TIME politics

Science Proves It: The Senate Really Is Junior High

Abandon hope all ye who enter—especially if you're heading for the Senate
Abandon hope all ye who enter—especially if you're heading for the Senate Dwight Nadig: Getty Images

You'd think our nation's leaders would have quit worrying about who gets to hang with the cool kids—but a new study shows you're wrong. That's a bad thing for the health of a nation

(Correction appended 4/11/14)

If you’re like most people, it’s been a while since you thought of the U.S. Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” a term popularized by, well, the U.S. Senate. Instead, you think of it more as a junior high cafeteria, where cliques form, snits play out and someone is always trying to give someone else a legislative wedgie. You don’t get a 9% approval rating by behaving like grownups.

Now there’s proof that the cafeteria image is more than just metaphor. According to a new study by the University of Toronto School of Management’s Jillian Chown and Christopher Liu, one of the least appreciated variables in determining whether any two senators will work and play well together is how close they sit to each other on the Senate floor—a jock table versus nerd table dynamic if ever there was one.

The investigators relied on a very big data set to do their work, surveying the seating chart and the ever-changing Senate make-up over the course of 10 Congresses—the 96th to the 106th, from 1979 to 2001. Some of the people who filled the seats then were institutions themselves: Edward Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Bob Dole. Some were one-term wonders: Carole Mosley Braun, Paula Hawkins, Mack Mattingly. There were, of course, only 100 senators at a time in any sample group, but over the course of those two decades, the number of s0-called dyads—the total number of possible one-on-one pairings between any particular pair of senators—was huge, a whopping 53,955.

As a measure of the senators’ collegiality, Chown and Liu looked to the number of bills they co-sponsored—essentially putting their names on another senator’s piece of legislation, either because they really did support it and planned to work for it, or because it’s just a free and easy way to take a ride on someone else’s work, often for legislation that will appeal to the voters at home. Either way, senators who can’t abide each other rarely get close enough to co-sponsor anything.

The researchers calculated that in a Senate chamber that measures 52 ft. by 85 ft. (16 m by 26 m), any one senator sits an average of 30 ft. (10 m) from any random other, though they may be as close as shoulder to shoulder if they share adjacent desks or as far as the full 85 ft. apart if they sit on what the researchers call the “distal wings” of the chamber. Since seniority determines who chooses desk location first when positions are shuffled every two years, it’s the newbies who typically find themselves sitting off at the sides and the ones with more longevity who gravitate toward their BFFs.

On the whole, any two senators who sat farther apart than the 30-ft. mean co-sponsored 7% fewer bills than the average senator, while those who sat closer than 30 ft. co-sponsored 7% more. Such a single-digit difference doesn’t seem like much, but during a 20-year sample period in which the share of bills the Senate actually passed ranged from a low of 4% to a high of just 17%, every edge a piece of legislation could garner meant a lot. That’s truer now than ever as Congress after Congress continue to set serial records for least productive ever.

A place of privilege, power and titanic egos like the Senate is hardly typical of all workplaces, but the get-close-to-do-good-work rule applies everywhere. One of the reasons telecommuting has been less successful than advertised is that even if technology makes it easy to get work done anywhere in the world, it can’t replace serendipity—the random scrap of exchanged conversation or the unplanned meeting of two people in a hallway that leads to great things, and sometimes great friendships. Marissa Mayer took a lot of heat when she assumed the reins at Yahoo and promptly canceled its generous telecommuting policy—and her decision may yet yield nothing but employee ill-will—but it was based on solid research in human behavior.

None of this may save Congress from itself. Children who can’t get along sometimes simply need to be separated for the sanity of the grownups around them. But if, as President Barack Obama perhaps naïvely hoped before the 2012 election, the partisan fever ever does break in Washington, the simple act of rubbing elbows—sometimes literally—on the Senate floor may turn out to be one of the simplest and best good-government tools there is.

(An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of one of the study’s authors. He is Jillian Chown.)

