First up from the God Machine this week is an update on a creationist effort to build a giant version of Noah's Ark in Kentucky, which is suddenly back on track following a very high-profile event.
Creation Museum Founder Ken Ham, who leads a creationist-focused ministry called Answers in Genesis, recently debated scientist Bill Nye on evolutionary biology. It apparently had an unintended consequence.
Creation Museum founder Ken Ham announced Thursday that a municipal bond offering has raised enough money to begin construction on the Ark Encounter project, estimated to cost about $73 million. Groundbreaking is planned for May and the ark is expected to be finished by the summer of 2016.
Ham said a high-profile evolution debate he had with "Science Guy" Bill Nye on Feb. 4 helped boost support for the project.
Nye said he was "heartbroken and sickened for the Commonwealth of Kentucky" after learning that the project would move forward. He said the ark would eventually draw more attention to the beliefs of Ham's ministry, which preaches that the Bible's creation story is a true account, and as a result, "voters and taxpayers in Kentucky will eventually see that this is not in their best interest."
We've been keeping a close eye on developments in Arkansas, where Medicaid expansion was embraced last year with bipartisan support, bringing coverage to about 100,000 low-income Arkansans, but where the policy is now in severe jeopardy, thanks to opposition from far-right state House lawmakers.
But of particular interest is one specific member of the Arkansas state House, Republican Josh Miller, who was severely injured in a car accident several years ago, and who benefited directly from Medicaid.
That's right, one of GOP lawmakers trying to end Medicaid expansion is himself a Medicaid beneficiary.
Some of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) allies occasionally try to downplay the significance of the bridge scandal. Sure, the argument goes, the governor's team, acting in the governor's name, used their power as a weapon to punish the governor's constituents, crippling a community for days for reasons we still don't know. But what's a little traffic?
Newly released 911 and police radio tapes reveal that on the first morning of the controversial George Washington Bridge lane closures last year, officers and emergency responders in Fort Lee were grappling with city-wide traffic gridlock.
At 8:52 a.m. on Sept. 9, a dispatcher warned paramedics leaving a hospital about coming to the Bergen County borough.
"Fort Lee traffic is a nightmare," the dispatcher said.... At 9:02 a.m., a police officer was trying to help an ambulance plot ways to avoid inbound traffic.
"Do you have a medical unit dispatched?" the officer asked a dispatcher. "The GW Bridge is totally gridlocked." Four minutes later, another officer complained of heavy traffic.
The above clip is from American Bridge, which created a website called BridgegateTapes.com, where a series of "highlights" from the recordings are now available to the public.
In 2009, as Democrats advanced the Affordable Care Act, congressional Republicans promised to produce an alternative plan to prove to the public that the GOP approach was superior. It sounded very nice.
But Republicans, working in secret, missed their own deadline. Then they missed another. Eventually, GOP lawmakers threw together a half-hearted package, which was a bit of a joke. As Matt Yglesias noted at the time, the Republican approach to reform sought to create a system that "works better for people who don't need health care services, and much worse for people who actually are sick or who become sick in the future. It's basically a health un-insurance policy." The CBO found that the plan would leave "about 52 million" Americans without access to basic medical care.
Four-and-a-half years later, we find ourselves in a surprisingly similar situation. For reasons they sometimes struggle to explain, congressional Republicans still hate "Obamacare," and just as importantly, are still working in secret on an alternative reform plan that will prove their superior policymaking skills. One of these days, they keep saying. Just you watch. It'll be **awesome.
Except, of course, the elusive policy is always just out of reach. It sits at the horizon, but it never draws closer.
Suddenly, a House vote on a Republican alternative to Obamacare seems less likely.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declined to commit to an alternative measure coming up for a vote this year but said GOP leadership is going to "continue to having conversations with our members" about items like tax reform and replacing President Barack Obama's signature domestic legislation.
