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A road-widening project in Florida City, Florida, funded by the stimulus bill.

Former DOT chief: 'Our infrastructure is on life support'

11/24/14 12:50PM

There was an interesting segment on "60 Minutes" last night on one my favorite topics: infrastructure. Steve Kroft told viewers:
"Business leaders, labor unions, governors, mayors, congressmen and presidents have complained about a lack of funding for years, but aside from a one-time cash infusion from the stimulus program, nothing much has changed. There is still no consensus on how to solve the problem or where to get the massive amounts of money needed to fix it, just another example of political paralysis in Washington.
 
"Tens of millions of American cross over bridges every day without giving it much thought, unless they hit a pothole. But the infrastructure problem goes much deeper than pavement. It goes to crumbling concrete and corroded steel and the fact that nearly 70,000 bridges in America -- one out of every nine -- is now considered to be structurally deficient."
Kroft talked to Ray LaHood, the former Republican congressman who served as President Obama's Secretary of Transportation, who did his part to raise the alarm. "Our infrastructure is on life support right now," LaHood said. "That's what we're on."
 
He's right. The United States had a reputation for the finest infrastructure in the world, but as investments drop to their lowest level since 1947, the CBS segment added that we now rank 16th according to the World Economic Forum.
 
It's the sort of thing that hurts the economy, hurts U.S. competitiveness, and poses potential hazards to the public. The problem includes everything from highways to seaports, runways to railways. We've neglected infrastructure, and the more we delay investing, the more expensive the problem becomes to fix.
 
The "60 Minutes" segment was quick to characterize this as "a bipartisan failure," and in context, there's some truth to that -- the Highway Trust Fund, which plays a central role, has dwindled because no one wants to raise the gas tax that provides the resources for the fund.
 
But in the bigger picture, there's a clearer way to assess responsibility.
Chuck Hagel, center, R-Neb, and John McCain, right, R-Ariz, share a laugh on the Capitol Hill, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 in Washington.   (Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

On Hagel, McCain struggles to make up his mind

11/24/14 12:03PM

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has changed his mind quite a few times when it comes to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
 
Back in 2008, McCain not only liked Hagel, the Arizona Republican said he'd like to see Hagel join the cabinet in a McCain administration. Five years later, when President Obama nominated Hagel for his own cabinet, McCain joined an unprecedented filibuster against Hagel -- even after McCain had promised not to.
 
Over the summer, McCain went so far as to call for the president to replace his entire national security team, which would presumably include Hagel's ouster.
 
But now that Obama has accepted the resignation of the Defense Secretary that McCain didn't want at the Pentagon anyway, the Arizona senator is outraged all over again. Dave Weigel reported this morning that McCain appeared on a radio show this morning to push back "at the idea that Hagel was incompetent, or that he was the problem with the administration."
The incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee ticked off the crisis regions around the globe, from the ISIS-occupied sections of the Levant to China, and reiterated that Hagel was a good man who could not fix an Obama policy that was blundering and making the country weaker.
 
"Believe me," said McCain, "[Hagel] was up to the job."
Maybe, maybe not, but it was McCain who said pretty much the exact opposite about Hagel's abilities two years ago, and it was McCain who wanted to see Hagel step down from the Pentagon five months ago.
 
So what's going on here?
Razor wire is seen near the guard tower at the entrance to Camp V and VI at the U.S. military prison for 'enemy combatants' on June 26, 2013 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama moves forward on Guantanamo releases

11/24/14 11:20AM

The traditional rules say a president whose party struggles in a midterm election is supposed to act a certain way in the aftermath: chastened, meek, and conciliatory, preferably while hanging his head in a way pundits find satisfactory. President Obama just doesn't seem to care about those rules.
 
He's governing on immigration; he's talking to Iran; he's striking historic deals with China; he's taking the lead on net neutrality; and he's even quietly reducing the population of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
A Saudi citizen who has spent the past 12 years detained at Guantanamo Bay has been released, the Pentagon said Saturday, amid a push to whittle down the prison population at the U.S. base in Cuba.
 
Muhammad al-Zahrani was sent to his homeland based on the conclusion of a U.S. government board that has been re-evaluating the need to continue holding some of the men as prisoners, the Pentagon said in a statement. He will take part in a Saudi program to rehabilitate militants.... The board cleared him for release in October, citing a number of factors including his willingness to participate in the Saudi rehabilitation program. He left Guantanamo on Friday.
As Carol Rosenberg reported, Muhammad al-Zahrani had been categorized as a "forever prisoner," held at the prison for a dozen years without ever being charged with a crime.
 
