Wonkbook: How tensions with Russia are affecting nuclear security talks

March 26, 2014

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 Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 82.3. That's the value of consumer confidence in March, the highest value since 2008, at the dawn of the Great Recession.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: These charts show that a lot of Americans don't know about the March 31 deadline for open enrollment in Obamacare.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) Tensions with Russia hit global nuclear summit; (2) Obamacare's second big day in court; (3) how the NSA overhaul proposals work; (4) the thawing economy; and (5) how GM's problems are echoing in the policy world.

1. Top story: Effects of Russia's crisis felt at nuclear summit

Obama spurns Russia as 'regional power,' threatens further sanctions. "President Obama acknowledged Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea would be difficult to reverse, but he dismissed Russia as a 'regional power' that did not pose a leading security threat to the United States. Concluding a summit here on nuclear security, Obama also warned that broader Russian military intervention in neighboring countries would trigger further economic sanctions that would disrupt the global economy but hit Russia the hardest....Obama dismissed criticism that a perception of weakness abroad had prompted Putin to seize Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region this month, an act the United States and Europe have called a violation of both Ukrainian and international law. But Obama made clear that no military response is being contemplated, unless Putin pushes into NATO member nations on Russia’s western border." Scott Wilson in The Washington Post.

Primary sources: The full text of President Obama's remarks. The Washington Post.

The full text of Obama's remarks to close nuclear summit. The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: Can U.S. natural gas rescue Ukraine from Russia? Steven Mufson in The Washington Post.

Q&A: Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Patt Morrison in the Los Angeles Times.

How stocks and Russia's currency are reacting. "U.S. and European officials said sanctions are already biting. Russia’s Micex stock index has plunged 12 percent this year, worse than the 4.5 percent decline in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. It rose 2 percent today. The ruble has weakened 7.9 percent in 2014, making it the second-worst performer against the dollar among 24 developing-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg. It gained 1.2 percent to 35.6739 per dollar today. Russia’s Finance Ministry canceled its fourth ruble-bond auction in a row, scheduled for tomorrow, citing 'unfavorable market conditions' in a statement on its website. Investors pulled $5.5 billion from Russian equities and bonds this year through March 20, already approaching the total outflow of $6.1 billion for all of 2013, according to data compiled by EPFR Global, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company that tracks fund flows." Julianna Goldman, Mike Dorning and Daria Marchak in Bloomberg.

Reid to drop IMF reforms from Senate's Ukraine aid bill. "Bowing to Republican opposition, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that legislation to provide $1 billion in aid to Ukraine would move forward without a contested provision to expand the loan-making authority of the International Monetary Fund. The decision to drop the White House-sought IMF changes will probably clear the way for swift passage of the Ukraine aid package, which also would impose sanctions against Russia over its annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Republicans, while not necessarily opposed to the IMF changes, argued that its inclusion in the Senate bill was unnecessarily delaying funds to shore up the Ukrainian interim government." Michael A. Memoli in the Los Angeles Times.

Explainer: Everything you ever wanted to know about Washington's battle over the IMF. Ian Talley in The Wall Street Journal.

House's plan may add in tighter Iran penalties. "A U.S. congressional panel on Tuesday approved a Russia-sanctions bill with language that may lead to tightened penalties against Iran's supporters. The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed legislation by voice vote that would aim to punish Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region, in part by tightening enforcement of a 2005 law targeting suspected proliferators to Iran, North Korea and Syria. The 2005 measure authorizes Obama to penalize foreign individuals and groups suspected of supplying any of the three nations with sensitive materials covered by one of several export-control regimes." Diane Barnes in Global Security Newswire.

Another casualty of the U.S.-Russia discord: Nuclear security pledge efforts trimmed. "World leaders watered down pledges to tighten nuclear security against terrorist threats after fault lines emerged between the U.S. and other nuclear nations over what kind of information should be shared. President Barack Obama, who founded the Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, joined leaders from 53 countries in The Hague for two days of talks that ended today. China, Russia, India and Pakistan were among the countries that abstained from subscribing to new information-sharing projects backed by the U.S. and its allies....This year’s summit took place in the shadow of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, deflecting a push by the U.S., western Europe, Japan and South Korea for more transparency and accountability to secure nuclear-bomb materials like uranium and plutonium." Jonathan Tirone and Corina Ruhe in Bloomberg.

