TIME Military

An Extraordinary Pentagon ‘Bull Session’ Over ISIS

DOD Chief Ashton Carter Travels To Middle East
Jonathan Ernst—Pool/Getty Images New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter begins Monday's anti-ISIS strategy session in Kuwait.

New defense chief convenes Kuwait confab to confirm war plans

College, where new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has spent as much time as at the Pentagon, loves bull sessions. That’s just what Carter did Monday, summoning U.S. military and diplomatic brainpower to an unusual closed-door session in Kuwait where some of America’s finest Middle East minds gathered to debate how to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Sure, the more than two dozen attendees sat at a government-issue T-shaped table, complete with their names on placards, instead of sitting cross-legged on the floor. But, at the start of his second week on the job, Carter made clear he is as interested in listening as he is in talking. “This is team America,” he declared, before reporters were ushered out of the room.

At the end of the six-hour session, Carter declared ISIS “hardly invincible,” and gave no hint of any major change in U.S. policy, despite calls from some congressional Republicans for more robust military action. “Lasting defeat of this brutal group,” Carter said, “can and will be accomplished.”

No revamped war plan was expected to surface during the session, although Carter said the U.S. needs to step up its social-media duel with ISIS, and that certain unnamed allies need to do more. Rather, aides said, Carter was seeking to dive deeply into the current U.S. strategy, understand its logic and see if it can be improved.

While such sessions often happen without public notice in Washington, convening one abroad — and publicly detailing its purpose and attendees — marks a shift in how the Pentagon is conducting business under its new chief.

Those at the session included Army General Lloyd Austin, who as head of U.S. Central Command, oversees the anti-ISIS campaign, and Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s military chief. Diplomats attending included retired Marine general John Allen, now the White House’s envoy responsible for ISIS, and U.S. ambassadors in the region.

The Pentagon instructed those attending to leave their PowerPoint presentations at home and be ready to face questions from Carter. These kinds of sessions — especially when senior officials are visiting from the capital — often turn into subordinates’ show-and-tell rather than tough questions with frank answers. “We had an incisive, candid, wide-ranging discussion—there were no briefings,” Carter said afterward. “It was the sharing of experience and ideas and expertise and it made me very proud of the American team here in this region.”

Carter, a physicist by training, has spent much of his career lecturing on college campuses, including at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford. Between academic gigs, he also has served tours inside the Pentagon, including as deputy defense secretary from 2011 to 2013.

Carter plainly wants the war on ISIS to end differently than the wars the U.S. launched in Afghanistan (in 2001) and Iraq (in 2003), where battlefield successes turned into nation-building quagmires. “If we are to have a defeat of [ISIS] … it needs to be a lasting defeat,” he told U.S. troops at Kuwait’s Camp Arifjan before Monday’s session began. “What we discuss here, and what I learn here, will be important to me as I formulate our own direction in this campaign and as I help the President to lead it.”

Assuming Carter heard something that could help turn the tide against ISIS, getting the White House to listen to his advice could prove challenging. President Obama’s first two defense chiefs, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, made no secret of their disdain for White House interference in Pentagon planning, and Pentagon officials cited such micromanagement as a problem during Chuck Hagel’s recently concluded tenure.

TIME Congress

Why Congress Is Feuding With Obama Over the Homeland Security Budget

Jeh Johnson Holds News Conference On DHS Appropriations Bill
Alex Wong—Getty Images U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson pauses during a news conference February 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.

President Barack Obama warned a gathering of state governors on Monday that the Department of Homeland Security would furlough tens of thousands of employees nationwide if Congress failed to replenish the agency’s funds by Friday.

“We can’t afford to play politics with our national security,” Obama said during a winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

But the political fight over Homeland Security funding shows no signs of letting up due to the hot-button politics of immigration. That was made clear Monday evening when a procedural vote that needs at least 60 senators to avoid the threat of a filibuster fell too short, with just 47 in support and 46 against. Here’s a refresher on how lawmakers got to this point:

Where’s the spending bill?

A bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security passed the House last month, with one essential caveat: None of the money could be used to implement Obama’s executive order to defer deportations of some 5 million undocumented immigrants. Imposed by House Republicans, that restriction is a non-starter for Senate Democrats, who have blocked the bill.