Republicans, not surprisingly, aren't happy -- House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon called the administration's policy "dangerous and, frankly, reckless" -- but the White House is moving forward anyway.
 
Indeed, Zahrani's departure came on the heels of a U.S. decision to send five other Guantanamo detainees to Europe -- three to Georgia and two to Slovakia -- with more on the way. Rosenberg's reporting added, "More transfers are in the pipeline, including another six captives who can't go home to Middle East trouble spots and are approved to go to Uruguay, perhaps in December."
 
According to the Associated Press' tally over the weekend, 13 prisoners have left Guantanamo Bay this year -- seven in the last two weeks -- leaving 142 men at the facility. Roughly half of them have already been cleared for release.
 
All of this seems especially relevant today.
US Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 8, 2014.

'Shame on us as Republicans'

11/24/14 10:45AM

Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) appearance on CNN yesterday morning probably won't help his burgeoning presidential ambitions, but at least on the narrow point about his party and immigration reform, the Republican senator raised a fair point.
 
Gloria Borger noted that the GOP-led House has refused to act on immigration policy, and she asked Graham whether the lower chamber as a responsibility to legislate. His response was quite candid.
"Shame on us as Republicans. Shame on us as Republicans for having a body that cannot generate a solution to an issue that it's national security, that's cultural and it's economic. The Senate has done this three times. [...]
 
"I'm close to the people in the House, but I'm disappointed in my party. Are we still the party of self-deportation? Is it the position of the Republican Party that the 11 million must be driven out?"
Of course, if we treat that question as non-rhetorical, the answer is entirely unknown. Republicans may have been riding high after their big election wins a few weeks ago, but right now, President Obama has put immigration on the national front-burner and the GOP appears lost, confused, and at odds with one another.
 
Indeed, in recent days, everyone from Jeb Bush to John Kasich to Jeff Flake has said the Republican Party can complain about Obama's efforts, but the GOP still needs to pursue policies of their own. At the same time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) argued again on Friday that the president hurt Republicans' feelings, so the likelihood of the GOP majority governing on the issue remains remote.
 
In case it's not obvious, it's simply impossible to take Boehner's line seriously. Republicans are outraged by executive actions, and to demonstrate their disgust, they'll refuse to pass legislation that would cancel and supersede the executive actions. Why? Because the president has proven himself to be a big meanie using the same powers previous presidents have relied on under nearly identical circumstances.
 
But just beyond the surface, there's a more glaring problem: Republicans are afraid to even try to govern because they haven't the foggiest idea what to do about immigration.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon, Feb. 7, 2014.

Hagel forced out from Pentagon post

11/24/14 10:00AM

Chuck Hagel, the first enlisted combat veteran to serve as the nation's Defense Secretary, is reportedly leaving his post after nearly two years on the job. Based on preliminary assessments, this is not a "spend more time with the family" departure -- this appears to be more of a dismissal.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down amid criticism of the president's national security team on a series of global issues, including the threat posed by the militant group known as ISIS.
 
Senior defense officials confirmed to NBC News Monday that Hagel was forced to resign.
 
The officials say the White House has lost confidence in Hagel to carry out his role at the Pentagon. According to one senior official, "He wasn't up to the job."
In early 2013, Hagel struggled through confirmation hearings, but the Nebraskan overcame criticism from his former GOP colleagues in the Senate to join President Obama's cabinet.
 
His tenure at the Pentagon seems rather brief, but by modern standards, it was about average.
 
But what's striking about Hagel's sudden departure are the circumstances. The New York Times reported that Obama held a series of meetings with his Defense chief over the past two weeks, and the president asked for the secretary's resignation because Hagel's skills simply did not meet the task at hand.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) walks on stage before speaking at the 2014 Values Voter Summit September 26, 2014 in Washington, DC. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty.

Rand Paul equates immigration action, internment camps

11/24/14 09:30AM

For proponents of President Obama's executive actions on immigration policy, it's become easy to draw parallels to similar actions taken by several modern presidents from both parties.
 
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), however, has a very different kind of comparison in mind.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) likened President Barack Obama's decision to take executive action on immigration to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order authorizing putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II.
 