Well, the U.S. and Russia did agree on something. "The United States and Russia set aside their differences over Crimea to endorse the meeting's final statement aimed at enhancing nuclear security around the world, together with other big powers including China, France, Germany and Britain." Fredrik Dahl in Reuters.

Quotable: "Obama also...resisted a reporter’s suggestion that one-time rival Mitt Romney was correct in characterizing Russia as the United States’s 'number one geopolitical foe,' saying he has far larger concerns. 'The truth of the matter is that America has got a whole lot of challenges,' he said. 'I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security about the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan,' he later added." Carrie Budoff Brown and Jennifer Epstein in Politico.

Other foreign policy reads:

Kerry, in bid to keep Mideast peace talks alive, will meet with Abbas in Jordan. Anne Gearan and Ruth Eglash in The Washington Post.

U.S. draws together Japan, South Korea. Richard MacGregor and Simon Mundy in The Financial Times.

IGNATIUS: Putin’s actions in Crimea alter how the world will deal with him. "President Obama has spoken once again during the Ukraine crisis about being on the right 'side of history.' It’s one of his signature lines, but he should stop: The phrase implies there’s an inevitability to the advance of progress and justice. Would that it were so. What’s happening now in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a reminder that history has ebbs and flows, advances and retreats, and that its interpretation is subjective. Even more, recent events are a warning that decisive turns in history can result from ruthless political leaders, from weak or confused adversaries, or sometimes just from historical accident. Might doesn’t make right, but it does create 'facts on the ground' that are hard to reverse." David Ignatius in The Washington Post.

GATES: Putin's challenge to the West. "Mr. Putin's challenge comes at a most unpropitious time for the West. Europe faces a weak economic recovery and significant economic ties with Russia. The U.S. is emerging from more than a dozen years at war and leaders in both parties face growing isolationism among voters, with the prospect of another major challenge abroad cutting across the current political grain. Crimea and Ukraine are far away, and their importance to Europe and America little understood by the public. Therefore, the burden of explaining the need to act forcefully falls, as always, on our leaders. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, 'Government includes the act of formulating a policy' and 'persuading, leading, sacrificing, teaching always, because the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate.' The aggressive, arrogant actions of Vladimir Putin require from Western leaders strategic thinking, bold leadership and steely resolve — now." Robert M. Gates in The Wall Street Journal.

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Measured progress on nuclear security. "Since President Obama initiated the nuclear security summit meetings in 2010, 12 countries have completely eliminated their nuclear material stockpiles and 15 others have removed or disposed of portions of theirs. The number of countries that possess enough nuclear materials to build a weapon has fallen to 25 from 39. While this is undeniably good news, that means 25 countries still have such materials at hundreds of sites, many of which are not sufficiently secure. Moreover, pledges by government leaders to improve security and combat illegal trafficking in nuclear materials may not be fully carried out. At this week’s summit meeting, only 35 of the 53 countries agreed to enact into their laws international guidelines on nuclear security like criminalizing unauthorized acts involving nuclear materials. What is needed are binding international legal standards, applicable to all, and a treaty to ban the production of fissile material altogether." Editorial Board.

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: West's war of words plays right into Putin's hands. "More broadly, the United States would do well to tone down its sanctimony. Putin’s annexation of Crimea violated international law. But so did the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the NATO intervention to protect Kosovo, even if the latter was, to many, including me, a legitimate violation. Insisting that this is a new era because Moscow is bent on violating international law may indeed propel the world into a new era. But that would be a choice of our making, not Russia’s." Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Washington Post.

SCHINDLER: How to win Cold War 2.0. "The West will prevail in this Cold War too because Putin’s corruption-laden model for Russia is unsustainable in the long run. In terms of population and per capita GDP, Russia is more or less Mexico with nuclear weapons. We are not headed for a bipolar world again, but a multipolar one where Russia can be a dangerous spoiler. But NATO, with American leadership, needs to wake up. This time we must ensure that Russians are well aware that they lost—so they will come to terms with the Kremlin’s crimes, including against its own people, over the last hundred years. That alone will ensure this dreadful cycle does not repeat itself yet again." John R. Schindler in Politico Magazine.