What happens if the agency doesn’t receive funding by Friday?

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the department would run out of funds by Friday, forcing it to furlough upwards of 30,000 DHS employees. Employees deemed essential to national security, who make up roughly 80 percent of the workforce, will continue to work without paychecks.

Are there any signs of compromise on the horizon?

Several prominent Republicans, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, have broken rank in recent days, urging their counterparts to fund the agency without restraints and let the immigration fight play out in the courtroom. Last week, a Texas judge temporarily suspended Obama’s executive orders and ruled that states could challenge the administration’s immigration policy in court.

McCain hailed the decision as an “exit sign” for lawmakers, though lawmakers have yet to steer toward this off ramp in significant number. They may choose to punt on the issue instead, releasing a temporary spurt of funding for Homeland Security while girding for another round of debate.

TIME Oscars

These Four Policy Issues Got Our Attention at the Oscars

Hollywood is never shy about sharing its thoughts on politics, especially on Oscar night. But after the acceptance speeches fade, what happens next? Here’s a look at the status of several issues raised at the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night.

Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood,” on Equal Pay

The issue: The Pew Research Center estimates that women earn 84 percent of what men earn, though the gender pay gap has narrowed since the 1980s. This is the rare issue that also affects Hollywood. The 10 highest-paid actors were paid $419 million in 2013 while their female counterparts earned $226 million, barely half as much.

What Arquette said: “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

The outlook: Legislation introduced last year would have made it illegal for companies to retaliate against employees who share how much they make, a key step in ensuring men and women are paid equally. It failed to pass the Senate and is dead in the current Republican Congress. Some states, such as Vermont, are tackling the issue, however.

Common and John Legend, “Selma,” on Racial Justice in the U.S.

The issue: Racial disparities persist decades after the events depicted in Selma. In their acceptance speech, singers John Legend and Common highlighted two: the high rate of incarceration among black men and changes in voting rights laws, such as requirements that voters show government ID at polling stations.

What Legend said: “We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today then were under slavery in 1850.”

The outlook: Protests over how police have handled black male suspects have given the cause momentum. The Eric Garner case helped inspire New York City officials to begin to rethink their approach to policing. Activists on the left and right are coming together to push for reforms to the criminal justice system, though voting rights legislation isn’t going anywhere in Congress.

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, “Birdman,” on Immigration Reform

The issue: Immigration reform has been a hot button political issue for years. Millions of undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. and there’s widespread disagreement about how they should be addressed.

What Iñarritu said: “I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can build the government that we deserve. And the ones living in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who come before and built this incredible nation.”

The outlook: Immigration reform is a thorny issue, and legislators in Washington repeatedly have had trouble finding common ground. President Obama took action on his own, taking executive actions providing temporary legal status to millions of immigrants. Still, those actions remain contested in court and Congress isn’t likely to do much on this issue.

Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry, “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” on Veteran Suicide

The issue: Twenty-two veterans commit suicide everyday — a rate that more than double the rate in the general population. While the Veterans Affairs Department provides mental health services, mental health experts say many the veteran culture makes many hesitant to take advantage of the resources.

What Kent said: “This immense and incredible honor goes to the veterans and their families who are brave enough to ask for help.” What Perry said: “I want to dedicate this to my son Evan Perry, we lost him to suicide, we should talk about suicide out loud.”

The outlook: President Obama recently signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which creates an outreach system for veterans suffering from mental health issues and provides financial incentives to encourage psychiatric doctors to treat veterans. The law is a good start, but activists working to stem suicide say the issue requires more attention.

TIME 2016 Election

Here’s the Only Photo From Jeb Bush’s Wedding

Blame Marvin Bush

Jeb Bush and his wife Columba are celebrating their 41st wedding anniversary Monday, but they’ll have more memories than photos.

The former Florida governor and presumptive GOP presidential candidate marked the occasion on social media by posting the lone photo that survived an amateur photography error committed by the groom’s brother.

“This is the only picture from our wedding,” Bush wrote on Facebook. “The photographer, my brother Marvin, accidentally rerolled from a Frank Zappa concert. Thankfully, my mom took one photo with a Kodak.”

