Wonkbook: With 2 weeks to enrollment deadline, March Madness sets in for Obamacare

March 17

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 98.6. That's the February value of the Economic Policy Uncertainty Index, the lowest level since the earliest days of the recession.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: Why the wealthiest countries are also the most open with their data.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) The Obamacare full-court press; (2) Yellen's big week; (3) U.S. relinquishes last bits of Internet control; (4) housing bill released; and (5) could Crimea vote hasten U.S. action?

1. Top story: Two weeks until mandate deadline, and Obamacare full-court press continues — March Madness style.

Obama says enrollment is high enough to ensure his health law’s survival. "President Obama said Friday he was confident enough Americans had enrolled under the Affordable Care Act to make the program 'stable.' In an interview with WebMD, Obama said the fact that 4.2 million people have already signed up for plans under federal and state marketplaces mean enough companies will be invested to stay in the system.... Obama noted, however, that the larger question is whether the risk pool is diverse enough to ensure premiums don't skyrocket, since "the more you can spread the risk with more people, the better deal you’re going to get"...Even as he touted the virtues of the law, Obama acknowledged that some previously-uninsured Americans may not be able to see the providers they want if they were focused on keeping costs down." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Exclusive: House Republicans craft their vision for an alternative to Obamacare. "House Republican leaders are adopting an agreed-upon conservative approach to fixing the nation’s health-care system, in part to draw an election-year contrast with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The plan includes an expansion of high-risk insurance pools, promotion of health savings accounts and inducements for small businesses to purchase coverage together. The tenets of the plan — which could expand to include the ability to buy insurance across state lines, guaranteed renewability of policies and changes to medical-malpractice regulations — are ideas that various conservatives have for a long time backed as part of broader bills. But this is the first time this year that House leaders will put their full force behind a single set of principles from those bills and present it as their vision. This month, House leaders will begin to share a memo with lawmakers outlining the plan." Robert Costa in The Washington Post.

And some experts seem to agree with Obama that enough have enrolled. "Health benefits consultants agree with President Obama’s assessment this week that enough Americans have signed up to private health plans under the Affordable Care Act that it will work even though there could be up to two million fewer Americans covered than the White House had hoped….Health benefits consultants said there is reason to worry about whether enough younger Americans have signed up due to the website issues early on that may have hurt enrollment. In addition, slow signups in certain states that have continued to have more technical issues, such as Oregon, could trigger health plans to sustain greater losses and consider pulling out of the program, benefits consultants said….So far, however, health insurance companies have said the enrollment is trending younger and there have been few surprises that would require them to pull out of the program." Bruce Japsen in Forbes.

Explainer: This is Obama’s explanation for why you might not get to keep your doctor. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

And then the White House announced that it would seek to expand Obamacare health plans in 2015. "Health plans selling on the federal marketplaces in 2015 must include 30 percent of area 'essential community providers,' which are usually health centers and other hospitals serving mostly low-income patients. That's up from a 20 percent requirement in 2014, the first year of expanded overage under the health care law. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the marketplaces, will also take a much more active role in reviewing health plan networks. CMS, which outlined the new standards in a Friday night letter to insurers, will evaluate whether the plans include enough access to hospitals, primary care doctors, mental health providers and oncologists. The updated standards came after a Friday interview in which President Barack Obama acknowledged that pressure to keep down costs could mean consumers may not have access to their choice of doctor." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Administration making full-court press with March Madness-themed outreach. "The White House will court basketball fans in a March Madness-themed campaign to increase ObamaCare enrollment ahead of a March 31st deadline. The administration on Monday will release its '16 Sweetest Reasons to Get Covered' bracket listing the top reasons to get health insurance, according to a White House official. Each day, the bracket will be updated based on votes from online users." Kyle Balluck in The Hill.

Video: Speaking of basketball, LeBron helps out with Team Obama’s full-court press for Obamacare.

So are some celebrity moms. Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo.

Administration could deploy mandate leeway in event of last-minute technical problems. "Federal officials are planning a workaround that would effectively extend the March 31 deadline to enroll for health-care coverage for some users if technical glitches hamper a last-minute surge of signups on HealthCare.gov, people familiar with the matter say. Despite improvements since its rocky Oct. 1 launch, the website still faces problems, including some involving the same software that stymied users in the fall. Problems with the site at least three times this past week kept some users from being able to log on, including an almost hourlong outage that struck Friday morning, some of the people said….Under the workaround plan, people who can demonstrate that they tried to enroll in a plan before the deadline, but failed because of website troubles, would be able to sign up after March 31. " Christopher Weaver, Spencer E. Ante and Louise Radnofsky in The Wall Street Journal.

More health care reads:

Surgeon general nominee on hold. Kristina Peterson and Colleen McCain Nelson in The Wall Street Journal.

House passes 'doc fix' bill that delays individual mandate. Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

Federal judge rules Arkansas abortion law unconstitutional. Joseph Serna in the Los Angeles Times.

HHS will let sickest patients stay on their health plans longer. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Government approves medical marijuana research. Evan Halper and Cindy Carcamo in the Los Angeles Times.

U.S. says Obamacare covers married gay couples under family plan. Reuters.

MILBANK: Why millennials are abandoning Obama on health care. "Young voters, after playing a big role in the campaign, became little more than an e-mail list for the White House and Obama’s Organizing for Action group. Then came health-care reform. The millennials, very liberal overall, saw Obama’s plan as too timid; they were disillusioned by his failure to fight for the ‘public option’ of government-run health plans. This cost Obama the young activists he would need to rally enrollment in Obamacare. Polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that, while the generation looks more favorably on big-government solutions than do older generations, the millennials disapprove of Obamacare in the same proportion as the rest of the population. Even if Obama had worked harder to keep his youth army engaged, it’s not entirely clear that the effort would have succeeded. As a group, the generation’s attachment is fickle." Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

COHN: Should Democrats come out swinging on Obamacare? "The Democrats’ loss in this week’s special congressional election probably wasn’t a referendum on Obamacare. But, at the moment, the law still looks seems more like a political liability than an asset. And with Republicans making Obamacare the focus of their midterm strategy, many Democrats have been responding with a mixed message: Acknowledge the Affordable Care Act has flaws, but vow to fix them rather than repeal the whole program. That seems to be roughly consistent with polls, which suggest the majority of Americans don’t like the health care law but the majority also don’t want to get rid of it. But nuanced messages have problems, even if the nuances reflect public sentiments. A politician who starts with backpedaling (“Yes, the law has problems, but…”) is bound to sound weak. And weak politicians don’t generally make attractive candidates." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

SCHUCK: Obamacare's market problem. "Parts of the ACA such as the exchanges wisely seek to exploit some of the market's advantages in providing choice and efficiency. But other parts of the program -- including costly mandates for insurance benefits for which even subsidized consumers are unwilling to pay -- seem to ignore those advantages. The program's effectiveness requires striking the right balance between markets and mandates. The ACA's herky-jerky implementation suggests that Washington has not yet gotten it right." Peter Schuck in The Huffington Post.

