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Eric Parker from central Idaho stands watch on a bridge with his weapon as protesters gather by the Bureau of Land Management's base camp, where cattle that were seized from rancher Cliven Bundy are being held, near Bunkerville, Nevada, April 12, 2014.

The Bundy crisis in Nevada

04/14/14 05:11PM

It's not uncommon for conservative media to put a very different spin on current events than major news organizations. For example, news consumers who surround themselves with nothing but conservative media might believe right now that the Affordable Care Act is in a death spiral, the IRS "scandal" is heating up; the nation is facing a debt crisis; the Benghazi conspiracy will soon rock the White House; etc.
 
But once in a while, conservative media doesn't just put a unique spin on the news, it also identifies stories that exist largely below the radar. Over the last week, for example, far-right news consumers have been captivated with coverage of Cliven Bundy, while for much of the American mainstream, that name probably doesn't even sound familiar.
 
If you don't know the story, it's time to get up to speed.
U.S. officials ended a stand-off with hundreds of armed protesters in the Nevada desert on Saturday, calling off the government's roundup of cattle it said were illegally grazing on federal land and giving about 300 animals back to the rancher who owned them.
 
The dispute less than 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas between rancher Cliven Bundy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had simmered for days. Bundy had stopped paying fees for grazing his cattle on the government land and officials said he had ignored court orders.
 
Anti-government groups, right-wing politicians and gun-rights activists camped around Bundy's ranch to support him.
By any fair definition, this was an intense standoff with a very real possibility of significant casualties.
 
But to understand how and why the crisis unfolded as it did over the weekend, we have to start with how it started in the first place.
Senate Minority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell responds to a question on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., March 25, 2014.

McConnell tries a blast from the past

04/14/14 04:13PM

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) clearly seems to understand that the gender gap isn't working in his favor right now, and so it's understandable that he'd look for opportunities to make inroads with women voters. But McConnell keeps turning to an incident from 20 years ago, which is probably a bad idea.
 
In Kentucky right now, there's a Democratic state senator, John Arnold, who was accused of sexual harassment. The state lawmaker was cleared by an ethics panel -- though most of its members voted to find him guilty -- so McConnell sees an opportunity.
McConnell contrasted the Arnold case to his own actions as head of the Senate Ethics Committee in the case of former Sen. Bob Packwood, who was accused to making unwanted advances toward Senate employees.
 
"I moved to expel him from the Senate," McConnell said."
The McConnell campaign has tried this before. The senator and his allies generally like to shy away from his legislative record -- McConnell voted against the Violence Against Women Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay, the Paycheck Fairness Act, etc. -- but believe his handling of Bob Packwood's scandal in the early 1990s shows that McConnell is capable of handling women's issues appropriately. He may be on the wrong side of recent legislative fights, the argument goes, but at least in one case two decades ago, McConnell took a stand for women's interests against the interests of one of his own GOP allies.
 
The trouble is, I remember the 1990s a lot differently.
This May 30, 2012 image provided by Ian Joughin shows an iceberg in or just outside the Ilulissat fjord, that likely calved from Jakobshavn Isbrae, the fastest glacier in west Greenland.

Will the 'wake-up call' go ignored?

04/14/14 03:21PM

It's not too late to address the climate crisis. But the point of no return isn't that far away, either.
It's still possible to keep the global temperature at a manageable level, a new U.N. report on climate change concludes. But only if the world embarks quickly on an intense effort over the next 15 years.
 
The report, released Sunday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading world organization monitoring the issue, also found that climate change can be addressed without affecting living standards, and with only a tiny reduction in economic growth.
The report is online here.
 
In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday, "We've already had wake-up call after wake-up call about climate science. This report is a wake-up call about global economic opportunity we can seize today as we lead on climate change."
 
As terrifying as the climate crisis may be, the report actually highlights some reason for encouragement.
Elizabeth Rich helps a man sign up for the Affordable Care Act at Swope Health Services in Kansas City, Mo., March 31, 2014.

