani military seems reluctant to use this newly available technology. Pakistani officials didn’t want to use the drones in the recent Swat Valley offensive and have yet to order the firing of any missiles.

The recession has sped up the decline of Medicare and Social Security because rising unemployment means the government gets less in the payroll taxes that fund a big chunk of the programs. But even if things turnaround later this year it won’t help them avoid their predicted fate. White House officials said the new report on Medicare’s finances illustrates why it’s so important that the government succeed in its widespread effort to bring down health care costs. But Republicans questioned whether Social Security—the so-called third rail of American politics—shouldn’t be Obama’s first priority. The new numbers were also great fodder for Republicans who don’t like the idea of creating a new government health insurance program. “The government-run healthcare programs we already have are unsustainable,” said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia.

The WSJ points out that Medicare’s outlook may be even bleaker than the numbers indicate. The report released yesterday takes into account a 21 percent cut in payments this year to doctors who work for Medicare. The cut is required by law but over the past several years Congress has canceled it.

The chit-chat between the pilots of the plane that crashed in Buffalo violated rules that forbid any kind of idle chatter in the cockpit, particularly during takeoff and landing. Apparently distracted by the ice, the pilots didn’t realize that the plane had slowed down 57 mph in less than 30 seconds. When a safety device that alerts pilots to a critical slow-down was activated, the pilot apparently did exactly the wrong thing. The device automatically lowers the plane’s nose in order to gain speed, but the pilot overrode it and instead tried to raise it. The pilots weren’t trained on how to use the safety device.

The WSJ goes high with, and the NYT buries deep inside the business section, word that White House officials are embroiled in serious discussions about how to change the compensation practices in the financial services industry. Congressional leaders are also batting around ideas. The rules would likely apply to companies that didn’t receive any bailout money and could extend beyond banks to include regulated hedge funds, private-equity firms, and mortgage brokers. Although the WSJ’s high placement of the story is clearly meant to scare executives in the financial industry, the truth is that nothing has been decided yet. And besides, as the WSJ points out, the government has “long had the power to sanction a bank for excessive pay structures,” even if that authority has rarely been used. Both papers say the ultimate goal is to find a way to structure pay at these companies in such a way that it is closely linked with performance. But officials insist they don’t want to micromanage payment structures or set compensation limits. Several proposals are currently in the works, and the NYT says new rules could be released before Memorial Day.

USAT fronts more details about the 44-year-old Army communications specialist who killed five fellow service members in Baghdad. Sgt. John Russell’s father said that after three tours in Iraq, the Army “broke” his son. Russell apparently sent an e-mail to his wife recently that said “his life was over” because he had been forced to attend stress counseling, which he saw as a sign that he was being pushed out of the Army. Russell, who will face five counts of murder, was apparently being escorted out of the mental health clinic when he somehow overpowered an armed guard and took away his weapon. He then proceeded to go back to the mental health clinic and kill two military doctors and three enlisted personnel. “They escorted him out with a guy with a gun,” his father said. “That was the worst thing they could have done. They trained him to kill; he had a short fuse when they antagonized him.”

In an interesting dispatch from Jakarta the NYT takes a look at how the city’s nightmarish traffic jams have given rise to an informal network of “jockeys,” who wait by the side of the road to be picked up by drivers who want to make it into the high-occupancy lanes. How bad are traffic jams in Indonesia’s capital? Well, officials say that by 2011 the city will reach a point of “total traffic,” or what the paper dubs as “complete paralysis.” The number of new cars in the city continues to increase every year, no new roads are being built, and city officials have yet to come up with a workable plan for a public transportation network.

All the recent back and forth over whether the so-called “Gang of Four,” the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House intelligence committees, were given full details about the CIA’s interrogation program obscures a more important point: Why were only four members briefed? In a NYT op-ed piece, Vicki Divoll writes that the executive branch can brief fewer members about covert actions in “extraordinary circumstances,” but even then it should be to the “Gang of Eight,” which includes the minority and majority leadership. But these limited briefings are only permitted when they relate to covert actions, and it could very well be argued that the interrogation program doesn’t fit in that category, which means the full House and Senate intelligence committees should have been notified. This trend of limiting briefings didn’t begin with the Bush administration, but it means that the most controversial CIA programs “now receive the least oversight—in many cases, no oversight—by Congress.”

The Cheneys have made it clear that attacking the Obama administration is now “a family affair,” notes the Post’s Dan Eggen. Elizabeth Cheney made several appearances on cable television yesterday to defend her father. The former vice president continued to show that the man who didn’t disguise his contempt for the media while in office will now talk to anyone who will have him by appearing on the Fox Business Network. There, he moved beyond his usual notes about how Obama is putting the country in danger to criticize the bailout of automakers.

In a surprisingly coherent column that actually makes good points, the NYT’s Maureen Dowd eviscerates Cheney. Of course, Dowd has never hidden her contempt for the former vice president, but today’s column throws so many punches in quick succession that if this were a boxing match, the columnist would win by a knockout. “Cheney unleashed …  is pretty much the same as Cheney underground,” writes Dowd. “He’s batty, and he thinks he was the president.”