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This Week in God, 10.3.15

10/03/15 07:36AM

First up from the God Machine this week a look at the taxpayer-funded Congressional Prayer Caucus that may seem hard to explain in country that honors the separation of church and state.
There are, to be sure, all kinds of congressional caucuses. Wikipedia has a list of them, and it totals 246. Some of the names are probably familiar to many Americans -- the Congressional Black Caucus, the Blue Dog Coalition, the Tea Party Caucus, etc. -- but many more are obscure. Ordinarily, most of these semi-formal groups of lawmakers keep a fairly low profile.
But this week, USA Today's Paul Singer highlighted the congressional caucus that exists to "defend the role of (mostly) Christian faith and prayer in the U.S. government."
The caucus was created by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., in 2005, and now includes about 90 members of the House, nearly all Republicans, one U.S. senator and one paid staff member. [...] Like other congressional caucuses, several members kick in shares from their taxpayer-funded office accounts to cover the approximately $50,000 annual salary of the staff member, Amy Vitale, who tracks legislation, drafts letters and generally supports the work of the caucus.
The Prayer Caucus also has an outside non-profit organization that supports its efforts, as are many other caucuses. The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation operates out of a Chesapeake, Va., building Forbes owns that also houses his campaign office. His wife, Shirley Forbes, is one of three unpaid directors of the foundation. The foundation has one paid staff member, executive director Lea Carawan, but operates entirely on private funds.
As odd as this may seem, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, subsidized with public funds, occasionally plays a role akin to an activist group, working to "extend the reach of faith and prayer in public life." In practice, that may mean, as Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) explained, promoting legislation to reflect "American, Christian values," or its efforts may also include national outreach to local officials to "protect" their interpretation of "religious liberty."
The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, meanwhile, has a mission statement that says it intends to create a "movement" to "reverse" a trend that includes "negating the influence that the Christian faith had on establishing the principles upon which our liberties are secured."
As for whether the blurred lines between religion and government are legally problematic, to my knowledge, the constitutionality of the Congressional Prayer Caucus hasn't been tested. It's not clear who would even have standing to bring such a challenge, though it'd likely make for an interesting case.
Also from the God Machine this week:
McCarthy hurt by blurt, draws challenger

McCarthy hurt by blurt, draws challenge from Chaffetz

10/02/15 08:59PM

Rachel Maddow looks more closely as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's peculiar speaking, and notes a new report confirmed by NBC News that Congressman Jason Chaffetz will challenge McCarthy for the House speakership as McCarthy has suffered a political setback after accidentally revealing the Republican strategy behind the Benghazi... watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 10.2.15

10/02/15 05:31PM

Today's edition of quick hits.

* Syria: "President Barack Obama is rejecting Russia's military campaign in Syria, saying it fails to distinguish between terrorist groups and moderate rebel forces with a legitimate interest in a negotiated end to the civil war."
* This seemed new: "President Obama vowed Friday that he would not sign another short-term funding measure, pushing lawmakers to craft a long-term budget agreement."
* Obama's focus hasn't changed: "For the second day in a row, President Obama spoke forcefully about the scourge of gun violence in America."
* VW: "A bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from at least 30 states and the District of Columbia are organizing a fast-moving investigation into the possibilities of consumer fraud and environmental violations by the German automaker Volkswagen."
* A sigh of relief on the East Coast? "A powerful and slow-moving hurricane that battered the Bahamas on Friday, causing severe flooding and widespread wind damage, is now forecast to stay out at sea as it moves north, largely sparing the East Coast a direct hit."
* Afghanistan: "Thirteen people, including six American service members, were killed early Friday when a U.S. C-130 transport plane crashed while taking off from an airport in Afghanistan, a U.S. military official said.... A cause for the crash has not been determined. The military official said there were no reports of hostile activity in the area at the time of the crash."
* Not good: "The director of the Secret Service knew that unflattering, private information about a congressman was circulating among agency staff members before it was leaked to the news media, contrary to an earlier statement made to federal investigators, according to two government officials briefed on the investigation."
Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush gestures while speaking during a town hall event at a VFW hall in Norfolk, Va. on Aug. 28, 2015. (Photo by Jay Westcott/Reuters)

Jeb Bush after Oregon massacre: 'Stuff happens'

10/02/15 04:46PM

Yesterday afternoon, as much of the nation was still learning about the tragic mass-shooting in Oregon, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said on Twitter, "Praying for Umpqua Community College, the victims, and families impacted by this senseless tragedy."
It was simple and unobjectionable. Today, however, the former governor adopted a slightly different tone.
At a South Carolina event, a questioner suggested there might be less violence, such as the murders in Oregon, if only we started merging religion and public schools. Bush responded:
"We're in a difficult time in our country and I don't think more government is necessarily the answer to this. I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else.
"It's very sad to see, but I resist the notion, and I did, I had this challenge as governor, 'cause, we had, look, stuff happens. There's always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something, and it's not necessarily the right thing to do."
I suspect different audiences will have competing reactions to comments like these. For some, it was a callous way to describe senseless violence that causes mass casualties. For others, it was more of a convenient excuse to ignore efforts to combat gun violence. Perhaps it was a little of both. [Update: See below.]
After the event, Bush spoke with reporters, one of whom asked whether his comments were a mistake. "No," he responded, "that wasn't a mistake. I said exactly what I said. Explain to me what I said wrong."
When the reporter noted his use of the phrase "stuff happens" in describing a massacre, Bush, obviously annoyed, quickly added, "Things happen. 'Things.' Is that better?"
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, Sept. 25, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Rubio needs a new excuse to ignore the climate crisis