BLOOMBERG VIEW: Don't ruin Obamacare to pay for 'doc fix.' Here's a better way. "The estimated cost to make this change is $138 billion over 10 years. That's a lot of money, but it could be drawn from other Medicare spending on health-care providers, doctors among them. This is not a radical idea; various bipartisan deficit-reduction proposals put forward since 2010 have recommended such measures. Among their good suggestions are using Medicare's buying power to get better rebates from drug makers, ending overpayments to hospitals for training doctors, making it harder for doctors to refer patients to their own businesses, and reducing Medicare's reimbursements to hospitals to cover unpaid deductibles and copayments. These aren't the only possibilities….Of course, cutting some types of Medicare payments to increase others won't win friends in the health-care industry. But Congress's more important and lasting priority must be to curb the long-term growth of health-care spending. Getting started now will easily make it possible to manage a permanent doc fix." The Editors.

Top opinion

KRUGMAN: That old-time whistle. "One odd consequence of our still-racialized politics is that conservatives are still, in effect, mobilizing against the bums on welfare even though both the bums and the welfare are long gone or never existed. Mr. Santelli’s fury was directed against mortgage relief that never actually happened. Right-wingers rage against tales of food stamp abuse that almost always turn out to be false or at least greatly exaggerated. And Mr. Ryan’s black-men-don’t-want-to-work theory of poverty is decades out of date." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

WILL: Democrats are making income inequality worse. "Democrats are making income inequality worse. “Someone who is determined to disbelieve something can manage to disregard an Everest of evidence for it. So Barack Obama will not temper his enthusiasm for increased equality with lucidity about the government’s role in exacerbating inequality....The monetary base having expanded 340 percent in six years, there is abundant money for businesses. But, says Fisher, the federal government’s fiscal and regulatory policies discourage businesses from growing the economy with the mountain of money the Fed has created. This is why “the most vital organ of our nation’s economy — the middle-income worker — is being eviscerated.” And why the loudest complaints about inequality are coming from those whose policies worsen it." George Will in The Washington Post.

BLOW: We can't grow the income gap away. "The shocking level of income inequality in this country has set off alarms that grow louder by the day, but little seems to be underway to reverse the trend….We can’t grow our way out of this obscenity. It’s a barrier to growth. We must forthrightly address the issue with policy prescriptions. The I.M.F.’s list includes things like means-testing benefit programs, improving access to higher education and health care for the less well off, and ‘implementing progressive personal income tax rate structures” while “reducing regressive tax exemptions.’ Surely we can figure out how to fix this. We just don’t have the political will to do so.” Charles Blow in The New York Times.

LAZEAR: The hidden rot in the jobs numbers. "Most commentators viewed the February jobs report released on March 7 as good news, indicating that the labor market is on a favorable growth path. A more careful reading shows that employment actually fell—as it has in four out of the past six months and in more than one-third of the months during the past two years….The improvement in average weekly hours worked was reason for celebration after the recovery began. The recent decline is cause for concern. It gives us a more accurate but dismal picture of the past two quarters." Edward P. Lazear in The Wall Street Journal.

SAMUELSON: The verdict on the stimulus. "When proposed, President Obama’s stimulus was desirable. (Disclosure: Though disliking details, I favored it.) Regardless of multipliers, it supported the economy. It also sent a message along with the auto-industry bailout, the Federal Reserve’s easy money and the Troubled Asset Relief Program: The government won’t let the economy collapse. This was crucial to restoring confidence. The stimulus was a justifiable emergency measure. But the emergency has passed….More stimulus won’t cure underperformance and may perversely contribute to it. By highlighting the economy’s weakness, it may magnify consumer and business caution. Pessimism becomes self-fulfilling. An economy dependent on periodic shots of stimulus is an economy in eclipse." Robert J. Samuelson in The Washington Post.

AMBINDER: One way for Obama to burnish his legacy: FOIA reform. "If President Obama wanted to take a stand in favor of transparency, there are worse ways to do so than a presidential push for real FOIA reform. Real FOIA reform would require that agencies be accountable for their processes. It would increase the number of FOIA processors at each agency. It would expedite processing times. It would allow much more transparent appeals. It would be technologically modern. It would not necessarily be adversarial. FOIA officers might be rewarded for helping requesters find the documents and information they need. Maybe it's a pipe dream. But Obama's current record here is not very good. A lot of his problems aren't his, and he can't fix them. This one he can, if he pays attention and takes the time." Marc Ambinder in The Week.

HILTZIK: A helping hand or cold shoulder for the middle class? "If you're not rich, things aren't so fabulous. Spending at grocery stores is down, Swonk reported; even upscale supermarket chain Whole Foods is offering more discounts. Spending at mid-level family restaurants is being 'squeezed,' some of them replacing wait staff with tablets from which customers can place their orders directly. Home builders 'have almost abandoned building homes for first-time buyers and moved upscale to attract all-cash buyers.' As we move into budget season in Washington, these are the conditions that demand to be addressed through fiscal policy. Frighteningly, almost no one is taking heed." Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times.

‘Simpsons’ interlude: Couch gag done entirely with Lego bricks.

2. Big challenge for Yellen in first meeting of Fed this week.

Key challenge for Fed: Pull back without pulling the rug out. "The bull market reached its fifth anniversary last weekend, and if the trend continues this week, on Saturday it will become the fifth-longest bull market since 1928....All of this is undoubtedly reason for celebration, especially for the affluent households that hold the bulk of the wealth and have benefited most from the stock market’s big rebound. For anyone with even a modest stake in the market — as well as for Janet L. Yellen and the other Fed policy makers who are at least partly responsible for the market’s rise — the startling increase in asset prices also raises difficult questions. For market strategists, chief among them may be this: How will the bull market respond as the Fed throttles its accommodative monetary policy? When the Federal Open Market Committee meets on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Ms. Yellen at the helm for the first time, policy makers are expected to discuss how to proceed with the tightening of monetary policy without causing serious problems for financial markets." Jeff Sommer in The New York Times.