TIME technology

Bitcoin ATM Comes to Capitol Hill

Representatives Of A Bitcoin Kiosk Company Demonstrate The Currency Product On Capitol Hill
Robocoin CEO and co-founder Jordan Kelley uses the Robocoin Bitcoin ATM, during a demonstration of the ATM in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, April 8, 2014 in Washington. Drew Angerer—Getty Images

A congressman purchased his first units of the cryptocurrency

For a few hours it was possible in the halls of the U.S. Congress to buy the crypto currency that at least one Senator said should be banned.

In a hallway in the Rayburn House of Representatives office building Tuesday night, a gaggle of media encircled Colorado Democrat Rep. Jared Polis as he inserted his hand into a palm-reading device, and then placed a $10 bill into a refrigerator-sized purple kiosk. Out of the machine came a piece of paper with the unique code for 0.02 bitcoin. It was the first bitcoin ever purchased on Capitol Hill, at least from a machine that printed receipts.

The kiosk was an ATM owned by the startup Robocoin, a Las Vegas-based firm that sells machines for exchanging dollars for bitcoins, the stateless, cryptography-based digital currency that has enthralled libertarians, bewildered financial regulators, drawn the ire of establishment politicians. Typically it takes days and a certain amount of tech savvy to exchange dollars for bitcoins. With Robocoin, the process is complete in about 10 minutes. “I think that may be the fastest way in the world to get bitcoin,” said Robocoin CEO Jordan Kelley.

Rep. Polis helped organize the demonstration to dispel what he feels are misconceptions among some in government about the nature and promise of bitcoin.

“Healthy skepticism and some intrigue as well,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) when asked what he thought of bitcoin after seeing the ATM at work. House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) also made a stop by the event.

But Johnson’s “healthy skepticism” is a far cry from the outright contempt some in Congress have visited upon bitcoin, which critics worry could be used to facilitate black market trading (as it did in the now-defunct website Silk Road), money laundering and other illegal activity. In February, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) wrote a letter to regulators calling on the U.S. government to ban bitcoin “and prohibit this dangerous currency from harming hard-working Americans.”

Those comments—which Manchin has since walked back—are what inspired Rep. Polis to help organize Tuesday’s Robocoin demo.

“When I saw that serious politicians were talking about banning something, a concept that has great benefits for humanity,” said Polis, a tech entrepreneur before starting his career in Congress, “I decided to step in and show that there are those of us here that have a countervailing viewpoint: that alternative currencies enhance freedom, enhance economic opportunity, particularly for the world’s most disadvantaged, and can reduce transaction costs across our entire economy.”

Underneath the demo gimmick, the event served to highlight what bitcoin boosters see as the currency’s unique advantages and to dispel some of the murkiness surrounding a currency most closely associated in the popular imagination with the illegal online drug trade. As Polis noted in his remarks, “the currency of choice is still dollars” for greasing the wheels of illegal activity of any kind around the world. The amount of illegal activity funded by bitcoin is still a fraction of a fraction of that facilitated with good old-fashioned cold hard cash.

Bitcoin boosters hope the currency could one day help bring banking services to the poor by dramatically lowering the cost of a financial transaction, like cashing a check, a service for which the bankless poor currently pay a premium at check cashing shops. Biometric security features, like the Robocoin ATM palm reader, could actually make the cryptocurrency less anonymous and reduce theft by tying bitcoins to the individuals who own them.

As bitcoin has come to prominence in recent months, the big question for government has been “if the regulators should just wait and see or if they would want to ban it,” said John Russell, Robocoin co-founder and CTO. “I would encourage them to wait and see and watch what the community is going to be able to do.”

TIME Environment

Banning GMO Labeling Is a Bad Idea—For GMOs

GMO labeling laws in California
A new bill in Congress would nullify state efforts to mandate labeling of GMO foods Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

A bill introduced in Congress would nullify any state effort to require labeling of genetically modified organisms. But that will make GMO acceptance even less likely, as public support for GMO labels is on the rise

Americans in two states have voted on ballot initiatives that would have required the labeling of any foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs, for short). And twice, voters rejected those initiative in close ballots—thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars spent by GMO crop developers like Monsanto and industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). You’d think then that GMO supporters in the food industry would be feeling pretty confident that they could win on genetically-modified food legislation.