In a letter to his sister, Doro, published in her book My Father, My President: A Personal Account of the Life of George H. W. Bush, Marvin Bush, who was in high school at the time, explained the mishap:

As the paper settled into the chemicals in the tray, I began to see the image of a guitar over a picture of my grandmother and my parents. Uh-oh! lt hit me like a ton of bricks. I had rerolled previously used film that had been taken at a Frank Zappa concert at the Mosque in Richmond. Virginia. Every single photo of the Bush and Gamica families had either a photo of Frank Zappa and/or members of his band, The Mothers of Invention, superimposed onto their own images. I remember thinking to myself that a Frank Sinatra photo may have been acceptable-not Frank Zappa!

Family matriarch Barbara Bush had the good sense to take one photo on her Kodak pocket lnstamatic, Marvin writes, and that is the only photo of the day that remains.

The epilogue to the story, never previously revealed to any family members, is that I submitted a picture of the bride and groom (yes, with Zappa) in an art show at school. I called the picture something clever like “Zappas Brideand won third prize in the photography category.

TIME White House

Obama Gets His Governors Wrong

Barack Obama
Evan Vucci—AP President Barack Obama speaks in Chicago on Feb. 19, 2015.

You might be forgiven for confusing Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Two northeastern Democratic governors with similar names. They even have similar close-cropped haircuts.

Still, the differences matter.

Malloy is getting ready to be the next liberal bulldog, the Democratic governor who’s not afraid to throw a few punches at Republicans, as my colleague Zeke Miller reported over the weekend. Now out of office, O’Malley is possibly running for president, and though he’s a longshot against Hillary Clinton, well, so is everyone else in the primary.

But at a Democratic Governors Association event Monday, Obama mixed the two up.

“In Connecticut, Gov. O’Malley announced his Second Chance Society, a plan to help former prisoners rejoin their communities,” Obama said, to a roomful of the only group of Americans who would know the difference between the two men.

Now, this is not a big deal. Neither was it a big deal when Obama mixed up British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne with ’70s R&B singer Jeffrey Osborne three times in a speech. Or when he confused actor James Franco with quarterback Joe Flacco. Or mixed up two Medal of Honor winners. Or even when the president jumbled up his “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” references.

The President is a human being, after all, and one who is filmed pretty much nonstop whenever he’s in public. He’s going to make simple mistakes. Obama, the former college professor, is generally given a pass by all but the conservative media on these mistakes. His predecessor, George W. Bush, wasn’t.

But it’s worth remembering as the 2016 campaigns ramp up, that similar goofs by Obama’s would-be successors don’t really matter as much as they might seem at the time.

TIME Immigration

Feds Ask for Hold on Obama Immigration Action to Be Lifted

Barack Obama
Evan Vucci—AP President Barack Obama speaks in Chicago on Feb. 19, 2015.

If granted, Obama's immigration action would be allowed to go forward while the lawsuit proceeds through the courts

The U.S. government asked a federal judge Monday to lift his temporary hold on President Barack Obama’s action to shield millions of immigrants from deportation.

The Justice Department’s motion for a stay was filed with the court of U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas.

Last week, Hanen issued a preliminary injunction sought by 26 states suing to halt the immigration action by Obama, who wants to spare from deportation as many as 5 million people who are in the U.S. illegally. The states, led by Texas, have argued Obama’s action is unconstitutional and would force increased state investment in law enforcement, health care and education.

The Justice Department is asking Hanen to put his ruling on hold while the federal government appeals the decision. If the stay were to be granted, Obama’s immigration action would be allowed to go forward while the lawsuit proceeds through the courts.

Obama announced the executive action in November, saying lack of action by Congress forced him to make sweeping changes to immigration rules on his own. Republicans, who say Obama has overstepped his authority, are blocking funding for the Department of Homeland Security unless Democrats agree to cancel Obama’s order.

It is not unheard of for judges to delay rulings they have issued. Last year, a federal judge ruled Texas’ same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional but put his decision on hold to allow the state to appeal. But legal experts say it is unlikely Hanen will put his ruling on hold, because he wrote in his 123-page court order that states would “suffer irreparable harm in this case” if Obama’s actions on immigration were to proceed while the lawsuit is argued.

“Based on (Hanen’s) language, it stands to reason that if you stay this order then those harms would start to accrue and that’s the whole point of him enjoining the order in the first place,” said Pratheepan Gulasekaram, a constitutional and immigration law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in California.