The backdrop: The Fed's ongoing tapering of bond purchases. "Some of the drama is gone after the decent February jobs number all but guaranteed the Fed will stay the course on the pace of asset purchase tapering. But it will still be very important for markets and the media to take Yellen’s measure and get a clear sense of her plans for further tapering, her opinion on the slight uptick in wage growth and the long-term prospects for interest rate hikes. She will also certainly face questions on if and when the Fed plans to ditch its 6.5 percent unemployment target as a measure of labor market health indicative of imminent rate hikes." Ben White in Politico.

About that unemployment target... "Federal Reserve officials are discussing ways to revise their guidance about the likely future path of interest rates, but it takes some detective work to pin down how they might do it. The Fed has said in its recent policy statements it won't start raising short-term interest rates from near zero until well past the time the unemployment rate falls below 6.5%. That position hasn't changed. But with joblessness at 6.7% in February, several officials have indicated in recent speeches and interviews they might want to scrap the threshold entirely or revamp their message in other ways. Fed policy makers will debate the matter at their meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, though reaching agreement on a new approach could be a challenge." Pedro Nicolaci da Costa in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: A big debate is playing out at the Fed: Economists do not agree about how to measure unemployment. Danny Vinik in The New Republic.

The Fed's bond-buying spree has helped the government's coffers. "The Federal Reserve paid $79.6 billion to the Treasury Department in 2013 as the Fed’s enormous investment campaign to stimulate economic growth continued to generate windfall profits for taxpayers. Since 2008, the Fed has expanded its holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities from less than $1 trillion to more than $4 trillion in an effort to suppress interest rates and encourage risk-taking. Its earnings from those holdings have increased apace. The Fed, required by law to put most of its profit in the government’s coffers, has contributed almost $323 billion in the last four years. The Fed invests exclusively in federal government bonds, so its profits come from lending to the Treasury. In returning the money, it is effectively reducing the government’s borrowing costs." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

Another potential economic booster: Government may actually be reducing business uncertainty. "Worries over the upheaval in Crimea are rising, along with fears of an economic slowdown in China. But another drag on optimism — business uncertainty — is heading the other way. The reason is twofold: Years of gyrating policy in Washington are giving way to comparative calm. And companies are becoming more nimble, using real-time data to maintain a close watch on their operations to adjust quickly to a volatile world. On the first front, one gauge of the nervousness — the Economic Policy Uncertainty Index — has dropped to levels not seen since the earliest days of the 2007-2009 recession....Recent budget deals as well as distance from last year's spending cuts and government shutdown have sharply diminished the fear of more curveballs from Washington, even as wild cards—like the political turmoil in Ukraine — persist." Brenda Cronin in The Wall Street Journal.

More economic indicators:

Producer prize index falls. The Associated Press.

Consumer confidence down. David Gaffen in Reuters.

Other economy reads:

Long read: Income gap, meet the longevity gap. Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

U.S. agencies consider redefining manufacturing. Timothy Aeppel in The Wall Street Journal.

Low-wage workers finding it’s easier to fall into poverty, and harder to get out. Steven Greenhouse in The New York Times.

Aww interlude: Two elephants are reunited after 20 years.

3. Why it's a big deal that the U.S. is giving up its last vestiges of control of the Internet.

U.S. to relinquish last vestiges of control over the Internet. “U.S. officials announced plans Friday to relinquish federal government control over the administration of the Internet, a move that pleased international critics but alarmed some business leaders and others who rely on the smooth functioning of the Web….The change would end the long-running contract between the Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based nonprofit group. That contract is set to expire next year but could be extended if the transition plan is not complete.” Craig Timberg in The Washington Post.

Timeline: 25 years of the World Wide Web. Laura Ryan and Stephanie Stamm in National Journal.

Does the U.S. actually have 'control'? "The U.S. does not have 'control of the Internet.' Along with other countries for which the free flow of information, ideas, and innovation matter, it does have a large stake in continuing to protect the Internet from government control.  Relinquishing NTIA’s residual role will makes that job easier." Cameron F. Kerry in TechTank.

Still, the move is a big deal. "Our stewardship of the network will transition to an international non-profit that may, or may not, have the capabilities required....Boiled down to its simplest form, the announcement yesterday was a statement by NTIA that...it would let ICANN have the responsibility of running the IANA function on its own. The only condition that NTIA set for the transition was that ICANN develop an internal mechanism for oversight and win the trust of crucial stakeholders around the world. Despite the strum und drang of recent weeks, the United States has been a fundamentally good steward of the network....Not perfectly to be sure and not always without a healthy dollop of self-interest, but at its core the US management of the network has been more benign than venal, with the result that we have today a vibrant network with more good than bad in it. The transition to ICANN management may well upset that happy vision." Paul Rosenzweig in The New Republic.

The backdrop: A move long in the making. “The move has been a long time coming. Right back in 1998, the Commerce Department declared that it was ‘committed to a transition that will allow the private sector to take leadership for DNS management.’ However, there have been increased calls for changes in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying. Critics have complained that the present system gives the US too much influence, and have called for greater input from the UN and International Telecommunication Union (ITU)....The move has been broadly welcomed by rights groups….But some people are less happy.” Emma Woollacott in Forbes.

Republicans are among those who are unhappy. Here's why. "Exactly who would regulate the Web’s back-end is unclear, but the decision already has sparked backlash among some in the GOP, who warn it could allow the United Nations or authoritarian countries to step in and seize control of the Web....U.S. lawmakers have long warned about the dangers of ceding ICANN’s authority to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. They see the U.N. as a vehicle for countries with tight constraints to allow even greater online censorship. Congress unanimously passed Bono’s resolution ahead of a 2012 ITU meeting to reinforce America’s commitment to an open Internet.The National Telecommunications and Information Administration — the Commerce Department agency that made the announcement — emphasized ICANN would need to meet several principles ahead of the transition, including ensuring the openness of the Internet." Jessica Meyers and Erin Mershon in Politico.

Meanwhile, amid the NSA scandal, the Obama administration is denying requests for data more than ever. "The Obama administration more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press....In category after category — except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees — the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office. In a year of intense public interest over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times." The Associated Press.

Government computers running Windows XP will be vulnerable to hackers after April 8. "Federal officials have known for more than six years that Microsoft will withdraw its free support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014. Despite a recent rush to complete upgrades, an estimated 10 percent of government computers — out of several million — will still be running the operating system on that date, company officials said. That includes thousands of computers on classified military and diplomatic networks, U.S. officials said. Such networks have stronger defenses generally but hold more sensitive material, raising the stakes for breaches if they occur. Security experts warn that hackers have been preparing for what Microsoft calls the 'end-of-life' for Windows XP by stockpiling 'vulnerabilities' that amount to skeleton keys that can give intruders remote access." Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

Animals interlude: Jimmy Fallon uses dogs and cats to parody 20 first kisses video.