CBO: Affordable Care Act getting even more affordable

04/14/14 01:01PM

Critics of the Affordable Care Act no longer want to talk about enrollment totals, which is understandable to the extent that the latest ACA enrollment figures look quite good. Instead, many Republicans have gone back to some old favorites: "Obamacare" is causing premiums to spike; the nation can't afford the system; it will bankrupt us all; we're all doomed, etc.
 
I can only imagine how frustrating it must be lately to be an opponent of this law.
The most expensive provisions of Obamacare will cost taxpayers about $100 billion less than expected, the Congressional Budget Office said Monday.
 
CBO also said it doesn't expect big premium increases next year for insurance plans sold through the health care law's exchanges.
 
In its latest analysis, CBO said the law's coverage provisions -- a narrow part of the law that includes only certain policies -- will cost the government $36 billion this year, which is $5 billion less than CBO's previous estimate. Over the next decade, the provisions will cost about $1.4 trillion -- roughly $104 billion less than CBO last estimated.
The CBO report is available in its entirety here (pdf). The CBO also released a helpful summary with some lovely charts.
 
The report found that coverage is likely to cost less thanks to premiums being lower than expected through the exchange marketplaces. In other words, take pretty much everything you've heard from congressional Republicans lately and believe the opposite.
 
And as part of the same review, of course, the CBO added that the Affordable Care Act will also continue to reduce the federal budget deficit, which is also the opposite of critics' claims.
 
Wait, for the right, it gets worse.
Amanda Broughton, left, looks at one of her twin sons being held by her partner Michele Hobbs, on Feb. 10, 2014, during a news conference in Cincinnati.

Judge: Ohio must recognize out-of-state gay marriages

04/14/14 12:04PM

Proponents of marriage equality have been on quite a winning streak in the courts, targeting anti-gay laws in states across the country. That streak continued this morning in Ohio.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black has formally ruled that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states, but he put a hold on his order for the time being.
 
"Ohio's marriage recognition is facially unconstitutional and unenforceable under any circumstances," Black said in an order he announced verbally 10 days ago.
 
"It is this court's responsibility to give meaning and effect to the guarantees and of the U.S. Constitution and all American citizens and that responsibility is never more pressing than when the fundamental rights of some minority citizens are impacted by the legislative power of the majority."
To be sure, the judge in this case had already made clear that this ruling was coming, but for civil-rights advocates, that doesn't detract from the satisfaction that comes with another victory.
 
Indeed, note that Black was fairly aggressive in smacking down Ohio's argument, concluding that the record "is staggeringly devoid of any legitimate justification for the State's ongoing arbitrary discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."
 
The case did not address whether or not same-sex couples can be married in Ohio, only whether same-sex marriages performed in other states should be legally recognized in the Buckeye State.
Image: Paul Ryan, Austin Smythe

Paul Ryan flubs family budgeting 101

04/14/14 11:43AM

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) turned to Twitter on Friday in the hopes of generating some support for his far-right budget plan. In the process, he pushed a very familiar line:
"Every family must balance its budget. Washington should too. Sign the petition to support a balanced budget."
Let's put aside for now the fact that Ryan's regressive budget plan doesn't actually balance in the way he claims. Let's instead focus on the first two-thirds of the congressman's message.
 
Long-time readers may recall that this is a frequent pet peeve of mine, but since we haven't covered it in a long while, let's review how very wrong Ryan is.
 
To be sure, I can appreciate the folksy appeal of the message -- the "every family must balance its budget" argument has a certain down-home, common-sense sort of quality to it. If American families and American businesses can't run massive deficits and borrow billions, the argument goes, why does the American government?
 
The point that generally gets lost is the detail that matters: families and businesses borrow money and run deficits all the time. Ryan may struggle with this, but it's a positive, not a negative, development.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting for conservative speakers in Manchester, New Hampshire April 12, 2014.

The desperate bid to keep the IRS 'scandal' alive

04/14/14 11:02AM

Back in November, a group of House Republicans talked up the idea of impeaching Attorney General Eric Holder. It was never altogether clear why, in their eyes, Holder deserved to impeached, but the half-hearted effort no doubt served as the basis for some nice fundraising appeals.
 