The first of Obama’s orders — to expand a program that protects young immigrants from deportation if they were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — had been set to start taking effect Feb. 18. The other major part of Obama’s order, which extends deportation protections to parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for some years, was not expected to begin until May 19.

If Hanen denies the motion for a stay, the Justice Department was expected to take its request to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

But Lourdes Martinez, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco said the 5th Circuit is known to be fairly conservative, and is likely to also deny the request for a stay. The request for a stay could ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The stay request is separate from an appeal the federal government is expected to file with the 5th Circuit over Hanen’s ruling. That appeal, once filed, would likely take anywhere from four to nine months to be ruled upon, Gulasekaram said.

TIME 2016 Election

Republican Presidential Hopefuls Stay Out of Senate Fight on Immigration

Sen. Rubio (R-FL) Discusses Obama's Shift In Cuba Policy
T.J. Kirkpatrick—Getty Images Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) reacts to U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement about revising policies on U.S.-Cuba relations on December 17, 2014 in Washington, DC.

The path to the White House does not lead through Congressional gridlock.

As Congress heads toward a showdown over immigration and the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, the three Republican Senators who are considering running for president are staying on the sidelines.

Sens. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are hanging back from the fight, letting others like Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions lead the strategy and take the megaphone. Top national Republican strategists say that’s a smart move, given the difficulty of scoring a clean win in this legislative mess.

“The main disadvantage of being a sitting senator is that your opponents and the media force you to own every controversy during every legislative fight, even though some outcomes are usually out of your control,” said Kevin Madden, a senior aide in former Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.

The Homeland Security funding fight is also a particularly bad one to champion. The current Republican strategy is to risk a shutdown of the agency in an attempt to force President Obama to override his own executive actions to defer deportations for millions in the U.S. illegally. But many of the related programs are paid for by fees, which means a shutdown won’t affect them, while polls show the public will blame Republicans for a shutdown.

“This is working out exactly the way the President and Democrats want it to work out,” says Rob Jesmer, a top member of FWD.us, a pro-immigration reform group, and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“We’re not going to look very good,” he added of Republicans. “No one is going to look very good. The sooner this gets behind us the better it is.”

The fight has already caused headaches for one potential White House suitor. After he simply noted that Republicans don’t have enough votes in the Senate to pass a bill override Obama’s executive actions, Rubio faced headlines in conservative media that said he had “caved,” “folded” and “retreated,” even though he had stopped short of actually calling for a spending bill without conditions.

Paul and Cruz, meantime, haven’t paid any price back home for laying low.

Ray Sullivan, a chief of staff of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, says that Cruz faces “no negative ramifications” in the state by going bold on the immigration fight. “From my standpoint, most Texans didn’t notice the difference and appreciated the willingness to take principled stands to try to shrink the size and scope of the federal government,” he says of the 2013 government shutdown, in which Cruz played an outsized role.

“If you’re looking at it in the context of who’s going to be blamed, who’s fault is it and what’s the political ramifications of it, to me it’s clear: we’re here because of Obama, we’re here because of Senate Democrats,” says Scott Jennings, a top GOP consultant based out of Kentucky. “I would stay focused on Barack Obama. This is his fault, we’re here because of him.”

“I think that’s how people here in Kentucky view it,” he adds.

Paul, Cruz and Rubio have portrayed themselves as disrupters and outsiders who came to fix Washington. That message is reinforced by a hard-line position on Obama’s “executive overreach.” Even if the particular strategy is ineffective, voters may be more focused on a broader theme each of the prospective candidates presents. Madden, the Romney aide, notes that whatever image the candidate creates may be more important than any particular D.C. bout.

“Primary voters in early states that shape the presidential field respond more to their overall sense of where a candidate is on big issues,” says Madden. “Are they strong on national security? Smart and in touch on the economy? They tend to shape those opinions based on what they see and hear from candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire instead of what’s taking place on the floor of the Senate.”

But the Homeland Security battle is a reminder of Washington’s “gridlock and breakdown,” according to Sullivan, and could help a governor candidate who not only takes principled stands but delivers results in his or her state.

“Members of Congress who are running or contemplating running for president will be weighted down by their association with Washington DC,” he says. “Our party has generally nominated governors who are far outside of the Beltway.”