4. What the bipartisan housing reform bill would do.

Senators released a draft of their housing-reform legislation. Here's what it would do. "The legislation replaces the mortgage-finance giants with a new system in which the government would continue to play a potentially significant role insuring U.S. home loans. The 442-page bill, introduced by the heads of the Senate Banking Committee, Sens. Tim Johnson (D., S.D.) and Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), would construct an elaborate new platform by which a number of private sector entities, together with a privately-held but federally-regulated utility, would replace key roles long played by Fannie and Freddie." Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal.

Read: The bill text.

Don't get too excited yet, though. This bill isn't a sure-fire bet for passage. "The two senators labored intensively to produce a bill that could be enacted this year. But the odds of the legislation clearing Congress are slim, even if they can get the bill through their committee, which itself is uncertain. With mid-term elections approaching in November, lawmakers are likely to turn their attention to the campaign trail within a few months, leaving little time to deal with the complex issue of revamping the U.S. housing finance system. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who controls the agenda in the chamber, appears cool to the legislation." Margaret Chadbourn in Reuters.

Speaking of mortgages...here's a loan-fraud war that’s short on combat. “Sure enough, the report told us how hard the nation’s law enforcement officials had been investigating these cases. That is, hardly at all….Most of all, the report is depressing because it indicates that the Justice Department, our nation’s top law enforcement agency, is simply unequipped — or unwilling — to combat complex financial frauds….Complex financial crimes were the lowest priority for the criminal investigative division. Even when investigators decided to pursue cases, they wound up closing many of them after doing little work….Here’s another troubling data point: While the Justice Department assigned staffers to become mortgage fraud coordinators, these people were not dedicated solely to mortgage cases. They had to work on other matters as well.” Gretchen Morgenson in The New York Times.

Other housing and mortgage-related reads:

Adjustable-rate mortgages make a comeback. AnnaMaria Andriotis and Shayndi Raice in The Wall Street Journal.

Obama to sign bill relieving homeowners of flood-insurance premium hike. The Associated Press.

Fed's Fisher says U.S. housing on 'sustainable rebound.' Reuters.

DOJ pushes back on mortgage fraud report. Vicki Needham in The Hill.

Photobomb interlude: Cat photobombs yoga session video.

5. Could the Crimean secession vote hasten U.S. action in Ukraine crisis?

U.S. lawmakers call for quick economic retaliation against Russia in wake of vote. "The U.S. and European Union must move quickly to exert economic pressure on Russian President Vladmir Putin for his attempt to seize a part of Ukraine, senators who recently returned from the embattled nation said Sunday. The Senate’s first order of business when lawmakers return to Washington on March 24 will be legislation to impose sanctions against Russia and provide aid to Ukraine, said Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.), who was part of a bipartisan group of eight senators to visit Ukraine....Mr. Hoeven and other lawmakers said the U.S. and Europe would be watching Mr. Putin’s next move closely following Sunday’s referendum, designed to set the stage for Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region. The vote, widely seen as violating Ukraine’s constitution and international law, marked the latest in a series of steps by Russia that have raised international concerns over the possibility it will spark a war between the two nations. The proposed sanctions include diplomatic and economic penalties." Gary Fields and William Maudlin in The Wall Street Journal.

But will words turn to action? "A House-passed package of up to $1 billion in loan guarantees has stalled in the Senate, where Democrats want to attach White House-backed provisions that would bolster the International Monetary Fund's ability to lend money to Ukraine. The IMF changes face resistance from some Republicans. The Senate package, which also includes sanctions on Russia, was approved by a key committee last week. McCain, a top defense hawk, has criticized his party for standing in the way of Ukrainian aid. But no votes are expected until Congress returns this month from its week-long recess." Lisa Mascaro in the Los Angeles Times.

In call to Putin, Obama warns against annexing Crimea, rejects secession vote as illegitimate. "Having failed to prevent a Russian-sponsored referendum in Crimea, the Obama administration and its European allies refocused their efforts Sunday on keeping Moscow from annexing the autonomous Ukrainian region and expanding its military moves into other parts of Ukraine. In a telephone call to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin — his third in two weeks — President Obama said that the referendum 'would never be recognized by the United States and the international community” and that “we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions,' the White House said." Karen DeYoung in The Washington Post.

The U.S. is preparing for blowback from Russia. "President Obama and his team have repeatedly and loudly warned Vladimir Putin that unless Russia deescalates the current crisis, the U.S. in conjunction with its European partners will begin to increase the 'costs' for the Russian government and business community, through a series of sanctions and other tactics. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Obama administration is preparing for the blowback that will sure come when Russia retaliates." Josh Rogin in The Daily Beast.

CNN poll: 69 percent of Americans see Russia as a threat to U.S. CNN Political Unit.

Explainer. A primer on the Crimea referendum. Linda Kinstler in The New Republic.

More national security/foreign policy reads:

Obama seeks to stay neutral in CIA-Senate spat. Julie Pace in The Associated Press.

Karzai says Afghanistan doesn’t need U.S. troops to stay past end of year. Kathy Gannon and Rahim Faiez in The Washington Post.

U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ about death of Chinese human rights campaigner. Reuters.

U.S. pushes back on U.N. panel’s criticisms of Guantánamo, NSA. Ed Pilkington in The Guardian.

Viral music interlude: Disney and Pixar do "Let it Go" rendition.

Wonkblog roundup

White House orders broader Obamacare health plans in 2015. Jason Millman.

This is Obama’s explanation for why you might not get to keep your doctor. Jason Millman.

The U.S. government owns thousands of unused buildings it doesn’t know what to do with. Christopher Ingraham.

Why the wealthiest countries are also the most open with their data. Emily Badger.

HHS will let sickest patients stay on their health plans longer. Jason Millman.

Understanding the latest fight over the individual mandate. Jason Millman.

Et Cetera

Uniform rule may keep religious Americans from military service. NPR News.

Gun control activists open new front: Corporate America. Ben Goad in The Hill.

Is Pebble Mine the next Keystone XL? Svati Kristen Narula in The Atlantic.

Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair agrees to plea deal in sexual assault case. Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post.

Billionaires with big ideas are privatizing science. William J. Broad in The New York Times.

Big business takes on tea party over Common Core. Stephanie Simon in Politico.