SAMUELSON: Russia's overblown natural gas weapon. "The continuing Ukrainian crisis has cast a specter over Europe: a natural gas cutoff. Russia supplies about 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas. In any tit-for-tat exchange of sanctions, this seems the ultimate weapon, dwarfing almost anything Europe and the United States could deploy. It evokes images of shivering people and shuttered factories. Knowing this, the West will limit sanctions for fear of provoking Russia. Game over. Vladimir Putin wins again. Maybe not. On closer inspection, Russia’s doomsday weapon involves much bluff. If used, it would probably do less damage than imagined while also imposing long-term costs on Russia." Robert J. Samuelson in The Washington Post.

Top opinion

WEGMAN: Women on the sidelines of the Hobby Lobby case. "More than half an hour of argument passed before Justice Anthony Kennedy, playing his familiar role somewhere between the liberal and conservative blocs on the court, brought the actual women into the picture....Until then, you might have thought that the only human beings who would be affected by the court’s decision were the owners of the companies themselves: Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., an Oklahoma-based arts-and-crafts chain owned by evangelical Christians, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Mennonite cabinet manufacturer from Pennsylvania. But Hobby Lobby alone has 13,000 employees, a significant portion of whom are women, or men with female partners who share their insurance. It is safe to assume that many if not most of them have used contraception. And contrary to Justice Antonin Scalia’s dismissive suggestion that cost isn’t a factor...the four methods at issue in the Hobby Lobby cases, such as IUDs, are among the most effective — and expensive....In other words, Hobby Lobby’s decision not to provide insurance coverage could make it harder for its female employees to obtain basic health services now freely available to other women throughout the country." Jesse Wegman in The New York Times.

FOURNIER: President on right track but still needs to bring NSA to heel. "Bullied into action by Edward Snowden — no hero or traitor, he — President Obama might finally get one thing right about the Surveillance State. To borrow a favorite phrase, he might be on the right side of history....It's an important step, but Obama still must show he can be transparent, trusted, and effective. Will he be better about revealing and explaining the administration's national security methods? Will his administration stop parsing, deceiving, and lying unnecessarily about intelligence programs? Will the worst offenders (read: James Clapper) be held accountable? Will his bill become law? It could track the Obama-era pattern: a public-relations salve followed by legislative failure. Let's hope Obama succeeds." Ron Fournier in National Journal.

PONNURU: Sandra Fluke's inane birth-control argument. "For most of American history, it has been unquestionably legal for employers to refuse to offer health coverage for these things for religious reasons, and yet somehow nobody ever cites an actual case in which it happened. Moreover, Hobby Lobby isn't arguing that any religious objection should defeat any regulation: It's arguing that the particular regulation the Obama administration is trying to impose is not the least restrictive means of serving a compelling governmental interest. That’s part of the test established by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The facts in a blood-transfusion case would be different than the facts in today's case — and worse for the objectors, which is why Fluke brings it up — and courts could and would take that difference into account. Fluke concludes her op-ed thus: 'We must fight back and speak out, and hope the Supreme Court rules in favor of the people.' For this she went to Georgetown Law?" Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg View.

GREENWALD: Obama's new NSA proposal and Democratic partisan hackery. "The fact that the President is now compelled to pose as an advocate for abolishing this program — the one he and his supporters have spent 10 months hailing — is a potent vindication of Edward Snowden’s acts and the reporting he enabled. First, a federal court found the program unconstitutional. Then, one of the President’s own panels rejected the NSA’s claim that it was necessary in stopping terrorism, while another explicitly found the program illegal. And now the President himself depicts himself as trying to end it. Whatever test exists for determining whether 'unauthorized' disclosures of classified information are justified, Snowden’s revelations pass the test with ease. That President Obama now proclaims the need to end a domestic spying program that would still be a secret in the absence of Snowden’s whistleblowing proves that quite compellingly." Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept.

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER: How our economy loses a job every 43 seconds. "Restrictive skilled-immigration policy costs U.S. jobs every single day. How many?...500,000 jobs lost thanks to too-restrictive U.S. immigration policy. Spread across 50 five-day workweeks, this translates into 2,000 U.S. jobs not created a day. That is a new job lost about every 43 seconds, around the clock, every single day that America is open for business. In 2013, the U.S. economy created 2.37 million new payroll jobs. This tally could have been more than 21% higher had U.S. immigration restrictions not existed. Wise reform could bring a welcome end to the damage restrictive immigration policy inflicts on the country's own economic vitality." Matthew J. Slaughter in The Wall Street Journal.