Paul made the comments on Friday, a day after Obama formally announced the executive actions, at the Kentucky Association of Counties conference in Lexington, Kentucky.
In his remarks, the Republican senator said, "I care that too much power gets in one place. Why? Because there are instances in our history where we allow power to gravitate toward one person and that one person then makes decisions that really are egregious. Think of what happened in World War II where they made the decision. The president issued an executive order. He said to Japanese people, 'We're going to put you in a camp. We're going to take away all your rights and liberties and we're going to intern you in a camp.' We shouldn't allow that much power to gravitate to one individual."
 
The problem with the comparison, whether Paul appreciates this or not, is that by his reasoning, practically all executive actions taken by any president on any issue are the first step on the road to internment camps.
 
Indeed, it's quite possible the senator actually believes this. Paul said in September that he supported repeal of every executive order ever issued, which would include policies created by George Washington. Apparently, the Kentucky Republican's hostility towards executive power really is that strong.
Ira Hansen

Nevada Speaker-designate steps down amid controversy

11/24/14 09:00AM

As recently as Saturday, Republican Ira Hansen, the Speaker-designate in Nevada's state Assembly, sounded a defiant note. The public learned last week about inflammatory remarks he'd made about African Americans, women, Latinos, and gay people, but the GOP leader suggested he'd persevere.
 
Hansen told supporters, "I have gotten an overwhelming amount of emails and phone calls to my cell and business phone asking me to not give up because in doing so the politics of character assassination win."
 
A day later, however, that posture had become unsustainable. The Las Vegas Sun reported yesterday:
After facing a firestorm of criticism for racist comments he made publicly, incoming Assembly Speaker Ira Hansen announced that he would not lead the chamber during the upcoming legislative session.
 
After announcing to his legislative colleagues that he was stepping down, Hansen issued a news release today saying the controversy surrounding him had been an "orchestrated attack."
"Politics of personal destruction win," he wrote in a message to Nevada lawmakers. "I need to step down. I hope that you all know that the Ira that you have known through these years and weeks is the real Ira and not what the media is painting me to be."
 
It's not yet clear whether Hansen intends to resign from the Nevada Assembly or whether he'll remain in office in a lesser role.
 
Either way, the far-right lawmaker seems eager to present himself as a victim. In a press release, Hansen blasted the "deliberate character assassination and the politics of personal destruction" for his difficulties. The Republican added, "The powers that be are planning a massive, more than $1 billion, tax increase and I stood in the way as speaker."
 
Apparently, everyone is to blame for Hansen's problems except Hansen.
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks on his way to the House Chamber for a procedural vote on the House floor September 28, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Mo Brooks and the power of denial

11/24/14 08:30AM

When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was confronted with new evidence, put together by his House Republicans allies, that Benghazi conspiracy theories are completely wrong, the Republican senator was angrily dismissive. The evidence, he said, must be "crap."
 
Denial can be a powerful emotional response, can't it? If the right believes President Obama's economic policies have failed, and they're confronted with evidence of a falling unemployment rate, then there must be a conspiracy involving the jobless numbers. If the right believes Benghazi conspiracies are real, and they're confronted with proof to the contrary, then the proof must be rejected.
 
But on Friday's "All in with Chris Hayes," Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) took this to a whole new level.
 
Brooks, you'll recall, believes President Obama's executive actions on immigration may be criminal acts that could land the president in prison. With this in mind, Chris asked a good question: "When President Reagan granted deferred action from 200,000 people from El Salvador who come here illegally, was he breaking the law in the same way?" It led to this exchange:
BROOKS: I have not examined what Bill Clinton did. This is a very serious manner. The Constitution imposes a heavy burden on us--
 
HAYES: No, no, no, I'm sorry. President Ronald Reagan. President Ronald Reagan, sir?
 
BROOKS: I think the individual facts are important, the mental intent of the actor. That case, Bill Clinton, now Barack Obama, those factors are important.
At a certain level, the cognitive dissonance must be disorienting. Republicans are convinced Reagan was a man without flaw. Republicans are then confronted with the fact that Reagan relied on executive actions to change immigration policy when Congress' efforts fell short. That creates a problem: either Reagan took steps the right now finds abhorrent, or Obama's actions are neither shocking nor unprecedented.
 
What to do? Decide that Ronald Reagan's name is pronounced "Bill Clinton" when it comes to immigration policy.
A burnt out vehicle sits smoldering in flames after it was set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi, Sept. 11, 2012.