And what about the recent promises from House Republican leaders that they will present an ACA alternative -- and vote on it -- sometime in 2014? "We're going to continue to go through a lot of ideas," Boehner said yesterday, using the most non-committal language possible.
By any fair standard, this is quickly becoming a rather ignominious fiasco.
The right's efforts to highlight "Obamacare victims" has become something of a fiasco, with one horror story after another hitting the airwaves, drawing scrutiny, and getting debunked. There are probably some folks adversely affected by the Affordable Care Act, but they're not the ones showing up in attack ads.
But the ads keep coming anyway, and one spot from the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity has been particularly popular with ACA critics. In this case, the story involves a Tennessee woman named Emilie Lamb, who isn't just the focus of the commercial, but who was also a Republican guest at the president's State of the Union address.
Here's Lamb's message:
"I was diagnosed with lupus when I was 27. Lupus is an autoimmune disorder. It's dramatically affected my life. I voted for Barack Obama for president. I thought that Obamacare was going to be a good thing. Instead of helping me, Obamacare has made my life almost impossible.
"Barack Obama told us we could keep our health insurance if we liked it. And we can't. I got a letter in the mail saying that my health insurance was over, that it was gone. It was canceled because of Obamacare. My premiums went from $52 a month to $373 a month. I'm having to work a second job to pay for Obamacare. For somebody with lupus, that's not an easy thing.
"If I can't afford to continue to pay for Obamacare, I don't get my medicine; I don't get to see my doctors. I am very disappointed in Barack Obama as a president. He made promises he didn't keep. And that's disheartening."
Obviously, it's easy to have sympathy for Lamb, who appears to be struggling with a horrible ordeal. And for opponents of health care reform, that's apparently where the discussion should stop -- to consider Lamb's story in more detail is outrageous, conservatives argue. Attack ads shouldn't be fact-checked because, well, it's impolite.
But if the public's understanding of health care policy is going to be shaped by commercials financed by conservative billionaires, the public should also know that the attack ad doesn't tell the whole story.
It didn't generate much attention, but President Obama traveled to St. Paul, Minn., this week to deliver a speech on infrastructure and his administration's plan to rebuild it.
Caught between a gridlocked Congress and a Highway Trust Fund that will soon be broke, President Obama on Wednesday urged lawmakers to overhaul corporate and business taxes to pay for repairing and replacing the nation's aging roads, rails, bridges and tunnels. [...]
New legislation to pay for transportation projects is an urgent priority for both parties because the highway fund is nearing insolvency. Anthony R. Foxx, the transportation secretary, has said the fund could begin "bouncing checks" by this summer. That would force a halt to construction projects around the country, officials have said, and could undermine as many as 700,000 jobs.
"[O]ne of the fastest and best ways to create good jobs is by rebuilding America's infrastructure -- our roads, our bridges, our rails, our ports, our airports, our schools, our power grids," Obama said as part of an unveiling of his $302 billion infrastructure plan. "We've got a lot of work to do out there, and we've got to put folks to work."
With an eye towards Congress, the president added, "[I]nfrastructure didn't use to be a partisan issue -- shouldn't be Democrat or Republican. Everybody uses roads, everybody uses ports, airports. Unfortunately, time and again over the past few years, there have been some Republicans in Congress who refused to act on common-sense proposals that will create jobs and grow our economy. I guess it's not that they don't like roads; they just don't want to pay for them. It doesn't work that way."
Confident Republicans generally assume the Affordable Care Act will produce huge GOP gains in the 2014 midterms. The law is unpopular (though what's in the law isn't) and the party figures it can simply bash "Obamacare" for the next several months, then watch the victories roll in.
But if Republicans enjoy such a sizable advantage on health care, they have a funny way of showing it.
The first hint of what's to come emerged about a month ago in Kentucky, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) launched his first major ad buy, pushing a specific message: McConnell used government to help people in need access affordable health care. A few weeks later, the Chamber of Commerce launched a new ad on McConnell's behalf, saying he wants to "fix," not end, the ACA.
