political notebook

Top Senate Democrat proposes Social Security panel

WASHINGTON — The Senate’s number two Democrat said Wednesday that he is preparing a plan to create a commission to study Social Security’s fiscal problems and send a proposed solution to Congress for guaranteed votes in both the House and Senate.

Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said he has bipartisan backing for the idea, which is patterned after President Obama’s 2010 deficit commission.

Social Security currently is spending more than it collects in payroll taxes and relies on savings from previous surpluses to pay benefits. Those savings are estimated to run out in 20 years.


Durbin wants the commission to make recommendations to make Social Security solvent for 75 years. The panel would be expected to consider increases in the payroll tax, a higher retirement age, and a lower annual cost-of-living adjustment for beneficiaries.

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‘‘You would basically say to a commission, within a very limited time frame, to come up with a proposal for 75-year solvency of Social Security and then — and this is important — it would be referred to both chambers on an expedited procedure,’’ Durbin told reporters at a Washington breakfast sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.

‘‘I’d like to get it done. I’ve proposed that to a number of people and they’ve been receptive to it on both sides of the aisle. I think we can move forward with it,’’ Durbin added.

The commission would resemble the 2010 deficit panel chaired by former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and retired senator Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican. That panel failed to produce the supermajority vote required to officially present a plan to Congress but has attracted praise from deficit hawks for its sweeping recommendations.

Durbin’s proposed 18-member commission would contain an equal number of Republicans and Democrats but require 14 votes to send a plan to Congress.

Associated Press

— Associated Press

Update to privacy laws urged as use of drones increases


WASHINGTON — Privacy laws urgently need to be updated to protect the public from information-gathering by the thousands of civilian drones expected to be flying in US skies in the next decade or so, legal specialists told a Senate panel Wednesday.

A budding commercial drone industry is poised to put mostly small, unmanned aircraft to countless uses, from monitoring crops to acting as lookouts for police SWAT teams, but federal and state privacy laws have been outpaced by advances in drone technology, specialists said at a Senate hearing.

Current privacy protections from aerial surveillance are based on court decisions from the 1980s, the Judiciary Committee was told, before the widespread drone use was anticipated.

In general, manned helicopters and planes already have the potential to do the same kinds of surveillance and intrusive information gathering as drones, but drones can be flown more cheaply, for longer periods of time, and at less risk to human life. That makes it likely that surveillance and information-gathering will become much more widespread, legal experts said.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently predicted about 7,500 civilian drones will be in use within five years after the agency grants them greater access to US skies. Congress has directed the FAA to provide drones with widespread access to domestic airspace by 2015, but the agency is behind in its development of safety regulations and isn’t expected to meet that deadline.


If Americans’ privacy concerns aren’t addressed first, the benefits of potentially ‘‘transformative’’ drone technology may not be realized, Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor, told the Judiciary Committee.

It’s in ‘‘everyone’s interest to update the law even if only to provide the industry with the kind of bright lines it needs to develop this technology,’’ said Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group.

But Calo and Stepanovich were divided on whether Congress should update federal privacy laws to set a national standard, or whether the responsibility should be left to state lawmakers to craft their own solutions.

Associated Press

— Associated Press

$10m offered for arrest
of 2 Americans in Somalia

WASHINGTON — The United States is offering $10 million for information leading to the arrest of two Americans in Somalia who are on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List.

The State Department said the rewards are $5 million each for Al Shabab members Omar Shafik Hammami and Jehad Mostafa. It said Hammami, 28, lived in Daphne, Ala., before moving to Somalia in 2006. He has served as a propagandist for the Qaeda-affiliated organization, attracting English-speaking youth with rap songs and video statements, and as a military commander.

The department said Mostafa lived in San Diego before he moved to Somalia in 2005. He commands foreign fighters for Al Shabab, which has fought for control over Somalia.

Associated Press

— Associated Press