TIME Regulation

Obama Calls for Tighter Rules on Retirement Account Brokers

President Obama addresses the General Session of the 2015 Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, on Feb. 20, 2015.
Nicholas Kamm—AFP/Getty Images President Obama addresses the General Session of the 2015 Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, on Feb. 20, 2015.

Many people provide investment advice, but not all of them are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest

(WASHINGTON) — The Obama administration is proposing tougher restrictions on brokers who manage Americans’ retirement accounts, reigniting a confrontation with the financial services industry over rules affecting trillions of dollars in 401k and other savings accounts.

The change would put brokers — who sell stocks, bonds, annuities and other investments — under the stricter requirements for registered financial advisers when they handle clients’ retirement accounts.

In a long-anticipated move, the Labor Department is making the proposal Monday to the White House Budget Office. After an internal review, it likely will be put out for public comment for several months.

The rule has been the subject of intense behind-the-scenes lobbying, pitting major Wall Street firms and financial industry groups against a coalition of labor, consumer groups and retiree advocates such as the AARP.

The administration first proposed a regulation in 2010, but pulled it back following an industry outcry that the proposal would hurt rather than help investors by limiting choices.

To buttress the new effort, the White House on Monday is releasing a report from its Council of Economic Advisers that concludes investors lose billions of dollars because of brokers’ conflicts of interests. Obama was scheduled to address the AARP later Monday to draw attention to the plan.

“When you go to a doctor or a lawyer, you expect the advice you get to be in your best interests. But the same doesn’t always hold true in the world of retirement savings,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez said in a conference call with reporters. “Many financial advisers have taken an oath to serve your best interests, but there are other financial advisers and brokers who provide critical financial advice every day and are not obligated to look out for your best interests.”

Americans increasingly are seeking financial advice to help them navigate an array of options for retirement, college savings and more. Many people provide investment advice, but not all of them are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest.

Under current rules, brokers are required to recommend only “suitable” investments based on the client’s finances, age and how much risk is appropriate for him or her. The rules would make brokers handling retirement accounts obligated to put their clients’ interests first.

The chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman, pointed to academic studies that conclude investors who receive such recommendations sustain a 1 percentage point lower return on their retirement savings, totaling losses of $17 billion every year to middle-class families.

Industry officials dispute those studies and say the industry is well governed by financial regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission. They say the Department of Labor is ill suited to write rules best left to agencies more familiar with the financial industry.

“You have the Department of Labor, which really doesn’t know this area,” said Ira Hammerman, general counsel for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the brokerage industry’s big lobbying group. “Our concern is they are not going to get it right, just like they did not get it right in 2010.”

Meanwhile, the SEC is studying the broader investment advice industry to determine whether it should come under further regulations. Critics of the Labor Department effort say the Obama administration should leave the regulations to the SEC or it will risk limiting the advice available to investors with relatively small retirement savings.

“Investors benefit from choice; choice of products, and choice in advice providers,” SEC Commissioner Daniel Gallagher, a critic of the Labor Department proposal, said in a speech Friday. “This is something the nanny state has a hard time comprehending.”

Perez and Jeff Zients, director of the White House National Economic Council, said administration officials have been consulting with SEC Chairman Mary Jo White, financial industry officials and consumer groups.

Zients said the proposed rule would be “very different” from the restrictions the administration proposed in 2010.

“Much has been learned since then,” he said.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: February 23

Mark Wilson—Getty Images The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Birdman Soars at the Oscars

Birdman took home Best Picture and Best Director while Eddie Redmayne earned Best Actor for The Theory of Everything and Julianne Moore won Best Actress for Still Alice.Selma and The Grand Budapest Hotel also took home statues at the 87th Academy Awards

Salary Increases Are Back

A new report says roughly 90% of companies will give raises this year, but don’t hold your breath for a windfall: The majority of bumps will be 5% or less

More Cold for South and Rockies

The Rocky Mountains and Southern Plains are in for snowy and icy conditions Monday as Winter Storm Quantum continues to move across the region

Emma Watson Shoots Down Those Prince Harry Rumors

The British actress took to Twitter in light of recent chatter that she has been secretly dating Prince Harry. “Remember that little talk we had about not believing everything written in the media?!” Watson said

