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People register at the Arlington Free Clinic for the healthcare lottery on November 12, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia.

Watching the birth of a conspiracy theory in real time

04/17/14 11:23AM

We saw the likely conspiracy theory coming, but as Andrew Rosenthal noted, it's nevertheless interesting to "actually see one being born."
For years now some on the right have speculated that the Obama administration is trying to politicize the national census. Yesterday, Noah Rothman argued on Mediaite that the theory was proven correct by a New York Times article about changes in the way the Census Bureau plans to ask about health insurance coverage.
 
The idea is that the new questions will show a reduction in the number of uninsured people starting in 2014, which may make it seem as though the Affordable Care Act is working better than it really is. The change in questions will also produce a "break in trend" within the census surveys and thus make it impossible to statistically compare 2013 and 2014 with earlier years.
 
Therefore, the White House must have ordered this sinister change to promote President Obama's signature domestic initiative.
Or so the argument went. Conservative media types weren't alone, of course. As Igor Volsky noted, congressional Republican offices soon followed. In especially odd missive, House Speaker John Boehner's communications director, Rory Cooper, tweeted, "It never stops. Obama Administration now changing the CENSUS survey in order to hide failure of Obamacare."
 
It's unclear whether or not Cooper and his like-minded cohorts realize what they're saying is silly. Maybe they know how foolish this conspiracy theory is, but hope to keep irrational hatred of the Affordable Care Act going, whether it makes sense or not. Or perhaps they just don't know enough about the substance of this to understand the policy they're publicly condemning.
 
Either way, to borrow a phrase, it never stops.
 
But so long as Republicans and conservative media intend to remain invested in this, it's probably worth taking a closer look at reality.
Sodomy laws still enforced in East Baton Rouge

Louisiana's bold stand against sodomy

04/17/14 10:48AM

The culture war's focus has narrowed quite a bit in recent years. Whereas the political combat over hot-button social issues used to include issues like school prayer, access to pornography, and Ten Commandments displays, the contemporary culture war tends to focus on sexual health (access to abortion and contraception) and gay rights (most notably marriage equality).
 
But once in a while, anti-sodomy laws return to the fore.
 
It was, after all, just last summer that Virginia's Ken Cuccinelli (R), at the time the state Attorney General, fought in support of an anti-sodomy measure that had already been struck down in the courts. This week in Louisiana, meanwhile, state lawmakers protected an anti-sodomy law that's already been deemed unconstitutional.
The Louisiana House of Representatives rejected legislation, on Tuesday, that would remove the state's symbolic ban on certain kinds of sodomy. The bill failed by a wide margin on a vote of 27-67, with 11 members not voting.
 
Louisiana's anti-sodomy law was overturned and declared unconstitutional in 2003, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling such state statutes could not be enforced. Still, the Legislature has been unwilling to officially strike the measure from state law, even though it can't be used as a cause for arrest.
 
A House Committee passed the legislation onto the body's floor by a vote of 9-6 last week. But one of the state's most powerful lobbying groups, the conservative Christian Louisiana Family Forum, opposes striking the sodomy ban.
And in this case, the Louisiana Family Forum won.
 
Keep in mind, everyone involved realizes that Louisiana's anti-sodomy statute cannot legally be enforced. It's effectively legal window dressing -- it's just sitting there, serving no practical purpose. But rather than removing unenforceable clutter from their books, Louisiana's state House, with the overwhelming support of its Republican majority, agreed with the Louisiana Family Forum's assessment that the unconstitutional anti-sodomy statute is "consistent with the values of Louisiana residents who consider this behavior to be dangerous, unhealthy and immoral."
Solar power coming on strong

Oklahoma moves to discourage solar power

04/17/14 10:14AM

In the final installment of a multi-part report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained that the climate crisis is intensifying quickly, creating a critical situation. We're approach a point of no return, requiring significant action over the next 15 years.
 
What kind of action? There's no easy fix, but the IPCC was encouraged by new measures that can reduce emissions without drastic lifestyle changes, including sharp reductions in the costs of solar and wind power.
 
Just two days after the IPCC's findings were made public, Oklahoma moved to make renewable energy more expensive, on purpose.
Utility customers who want to install rooftop solar panels or small wind turbines could face extra charges on their bills after legislation passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on Monday.
 
Senate Bill 1456 passed 83-5 after no debate in the House. It passed the Senate last month and now heads to Gov. Mary Fallin for her approval.
 
The bill was supported by the state's major electric utilities, but drew opposition from solar advocates, environmentalists and others. It sets up a process at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to establish a separate customer class and monthly surcharge for distributed generation such as rooftop solar or small wind turbines.
Just so we're clear, the climate crisis is getting worse; we'll have to act quickly to prevent a catastrophe; the use of renewable energy is an important part of the solution; and Oklahoma is poised to discourage consumers from using energy technologies that reduce emissions.
 