At the time, U.S. senators had the good sense of avoid the nonsensical anti-Holder nonsense, but that's apparently changed. Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told Sean Hannity that as far as he's concerned, impeaching the Attorney General would be a good idea. Why? Because of the IRS "scandal" that was discredited months ago.
"Among other things, Congress should impeach Eric Holder because Eric Holder is defying Congress and defying rule of law," Cruz said on Sean Hannity's radio show. [...]
 
The Justice Department is already investigating both Lerner and the agency, but their efforts have not gone far enough, Cruz said Thursday. "In the eight months that have transpired, not a single person has been indicted."
It's hard not to admire the logic. Holder launched an investigation to determine if the IRS violated the law, and so far, the Justice Department probe hasn't pointed to any wrongdoing. And if because Republicans just know the IRS did something wrong, it must be Holder's fault that no one's facing charges.
 
The possibility that this was always a trumped-up controversy based on nothing is never actually considered. If there's an investigation that turns up nothing, by definition, the investigation must have been wrong.
 
Making matters slightly more outlandish, Republicans believe they've uncovered a smoking gun that proves the IRS "controversy" is legitimate, but as is too often the case, the gun is shooting blanks.
 Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaks on a panel during the 41st annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center on March 8, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.

RNC unveils its '14 in '14' plan

04/14/14 10:20AM

When Democratic policymakers started a fight over the Paycheck Fairness Act, Republicans responded by dismissing it as a hollow, election-year stunt. Sure, it was a substantive policy response to a legitimate issue, but GOP officials said the debate itself was little more than a cheap political exercise -- which women voters would see through immediately.
 
And speaking of cheap political exercises that women voters will see through immediately...
The Republican National Committee plans to a new initiative, "14 in '14," to recruit and train women under age 40 to help spread the party's message in the final 14 weeks of the campaign. [...]
 
They are encouraging candidates to include their wives and daughters in campaign ads, have women at their events and build a Facebook-like internal database of women willing to campaign on their behalf.
I see. If Democrats push the Paycheck Fairness Act, they're cynically trying to give the appearance of helping women in the workplace. But if Republicans include more women in campaign ads, that's just quality messaging.
 
The "14 in '14" initiative, it's worth noting, is actually a fallback plan of sorts. The original strategy was to push "Project GROW," in which Republicans would recruit more women candidates to run for Congress in 2014. That project failed -- there are actually going to be fewer Republican women running for Congress in this cycle than in 2012.
 
Presumably, "encouraging candidates to include their wives and daughters in campaign ads" is intended to compensate for the misstep, while hoping voters overlook the GOP's opposition to pay-equity legislation and its preoccupation with issues such as restricting women's reproductive rights and access to contraception?
Former Arkansas Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee speaks at a GOP Freedom Summit, Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Manchester, N.H.

The Republican id, on full display

04/14/14 09:34AM

There will be plenty of cattle calls for Republicans with national ambitions in the coming months, but one notable event was held over the weekend in the nation's first primary state. The inaugural New Hampshire Freedom Summit, co-sponsored by the Koch brothers' Americans For Prosperity, Foundation*, drew quite a crowd of likely candidates: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Mike Huckabee, each trying to out conservative the other.
 
NBC's Mark Murray and Carrie Dann had a good piece on the event this morning, noting how clear it's become that today's Republican Party is "more distant from the Bush family" than at any point since early 2009.
At the [event] Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) delivered one of the more well-received lines at the conference when she criticized the Common Core education standards that Jeb Bush supports. "We need to replace Common Core with some common sense!" she said. In fact, NBC's Kasie Hunt says Common Core was the loudest applause line at the confab. The crowd also booed when another speaker, Donald Trump, mentioned Jeb Bush's recent remark that illegal immigration is an "act of love."
The Bushes support comprehensive immigration reform, but at the New Hampshire Freedom Summit, immigration reform was a non-starter. The Bushes support Common Core education standards, but at the New Hampshire Freedom Summit, Common Core is seen as a dangerous part of a government conspiracy. The Bush administration launched expansive government surveillance programs as part of a sweeping counter-terrorism agenda, but at the New Hampshire Freedom Summit, the right has suddenly decided it finds such efforts outrageous.
 