Greg Sargent added today that other Republican candidates this year are starting to sound "an awful lot like the most ardent supporters of the Affordable Care Act."
The GOP Senate candidate in Michigan, Terri Lynn Land, is in a spot because she favors repeal but is well aware the Medicaid expansion is set to kick in there this spring for over 400,000 people. In a statement late yesterday, Land’s campaign pretty much abandoned repeal and embraced the expansion. But note the specific language: “Terri believes that healthcare should be affordable and accessible to all Americans and that we as a society have a moral obligation to help those who are not as fortunate.”
Good idea! That is awfully similar to what her Dem opponent, Rep. Gary Peters, says: “It’s a core belief of mine that everybody, no matter who you are, should have access to affordable health care.”
Meanwhile, the expected GOP Senate candidate in North Carolina, Thom Tillis, is getting skewered by the local press over his equivocating health care stance. He wants to replace Obamacare with something — but he can’t embrace the alternative offered by home state Senator Richard Burr without getting hit from the right. But when speaking generallyabout the issue, he says that of course he’s not “against having some sort of safety net for preexisting conditions.”
And it's against this backdrop that congressional Republicans are going out of their way to say they, not those rascally Democrats, are the true champions of Medicare's socialized insurance system.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hosted a lively press conference with Capitol Hill reporters yesterday -- the "boner" joke won't be forgotten anytime soon -- but there was something in his opening statement that was so audacious, I'm surprised it was largely ignored.
"You know, back in 2012 the president chose politics over governing. He took the year off, got little done, and this year I'm beginning to see the same pattern of behavior. We've seen more and more that the president has no interest in doing the big things that he got elected to do."
Boehner added that President Obama intends to "pack it in for the year" and "just wait for the election."
There's hypocritical rhetoric. There's breathtaking hypocritical rhetoric. Then there's rhetoric so hypocritical that it ruptures the space-time continuum.
Reasonable people can debate the merits of competing proposals or policy strategies, but for Speaker Boehner to suggest President Obama is uninterested in governing, lacks ambition, and intends to do nothing for the rest of the 2014 is so head-spinning that it's genuinely alarming Boehner was able to say the words out loud without laughing hysterically.
In August 2012, John Schnatter, CEO of the Papa John's pizza chain and a generous Republican donor, shared an election-year message during a shareholders conference call. Schnatter argued at the time that the Affordable Care Act will be bad for his business and its customers -- and he had the numbers to prove it.
According to the CEO's estimates, "Obamacare" would end up adding about 11 cents to the cost of a pizza. In other words, based on the company's pricing at the time, the price of a large pepperoni pizza would go from $14.08 to $14.19 -- and in the process, all of Papa John's employees would have access to affordable health care.
Even at the time, it wasn't clear why this was supposed to sound outrageous. Nevertheless, a year and a half later, a similar anecdote is causing a stir for similar reasons.
Diners at eight Gator's Dockside casual eateries are finding a 1% Affordable Care Act surcharge on their tabs, which comes to 15 cents on a typical $15 lunch tab. Signs on the door and at tables alert diners to the fee, which is also listed separately on the bill.
This story, eagerly touted by the Heritage Foundation yesterday, featured a sample receipt in which a customer bought a meal costing $21.15, but the customer's tab at the North Florida restaurant added a 20-cent "ACA Surcharge."
Broadly speaking, there are two noticeable problems with this. The first is similar to the Papa John's story: 20 cents just doesn't sound horrible.
Let's say the next time I go to a restaurant with my wife for lunch, instead of getting a bill for $22.64, we'll get a bill for $22.84. And with those two extra dimes, we're told everyone who works at that restaurant will be able to receive affordable medical care.
Putting aside the question of whether a restaurant actually faces any meaningful financial burdens associated with the Affordable Care Act, am I really supposed to find this scandalous?