10/02/15 03:41PM

As recently as two years ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made his favorite case for doing absolutely nothing about the climate crisis. First, the far-right senator argued “government can’t change the weather,” suggesting the Floridian's understanding of the issue lacked maturity.
But Rubio then added, "There are other countries that are polluting in the atmosphere much greater than we are at this point. China and India, they're not going to stop doing what they're doing."
This year, the Republican repeated the talking point at a Koch brothers event: "[A]s far as I can see, China and India and other developing countries are going to continue to burn anything they can get their hands on.”
This rationale for simply allowing the crisis to continue with no American leadership at all was always bankrupt, but last week, it started collapsing in new ways. China, for example, announced its first-ever commitment to a cap-and-trade policy -- a step Rubio and others on the far-right insisted China would never take.
And now India is taking steps of its own.
Under growing pressure to join in an international accord to battle climate change, India on Thursday announced its long-term plan to reduce its rate of planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution and to aggressively ramp up its production of solar power, hydropower and wind energy.
So, when Rubio said China and India are "not going to stop doing what they're doing," he had it largely backwards.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the House chamber following a vote on Sept. 30, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

McCarthy commits to a 'fight to the end'

10/02/15 12:56PM

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), likely the next Speaker of the House, caused an unexpected stir this week when he appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox News show. When the Republican leader effectively confessed that his party's Benghazi committee is a taxpayer-funded election stunt, it touched off a significant, lasting controversy.
But that wasn't the only exchange of interest during the interview. At one point, the conservative host rattled off his top four priorities: "defunding Planned Parenthood, defunding executive amnesty and immigration, defunding Obamacare, and this Iranian deal is an unmitigated disaster that will lead to a modern-day holocaust." On these issues, Hannity asked, "if Kevin McCarthy is the Speaker of the House, will you tell conservative America tonight that you will fight to the end" on these priorities? Will the GOP leader "encourage every member to defund on all of those issues and use that power of the purse? Are you willing to go that far tonight?"
McCarthy replied, "The answer is yes."
The New Republic's Brian Beutler explained very well why this matters.
Hannity surely misunderstands a lot of things, but he isn’t confused about the tools available to Republicans in Congress. Planned Parenthood’s federal reimbursements, like the money that finances Affordable Care Act subsidies, can’t be turned off without new legislation that the president agrees to sign. President Barack Obama’s temporarily stymied deportation relief policies are similarly self-financed under current law. The nuclear agreement with Iran isn’t a new expenditure or a policy that entails novel administrative costs.
When Hannity says he wants these initiatives “defunded” through the “power of the purse,” he’s asking McCarthy to attach amendments to annual government spending bills or the debt limit and to give Obama and the Senate a choice between enacting them or turning government operations and the economy into collateral damage.
Quite right. It gets to the heart of why House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) earned the ire of the Republicans' far-right base -- and his own right-wing members -- ultimately leading to his historic resignation.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.2.15

10/02/15 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* In the new USA Today/Suffolk poll, Hillary Clinton still has a double-digit lead in the race for the Democratic nomination. The survey shows her with 41% support, followed by Bernie Sanders' 23% and Vice President Biden's 20%.
* Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said in September that he's open to the United States taking in Syrian migrants. This week, he changed his mind: “I’m putting people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, they’re going back!”
* Speaking of Trump, he told CNBC’s John Harwood this week that if his poll numbers collapse, he's likely to simply walk away. "Right now, I’m leading every poll, in most cases big," Trump said. "If that changed, if I was like some of these people at 1 percent or 2 percent, there’s no reason to move forward.”
* A group attacking Sen. David Vitter's (R-La.) gubernatorial campaign from the right has created a new TV ad featuring a baby wearing a diaper. It's led to questions as to whether the Gumbo PAC is referencing the far-right senator's prostitution scandal.
* Speaking of Louisiana, Clinton appears to have very strong support in the latest statewide poll of Democrats. She leads with 57%, followed by Biden's 22% and Sanders' 7%.
* The same poll shows Ben Carson leading among Louisiana Republicans with 23%, followed by Trump's 19%. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), in his own state, is running eighth with just 3%.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, walks to the House Floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Sept. 28, 2013. (Photo by Molly Riley/AP)

Washington eyes a new self-imposed crisis

10/02/15 11:20AM

Before 2011, Congress tended to transition from one legislative priority to the next. Some bills would pass, some would fail. Some would get a president's signature, some would be vetoed. Gridlock would occasionally muck things up, but there was a general sense that Capitol Hill was at least trying to address national challenges.
We've since entered a different phase of political history. Under the status quo, Congress doesn't transition from one priority to the next; it transitions from one self-imposed crisis to the next.
This week, for example, lawmakers narrowly averted a government shutdown, while at the same time, setting the stage for another shutdown fight in December. In between, it turns out, members will have to pass a debt-ceiling increase. Roll Call reported late yesterday:
The Treasury Department said Thursday it would reach the debt limit a bit earlier than was expected by many on Capitol Hill.
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew told Congress in a new letter that thanks in part to lower-than-expected quarterly tax receipts, the extraordinary measures to forestall breaching the debt limit, combined with the new revenues, will run their course just a week after the resignation of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, takes effect. That makes it all the more likely the debt limit will need to be addressed before his departure.
Boehner's last day is reportedly set for Oct. 30.
Almost immediately, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a press statement, calling on lawmakers to be responsible. “Failure to protect the full faith and credit of the United States would have a devastating impact on hard-working families across the country -- including tumbling retirement savings and rising interest rates for student loans, mortgages, credit cards and car payments.
"The Republican Congress must take the prospect of a catastrophic default off of the table.  The credit rating of the United States is not a hostage to serve Republicans’ toxic special interest ideology.  Yet time and again, the crisis-addicted Republican majority has threatened to shatter the foundation of our economy to advance their destructive partisan agenda.”
Well sure, when you put it that way, it sounds bad.