Benjy Sarlin reported this jaw-droppper from Huckabee's speech: "My gosh, I'm beginning to think that there's more freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States. When I go to the airport, I have to get in the surrender position, people put hands all over me, and I have to provide photo ID and a couple of different forms and prove that I really am not going to terrorize the airplane -- but if I want to go vote I don't need a thing."
 
Ordinarily, the right is content to compare contemporary life in the United States to Nazi Germany, so perhaps Huckabee's comparison of American policies to North Korea's dictatorship should be seen as progress?
 
That said, I don't recall the right raising similar concerns when the Bush/Cheney administration created many of these policies over a decade ago. Perhaps it's just a delayed reaction -- a very delayed reaction.
President Barack Obama addresses the National Action Network's 16th annual convention in New York, New York, April 11, 2014.

Obama calls out 'the real voter fraud'

04/14/14 08:35AM

It's easy to get inured to stories about voting restrictions. The imposition of new hurdles, intended to keep more Americans from participating in their own democracy, has been ongoing for about three years, and the tactics have become so common in so much of the country, maintaining a sense of outrage is simply exhausting.
 
But common or not, the outrageousness hasn't changed. The very idea that a major political party in a modern democracy has decided to give itself an electoral advantage by systemically and deliberately blocking voter access should be called what it is: a genuine national scandal.
 
Given this, it was heartening to see the issue get the spotlight by way of the president's bully pulpit.
The right to vote is under threat --  more now than any other point since the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965, President Obama announced Friday.
 
"The stark and simple truth is this -- the right to vote is threatened today -- in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago," Obama said to the crowd at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network conference. [...]
 
The president condemned the recent surge in changes to voting laws and the Republicans leading the charge to curb access. Calling out voter ID measures, cuts to early and weekend voting, and restrictive laws on the books across the country, President Obama said the architects behind the changes are no longer operating under the pretext of battling voter fraud -- it's all partisan.
"[T]he real voter fraud," Obama said, "is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud."
 
The president added, "If your strategy depends on fewer people showing up to vote, that's not a sign of strength, it's a sign of weakness. What kind of political platform is that? Why would you make that part of your agenda, preventing people from voting?"
 
And in case that wasn't quite clear enough, Obama went on to say these efforts have "not been led by both parties. It's been led by the Republican Party."
 
The Republican response to the presidential criticism was disheartening.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) speaks during a news briefing after a House Republican Conference meeting January 14, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

On pay equity, if you're explaining, you're losing

04/14/14 08:00AM

During last week's debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act, congressional Republicans insisted they were wholly unconcerned about facing a public backlash over killing the bill. In fact, they kept talking about how unfazed they were, over and over again, raising questions as to whether they were trying to convince us or themselves.
 
Over the weekend, perhaps unfamiliar with the phrase "doth protest too much," congressional Republicans continued to show just how unconcerned they are about the pay-equity debate by devoting their weekly national address to explaining themselves.
The House's highest-ranking female Republican sought to rebuff criticism over a move by Senate GOP lawmakers this week to block equal pay legislation.
 
"I have always supported equal pay for equal work," said Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) in Saturday's weekly Republican address.
She added that existing laws are adequate in addressing wage discrimination before arguing, "[F]or women across American, it's not just about equal pay. It's about achieving a better life." The entirety of McMorris Rodgers' address is online here.
 
At this point, it appears the two sides of the debate are talking past one another. Democrats are saying, "Congress should approve remedies to prevent, discourage, and address unequal pay for equal work," to which Republicans keep replying, "We support equal pay for equal work."
 
But the asymmetry between them remains a problem. It's certainly nice that GOP policymakers support equal pay for equal work -- literally no one on Capitol Hill is running around publicly endorsing wage discrimination against women -- but the posture misses the point. The debate isn't about whether pay equity is worthwhile, but rather, how best to work towards the goal.
 