Apparently you’d be wrong. Republican Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas introduced on Wednesday new legislation that would nullify any attempt by states to require GMO labeling. More than two dozen states so far are considering bills that would mandate some form of labeling, with Maine and Connecticut having so far passed labeling measures into law. According to Pompeo, that’s enough to mandate a federal response:

We’ve got a number of states that are attempting to put together a patchwork quilt of food labeling requirements with respect to genetic modification of foods. That makes it enormously difficult to operate a food system. Some of the campaigns in some of these states aren’t really to inform consumers but rather aimed at scaring them. What this bill attempts to do is set a standard.

The bill—the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”—would prohibit any mandatory labeling of foods made with bioengineering. The bill would also make it virtually impossible for states to block any efforts by food companies to put a “natural” label on any product that does contain GMO ingredients, requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create regulations that specify the maximum level of accidental GMO presence allowed in foods that come with a non-GMO label.

Translation: it’s almost as if the bill’s drafters were trying to hit on every fear that GMO-phobes have. It’s not surprising that the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—an environmental non-profit that has been deeply skeptical of GMOs—has called the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act.” As Marni Karlin, the director of legislative and legal affairs at the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement:

Consumers, particularly the eight out of ten American families who buy organic products, want to know what is in their food. Rep. Pompeo’s bill ignores this consumer demand for information. Instead, it ties the hands of state governments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration concerning GMO labeling. It is fatally flawed.

It’s worth noting that even though ballot initiatives to require GMO labeling have twice failed, polls indicate strong support for labeling nationally. A New York Times survey last July found that 93% of Americans believe that foods containing GMO ingredients should be labeled. But we’re still a long way from that happening. While both Connecticut and Maine have passed laws mandating labeling, the measures don’t actually kick in until other nearby states approve similar laws. It seems a little early to pass a federal law to nullify state laws that aren’t actually in power yet.

In reality, though, arguments about GMO labeling tend to be arguments about GMOs—their usefulness and their safety. Confusion is rampant over GMOs, and if you want smart, straight reporting on the subject, check out Nathanael Johnson’s great series at Grist, which is summarized here. Like Johnson, I think the hazards posed by GMOs are “negligible to non-existent.” While they have yet to really fulfill their promise, GMOs can be a useful tool as the world tries to figure out how to feed billions more people without significantly increasing farmland, something that would be far worse for the environment than any genetically modified crop.

But the fact that I think properly regulated GMOs can be an important part of global farming is also why I think this bill is a mistake. Would a patchwork of laws mandating GMO labeling in some states and not others be an enormous and costly headache? Yes. But the same surveys that show support for GMO labeling also show deep distrust of bioengineering in food. And a lot of that distrust stems from the sense that GMOs are somehow being foisted on consumers without their knowledge or their consent. As Johnson notes, that increases the sense of risk around GMOs:

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

By passing a law that would preemptively ban any attempt to require labeling, GMO defenders are playing into the hands of their opponents, making bioengineering feel far more risky than it really is. GMO advocates are losing this battle—see a company as mainstream as General Mills announce that a flagship product like Cheerios would now be made without genetically modified ingredients. If the food industry was smart, it would take a leading role in establishing a national standard for GMO labels. But given the bloody way this endless debate has played out, I wouldn’t expect a truce any time soon.

 

TIME Congress

Watch Sen. Lindsey Graham Use Comcast Hearing To Discuss Cable Options

At a Senate Judiciary hearing this Wednesday on the Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham seemed most interested in how combining the two largest U.S. cable companies would affect one particular resident of South Carolina. That is, himself.

