Iraq worsens... but the GOP still supports the surge!

The GAO (Government Accountability Office) report on Iraq came out today, and its findings are not very encouraging. Of the 18 benchmarks Congress set in May, only 3 were found to be fully met, and 11 were not. Among them, important benchmarks such as reducing sectarian violence and promoting political cohesiveness. The full text of the report is available here. And Talking Points Memo drew a very useful chart summarizing the report's findings. Definitely check it out.

Cross-blogged at Campaign Diaries. Check out full analysis there.

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Elizabeth Warren, Chris Dodd, GAO Agree: Credit Card Fees Are Too High

Hope you don't mind me flogging the subject of the Interchange Fee once again, but the LA Times ran a great story this week on the matter. Here's the lede:

Credit card companies have always taken their cut when a customer uses plastic, part of the cost of doing business electronically.

But a surge in the fees has sparked an intense dispute, with small merchants complaining that the higher charges are forcing them to raise prices and, in some cases, threatening to drive them out of business.

For more of the story, and details on how much this actually costing YOU, follow me below the fold:

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Why not use GAO reports?

Something that's annoyed the hell out me since (after an eon or two) I got wise to it:

Every working day, the GAO produces at least one report on the functioning (check, malfunctioning) of the (laughingly so called) executive branch.

Moreover, each department and agency of the Federal government has an Inspector General whose office - OIG - produces regular reports on their own department or agency.

All of these watchdogs are (or are supposed to be) nonpartisan.

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Haven't They Paid Enough?

$1,200,000.00

That's the amount of money wounded American soldiers owe the Pentagon. ThinkProgress highlighted a really interesting report to come out of the Government Accountability Office this morning titled, "MILITARY PAY: Hundreds of Battle-Injured GWOT Soldiers Have Struggled to Resolve Military Debts." The report describes the underlying issues behind casualty debt and the ways the Pentagon deals with it, which includes interest charges and referral to collection agencies.

Thousands of soldiers have been injured or killed as a result of hostile fire since the initial deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq in October 2001. Battle-injured soldiers returning to the United States often face the daunting prospect of adjusting to their postwar lives. Many soldiers are faced with multiple surgeries and months of physical rehabilitation. Oftentimes, these soldiers have to reassess their career goals and seek training to accommodate their new physical limitations upon separation from military service. Because these battle-injured soldiers return to the United States before their unit's mobilization period ends, their duty status is not always appropriately updated and they encounter payroll problems related to the failure by the Army to adjust combat pay (entitlements such as hostile fire pay, hardship duty pay, and family separation pay). Our previous audits have detailed weaknesses in the Army's systems and processes for providing servicerelated benefits to Army National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers that have resulted in both over- and underpayments. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) is responsible for collecting debts caused by overpayments and other pay-related problems. The Debt Collection Act of 1982 provides a statutory basis for federal agencies to use appropriate debt collection tools, such as interest charges, offset, and private collection agencies. Thus, if debts are not paid before the soldier separates from military service, DFAS can refer these debts to collection agencies.

And this isn't the type of issue where, once a problem or mistake is discovered, is easily corrected. Military debt has led to real hardships for the families it impacts. The GAO picked out just nineteen cases to examine more closely and found widespread problems caused by their debts. Sixteen of them couldn't afford their standard household expenses. Nine were harassed by collection agencies about their debts. Eight had money withheld by the IRS from their tax refunds. Four couldn't get loans for cars, homes, or other needs.

But statistics only tell part of the story. The clerical errors that lead to problems like this have a real impact on real people. Often, military families don't have any knowledge of what's going on behind the scenes until another alert is triggered within the military that causes them to question the family. In this case, the Army accused an injured soldier of being AWOL.

The Army's failure to record separation paperwork in the pay system and other payment errors resulted in over $12,000 of debt for one severely battle-injured soldier. Although the soldier's family expected that he would receive retirement pay when his Army pay stopped upon his separation,
the soldier had no income for several months while the Army attempted to recover his military debt. As a result, his family was unable to pay household bills, the utilities were shut off, and the soldier's dependent daughter was sent out of state to live with relatives. In addition, although the soldier had been receiving treatment at an Army medical center and a VA polytrauma center over a 5-month period, the day the soldier was released to go home, his Army unit called his wife to ask why he was not reporting for duty--an indication that his Army unit had considered him to be AWOL.

Personally, I find this repulsive. These are people who volunteer for service to their country. Wounded in battle, they pay, if not the ultimate price, something close to it. This particular soldier paid that price and then came home to pay some more, being denied income and being forced to split up his family.

The report suggests Congressional action to remedy the issue. But this is not a new issue. Reports from the GAO detailing problems with the debt of of servicemen and women go back at least to 2003. While the fixes suggested by the GAO aren't all uniform, it would not have been much of a stretch to examine the matters at hand and pass legislation that would have nipped many of these problems in their respective buds. But I guess those in Congress had other priorities.

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