For Democrats, policies like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Paycheck Fairness Act -- two measures McMorris Rodgers and nearly all of her GOP colleagues voted to kill -- would represent important steps forward. Republicans, meanwhile, propose very little -- existing laws and the free market might someday work things out.

Feds blink and other headlines

04/14/14 07:51AM

Former KKK leader suspected in Jewish center attacks that killed three. (NBC News) Judge set to issue key Ohio gay-marriage ruling today. (USA Today) Feds ends standoff with Nevada rancher after armed militiamen take up his cause. (Reuters) Manhattan DA opens investigation into Port Authority, Christie administration. (NJ Star-Ledger) Geologists link small quakes in Ohio to fracking. (AP) read more

'You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way'

04/12/14 08:51PM

While the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas this week drew a lot of attention for its commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, another significant civil rights milestone had an anniversary this week as well. This past Wednesday marked the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson's Easter performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Marian Anderson was already a famous singer when, in 1939, she was invited by Howard University to perform a concert. The university didn't have the space for the expected audience, so they asked the Daughters of the American Revolution if they could use Constitution Hall for the event.

But the Daughters of the American Revolution had a white-performers-only rule at the time, instituted in response to a previous black perfomrer who'd been offended by their segregated seating policy. So Anderson's recital was rejected.

Again, Anderson was quite popular at the time, world famous, and the outrage over her exclusion from the hall was considerable. Ultimately, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes agreed to allow Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 showed up to hear her sing.

Meanwhile, among Anderson's fans was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who also happened to be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The course of events so upset the first lady that she wrote the group's president general a withering letter, resigning her membership:

I am afraid that I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference to you whether I resign, or whether I continue to be a member of your organization.

However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obligated to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.

I realize that many people will not agree with me, but feeling as I do this seems to me the only proper procedure to follow.

After the jump, an image of a draft of the letter and a bit of video of Anderson's performance.

read more

Earth.

This Week in God, 4.12.14

04/12/14 09:04AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected controversy involving a group of folks who believe in something called "geocentrism."
 
For the last several centuries, people have generally understood that the Earth orbits our sun, along with several other planets that make up a solar system. This, in turn, is part of a larger galaxy, which is part of a vast universe with lots of galaxies. It's known as the heliocentric model.
 
But there's a group of religious activists for whom this doesn't sit well -- they believe the Bible puts the Earth as the center of the universe and argue that our sun orbits us. It is, to be sure, a small, fringe group of folks, but my friend Rob Boston reported this week that the "geocentrists" are making a movie, which caused a larger-than-expected stir this week.
[The geocentric] movement, led by an ultra-conservative Roman Catholic named Robert Sungenis, is making a play for the big time with a "documentary" they claim will soon appear in U.S. theaters.
 
The film is titled "The Principle," and you can watch a trailer here. You'll note that actual scientists like Lawrence Krauss and Michio Kaku -- both of whom I'm sure accept the heliocentric model -- appear in this film. I don't know how it happened, but I'm guessing that the producers didn't tell them upfront that it was a geocentricity film. (You'll note that the trailer doesn't either; very sneaky of them.)
By all appearances, the film is a pretty slick production, narrated by Kate Mulgrew (yes, Captain Janeway from "Star Trek: Voyager"). It wasn't long before lots of confused people started asking why notable figures from the worlds of science and entertainment would want anything to do with this fringe "documentary."
 
The answer, it turns out, is that they didn't do so knowingly. Krauss, for example, wrote a Slate piece this week explaining, "I have no recollection of being interviewed for such a film, and of course had I known of its premise I would have refused. So, either the producers used clips of me that were in the public domain, or they bought them from other production companies that I may have given some rights to distribute my interviews to, or they may have interviewed me under false pretenses, in which case I probably signed some release. I simply don't know."
 
Several other actual scientists featured in the film soon followed, saying they had been misled into participating in the project. For her part, Mulgrew this week issued a statement through Facebook, forcefully rejecting geocentrism and explaining that she'd been "misinformed" about the true nature of the film. The actor added that she "would most certainly have avoided" the project if she knew the truth about the filmmakers' intended agenda.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

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