FLAVELLE: Medicaid is the world's smallest hammock. "Let's consider what the data doesn't show: It doesn't show that expanding Medicaid significantly contracts the labor force, at least not right away.And imagine, hypothetically, that differential held over time — that making health insurance available to the near-poor was associated with a 0.02 percent lower labor-force participation rate. Is that enough of a reduction in total economic output to justify withholding health care from people who can't otherwise afford it? That's not a rhetorical question. Half a dozen states are debating whether to sign up for expanding Medicaid, and the program's early years strongly suggest that more states will follow. Numbers like these suggest that what's holding up the program is something other than worries about people winding up in hammocks." Christopher Flavelle in Bloomberg View.

March Madness interlude: This pint-sized NCAA fan is as devoted as any other fan.

2. What you need to know about Obamacare's long day in two courts

Supreme Court divided as it hears argument on Obamacare's contraceptive coverage. "A divided Supreme Court seemed inclined to agree Tuesday that the religious beliefs of business owners may trump a requirement in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act that they provide their employees with insurance coverage for all types of contraceptives. With both snow and demonstrators gathering on the sidewalk outside, it was difficult to predict a precise outcome from the spirited 90-minute argument. But a majority of the justices seemed to agree that the family-owned businesses that objected to the requirement were covered by a federal statute that gives great protection to the exercise of religion. That would mean the government must show the requirement is not a substantial burden on their religious expression, and that there was no less intrusive way to provide contraceptive coverage to female workers. As is often the case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — who voted two years ago to find Obamacare unconstitutional — seemed to hold the balance. Some of his remarks and questions favored the government-. He was concerned about workers being denied coverage to which they were entitled by law because of their employers’ objections. But Kennedy also worried that the government’s reasoning would mean there was little employers could object to funding." Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

Primary source: Full transcript of Tuesday's Supreme Court oral arguments.

Could the contraception case prove to be a dud? "The problem for conservatives hoping for a big win here is that, in Tuesday’s arguments, Chief Justice Roberts looked like he was hoping to avoid an all-or-nothing style decision. Dating back to his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice Roberts has argued that the Supreme Court should avoid far-reaching decisions that can “jolt the legal system” by upending precedent. Roberts had pledged to foster an era of narrow and unanimous decisions. In areas such as the Court’s First Amendment decisions, Roberts has structured narrow decisions that allow for votes that can have even eight of the Justices in the majority." Sam Kleiner in The New Republic.

Are Obamacare subsidies now in jeopardy? "Federal judges in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals appeared split this morning on whether Obamacare allows federal subsidies in states with federal-run health insurance exchanges — a legal challenge that threatens the very structure of the law. Opponents of the health care law argue that the text of the statute only authorizes people living in states with state-run exchanges to access insurance subsidies in the marketplaces, contrary to a 2012 IRS rule. Further, they say this was a design of the law and not a drafting error, meant to incentivize states into setting up their own insurance marketplaces. During Tuesday morning oral arguments in Halbig v. Sebelius, it was immediately clear that there will be a split decision of the three-member panel, with two of the judges staking out opposing views on the subsidy question. Judge Harry Edwards, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, accused the defendants of making a politically motivated attack on the law. Judge Raymond Randolph, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, said the text of the law and legislative history clearly blocks subsidies from federal-run exchanges." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Forget Hobby Lobby. The bigger threat to Obamacare still has life. "If the contraception challenge succeeds, it just means that that one sliver of Obamacare is struck down. If this other challenge succeeds, both sides agree that it would blow up the entire law. And given those stakes, it should cause the law’s supporters some disquiet that based on today’s arguments alone, two of the three judges on the panel — the two Republican appointees — appeared far more sympathetic to the arguments of the challengers." Alec MacGillis in The New Republic.

Long read: It's time for White House to start sweating over legal challenge to Obamacare subsidies. Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner.