Got tips, additions, or comments?E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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March 17

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 98.6. That's the February value of the Economic Policy Uncertainty Index, the lowest level since the earliest days of the recession.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: Why the wealthiest countries are also the most open with their data.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) The Obamacare full-court press; (2) Yellen's big week; (3) U.S. relinquishes last bits of Internet control; (4) housing bill released; and (5) could Crimea vote hasten U.S. action?

1. Top story: Two weeks until mandate deadline, and Obamacare full-court press continues — March Madness style.

Obama says enrollment is high enough to ensure his health law’s survival. "President Obama said Friday he was confident enough Americans had enrolled under the Affordable Care Act to make the program 'stable.' In an interview with WebMD, Obama said the fact that 4.2 million people have already signed up for plans under federal and state marketplaces mean enough companies will be invested to stay in the system.... Obama noted, however, that the larger question is whether the risk pool is diverse enough to ensure premiums don't skyrocket, since "the more you can spread the risk with more people, the better deal you’re going to get"...Even as he touted the virtues of the law, Obama acknowledged that some previously-uninsured Americans may not be able to see the providers they want if they were focused on keeping costs down." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Exclusive: House Republicans craft their vision for an alternative to Obamacare. "House Republican leaders are adopting an agreed-upon conservative approach to fixing the nation’s health-care system, in part to draw an election-year contrast with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The plan includes an expansion of high-risk insurance pools, promotion of health savings accounts and inducements for small businesses to purchase coverage together. The tenets of the plan — which could expand to include the ability to buy insurance across state lines, guaranteed renewability of policies and changes to medical-malpractice regulations — are ideas that various conservatives have for a long time backed as part of broader bills. But this is the first time this year that House leaders will put their full force behind a single set of principles from those bills and present it as their vision. This month, House leaders will begin to share a memo with lawmakers outlining the plan." Robert Costa in The Washington Post.

And some experts seem to agree with Obama that enough have enrolled. "Health benefits consultants agree with President Obama’s assessment this week that enough Americans have signed up to private health plans under the Affordable Care Act that it will work even though there could be up to two million fewer Americans covered than the White House had hoped….Health benefits consultants said there is reason to worry about whether enough younger Americans have signed up due to the website issues early on that may have hurt enrollment. In addition, slow signups in certain states that have continued to have more technical issues, such as Oregon, could trigger health plans to sustain greater losses and consider pulling out of the program, benefits consultants said….So far, however, health insurance companies have said the enrollment is trending younger and there have been few surprises that would require them to pull out of the program." Bruce Japsen in Forbes.

Explainer: This is Obama’s explanation for why you might not get to keep your doctor. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

And then the White House announced that it would seek to expand Obamacare health plans in 2015. "Health plans selling on the federal marketplaces in 2015 must include 30 percent of area 'essential community providers,' which are usually health centers and other hospitals serving mostly low-income patients. That's up from a 20 percent requirement in 2014, the first year of expanded overage under the health care law. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the marketplaces, will also take a much more active role in reviewing health plan networks. CMS, which outlined the new standards in a Friday night letter to insurers, will evaluate whether the plans include enough access to hospitals, primary care doctors, mental health providers and oncologists. The updated standards came after a Friday interview in which President Barack Obama acknowledged that pressure to keep down costs could mean consumers may not have access to their choice of doctor." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Administration making full-court press with March Madness-themed outreach. "The White House will court basketball fans in a March Madness-themed campaign to increase ObamaCare enrollment ahead of a March 31st deadline. The administration on Monday will release its '16 Sweetest Reasons to Get Covered' bracket listing the top reasons to get health insurance, according to a White House official. Each day, the bracket will be updated based on votes from online users." Kyle Balluck in The Hill.

Video: Speaking of basketball, LeBron helps out with Team Obama’s full-court press for Obamacare.

So are some celebrity moms. Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo.

Administration could deploy mandate leeway in event of last-minute technical problems. "Federal officials are planning a workaround that would effectively extend the March 31 deadline to enroll for health-care coverage for some users if technical glitches hamper a last-minute surge of signups on HealthCare.gov, people familiar with the matter say. Despite improvements since its rocky Oct. 1 launch, the website still faces problems, including some involving the same software that stymied users in the fall. Problems with the site at least three times this past week kept some users from being able to log on, including an almost hourlong outage that struck Friday morning, some of the people said….Under the workaround plan, people who can demonstrate that they tried to enroll in a plan before the deadline, but failed because of website troubles, would be able to sign up after March 31. " Christopher Weaver, Spencer E. Ante and Louise Radnofsky in The Wall Street Journal.

More health care reads:

Surgeon general nominee on hold. Kristina Peterson and Colleen McCain Nelson in The Wall Street Journal.

House passes 'doc fix' bill that delays individual mandate. Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

Federal judge rules Arkansas abortion law unconstitutional. Joseph Serna in the Los Angeles Times.

HHS will let sickest patients stay on their health plans longer. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Government approves medical marijuana research. Evan Halper and Cindy Carcamo in the Los Angeles Times.

U.S. says Obamacare covers married gay couples under family plan. Reuters.

MILBANK: Why millennials are abandoning Obama on health care. "Young voters, after playing a big role in the campaign, became little more than an e-mail list for the White House and Obama’s Organizing for Action group. Then came health-care reform. The millennials, very liberal overall, saw Obama’s plan as too timid; they were disillusioned by his failure to fight for the ‘public option’ of government-run health plans. This cost Obama the young activists he would need to rally enrollment in Obamacare. Polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that, while the generation looks more favorably on big-government solutions than do older generations, the millennials disapprove of Obamacare in the same proportion as the rest of the population. Even if Obama had worked harder to keep his youth army engaged, it’s not entirely clear that the effort would have succeeded. As a group, the generation’s attachment is fickle." Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

COHN: Should Democrats come out swinging on Obamacare? "The Democrats’ loss in this week’s special congressional election probably wasn’t a referendum on Obamacare. But, at the moment, the law still looks seems more like a political liability than an asset. And with Republicans making Obamacare the focus of their midterm strategy, many Democrats have been responding with a mixed message: Acknowledge the Affordable Care Act has flaws, but vow to fix them rather than repeal the whole program. That seems to be roughly consistent with polls, which suggest the majority of Americans don’t like the health care law but the majority also don’t want to get rid of it. But nuanced messages have problems, even if the nuances reflect public sentiments. A politician who starts with backpedaling (“Yes, the law has problems, but…”) is bound to sound weak. And weak politicians don’t generally make attractive candidates." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

SCHUCK: Obamacare's market problem. "Parts of the ACA such as the exchanges wisely seek to exploit some of the market's advantages in providing choice and efficiency. But other parts of the program -- including costly mandates for insurance benefits for which even subsidized consumers are unwilling to pay -- seem to ignore those advantages. The program's effectiveness requires striking the right balance between markets and mandates. The ACA's herky-jerky implementation suggests that Washington has not yet gotten it right." Peter Schuck in The Huffington Post.