Most Americans Think Rich Should See Tax Hike, Poll Shows

The Associated Press–GfK poll, which comes in the wake of President Barack Obama’s proposals in his 2016 budget to raise investment taxes on high-income American families, found overall that 56% of respondents think their own federal taxes are too steep

Why Washing Dishes by Hand May Lead to Fewer Allergies

A new study suggests that hand washing dishes might lead to a significantly lower risk of developing allergies “If you are exposed to microbes, especially early in life, you stimulate the immune system in various ways and it becomes tolerant,” says the study author

Legendary Jazz Musician Clark Terry Dies at 94

Jazz trumpet and flugelhorn virtuoso Clark Terry, whose illustrious career spanned more than seven decades, died in the company of family, friends and students. The legendary trumpeter played along some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time

Ukraine’s Protest Anniversary Met With Bombs

Violence erupted in eastern Ukraine’s largest city as thousands of people commemorated the anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled the nation’s pro-Russia administration and sparked a separatist revolt that has killed more than 5,000 people

Australian Leader Outlines Antiterrorism Measures

Australians who hold dual nationality and flout antiterrorism laws will have their citizenship suspended or revoked, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced during an address on national security. “The threat to Australia is worsening,” he said

Homeland Security Goes on Offense Against Congress

The Obama Administration made a last-minute plea for Congress to fund the Department of Homeland Security, sending Secretary Jeh Johnson on a talk-show tour. Johnson used appearances on all five Sunday morning political talk shows to press his case

Swine Flu Deaths in India Pass 800

Swine flu has claimed 38 more lives in India, taking the total nationwide death toll to 812, according to the latest figures released by the country’s health ministry. The total number of people affected by the H1N1 virus has now crossed 13,000

Young Evangelical Loses Book Deal After Coming Out

A prominent Christian publisher canceled a book project this week after the author refused to say that he did “not condone, encourage or accept the homosexual lifestyle.” Brandan Robertson’s book will no longer be published, he tells TIME

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TIME governors

Governors in D.C.: Beset By Lobbyists, Riven By Partisanship

U.S. President Barack Obama toasts attendees from the National Governors Association at a dinner in the White House
Mike Theiler—Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama, center, raises his glass to toast attendees from the National Governors Association (NGA) at a dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 22, 2015

As gubernatorial staff grumble, influence-brokers descend

For three days last week, the nation’s Governors from both parties scurried with their security details down swanky hotel hallways in Washington, D.C., with legions of well-dressed men and women wearing orange lanyards in hot pursuit. The marked followers, who wore name tags identifying their employers on the orange cords, were ubiquitous at the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA). They could also be found huddled over restaurant tables with the state leaders, or cozied up next to officials on lobby sofas. More would tug on gubernatorial sleeves at the private receptions and in the hallways of the conference center.

The interlopers were officially called “corporate fellows” in the lingo of the event, but most Americans would probably just recognize them better as lobbyists—well-paid ear-benders working to place their clients’ interests before the state’s most powerful elected leader. They form the backbone of the policy arm of the NGA, which has played a role in crafting some of the most significant bipartisan policy solutions in the nation’s history, like the now-fraught Common Core education standards. And their constant presence was one of the few unifying presences at an organization increasingly riven by partisan divisions.

But in recent years, governors and staff say, even the constant presence of influence peddlers has begun to wear on the members of the NGA, as the organization has lost influence, driven by concerns about a slow-moving organization and growing polarization among the governors, who increasingly favor party-specific Governor gatherings.

“It’s a lobbyist-fest,” said the chief of staff to one governor of the NGA. “And worse yet, the organization isn’t accountable to anyone.”

In recent years, both the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations, known by the acronyms DGA and RGA, have built out their policy teams, as both parties’ governors have become more ideologically polarized. They view the NGA as a bloated bureaucracy—it still uses triplicate copy paper for on-site registrations—that produces few results, or worse, policies they don’t support. Republican governors have been saddled by the organization’s role in framing Common Core, while Democratic governors have bristled at the organization’s more GOP-friendly positions on immigration and healthcare.