Obama administration ramps up deadline flexibility for insurance applicants. "Federal officials confirmed Tuesday evening that all consumers who have begun to apply for coverage on HealthCare.gov, but who do not finish by Monday, will have until about mid-April to ask for an extension....People will be able to qualify for an extension by checking a blue box on HealthCare.gov to indicate that they tried to enroll before the deadline. This method will rely on an honor system...The rules, which will apply to the federal exchanges operating in three dozen states, will essentially create a large loophole even as White House officials have repeatedly said that the March 31 deadline was firm. The extra time will not technically alter the deadline but will create a broad new category of people eligible for what’s known as a special enrollment period. The change...is supported by consumer advocates who want as many people as possible to gain insurance under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. But it’s likely to be criticized by Republicans who oppose the law and have denounced the way the administration is implementing it." Amy Goldstein in The Washington Post.

Other health care reads:

1.1 million visits to Healthcare.gov on Monday as Americans rush to meet deadline. Alex Wayne in Bloomberg.

Young adults signing up at higher rates off Obamacare exchanges. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

N.H. is about to adopt Medicaid expansion. Sophie Novack in National Journal.

Further cost controls sought in federal employee health-care plan. Eric Yoder in The Washington Post.

Majority say Obamacare will make premiums go up, poll says. Jonathan Easley in The Hill.

Support for Obamacare edges up. Jonathan Easley in The Hill.

Ouch interlude: Glass-banging hockey fan gets knocked over.

3. The NSA's collection of phone records may be numbered

Emerging political consensus supports end to NSA collection of Americans’ phone records. "For those not following the ins and outs of National Security Agency surveillance reform, the one big takeaway is this: There is an emerging consensus from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill that the government’s mass collection of data about Americans’ phone calls must end. President Obama said Tuesday that the intelligence community has given him a plan to get there, and key factions in Congress have developed various alternatives....The questions are: Which version or which hybrid of versions will emerge the winner? And what will the result mean for Americans? The answer to the former: It’s too soon to tell. The answer to the latter: No matter which version emerges, the days of the government collecting Americans’ phone records in bulk are numbered." Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

And it's because of the Edward Snowden effect. "Nine months after the world learned his name, Edward Snowden and his leaks made their biggest splash yet in the capital Tuesday. NSA reform efforts as a result of his surveillance revelations moved closer to reality as reports surfaced of a coalescing White House plan to end the government’s bulk collection of American phone records. Neither that proposal nor a competing effort from the House Intelligence Committee have moved forward legislatively, and it will take time to see what, if anything, sticks. But their existence alone indicates that a major shift to the most controversial program revealed by Snowden could eventually be a reality." Alex Byers in Politico.

What Obama said: U.S. must win back trust on intelligence gathering. Ken Dilanian in the Los Angeles Times.

Explainer: What exactly would Obama's proposal do? "In terms of the total amount of data that the NSA will be able to access, the agency is probably not giving up a lot by agreeing to stop holding these records themselves. I mean, phone companies already have a business incentive to keep this kind of calling data for years and make it easy to search and analyze. Most policymakers I've talked to say the real battle here that matters is what are the rules going to be that govern when and how the NSA or other law enforcement agencies can access this data, how wide a net will they be allowed to cast." Steve Henn in NPR.

Here's how it played on Capitol Hill. "Lawmakers opposed to White House-run surveillance programs welcomed the administration's announcement Tuesday that it would seek legislation to prevent the National Security Agency from storing bulk phone records of Americans. At the same time the senators pressed the administration to go further....The unusual bipartisan alliance of Wyden, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) has continuously pressured the White House over its secret spying techniques. While awaiting congressional approval for the administration's proposed plan, the NSA should immediately halt further collection of telephone records unless officials have court-approved warrants, the senators said." Lisa Mascaro in the Los Angeles Times.

And here's the reaction from Edward Snowden. "Edward Snowden came close to outright declaring victory Tuesday in his crusade against government spying, seizing on the White House's plan to end bulk collection of domestic phone records in its current state. 'This is a turning point, and it marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public's seat at the table of government,' the former National Security Agency contractor said in a statement circulated by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is providing the fugitive legal advice. He added: 'Congress is considering historic, albeit incomplete reforms. And President Obama has now confirmed that these mass surveillance programs, kept secret from the public and defended out of reflex rather than reason, are in fact unnecessary and should be ended.'" Dustin Volz in National Journal.

Context: Dueling plans have a key difference between them. David Welna in NPR.

