Stories I’d like to see

Military movers, insuring a pitcher’s arm, and lobbyists against federal travel caps

1. The $5 billion moving bill:

Reports last week that the US had agreed with Japan to transfer 9,000 of its 19,000 troops out of Okinawa stated matter of factly that the move will cost $8.6 billion - that’s billion, or $955,000 per service member. Even with Japan paying $3.1 billion of the bill, that leaves the US with $5.5 billion of the tab.

Someone please explain to us taxpayers how moving even that many troops can cost us $5.5 billion, which is more than the entire appropriation for President Obama’s much-celebrated four-year Race to the Top education reform program? (It’s also close to the cost being argued over this week for cutting all student loan interest rates in half.) And what are the profit margins of the defense contractors that are going to get the work involved?

2. Can you insure against a bad arm?

When the New York Yankees traded in the off-season for Michael Pineda, Seattle’s rookie fireballing pitcher, it seemed like a good deal even though they had to give up their most promising minor league hitting prospect, Jesus Montero. Now, one month into the season, the deal has become a disaster: Pineda, who showed up for spring training mysteriously bereft of his fastball, has had to undergo shoulder surgery and will be out for the season if not forever.

But is this the Yankees’ loss, or is some insurance company holding the bag? A quick Internet search yields this 2008 article from Sports Business Daily, generally summarizing the availability of insurance for teams wanting to hedge these kinds of bets on their superstars. However, the story refers to insurance that would cover losses from an injury that sidelines a player who had a long-term, multimillion-dollar contract - in this case Albert Belle of the Baltimore Orioles. Here the Yankees’ loss isn’t big dollars paid to Pineda while he sits on the sidelines but the loss of swapping the prized Montero for someone who turns out to be lame.

How about a story examining how or if teams can insure against these kinds of disasters? Does the market differ across the various sports? And how do insurers set their rates? Do they examine the players? In the case of a pitcher, do they have experts look at how he throws to see if his delivery might carry extra risks of elbow or shoulder injury?

And, as with the Orioles’ Belle, is the player always protected in these contracts? Or can an injury - especially one sustained off the field, such as Yankee Joba Chamberlain’s possibly season-ending trampoline accident while playing with his son - free the team of its obligation to pay the sidelined player?

3. Who could be against…curbing government travel?

One way to come up with great stories is to ask yourself: “Who could be against that?” The answer not only ferrets out the other side of an argument, when another side might not be apparent, but it also casts fresh, tangible light on how our democracy has become dominated by special interests of all kinds that will rise up to stop initiatives that seem in the public interest.

A great example playing out this week has to do with congressional efforts in the wake of the GSA travel scandal to limit the tens of millions the government wastes on conferences. Members of the Senate and House have each tacked on amendments to pending bills that would, among other things, limit what the government spends next year on conferences to 80 percent of what it spent in fiscal 2012; cap spending on any one conference at $500,000; and require all agencies to report all conference expenses, such as food and hotel bills, on the Internet.

With the government going broke and the GSA abuses suggesting, to put it mildly, that there’s room for economizing, who could be against that?

How about US Travel—the DC-based travel-industry trade association that bills itself as promoting “industry-wide initiatives to grow and sustain travel and ensure the freedom to travel. Through our efforts, travel is better understood by opinion leaders, policymakers and media as essential to the economy, security, image and well-being of the US and travelers.”

Last Friday, US Travel CEO and President Roger Dow sent an email to his members sounding the alarm: “Needless to say,” Dow declared, after describing the looming threats, “these developments could have a significant impact on the federal government’s ability to host and participate in conferences. In addition, these amendments could impact private sector conferences that include government speakers or attendees, and discourage necessary dialogues between the public and private sectors.”

“We are working with all relevant Congressional offices in hopes the amendments can be revised as these bills move through the legislative process,” the email alert continued. “While supporters of the legislation argue the amendments on government conferences could save millions of dollars, this broad-brush approach to government meetings and conferences casts unjustified skepticism toward the value of all government travel. At the same time, the millions of travel employees who support meetings and events would undoubtedly be affected by the possible cutbacks.”

So who’s doing this lobbying, and what are their best arguments about what Dow’s email calls “the value of meetings, conferences and government travel”? Who are the go-to members of the Senate and House who are most sympathetic to the industry? (Dow’s email hints at one: Nevada Democratic Representative and Senate candidate Shelley Berkley, who, he reports, has introduced a bill to “ensure that Las Vegas is not blacklisted for future meetings and conferences,” whatever that means.)

And while we’re on the subject, the same email reported that US Travel was partnering in its lobbying efforts with one group called the Society of Government Travel Professionals and another called the Society of Government Meeting Planners. What are their conferences like? And just finding out how many members they have (and which vendors, if any, buy sponsorships of their meetings) might also be a fun story.

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative. Tags: , , ,