Sigh.
 
Away from Oklahoma, however, the White House is moving today in a more progressive direction.
Activists From Across The Country Hold March For Immigration Reform

Cantor struggles with immigration blame game

04/17/14 09:32AM

Exactly one year ago yesterday, the Senate easily approved a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform package that would fix the nation's broken status quo, boost the economy, and lower the deficit. The legislation was quickly endorsed by private-sector leaders, labor unions, faith-based leaders, law enforcement, and immigrant advocates.
 
President Obama marked the one-year anniversary of the Senate's action by issuing a statement urging the Republican-led House to stop doing nothing. "Republicans in the House of Representatives have repeatedly failed to take action, seemingly preferring the status quo of a broken immigration system over meaningful reform," the president said, adding, "We have a chance to strengthen our country while upholding our traditions as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, and I urge House Republicans to listen to the will of the American people and bring immigration reform to the House floor for a vote."
 
Obama then followed up with a phone call to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who apparently wasn't pleased.
Cantor issued a blistering statement afterward, criticizing Obama for calling him just after delivering what he called "a partisan statement" that indicated "no desire to work together" on immigration, a top priority for Obama that House Republicans have largely ignored.
 
"After five years, President Obama still has not learned how to effectively work with Congress to get things done," Cantor said in the statement. "You do not attack the very people you hope to engage in a serious dialogue. I told the president the same thing I told him the last time we spoke. House Republicans do not support Senate Democrats' immigration bill and amnesty efforts, and it will not be considered in the House."
For their part, White House officials seemed puzzled by Cantor's outrage, saying the president and the Republican leader had a "pleasant call" in which Obama, among other things, extended Passover wishes to Cantor.
 
So what's with the Majority Leader's indignation? It appears Cantor hopes to kill immigration reform without actually getting blamed for killing immigration reform. Indeed, realizing the political risks associated with GOP lawmakers killing yet another popular, bipartisan bill, the Virginia Republican apparently hopes he can turn this around -- Cantor wants to blame the death of reform on the president trying to pass reform over Cantor's objections.
 
In other words, the Majority Leader has decided to play the blame game. Unfortunately for him and his party, he's not playing it especially well.

Jobless claims inch up, but remain near 7-year low

04/17/14 08:39AM

Initial unemployment claims improved unexpectedly last week to a level unseen in seven years, and though the new figures from the Labor Department aren't quite as good, they're close.
The number of people who applied for unemployment-insurance benefits ticked up by 2,000 to 304,000 in the week that ended April 12, a slight increase from the lowest level since 2007, signaling that employers are maintaining a slow pace of layoffs, according to government data released Thursday. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims to total a seasonally adjusted 315,000 in the latest weekly data. The average of new claims over the past month dropped by 4,750 to 312,000, hitting the lowest level since October 2007, just two months before the recession began.
To reiterate the point I make every Thursday morning, it's worth remembering that week-to-week results can vary widely, and it's best not to read too much significance into any one report.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez isn't being seriously vetted as a potential Mitt Romney running mate.

An unflattering portrait of Susana Martinez

04/17/14 08:00AM

Look up any list of "Republican rising stars" and you're likely to find first-term New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. And on paper, it's easy to see why: she's the nation's first Latina governor and an effective former prosecutor with a high approval rating in a relatively blue state.
 
But Mother Jones' Andy Kroll this week published a detailed, closer look at the New Mexico Republican and the portrait that emerges is deeply unflattering.
[P]reviously unreleased audio recordings, text messages, and emails obtained by Mother Jones reveal a side of Martinez the public has rarely, if ever, seen. In private, Martinez can be nasty, juvenile, and vindictive. She appears ignorant about basic policy issues and has surrounded herself with a clique of advisers who are prone to a foxhole mentality. [...]
 
[I]nterviews with former Martinez aides, state lawmakers, Democratic and Republican officials, fundraisers, and donors show a governor whose prosecutorial style and vindictiveness have estranged her from leaders in her own party and from the Democratic lawmakers she must work with to get anything done. Martinez and her staff, they say, have isolated themselves in her fourth-floor office inside the modest state capitol known as the Roundhouse. As one major Republican donor in New Mexico puts it, "They've got this Sherman's march to the sea mentality, burning everything in sight until they get to the finish."
It's a lengthy, tough-to-excerpt piece, but Kroll's piece raises some highly relevant concerns that will matter quite a bit if Martinez pursues national office. Her political operation, for example, appears petty and paranoid, alienating friend and foe alike. On public policy, Martinez comes across as disinterested in governing details -- soon after getting elected, she asked an interviewer to "remind me" what the DREAM Act was.
 