BLOOMBERG VIEW: Don't ruin Obamacare to pay for 'doc fix.' Here's a better way. "The estimated cost to make this change is $138 billion over 10 years. That's a lot of money, but it could be drawn from other Medicare spending on health-care providers, doctors among them. This is not a radical idea; various bipartisan deficit-reduction proposals put forward since 2010 have recommended such measures. Among their good suggestions are using Medicare's buying power to get better rebates from drug makers, ending overpayments to hospitals for training doctors, making it harder for doctors to refer patients to their own businesses, and reducing Medicare's reimbursements to hospitals to cover unpaid deductibles and copayments. These aren't the only possibilities….Of course, cutting some types of Medicare payments to increase others won't win friends in the health-care industry. But Congress's more important and lasting priority must be to curb the long-term growth of health-care spending. Getting started now will easily make it possible to manage a permanent doc fix." The Editors.

Top opinion

KRUGMAN: That old-time whistle. "One odd consequence of our still-racialized politics is that conservatives are still, in effect, mobilizing against the bums on welfare even though both the bums and the welfare are long gone or never existed. Mr. Santelli’s fury was directed against mortgage relief that never actually happened. Right-wingers rage against tales of food stamp abuse that almost always turn out to be false or at least greatly exaggerated. And Mr. Ryan’s black-men-don’t-want-to-work theory of poverty is decades out of date." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

WILL: Democrats are making income inequality worse. "Democrats are making income inequality worse. “Someone who is determined to disbelieve something can manage to disregard an Everest of evidence for it. So Barack Obama will not temper his enthusiasm for increased equality with lucidity about the government’s role in exacerbating inequality....The monetary base having expanded 340 percent in six years, there is abundant money for businesses. But, says Fisher, the federal government’s fiscal and regulatory policies discourage businesses from growing the economy with the mountain of money the Fed has created. This is why “the most vital organ of our nation’s economy — the middle-income worker — is being eviscerated.” And why the loudest complaints about inequality are coming from those whose policies worsen it." George Will in The Washington Post.

BLOW: We can't grow the income gap away. "The shocking level of income inequality in this country has set off alarms that grow louder by the day, but little seems to be underway to reverse the trend….We can’t grow our way out of this obscenity. It’s a barrier to growth. We must forthrightly address the issue with policy prescriptions. The I.M.F.’s list includes things like means-testing benefit programs, improving access to higher education and health care for the less well off, and ‘implementing progressive personal income tax rate structures” while “reducing regressive tax exemptions.’ Surely we can figure out how to fix this. We just don’t have the political will to do so.” Charles Blow in The New York Times.

LAZEAR: The hidden rot in the jobs numbers. "Most commentators viewed the February jobs report released on March 7 as good news, indicating that the labor market is on a favorable growth path. A more careful reading shows that employment actually fell—as it has in four out of the past six months and in more than one-third of the months during the past two years….The improvement in average weekly hours worked was reason for celebration after the recovery began. The recent decline is cause for concern. It gives us a more accurate but dismal picture of the past two quarters." Edward P. Lazear in The Wall Street Journal.

SAMUELSON: The verdict on the stimulus. "When proposed, President Obama’s stimulus was desirable. (Disclosure: Though disliking details, I favored it.) Regardless of multipliers, it supported the economy. It also sent a message along with the auto-industry bailout, the Federal Reserve’s easy money and the Troubled Asset Relief Program: The government won’t let the economy collapse. This was crucial to restoring confidence. The stimulus was a justifiable emergency measure. But the emergency has passed….More stimulus won’t cure underperformance and may perversely contribute to it. By highlighting the economy’s weakness, it may magnify consumer and business caution. Pessimism becomes self-fulfilling. An economy dependent on periodic shots of stimulus is an economy in eclipse." Robert J. Samuelson in The Washington Post.

AMBINDER: One way for Obama to burnish his legacy: FOIA reform. "If President Obama wanted to take a stand in favor of transparency, there are worse ways to do so than a presidential push for real FOIA reform. Real FOIA reform would require that agencies be accountable for their processes. It would increase the number of FOIA processors at each agency. It would expedite processing times. It would allow much more transparent appeals. It would be technologically modern. It would not necessarily be adversarial. FOIA officers might be rewarded for helping requesters find the documents and information they need. Maybe it's a pipe dream. But Obama's current record here is not very good. A lot of his problems aren't his, and he can't fix them. This one he can, if he pays attention and takes the time." Marc Ambinder in The Week.

HILTZIK: A helping hand or cold shoulder for the middle class? "If you're not rich, things aren't so fabulous. Spending at grocery stores is down, Swonk reported; even upscale supermarket chain Whole Foods is offering more discounts. Spending at mid-level family restaurants is being 'squeezed,' some of them replacing wait staff with tablets from which customers can place their orders directly. Home builders 'have almost abandoned building homes for first-time buyers and moved upscale to attract all-cash buyers.' As we move into budget season in Washington, these are the conditions that demand to be addressed through fiscal policy. Frighteningly, almost no one is taking heed." Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times.

‘Simpsons’ interlude: Couch gag done entirely with Lego bricks.

2. Big challenge for Yellen in first meeting of Fed this week.

Key challenge for Fed: Pull back without pulling the rug out. "The bull market reached its fifth anniversary last weekend, and if the trend continues this week, on Saturday it will become the fifth-longest bull market since 1928....All of this is undoubtedly reason for celebration, especially for the affluent households that hold the bulk of the wealth and have benefited most from the stock market’s big rebound. For anyone with even a modest stake in the market — as well as for Janet L. Yellen and the other Fed policy makers who are at least partly responsible for the market’s rise — the startling increase in asset prices also raises difficult questions. For market strategists, chief among them may be this: How will the bull market respond as the Fed throttles its accommodative monetary policy? When the Federal Open Market Committee meets on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Ms. Yellen at the helm for the first time, policy makers are expected to discuss how to proceed with the tightening of monetary policy without causing serious problems for financial markets." Jeff Sommer in The New York Times.