“Somebody can sell me a product at this hearing, because I really don’t know,” said the South Carolina senator, before asking if any representatives from DirecTV were present at the hearing. “I’m thinking about changing because I’ve had the satellite signal knocked out twice, I’ve had to move the satellite twice. But before that, the cable went out right in the fourth quarter of a ball game.”

Graham said he had problems with his DirecTV when the weather is bad.

“In two seconds, tell me why I should switch back to cable,” Graham said to conclude his line of questioning.

 

TIME media and technology

Comcast Urges Congress to Back Time Warner Cable Merger

Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Examining the Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger and the Impact on Consumers
From left: David Cohen, executive vice president of the Comcast Corporation, speaks with Arthur Minson Jr., executive vice president and CFO of the Time Warner Cable Inc., before the start of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 9, 2014. Michael Reynolds—EPA

The cable giant told lawmakers that a merger with Time Warner Cable would be good for customers and would not increase prices

Comcast on Wednesday sought to win over lawmakers reviewing its proposed $45-billion merger with Time Warner Cable, arguing to an audience without many vocal critics of the politically-connected cable giant that the corporate marriage would be good for consumers.

David Cohen, the company’s executive vice president, told a Senate panel that the merger would provide customers with faster broadband, greater network reliability and security, better in-home Wi-Fi, and greater Video On Demand choices. And he sought to reassure lawmakers worried that the merger—which would combine the top two cable providers and two of the top three broadband Internet providers—will not increase costs for consumers.

“I can make you and the members of this committee one absolute commitment, which is that there is nothing in this transaction that will cause anybody’s cable bills to go up,” Cohen said.

For an issue with such high stakes, the tone of the hearing was low key. Democratic senators were largely deferential to Cohen, a major Democratic donor and fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s campaigns who has also contributed to Republicans. Most Republicans seemed inclined to support the merger, which must be approved by the FCC and Justice Department, on free market grounds.

“Too often government intervention in such matters risks harming consumer welfare and innovation by protecting insufficient competitors from market forces,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said. “Regulators must be especially careful not to intervene unwisely in such technologically dynamic markets.”

Still, several lawmakers expressed concerns and reacted skeptically to claims that prices won’t rise, noting that 27 of the top 30 markets would be controlled by the new Comcast-Time Warner Cable behemoth. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was the most vocal opponent on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees antitrust issues and is reviewing the merger. Franken noted that Comcast argued for its 2010 acquisition of NBC Universal by pointing to Time Warner Cable as a fierce competitor.

“Comcast can’t have it both ways,” Franken said. “It can’t say that the existence of competition among distributors, including Time Warner Cable, was a reason to approve the NBC deal in 2010 and then turn around a few years a later and say the absence of competition with Time Warner Cable is a reason to approve this deal.”

The rate of cable-price increases was more than double the rate of inflation in the 15 years through 2012, according to Consumer Reports. Time Warner Cable was spun off from TIME parent company Time Warner in 2009.

The hearing got more lighthearted when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he’s a DirecTV subscriber and looking to switch.

“I’ve got problems with DirecTV when the weather’s bad,” said Graham of his dish service, “so I’m trying to revisit this.” A few minutes later, after a back-and-forth about how cable companies don’t compete with each other, Graham came back with a softball for Cohen: “So in my case, I wouldn’t be losing choice, the theory would be I could have a new choice with more services with the merger,” Graham said. “Is that correct?”

“I should let you take the witness stand,” Cohen replied. “Because that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say.”

TIME Congress

Senate Passes Unemployment Benefits Extension

President Obama has praised the bill that extends long-term unemployment benefits for five months, but its future in the House looks bleak

The Senate approved a bill extending long-term unemployment benefits for five months. Six Republicans joined Senate Democrats in extending unemployment insurance with a vote of 59-38. The measure is expected to be dead on arrival in the House.

The bill has faced trouble since the bipartisan deal was struck in mid-March, after Republican attempts to filibuster had failed. In a speech on the Senate floor on Monday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid blamed billionaire brothers and political contributors Charles and David Koch for Republicans’ unwillingness to extend unemployment insurance.