There are even questions about possible corruption: in 2011, the state "awarded a 25-year lease worth an estimated $1 billion to a company largely owned by a pair of major Martinez backers ... to operate a racetrack and casino at the state fairgrounds." Critics have accused the Martinez administration of rigging the bidding process and the FBI has interviewed witnesses about the deal.
 
Stepping back, there are a couple of broader issues to also keep in mind.

Putin on the blitz and other headlines

04/17/14 07:48AM

Ukraine forces kill 3 pro-Russian protesters.Putin admits Russian forces helped Crimean separatists. (NBC News) Colorado Senate Dems spike bill that would have protected reproductive rights. (Denver Post) New Hampshire may repeal the death penalty today. (AP) Obama and Cantor fight over immigration reform and a "Happy Passover" call. (NY Mag) CIA's former top lawyer fires back at Senate report, criticizes Feinstein. (McClatchy) read more

Cornell Woolridge takes part in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the court heard arguments on campaign finance, October 8, 2013.

About that Democratic 'outside money advantage'...

04/16/14 04:59PM

There's a big AP article that's made the rounds today with a headline that offers surprising news: "Democrats Have Outside Money Advantage - for Now." The piece goes on to report, "Democrats, at least for the moment, seem to have a roughly 3-to-1 advantage over Republicans in cash raised and banked through independent groups, according to the early filings."
 
Reading this, it's tempting to think Democrats and their allies, just 202 days before the midterms, must be in great shape. Despite all the fears of conservative billionaires helping buy the entire election cycle for congressional Republicans, here's evidence that it's Dems with the big financial advantage, at least as of now.
 
But if this doesn't quite sit right, there's a very good reason. Consider this excerpt from the AP piece (thanks to my colleague Tricia McKinney for the heads-up):
Groups that disclose whose money is coming in and how much is going out on a quarterly basis faced a midnight Tuesday deadline. Groups that release that information on a monthly basis have until Sunday to post their reports.
 
For instance, National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund has until Sunday to file. Through the end of February, the Republican-leaning group had raised almost $14 million.
 
And Americans for Prosperity, one of the most aggressive in running ads against Democrats as part of the billionaire Koch brothers' network of conservative groups, does not have to disclose its donors because, under tax rules, it is technically not political.
Don't brush past this too quickly, it's important.
Muslim-American men offer evening prayers after breaking their day-long Ramadan fast on Aug. 24, 2011 at Islamic Center of Bay Ridge in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Peter King still backs NYPD 'Demographics Unit'

04/16/14 04:23PM

As a mayoral candidate, New York City's Bill de Blasio (D) last year endorsed a "full review" of NYPD surveillance efforts, but civil libertarians weren't sure whether the so-called "Demographics Unit" would persist.
 
As Adam Serwer reported this morning, however, the once-secret unit devoted to surveillance of local Muslim communities is no more.
"Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair," New York City Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "This reform is a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys."
 
Referred to as the "Demographics Unit," the unit, advised by an official from the Central Intelligence Agency, had engaged in broad surveillance of Muslim communities, such as neighborhoods, mosques, businesses in New York and New Jersey, without specific evidence of criminal behavior. Testifying under oath, an NYPD official admitted that the program had not lead to a single terrorism investigation.
Despite this track record, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who stands a reasonably good chance of becoming the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee next year, told msnbc this morning he feels "strongly" that the surveillance program that didn't lead to a single counter-terrorism lead "worked."
 
"The reality is the threat is going to come from the Muslim community," King added. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Muslims are good Americans, but the fact is the Islamic terrorist threat comes from the Muslim community and good detective work is knowing who is in that community."
 
The "Islamic terrorist threat comes from the Muslim community"? Well, I suppose that's true to the extent that an Islamic terrorist threat wouldn't come from some other community, but if King still believes that the most meaningful terrorist threat in the country comes from Muslims, the congressman might want to check out Rachel's A block last night.
Abortion-rights advocates demonstrate during a rally outside a civic center in Fargo, N.D.

Court finds North Dakota abortion ban unconstitutional

04/16/14 02:54PM

Lawmakers in North Dakota went further than most in banning abortion last year, approving a state law that would prohibit terminating pregnancies after six weeks of pregnancy. In July, a federal court blocked implementation of the law, deeming it unlikely to withstand legal scrutiny.
 
Today, the judge finished the job, striking down the law as unconstitutional.
A federal judge has struck down one of the strictest abortion laws in the country, ruling that a North Dakota ban on abortions after as early as six weeks is unconstitutional.
 
In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland wrote of the state's push to end abortions after a month and a half, "The United States Supreme Court has spoken and has unequivocally said no state may deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at a point prior to viability."
 