“The most valuable commodity any governor has is their time,” said former RGA Executive Director Phil Cox. “They have to ask the question, ‘What are we getting out of this?’ At RGA and DGA, it is pretty clear. Their time and engagement results in substantial and effective political and policy support. At NGA, it is less clear. In recent years, it is difficult to point to substantive bipartisan accomplishments.”

Since Common Core, the group’s policy initiatives have faded in ambition and significance. This year’s chair’s initiative, called “Delivering Results,” focused on boosting government efficiency, while one of the group’s key legislative priorities is passing the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow states to charge sale tax on Internet purchases.

“We’re not competitors with RGA and DGA,” said NGA Deputy Director David Quam, who said the group has “a very active agenda this year.” “Their job is to get governors elected. Our job is to help bring them together and come to policy positions that can really solve issues at the state level and the federal level. We’re probably more relevant now than ever because all the action’s in the states.”

According to a spokesperson, last year, the organization held more than 80 meetings in states with nearly 3,100 state officials on issues such as economic development, education, health care and governance.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry pulled his state out of the organization more than a decade ago, and has been followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and others. Democrats, like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have considered quitting the organization, but have yet to take the leap. Dues-paying New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has never attended a session, according to fellow governors, while California’s Gov. Jerry Brown has frequently skipped the meetings. Quam called the trend “old news.”

“The biggest thing keeping governors engaged in NGA is a sense that they want to support their colleagues who are in leadership,” said a person close to Democratic governors.

The NGA considers all governors members in their organization by virtue of their election, even if they’ve decided against paying dues. Governors are charged membership in the organization based on the population size of their states, with the largest states paying more than $175,000 before travel costs are added. The money is usually paid out of a governor’s budget, funds they could use to hire additional staff or use for other initiatives.

The annual Washington conference is the more business heavy of the two meetings a year. The summer gathering, which rotates around the country, includes leisure activities. In 2013 in Milwaukee, governors were offered the chance to ride to the Harley Davidson museum on motorcycles as part of a motorcade with veterans, and were treated to a fireworks display over Lake Michigan after a fancy dinner reception. The 2014 meeting in Nashville featured a performance by country music star Carrie Underwood and a private reception at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

One former senior DGA official called the group “the spleen of political organizations.”

“They’re infuriated when a Governor pops their mouth off about something ‘political,’ but then turn around and do politically insane things like sell access to Governors to Chinese government officials,” the operative said, referencing the 2011 meeting which brought together Chinese governors at an event at the Chinese embassy in Washington. The 2015 meeting included a reception at the Canadian embassy.

According to the event program, 122 companies were represented as corporate fellows at this meeting, including Bank of America, IBM, McKinsey & Company, and UPS.

The ostensible reason for the meetings—convening governors to share ideas and best practices—is often fleeting. In the corner of the main meeting room, a large case contains name cards for the 55 governors from the states and U.S. territories. But most never leave the box. Few governors attend the public sessions, where issues like healthcare, education, and cyber-security are discussed, instead taking meetings with reporters, donors, or the orange-lanyards interest group representatives. Some registered attendees, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, didn’t attend a single open committee session this weekend.

“There’s no venue quite like this,” boasted one corporate government affairs executive. “I have meetings with governors stacked up all day.”

Quam said he’s not surprised by the corporate interest in NGA, saying it’s a sign that the states are actually getting things done. “They complain that we don’t give them enough access all the time,” he said of the fellows. The NGA maintains that committee session attendance has been “excellent,” noting that only 8-10 governors serve on each committee.

Alongside the conferences are gatherings of the RGA and DGA, much of whose unlimited fundraising comes from the same corporate fellows who fill the coffers of the NGA. On Saturday night, the DGA threw its annual Taste of the America gala at the Mayflower hotel for its donors. The RGA’s Executive Roundtable huddled Friday with the governors, with an address by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

But the NGA organizers try hard to keep try to keep the partisanship out of the main conference center, sometimes to no avail. Closed-door luncheons of governors in recent years have frequented partisan spats over the Affordable Care Act or immigration policy.

Last year’s press conference following a private meeting with President Barack Obama devolved into a partisan smack-down between Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy. The capstone of the weekend, the annual governor’s dinner at the White House, isn’t even an official NGA event. Hosted by the President and First Lady, all governors are invited to the black tie dinner, as well as to the business meeting with the president set for Monday morning.

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