The backdrop: The Fed's ongoing tapering of bond purchases. "Some of the drama is gone after the decent February jobs number all but guaranteed the Fed will stay the course on the pace of asset purchase tapering. But it will still be very important for markets and the media to take Yellen’s measure and get a clear sense of her plans for further tapering, her opinion on the slight uptick in wage growth and the long-term prospects for interest rate hikes. She will also certainly face questions on if and when the Fed plans to ditch its 6.5 percent unemployment target as a measure of labor market health indicative of imminent rate hikes." Ben White in Politico.

About that unemployment target... "Federal Reserve officials are discussing ways to revise their guidance about the likely future path of interest rates, but it takes some detective work to pin down how they might do it. The Fed has said in its recent policy statements it won't start raising short-term interest rates from near zero until well past the time the unemployment rate falls below 6.5%. That position hasn't changed. But with joblessness at 6.7% in February, several officials have indicated in recent speeches and interviews they might want to scrap the threshold entirely or revamp their message in other ways. Fed policy makers will debate the matter at their meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, though reaching agreement on a new approach could be a challenge." Pedro Nicolaci da Costa in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: A big debate is playing out at the Fed: Economists do not agree about how to measure unemployment. Danny Vinik in The New Republic.

The Fed's bond-buying spree has helped the government's coffers. "The Federal Reserve paid $79.6 billion to the Treasury Department in 2013 as the Fed’s enormous investment campaign to stimulate economic growth continued to generate windfall profits for taxpayers. Since 2008, the Fed has expanded its holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities from less than $1 trillion to more than $4 trillion in an effort to suppress interest rates and encourage risk-taking. Its earnings from those holdings have increased apace. The Fed, required by law to put most of its profit in the government’s coffers, has contributed almost $323 billion in the last four years. The Fed invests exclusively in federal government bonds, so its profits come from lending to the Treasury. In returning the money, it is effectively reducing the government’s borrowing costs." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

Another potential economic booster: Government may actually be reducing business uncertainty. "Worries over the upheaval in Crimea are rising, along with fears of an economic slowdown in China. But another drag on optimism — business uncertainty — is heading the other way. The reason is twofold: Years of gyrating policy in Washington are giving way to comparative calm. And companies are becoming more nimble, using real-time data to maintain a close watch on their operations to adjust quickly to a volatile world. On the first front, one gauge of the nervousness — the Economic Policy Uncertainty Index — has dropped to levels not seen since the earliest days of the 2007-2009 recession....Recent budget deals as well as distance from last year's spending cuts and government shutdown have sharply diminished the fear of more curveballs from Washington, even as wild cards—like the political turmoil in Ukraine — persist." Brenda Cronin in The Wall Street Journal.

More economic indicators:

Producer prize index falls. The Associated Press.

Consumer confidence down. David Gaffen in Reuters.

Other economy reads:

Long read: Income gap, meet the longevity gap. Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

U.S. agencies consider redefining manufacturing. Timothy Aeppel in The Wall Street Journal.

Low-wage workers finding it’s easier to fall into poverty, and harder to get out. Steven Greenhouse in The New York Times.

Aww interlude: Two elephants are reunited after 20 years.

3. Why it's a big deal that the U.S. is giving up its last vestiges of control of the Internet.

U.S. to relinquish last vestiges of control over the Internet. “U.S. officials announced plans Friday to relinquish federal government control over the administration of the Internet, a move that pleased international critics but alarmed some business leaders and others who rely on the smooth functioning of the Web….The change would end the long-running contract between the Commerce Department and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based nonprofit group. That contract is set to expire next year but could be extended if the transition plan is not complete.” Craig Timberg in The Washington Post.

Timeline: 25 years of the World Wide Web. Laura Ryan and Stephanie Stamm in National Journal.

Does the U.S. actually have 'control'? "The U.S. does not have 'control of the Internet.' Along with other countries for which the free flow of information, ideas, and innovation matter, it does have a large stake in continuing to protect the Internet from government control.  Relinquishing NTIA’s residual role will makes that job easier." Cameron F. Kerry in TechTank.

Still, the move is a big deal. "Our stewardship of the network will transition to an international non-profit that may, or may not, have the capabilities required....Boiled down to its simplest form, the announcement yesterday was a statement by NTIA that...it would let ICANN have the responsibility of running the IANA function on its own. The only condition that NTIA set for the transition was that ICANN develop an internal mechanism for oversight and win the trust of crucial stakeholders around the world. Despite the strum und drang of recent weeks, the United States has been a fundamentally good steward of the network....Not perfectly to be sure and not always without a healthy dollop of self-interest, but at its core the US management of the network has been more benign than venal, with the result that we have today a vibrant network with more good than bad in it. The transition to ICANN management may well upset that happy vision." Paul Rosenzweig in The New Republic.

The backdrop: A move long in the making. “The move has been a long time coming. Right back in 1998, the Commerce Department declared that it was ‘committed to a transition that will allow the private sector to take leadership for DNS management.’ However, there have been increased calls for changes in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying. Critics have complained that the present system gives the US too much influence, and have called for greater input from the UN and International Telecommunication Union (ITU)....The move has been broadly welcomed by rights groups….But some people are less happy.” Emma Woollacott in Forbes.

Republicans are among those who are unhappy. Here's why. "Exactly who would regulate the Web’s back-end is unclear, but the decision already has sparked backlash among some in the GOP, who warn it could allow the United Nations or authoritarian countries to step in and seize control of the Web....U.S. lawmakers have long warned about the dangers of ceding ICANN’s authority to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. They see the U.N. as a vehicle for countries with tight constraints to allow even greater online censorship. Congress unanimously passed Bono’s resolution ahead of a 2012 ITU meeting to reinforce America’s commitment to an open Internet.The National Telecommunications and Information Administration — the Commerce Department agency that made the announcement — emphasized ICANN would need to meet several principles ahead of the transition, including ensuring the openness of the Internet." Jessica Meyers and Erin Mershon in Politico.

Meanwhile, amid the NSA scandal, the Obama administration is denying requests for data more than ever. "The Obama administration more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press....In category after category — except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees — the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office. In a year of intense public interest over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times." The Associated Press.

Government computers running Windows XP will be vulnerable to hackers after April 8. "Federal officials have known for more than six years that Microsoft will withdraw its free support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014. Despite a recent rush to complete upgrades, an estimated 10 percent of government computers — out of several million — will still be running the operating system on that date, company officials said. That includes thousands of computers on classified military and diplomatic networks, U.S. officials said. Such networks have stronger defenses generally but hold more sensitive material, raising the stakes for breaches if they occur. Security experts warn that hackers have been preparing for what Microsoft calls the 'end-of-life' for Windows XP by stockpiling 'vulnerabilities' that amount to skeleton keys that can give intruders remote access." Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

Animals interlude: Jimmy Fallon uses dogs and cats to parody 20 first kisses video.