“Americans need a fair shot at getting back on their feet and finding work, but Koch-backed groups are actively opposing the extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat, before calling Republicans who “bear the logo of the Koch brothers” to announce their affiliation on the floor of the Senate.

President Barack Obama praised the Senate’s passage of the bill in a statement released on Monday and urged Washington to “put politics aside and help these hardworking, responsible Americans make ends meet and support their families as they look for a job.” He added, “Each week Congress fails to act on this crucial issue, roughly 70,000 long-term-unemployed Americans lose their vital economic lifeline. I urge House Republicans to stop blocking a bipartisan compromise that would stem this tide, take up the bill without delay and send it to my desk.”

But the future of the bill looks bleak given Speaker of the House John Boehner’s reticence to back it. He will only take up the bill if it will spur job growth. As Boehner spokesman Michael Steel noted, “As the Speaker said months ago, we are willing to look at extending emergency unemployment insurance as long as it includes provisions to help create more private-sector jobs — but, last week, Senate Democratic leaders ruled out adding any jobs measures at all.” He added, “The American people are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ and House Republicans are focused on our jobs agenda for families and small businesses.”

[Roll Call]

TIME Congress

Medical-Marijuana Advocates Descend on Capitol Hill

More than 100 marijuana-legalization advocates went to Washington to lobby lawmakers on a subject that has seen little action in Congress despite a rising tide of Americans supporting legalization for medical purposes

Medical-marijuana supporters flocked to Capitol Hill on Monday to push for legislation that would prohibit the federal government from restricting state medical-marijuana laws.

“We’re doing this work,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical-pot group that brought 152 people to Washington to lobby 300 members of Congress. “It’s not just a bunch of potheads [saying], Please let us do this.”

The House bill would offer legal clarity to the growing number of states that are legalizing medical marijuana even as it remains illegal under federal law. New York might become the 21st state to legalize medicinal marijuana this year, but the Drug Enforcement Agency considers marijuana a drug on the same level as heroin, and the Justice Department under the Obama Administration hasn’t always been consistent in its level of prosecutorial restraint and its willingness to defer to state laws.

The bill is a long shot, to say the least, but advocates aren’t letting that dent their enthusiasm. Sherer pointed to groups that have issued scientific standards for quality control in medical-marijuana products as a way of showing its increasingly mainstream status. Sherer uses cannabis daily; she says she can’t get out of bed without it because of a disorder called dystonia, which causes her muscles to contract involuntarily. She called herself one of a million legal medical-cannabis patients in America.

“Once you use this medication and it works for you, or you see it work for a loved one, it really is crazy that we can’t even get a hearing at this point,” Sherer said. “We’re actually regulating this product from seed to consumption.”

But the pro-cannabis message will likely fall on deaf ears. It’s a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled House — Dan Rush, who directs the medical-cannabis department at the United Food and Commercial Workers union, listed California Representative Dana Rohrabacher as the sole exception to what he called an “entire Republican side of the building” opposed to legalization. And Democrats who control the Senate are hardly ready to make it a priority in a midterm-election year. The American public increasingly favors legalization, and for the first time, a CBS poll in January showed a slight majority supporting it.

Medical-marijuana advocates may find more success working through the Executive Branch. On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama Administration is ready to work with Congress to take marijuana off the federal government’s list of the most dangerous drugs. Obama has said marijuana is “not very different” from cigarettes and less dangerous “on the individual consumer” than alcohol.

Marijuana advocates just want things to change.

“I don’t care who fixes it,” Sherer said. “But it seems like we keep getting ping-ponged around.”

TIME

Louisiana Congressman Admits Kissing Staffer in Video

Republican Representative Vance McAllister, who touted his Christian values while campaigning, admits he is the man seen in a grainy video passionately kissing a woman in his office. "There's no doubt I've fallen short," he said

Updated: 5:13 p.m. E.T. on April 7, 2014

Freshman Republican Congressman Vance McAllister from Louisiana has admitted that video surveillance allegedly showing him kissing a staffer who is not his wife, is of him.

