FBI agents across the country have been among the most vocal opponents of the spending cuts triggered by sequestration, warning about everything from having to abandon surveillance work to a lack of gas money.
But the FBI Agents Association, hoping to avert further cutbacks next year, is throwing its clout behind the bipartisan spending plan unveiled on Tuesday by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
The sequestration fallout for the bureau has been significant — no new hires, empty parking lots at the training center in Quantico, Va., and damaged relationships with local and international police.
"The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 would help alleviate some of these budgetary pressures by lifting the threat of over $700 million in additional sequestration cuts and providing appropriators with additional funds that can be used to support the vital work of FBI Special Agents," FBI Agents Association President Reynaldo Tariche writes in a letter obtained by NPR.
Tariche thanks lawmakers for their work, but expresses concern about increased pension payments for federal employees hired after Dec. 31. Agents have been working under a pay freeze that dates to 2010 and Tariche says, "we are concerned that further cuts will undermine recruitment and retention efforts." But overall, the agents association says, the deal has their support.
At the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigations in Washington, contingency planning is already underway for as many as two weeks of unpaid furlough for employees in 2014.
A source at headquarters said no one is "anywhere near celebrating" but, if the budget compromise wins approval, it looks to "get us back to a reasonable place" that could avert furloughs.
The agency has long been among the most adept at controlling purse strings on Capitol Hill, in part because of support from senior Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). And the budget woes have been a top priority for new FBI Director Jim Comey, who's mentioned them in visits to offices around the country and in sessions with reporters.
Unless Congress acts very quickly, some 1.3 million workers will lose their extended jobless benefits on Dec. 28.
Democrats were scrambling late Wednesday to include an extension of benefits in a budget deal that is expected to get a vote as soon as Thursday. But if effort fails, they will come back at it in 2014.
"We're going to push here after the first of the year for an extension of emergency unemployment insurance when the Senate convenes after the new year," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on Wednesday.
And House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did not slam the door shut on the possibility of renewing the jobless benefits eventually. When asked whether he would consider allowing an extension of the funding, he said he told President Obama he would keep such a plan on the table.
"I said we would clearly consider it, as long as it was paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy going once again. I have not seen a plan from the White House that meets those standards," he said.
The White House, along with Democratic leaders, had hoped to extend the benefits before they expired this year. But those plans seemed to diminish on Tuesday, when Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled their bipartisan budget deal that did not include any last-minute reprieves for the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.
Because the House plans to leave on Friday, the vote on the budget package is expected very soon.
Reid said the deal should have included an extension of jobless benefits, but "neither side got everything it wanted in these negotiations."
The White House had wanted the benefits included in the budget, saying that besides the 1.3 million people who will lose their benefits on Dec. 28, another 3.6 million people will fall out of the unemployment insurance program in the first half of the year without an extension.
Democrats, along with a few Republicans, want to have a chance to renew the jobless benefits. "For goodness sakes, let the people's House have a vote on these issues," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Wednesday on MSNBC. "Let us have a vote right now on extending unemployment compensation."
A group of moderate House Republicans sent a letter to their leaders saying: "We respectfully request that the House consider a temporary extension of emergency unemployment insurance to protect an essential safeguard that has aided Americans who have endured through a weak economy." It was signed by Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., and six other Republicans.
The benefits extension program was a key element of the government's response to the recession, which sent the unemployment rate up to 10 percent in 2009. Congress poured in money to keep benefits available for up to 99 weeks — far longer than the typical 26 weeks provided by states. Most economists said those checks would help prop up the economy by providing unemployed people with about $300 a week to keep up with the cost of food, shelter and gas.
But in the last couple of years, the unemployment rate has been coming back down and federal extended benefits have been reduced to a maximum of 47 weeks.
The jobless rate is 7 percent now, and many conservatives say the extra spending is actually discouraging many people from trying harder to get back into the workforce. They say the economy will strengthen when government cuts spending and workers make the necessary adjustments to find new jobs, such as moving or accepting lower wages.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that continuing benefits for another full year would cost taxpayers about $26 billion — but it also would boost economic growth by about 200,000 jobs.
Concussions have deservedly gotten most of the attention in efforts to reduce the risk of head injuries in sports.
But scientists increasingly think that hits too small to cause concussions also affect the brain, and that those effects add up. And it looks like some athletes may be more vulnerable than others.
"Maybe we should be asking a different question," says Dr. Thomas McAllister, chair of the department of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine. "Not 'Is hitting your head bad?', but for whom it's bad."
To figure that out, McAllister and colleagues put sensors in the helmets of varsity football and hockey players at Dartmouth University, to measure when and how hard they got hit over the course of a season.
They also had the athletes take cognitive tests at the beginning and end of the season, along with athletes in non-contact sports like Nordic skiing and track and field.
They didn't find the dramatic differences in brain performance at the end of the season that they were expecting in the contact-sport players.