The toughest NSA fix may come from the Patriot Act's author. "The two being unveiled this week—bipartisan legislation sponsored by leaders of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and a plan supported by President Barack Obama—are quite similar in their broad outlines but differ in a few key details. Neither, however, goes quite so far in limiting the NSA as the USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and born-again Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI)....The far more sweeping reforms of the USA Freedom Act — which extend well beyond changes to records authorities — instead strike directly at the heart of the government’s overbroad relevance theory. That law requires the government to show a specific link to a suspected terrorist or spy for all information requests under all its myriad authorities." Julian Sanchez in The Daily Beast.

Quotable: "Sen. Rand Paul believes he is in part responsible for President Obama's reported decision to end the National Security Agency's bulk collect of domestic phone data. 'I don't want to take all the credit for ending this, but I think our lawsuit had something to do with bringing the president to the table,' Paul said Tuesday during an appearance on Fox News's Fox and Friends." Dustin Volz in National Journal.

Rand Paul: Big political winner in the NSA announcement? Frank James in NPR.

Aww interlude: Baby gorilla reunited with mother at zoo.

4. Has the economy finally emerged from its winter freeze?

Bullish consumers, rising home prices brighten U.S. growth picture. "U.S. consumer confidence surged to a six-year high in March and house prices increased solidly in January, positioning the economy for stronger growth after a weather-induced soft spot. The upbeat outlook, however, was dimmed somewhat by other data on Tuesday showing new home sales at a five-month low in February, partly because of cold temperatures. 'The economy is showing signs of shaking off the weather effect. We are going to get a big lift to second-quarter growth from the weather,' said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester Pennsylvania. The Conference Board said its index of consumer attitudes rose to 82.3 from 78.3 in February. That is the highest level since January 2008, just as recession started to take hold, and it beat economists' expectations for a reading of only 78.6. The jump in confidence bodes well for the economy's prospects, even though consumers were less upbeat about the labor market." Lucia Mutikani in Reuters.

Survey: Economy will grow, Fed will end asset purchases this year. "Despite a slow start, economic growth is expected to pick up pace this year and into 2015, which should lead the Federal Reserve to end its massive monetary stimulus. Severe winter weather is expected to shave first-quarter growth to an annual rate of 1.9 percent but it should hit 3 percent by year's end, the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) said on Monday. On an annual average basis, growth is forecasted to increase from 1.9 percent last year to 2.8 this year and to 3.1 percent in 2015....The NABE survey of 48 economists anticipates that the Federal Reserve will continue to taper its bond purchases this year with the majority of the panel expecting purchases to end entirely in the fourth quarter." Vicki Needham in The Hill.

Fed won't raise rates until certain U.S. recovery well underway, top official says. "The Federal Reserve will keep interest rates near zero until it is confident the U.S. economic recovery has taken hold, a top Fed policymaker said in an interview on Tuesday....'We will hold the base rate at a low range until we're certain the recovery is well under way,' Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, told Reuters. 'Whether that is six months or X months, that is the intention of the (Fed's policy-setting) committee and I support that'...Following a policy meeting last week, the Fed said it expected to keep benchmark interest rates that low for a 'considerable time' after it wrapped up a bond-buying stimulus program....Pressed on the statement afterward, Janet Yellen, in her first news conference as Fed chair, said the phrase 'probably means something on the order of around six months or that type of thing.' Stocks and bonds immediately tumbled as traders took the statement to suggest rate hikes could come in about a year's time, sooner than they had anticipated." Jonathan Spicer in Reuters.

Economic data

Consumer confidence rises to highest level in 6 years. Jim Puzzanghera in the Los Angeles Times.

Explainer: How to understand the Case-Shiller home price data amid contradictory headlines. Erin Carlyle in Forbes.

New-home sales dropped 3.3 pct. in February. Jonathan House in The Wall Street Journal.

Chart: A look at Case-Shiller data by metro area. The Wall Street Journal.

Is there a housing bubble? No, but places like Calif. starting to look frothy. "Have the nation’s rapidly rising home prices thrown us back into a housing bubble? Fortunately for the economy — if unfortunately for buyers who’ve been frustrated by the rebound in home prices — the answer is no. But some of coastal markets are starting to look frothy. California: We’re looking at you (you too, Florida)." Conor Dougherty in The Wall Street Journal.

Other economic/financial policy reads:

Fed officials scramble to clarify timing of U.S. policy tightening. Jonathan Spicer and Ann Saphir in Reuters.