The law, which would have prohibited abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, passed last year and was immediately challenged. The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed suit on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic, the only abortion provider in North Dakota.
"The controversy over a woman's right to choose to have an abortion will never end. The issue is undoubtedly one of the most divisive of social issues. The United States Supreme Court will eventually weigh in on this emotionally-fraught issue but, until that occurs, this Court is obligated to uphold existing Supreme Court precedent," Hovland said.
 
It’s the latest in a series of legal setbacks for opponents of reproductive rights, following related defeats in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona and Idaho.
American political consultant Karl Rove and Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah share a word at the Republican National Convention on August 27, 2012.

Conservative Victory Project wins by losing

04/16/14 01:00PM

In 2010 and 2012, Democrats successfully defended their Senate majority, but they had a little help from far-right primary voters. In races in Delaware, Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, and elsewhere, more electable Republican candidates likely would have won, but they never made it to the general election -- the GOP base instead backed fringe candidates who lost.
 
In February 2013, just a few months after Democrats enjoyed another strong cycle, Karl Rove announced he had a plan to prevent future fiascos: the Conservative Victory Project would help ensure more competitive Republican candidates stopped losing to extremists.
 
Whatever happened to the project? A year later, Ben Dimiero discovered that Rove's hyped solution barely exists.
After debuting in 2013 to major media coverage and virulent opposition from conservative activists, Karl Rove's Conservative Victory Project political group is seemingly defunct. According to FEC filings, as of March 31, the group has $667 cash on hand after taking in only $2,214 in the first quarter of 2014.
 
Rove's Conservative Victory Project was announced in a 2013 New York Times article, which explained that the Fox News contributor and former Bush administration official was joining forces with "the biggest donors in the Republican Party" to create a group which would "recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts." The Times reported that the "project is being waged with last year's Senate contests in mind, particularly the one in Missouri, where Representative Todd Akin's comment that 'legitimate rape' rarely causes pregnancy rippled through races across the country."
As the time, many conservatives were apoplectic, fearful that the Republican establishment was poised to respond to 2012 defeats by moving closer to the mainstream, using vehicles like the Conservative Victory Project to crush far-right candidates in GOP primaries. With primary season already upon us, it appears groups like Club for Growth didn't have too much to worry about after all.
 
But let's not lose sight of the larger circumstances: Rove's project appears to have flopped in large part because it's not needed. The Conservative Victory Project lost, insofar as it's a non-entity in electoral politics, but in practical terms, it also won -- the problem it sought to address isn't seriously plaguing the party in 2014.

Rand Paul doesn't remember the 1980s very well

04/16/14 11:30AM

At the inaugural "Freedom Summit" in New Hampshire over the weekend, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said President Obama's economic policies mirror the "failed" policies of the 1970s: "Out-of-control spending, taxes, and regulation produced the exact same misery and stagnation." The remarks were well received, though none of Cruz's claim is true.
 
But as Bill Scher noted, Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) attempts at the same event to combine recent history with economic analysis were arguably worse.
"When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan ... Did he say, 'Oh let's just cut taxes for low-income people?' No, he said forthrightly, 'Let's cut everyone's taxes' ... The top rate was 70% ... he lowered it ... to 28% ... and 20 million jobs were created."
OK, senator, you asked for this.

In health care, making an effort matters

04/16/14 10:38AM

The Affordable Care Act has obviously become a major part of a national health care system, but as is now obvious, the implementation of the policy is hardly uniform nationwide. Some states have made a concerted effort to embrace reforms and implement the ACA as effectively as possible, while others made a deliberate effort to do nothing, regardless of consequences.
 
And as it turns out, those consequences matter quite a bit. Gallup reports today:
The uninsured rate among adults aged 18 and older in the states that have chosen to expand Medicaid and set up their own exchanges in the health insurance marketplace has declined significantly more this year than in the remaining states that have not done so. The uninsured rate, on average, declined 2.5 percentage points in the 21 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have implemented both of these measures, compared with a 0.8-point drop across the 29 states that have taken only one or neither of these actions.
This is important. It's not just that states that have made an effort now enjoy a lower uninsured rate, it's also that these states have done proportionately better at making progress. (Note, in the above chart, lower numbers are better.)
 
In other words, Americans living in states that haven't bothered to create an exchange marketplace and have rejected Medicaid expansion are worse off, and adding insult to injury, insurance conditions are getting better in those states slower than if they lived in areas where officials tried to make the system work.
 
Those officials who want to see "Obamacare" work effectively for the public are more likely to implement the law well, to their constituents' benefit. And at the same time, those officials who want the ACA to struggle can create their own self-fulfilling prophecy.

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