But when they looked at the athletes who didn't do well on the cognitive tests at the end of the season, more of them were playing contact sports. All told, 20 percent of the 80 football and ice hockey players scored 1.5 standard deviations lower than would be expected, compared to 11 percent of the 79 athletes in non-contact sports.
That group of contact-sport athletes also had more changes in their brain's white matter in MRI scans.The more often they got hit and the more intense the hits, the more the white matter changed.
The study was published online Wednesday in the journal Neurology.
White matter is the brain's communications network, and changes in white matter are a hallmark of brain injury. But the changes seen here were subtle, and the study can't prove that those changes came as a result of hits.
This may even end up being good news for contact sports players, McAllister speculates, because at the beginning of the season their brains were looking pretty good. And that's in people who had been playing these sports for years.
"It's sort of reassuring," he told Shots. "But we don't know if these kinds of changes are long-lasting and progressive, or whether it's just a subset of people who might be vulnerable to these repetitive impacts."
If that turns out to be true, and if researchers could figure out a way to identify people whose brains are more vulnerable, then perhaps that could be factored in when children choose sports.
As the Planet Money t-shirts (all 25,000 of them) have fanned out across the country - going to people like Arjun and Heidi, who listen on long car rides; Nancy in Denver, whose mother sewed jeans to support their family in El Paso; and Corvell, a music maker and dreamer of dreams - so too has the multi-everything microsite. Word of the XXL-sized reporting project has cropped up in publications such as Fast Company, the Of A Kind newsletter, Glamour and Gizmodo.
Writing about the women who made our shirts, Doris in Columbia and Jasmine in Bangladesh, Jezebel remarked, "For us watching them at home, surrounded by the fabrics we purchased in a store, putting faces to the materials we use every day is an exercise in extreme humility."
Glamour noted the "fantastic step-by-step video series... Have you ever stopped to think about your $20 T-shirt's journey before it landed, neatly folded in your third dresser drawer?"
And last night, Stephen Colbert hosted Alex Blumberg, co-creator of Planet Money and lead reporter on the T-shirt project. Colbert declared his dislike for the reporting right up front.
"Not a fan of this project," Colbert told Blumberg. "The global marketplace is someplace where we export work to have happen in whatever conditions we want, and then the products come back to me cheap enough to throw about without thinking about it. ...Why do you want to make the hand of the market visible?"
Watch Blumberg set Colbert straight about reporting on this tee (which you can still get your hands on, until the end of the month):
There's a brand-new holiday display at Florida's state Capitol in Tallahassee: a pole celebrating the fake holiday Festivus from the TV show Seinfeld.
It's the latest protest exhibit after a nativity scene was set up in the rotunda last week.
"This whole thing is just a serious feat of ... ridiculousness," says Chaz Stevens, who marched into the Capitol building on Wednesday morning clutching a case of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans and a 6-foot pole made of PVC pipe. It's a nod to the unadorned aluminum pole that is part of the nonsecular Festivus holiday invented by George Costanza's dad on Seinfeld.
The celebration also includes an "airing of grievances" during the family meal, in which each person describes disappointments experienced over the course of the year.
Stevens says when he heard about the Capitol nativity scene, it was just too much. So he applied to the state to install his own display: a pole covered in beer cans.
"This is about separation of church and state," Stevens says. "The government shouldn't be in this business of allowing the mixture of church and state."
The displays are allowed inside Florida's Capitol building because the state has designated the rotunda as "a public forum." Howard Simon of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says the state had no choice.
"They're not going to be allowed to discriminate. It's going to be a public forum for all forms of speech and expression and displays," Simon says.
In fact, Florida has a pending application from a group called the Satanic Temple. Simon says it's unconstitutional for government to put up nativity scenes because that's sponsorship of religion. So these public forums tend to become free-speech "battle zones."
Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation says that's what happened in a Loudon County, Va., courthouse two years ago.
"I think it was something like nine or 10 atheist displays went up. One of them was a crucified Santa. One of them was the Flying Spaghetti Monster," Seidel says.
Seidel says it all started when elected leaders there allowed a nativity scene on public property. He says cities tend to close forums after such displays appear. "When a religious group seeks to co-opt the power and the prestige of the government for their religious message, the best way to dilute that co-opting of the power and prestige is to put up our own message."
His foundation's banner at the Florida Capitol says "Happy Winter Solstice." Below that is a drawing of the Founding Fathers and Statue of Liberty worshiping a just-born Bill of Rights. He says the banner was a response to the nativity unveiled with a worship service two days earlier by Florida Prayer Network Director Pam Olsen.
"We are taking a stand for Christ in Christmas, a stand for truth and religious freedom, and what better place to do this than the heart of our state government?" Olsen said.
Olsen says the Chicago-based group that sponsored her celebration aims to put a nativity at every state Capitol. Stevens says he and his pole are up for the challenge.
"I'll see all 50 Capitols then," Stevens says. "Why not? Sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon."
No word yet on whether Florida accepted the Satanic Temple application.