4. What the bipartisan housing reform bill would do.

Senators released a draft of their housing-reform legislation. Here's what it would do. "The legislation replaces the mortgage-finance giants with a new system in which the government would continue to play a potentially significant role insuring U.S. home loans. The 442-page bill, introduced by the heads of the Senate Banking Committee, Sens. Tim Johnson (D., S.D.) and Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), would construct an elaborate new platform by which a number of private sector entities, together with a privately-held but federally-regulated utility, would replace key roles long played by Fannie and Freddie." Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal.

Read: The bill text.

Don't get too excited yet, though. This bill isn't a sure-fire bet for passage. "The two senators labored intensively to produce a bill that could be enacted this year. But the odds of the legislation clearing Congress are slim, even if they can get the bill through their committee, which itself is uncertain. With mid-term elections approaching in November, lawmakers are likely to turn their attention to the campaign trail within a few months, leaving little time to deal with the complex issue of revamping the U.S. housing finance system. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who controls the agenda in the chamber, appears cool to the legislation." Margaret Chadbourn in Reuters.

Speaking of mortgages...here's a loan-fraud war that’s short on combat. “Sure enough, the report told us how hard the nation’s law enforcement officials had been investigating these cases. That is, hardly at all….Most of all, the report is depressing because it indicates that the Justice Department, our nation’s top law enforcement agency, is simply unequipped — or unwilling — to combat complex financial frauds….Complex financial crimes were the lowest priority for the criminal investigative division. Even when investigators decided to pursue cases, they wound up closing many of them after doing little work….Here’s another troubling data point: While the Justice Department assigned staffers to become mortgage fraud coordinators, these people were not dedicated solely to mortgage cases. They had to work on other matters as well.” Gretchen Morgenson in The New York Times.

Other housing and mortgage-related reads:

Adjustable-rate mortgages make a comeback. AnnaMaria Andriotis and Shayndi Raice in The Wall Street Journal.

Obama to sign bill relieving homeowners of flood-insurance premium hike. The Associated Press.

Fed's Fisher says U.S. housing on 'sustainable rebound.' Reuters.

DOJ pushes back on mortgage fraud report. Vicki Needham in The Hill.

Photobomb interlude: Cat photobombs yoga session video.

5. Could the Crimean secession vote hasten U.S. action in Ukraine crisis?

U.S. lawmakers call for quick economic retaliation against Russia in wake of vote. "The U.S. and European Union must move quickly to exert economic pressure on Russian President Vladmir Putin for his attempt to seize a part of Ukraine, senators who recently returned from the embattled nation said Sunday. The Senate’s first order of business when lawmakers return to Washington on March 24 will be legislation to impose sanctions against Russia and provide aid to Ukraine, said Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.), who was part of a bipartisan group of eight senators to visit Ukraine....Mr. Hoeven and other lawmakers said the U.S. and Europe would be watching Mr. Putin’s next move closely following Sunday’s referendum, designed to set the stage for Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region. The vote, widely seen as violating Ukraine’s constitution and international law, marked the latest in a series of steps by Russia that have raised international concerns over the possibility it will spark a war between the two nations. The proposed sanctions include diplomatic and economic penalties." Gary Fields and William Maudlin in The Wall Street Journal.

But will words turn to action? "A House-passed package of up to $1 billion in loan guarantees has stalled in the Senate, where Democrats want to attach White House-backed provisions that would bolster the International Monetary Fund's ability to lend money to Ukraine. The IMF changes face resistance from some Republicans. The Senate package, which also includes sanctions on Russia, was approved by a key committee last week. McCain, a top defense hawk, has criticized his party for standing in the way of Ukrainian aid. But no votes are expected until Congress returns this month from its week-long recess." Lisa Mascaro in the Los Angeles Times.

In call to Putin, Obama warns against annexing Crimea, rejects secession vote as illegitimate. "Having failed to prevent a Russian-sponsored referendum in Crimea, the Obama administration and its European allies refocused their efforts Sunday on keeping Moscow from annexing the autonomous Ukrainian region and expanding its military moves into other parts of Ukraine. In a telephone call to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin — his third in two weeks — President Obama said that the referendum 'would never be recognized by the United States and the international community” and that “we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions,' the White House said." Karen DeYoung in The Washington Post.

The U.S. is preparing for blowback from Russia. "President Obama and his team have repeatedly and loudly warned Vladimir Putin that unless Russia deescalates the current crisis, the U.S. in conjunction with its European partners will begin to increase the 'costs' for the Russian government and business community, through a series of sanctions and other tactics. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Obama administration is preparing for the blowback that will sure come when Russia retaliates." Josh Rogin in The Daily Beast.

CNN poll: 69 percent of Americans see Russia as a threat to U.S. CNN Political Unit.

Explainer. A primer on the Crimea referendum. Linda Kinstler in The New Republic.

More national security/foreign policy reads:

Obama seeks to stay neutral in CIA-Senate spat. Julie Pace in The Associated Press.

Karzai says Afghanistan doesn’t need U.S. troops to stay past end of year. Kathy Gannon and Rahim Faiez in The Washington Post.

U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ about death of Chinese human rights campaigner. Reuters.

U.S. pushes back on U.N. panel’s criticisms of Guantánamo, NSA. Ed Pilkington in The Guardian.

Viral music interlude: Disney and Pixar do "Let it Go" rendition.

Wonkblog roundup

White House orders broader Obamacare health plans in 2015. Jason Millman.

This is Obama’s explanation for why you might not get to keep your doctor. Jason Millman.

The U.S. government owns thousands of unused buildings it doesn’t know what to do with. Christopher Ingraham.

Why the wealthiest countries are also the most open with their data. Emily Badger.

HHS will let sickest patients stay on their health plans longer. Jason Millman.

Understanding the latest fight over the individual mandate. Jason Millman.

Et Cetera

Uniform rule may keep religious Americans from military service. NPR News.

Gun control activists open new front: Corporate America. Ben Goad in The Hill.

Is Pebble Mine the next Keystone XL? Svati Kristen Narula in The Atlantic.

Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair agrees to plea deal in sexual assault case. Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post.

Billionaires with big ideas are privatizing science. William J. Broad in The New York Times.

Big business takes on tea party over Common Core. Stephanie Simon in Politico.

Got tips, additions, or comments?E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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