House Intel panel demolishes Benghazi conspiracies

11/24/14 08:00AM

The substance of a story is what matters, but sometimes, when a story breaks is nearly as important. The Republican-run House Intelligence Committee, for example, waited until late on a Friday afternoon, the week before Thanksgiving, to announce the results of a two-year investigation into the deadly attacks on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
 
For the right, the findings were simply devastating: all of the Benghazi conspiracy theories, the GOP-led committee found, are completely, demonstrably, and unambiguously wrong. From the Associated Press account:
A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.
 
Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.
The report, which is available in its entirety here, is an unflinching summary of the available evidence, which utterly destroys everything right-wing conspiracy theorists have been pushing for more than two years about the deadly attack. For conservatives, there's no sugarcoating any of this -- literally every accusation has been debunked. No exceptions.
 
And for Republicans, who've invested so much in the ugly exploitation of the terrorism for partisan gain, that obviously posed a problem. For House GOP lawmakers, the solution was to release the findings late on a Friday, shortly before a major national holiday, in the hopes the American public wouldn't hear the facts. For the most part, the tactic worked exactly as intended: much of the national media overlooked the findings, which were also largely forgotten on the Sunday shows.
 
Which is a shame, because this seems like an important accountability moment.

Declaration of War and other headlines

11/24/14 07:59AM

Pres. Obama defends his executive actions on immigration. (ABC News)

Kris Kobach to pursue lawsuit against Pres. Obama's immigration action. (Washington Post)

Sen. Rand Paul declares war on ISIS--and allows boots on the ground. (Daily Beast)

Sen. Lindsey Graham thinks the Benghazi report is 'full of crap.' (TPM)

Thousand of lost Lois Lerner IRS emails found. (Politico)

Pres. Obama awards Presidential Medal of Freedom today. (AP)

Letter that inspired Kerouac's 'On the Road' is found. (AP)

read more

Week in Geek: Bowling ball vs. feather, falling

11/23/14 09:36AM

Have you ever wondered about all those famous thought experiments famous scientists come up with? Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Einstein and his trains, Schrodinger and his cats. While we can't yet reenact what Einstein and Schrodinger had in mind, we can test Galileo's idea.

Galileo theorized that objects fall at the same rate (regardless of their mass, size, shape) when they are subject to the same gravitational acceleration (on the Earth, Moon, etc.) and air resistance is negligible (i.e., in a vacuum). Essentially, this means that in these conditions, any two objects will fall at the same velocity and land at the same time. Building an experiment to drop pairs of objects is no big deal, but building one to drop them in a vacuum is.

read more

U.S. President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House in Washington, November 20, 2014. (Photo by Jim Bourg/Pool/Reuters)

This Week in God, 11.22.14

11/22/14 08:49AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a curious reaction from the right to President Obama quoting Christian scripture in his national address on immigration policy this week.
 
If you missed it, referencing Exodus 23:9, told Americans, "Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too."
 
In an interesting twist, conservatives who generally push for more mixing of religion and politics, and who complain that the president isn't more overtly religious all the time, began complaining after Obama's speech about the Biblical reference. Emily Arrowood noted yesterday:
The hosts of Fox & Friends were incensed that President Obama quoted scripture in a primetime address detailing his upcoming executive action on immigration, challenging him to a "scripture-showdown" and claiming it's "repugnant" for Obama to "lecture us on Christian faith." [...]
 
According to [co-host Elisabeth] Hasselbeck, Obama used the Bible to guilt people into supporting his executive action, and that's "not what the scholars behind the Bible would interpret as proper use, perhaps."
Because no one's ever used Scripture to guilt someone into supporting a position, right?
 
It was, incidentally, the co-hosts of "Fox & Friends" who also complained just 48 hours earlier that the president doesn't espouse Christian values often enough.
 
But they weren't the only ones complaining. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) also wasn't happy. "I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is President, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby's Wikipedia entry," Huckabee wrote on his Facebook page.
 
Fox's Bill O'Reilly also said of Obama, "He is one of the most secular presidents, perhaps the most secular president we have ever had, yet, he invokes scripture in the speech."
 
For what it's worth, Thomas Jefferson edited his Bible to remove references to Jesus' divinity, so I don't think Obama, who's made countless public references to his Christian faith, is in the running for any Most Secular Presidents awards.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:
Important veteran suicide bill poised to pass

Important veteran suicide bill poised to pass

11/21/14 10:51PM

Rachel Maddow reports on the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, a little noticed, genuinely bipartisan bill named for a heroic veteran who took his own life, and designed to address the challenges of treating returning war veterans. watch

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