First reported by the Ouachita Citizen, a West Monroe, La., newspaper in the Congressman’s district, the grainy video from December — which the paper says it received from an anonymous source — shows a man turning off the lights in a hallway before briefly exiting the frame. When he comes back in frame, he is joined by a woman and the two kiss passionately before exiting the building. None of the footage, which the newspaper says was shot in McAllister’s Monroe district office, clearly shows the faces of the two individuals. The woman is identified by the newspaper as McAllister’s district scheduler.

On Monday, McAllister issued a statement to the News Star, a newspaper based in Monroe, La., admitting he is the man in the video. “There’s no doubt I’ve fallen short and I’m asking for forgiveness,” McAllister said in a statement. “I’m asking for forgiveness from God, my wife, my kids, my staff and my constituents who elected me to serve.” The newspaper also identified the staffer as Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock, 33. She reportedly no longer works for the Congressman.

“Trust is something I know has to be earned whether you’re a husband, a father or a Congressman,” McAllister’s statement reads, according to the News Star. “I promise to do everything I can to earn back the trust of everyone I’ve disappointed.”

McAllister won a Nov. 16 special election to replace Representative Rodney Alexander, who vacated his seat after he was named the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs in August. McAllister campaigned as a devout Christian, using his faith and his 16-year marriage to appeal to conservative voters. In January, he invited Willie Robertson, a member of the controversial reality-television show Duck Dynasty, to be his guest at the State of the Union address.

The Ouachita Citizen says on its website that it has a paid circulation of 5,200.

This post was updated to include McAllister’s admission that he is the man shown in the video.

TIME 2014 Election

@JoeBiden Gets Political Again

Vice President Joe Biden listens to remarks at a news conference on Feb. 6, 2014, at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.
Vice President Joe Biden listens to remarks at a news conference on Feb. 6, 2014, at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Matt Rourke—AP

Vice President Joe Biden’s Twitter account is getting new life. Dormant for more than a year, @JoeBiden will tweet again in an effort to assist Democratic midterm candidates who are looking vulnerable

Vice President Joe Biden‘s Twitter account is getting new life. Dormant for more than a year since the second Obama presidential campaign closed its doors last January, @JoeBiden will tweet again. On Monday, it will reawaken under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee, according to a spokesperson.

The latest sign of the White House stepping up its efforts to assist vulnerable Democrats this fall, the Biden account will be deployed to assist Democratic candidates. This makes the Veep’s account differ from @BarackObama, which is controlled by the ostensibly apolitical Organizing for Action, which advocates for issues supported by the president but does not directly engage in electioneering activities.

The Vice President himself is maintaining an official Twitter presence at @VP, where his tweets are signed “-VP.”

“@JoeBiden will be another way for the Vice President to engage our supporters, spread the Democratic message and support our candidates heading into the midterm elections,” a DNC spokesperson said. Biden is seen as an important surrogate for Democrats on the ground this fall, particularly in states where President Barack Obama’s presence would do the party more harm than good. Biden told TIME earlier this year he has committed to helping at least 150 candidates this year.

Biden’s account has nearly 550,000 followers, almost as many as the combined total of @GOP and @TheDemocrats, the official accounts for the two major political parties. Yet it pales in comparison to the 1.2 million followers of @HillaryClinton and more than 42 million followers of @BarackObama.

Should Biden decide to run another campaign, digital campaign veterans said he could be required to pay up to reclaim his account from the DNC.

TIME Congress

Video: Congressional Committee Hijinx

Since the dawn of the C-SPAN era, members of Congress have used the ever-present cameras to their advantage: for fundraising, for television ads, for testimonials on their websites.

But the flip side of that is those same cameras catch some scenes no elected member would like to have out in the public domain: flippant statements, mental flubs or, as Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, found out this week, wandering into the wrong hearing and asking off topic questions.

Let the record show: Congress can be incredibly whacky, as these videos prove.

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