Some U.S. banks enjoy 'too-big-to-fail' status, Fed study says. Emily Stephenson and Jonathan Spicer in Reuters.

Yellen: Women helped make economy great. Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Unemployment vote in Senate likely delayed until next week. Niels Lesniewski in Roll Call.

Making sense of income inequality. Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

Animals interlude: Cats can't get enough of this tablet video game.

5. The GM recall fiasco may be changing how the government handles auto safety

Senators want automakers to share more information about fatal accidents. "The legislation by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) would require automakers to routinely submit accident reports or other documents to the NHTSA when they learned of a fatality involving one of their vehicles. The bill would require the NHTSA, in turn, to make the information available to the public in a user-friendly, searchable database. That would allow consumers and watchdog groups to more easily sift through the data in search of safety problems....The new measure comes amid a host of government probes into GM’s handling of the ignition-switch defect, including a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors and inquiries by committees in the House and the Senate. Meanwhile, GM is facing a growing number of lawsuits connected to the recall, which centers on an ignition switch that, when jostled or weighed down, can inadvertently turn the car off, disabling its electronic components, including the air bags." Michael A. Fletcher in The Washington Post.

Could we actually see some legislation succeed this year? "Legislation of some kind seems quite possible this year. Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded that General Motors and the traffic safety agency deliver extensive documents on the Cobalt case. The committee gave a deadline of Tuesday and committee staff members said they were expecting documents from the highway safety agency soon. The House committee plans a hearing next week. Uncharacteristically for that committee, the investigation is bipartisan....That committee plans a hearing next Tuesday, at which Mary T. Barra, the chief executive of General Motors, will appear, as will David J. Friedman, acting administrator of the traffic safety agency. That will be followed the next day by another hearing in the Senate." Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

U.S. prosecutors eye new approach on company misconduct after Toyota. "U.S. prosecutors are considering using the legal theory behind a $1.2 billion penalty imposed on Toyota to go after misconduct in industries ranging from auto and airplane makers to mining, a Justice Department official told Reuters. The charges of wire fraud against Toyota for concealing safety problems marked the first criminal case of its kind against an auto company. The announcement last week of the settlement between the Department of Justice and Toyota immediately prompted speculation about its ramifications for General Motors, which is under investigation over its handling of a problem with ignition switches. Prosecutors have generally used a narrower approach in previous criminal cases against companies for misleading the public over safety issues....Rather than prosecute Toyota under that law, the TREAD Act, the Justice Department relied on a broad theory arguing that misleading statements about major safety issues constitute wire fraud. That theory could be applied across industries, including against companies that build planes or trains, or potentially the mining and oil sectors, the DOJ official and legal experts said." Aruna Viswanatha in Reuters.

Calif. lawsuit claims more GM vehicles faulty than in recall. Jessica Dye in Reuters.

Musical performance interlude: Check out this awesome instrumental cover of "Happy" by Pharrell.

Wonkblog roundup

Fed: Big banks do get all the breaks. Danielle Douglas.

$28.25: the minimum wage D.C. would need to support a modest 2-bedroom. Emily Badger.

Is the CFPB about to break the payday lending business model? Lydia DePillis.

Yellen: Women made America’s economy great. Ylan Q. Mui.

Young adults signing up at higher rates off Obamacare exchanges. Jason Millman.

To fight crime in your community, stop using cash. Christopher Ingraham.

Are Obamacare subsidies now in jeopardy? Jason Millman.

Can U.S. natural gas rescue Ukraine from Russia? Steven Mufson.

Why Airbnb wants you to know how much its users are spending. Emily Badger.

A liberal case for why corporations are people, too. Max Ehrenfreund.

Et Cetera

Got Bitcoins? Here's how the IRS says to report them on your tax return. Brian Fung in The Washington Post.

Michigan wins appeal of gay-marriage ruling pending appeal. Andrew Harris in Bloomberg.

1 in 8 deaths linked to air pollution, U.N. health body says. Tony Barboza in Los Angeles Times.

Senate report: Target missed warning signs leading to breach. Doina Chiacu in Reuters.

House votes to block coal mining rule. Matthew Daly in the Associated Press.

EPA proposes greater protections for streams, wetlands. Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized the level of consumer confidence. It has been corrected.

 

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