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(File Photo by Kelley McCall/AP)

Drug testing for welfare recipients looks even worse

12/05/14 03:46PM

One of Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) big ideas in his first term was mandating drug tests for welfare applicants. It was based on a dubious proposition, which Republicans found compelling: the state could save money by forcing drug users to withdraw from the public-assistance system.
 
As regular readers may recall, in practice, Scott's policy was an embarrassing flop. Only about 2 percent of applicants tested positive, and Florida actually lost money when it was forced to reimburse everyone else for the cost of the drug test, plus pay for staff and administrative costs for the program.
 
Adding insult to injury, Florida's experiment continues to fail in the courts, too (thanks to my colleague Kent Jones for the heads-up).
A federal appeals court on Wednesday dealt another blow to Gov. Rick Scott's crusade to conduct drug tests on welfare applicants when it upheld a lower court ruling that the practice was unconstitutional.
 
The unanimous ruling from a bipartisan panel of judges concluded that the state failed to show any evidence as to why it was necessary to force applicants seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to surrender their constitutional rights as a condition of receiving the aid.
 
"We have no reason to think impoverished individuals are necessarily and inherently prone to drug use, or, for that matter, are more prone to drug use than the general population," the court said in its 54-page ruling.
For proponents of these kinds of programs, the news out of Mississippi was just as discouraging. My colleague Laura Conaway flagged this report, showing that only a tiny number of TANF beneficiaries have tested positive for drugs, reinforcing the impression that the mandatory tests aren't just legally dubious, they're also unnecessary.
 
And yet, they just won't go away.
Image: U.S. President Barack Obama smiles during remarks at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington

The Comeback Kid?

12/05/14 03:09PM

Exactly one month ago today, President Obama, at least on a surface level, looked like he was in a very discouraging place. A day earlier, the Republican Party had not only scored a series of big wins in the 2014 midterms, the White House was confronted with the realization that the GOP would dominate control of Congress for Obama's final two years.
 
The president was quickly dismissed as the lamest of lame ducks. But as Eric Boehlert noted yesterday, quite a bit has happened over the last month.
For a "lame duck" politician who's supposed to be licking his wounds after the Democratic Party's steep midterm losses, President Obama these days probably doesn't mind scanning the headlines each morning. Instead of confirming the slow motion demise so many in the pundit class had mapped out for him, the headlines paint a picture of a president, and a country, in many ways on the rebound.
Boehlert published this yesterday, before the great new job numbers released this morning.
 
And in context, it's just one important data point among many. Over the last month, gas prices have plummeted. And Obama announced a breakthrough climate deal with China. And the number of Ebola cases in the United States dropped to zero.
 
The White House gave new hope to 5 million immigrants, and there wasn't much Republicans could do about it.
 
The Affordable Care Act has arguably had its best month ever. The stock market soared. The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee definitely discredited the Benghazi conspiracy theories.
 
A successful secret mission freed American prisoners in North Korea. The president announced two very high-profile cabinet nominees, and both were well received. The population of the detention facility at Guantanamo continued to shrink.
 
Obviously, there have been incredibly painful, difficult challenges in this country over the last month. That said, as far as the president is concerned, Obama appears to have thrown out the script that's supposed to be applied to lame-duck presidents.
A statue of former President Ronald Reagan is seen February 6, 2014 at the entrance to Ronald Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C.

If an increase in the gas tax was good enough for Reagan....

12/05/14 12:47PM

Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman who served as President Obama's Secretary of Transportation, recently tried to raise the alarm. "Our infrastructure is on life support right now," LaHood said. "That's what we're on."
 
There's no great mystery as to why, either. The Highway Trust Fund, which plays a central role in financing infrastructure projects, is financed through a federal gas tax that hasn't changed in two decades. It's also set to run out of money in May. As a result, American investment in infrastructure has fallen to its lowest point since 1947.
 
The good news is, there's a credible solution on the table: take advantage of low gas prices, increase the gas tax, replenish the Highway Trust Fund, invest in infrastructure, and boost American commerce and job growth.
President Barack Obama met with members of the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs of major companies, on Wednesday. During that meeting, Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx and a huge booster of transportation spending, made the case for raising the gas tax, saying the move has support among Democrats, Republicans and the labor and business communities.
 
"Why not, before the Congress goes home for December, just pass a bill that takes the two bipartisan bills that I just mentioned, up, and solves the problem?" said Smith.
Some of you may be reading this, thinking, "Wait, there are bipartisan bills to raise the gas tax?" The answer, oddly enough, is yes.
 
There's a proposal pending on the Hill -- one bill in the House, one in the Senate -- that would raise the current federal gas tax by 15 cents over three years (a nickel per gallon, per year). It even has a Republican co-sponsor in Rep. Tom Petri (R) of Wisconsin.
 
Indeed, Petri and his fellow co-sponsor, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), have spent parts of this week walking around Capitol Hill with a cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan, reminding lawmakers that Ronaldus Magnus raised the gas tax in 1982, so the right doesn't have to reflexively reject the idea now.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.5.14

12/05/14 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
 
* How confident is Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) in Louisiana's U.S. Senate race? Two days before the statewide runoff, the Republican congressman wasn't even in the state campaigning. He'll face off against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) tomorrow.
 
* Warren Buffett isn't known for investing much in political campaigns, which made it all the more striking that he contributed $25,000 -- the legal maximum -- to an independent political group gearing up for Hillary Clinton's likely presidential campaign.
 
* Two years after the Republican National Committee launched an "autopsy" to determine what we went wrong for the party in the 2012 elections, the Democratic National Committee appears to be doing the exact same thing in the wake of the 2014 midterms. Among the notables who'll serve on the DNC's committee are Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
 
* Florida Democrats are kicking around the idea of pursuing a provocative idea: moving the state's gubernatorial elections so that they coincide with presidential elections. Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who's hinted several times about his gubernatorial ambitions, has said he'd "love" to see the change.
 
* Outgoing two-term Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has not yet launched his presidential campaign, but he's in the process of building an operation. This week, the governor hired Bill Hyers, who most recently managed NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's (D) campaign, to be O'Malley's campaign manager.
 
* Speaking of Maryland, former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), who lost to O'Malley in 2006 after serving one term, was in New Hampshire this week, and he's apparently kicking around the idea of running for president.
President Obama Delivers State Of The Union Address

Boehner addresses SOTU questions

12/05/14 11:35AM

I've taken a keen interest lately in whether or not House Republicans will allow President Obama to deliver his State of the Union address from Capitol Hill early next year. A surprising number of Republicans and conservative media figures have been urging GOP leaders to block the president as punishment for his immigration policy.
 
By way of a follow-up, let's note that the issue came up at House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) weekly press conference yesterday. According to the transcript, the exchange read as followed:
REPORTER: Two of your members have floated the idea of going after the president's own White House budget, cutting the budget for Air Force One, maybe not inviting him to the State of the Union. Are those options on the table? Are you planning on inviting him to the State of the Union?
 
BOEHNER: Listen, the more the president talks about his ideas, the more unpopular he becomes. Why would I want to deprive him of that opportunity? (Laughter.)
And with that, the Speaker moved on, seemingly resolving the matter. Indeed, the Washington Post reported last night, "Well, that settles that."
 
I suspect that's correct, though as the speech draws closer, don't be too surprised if the right returns to the idea of denying the president the House floor.
 
As for Boehner's argument that the president's ideas are unpopular, the first national poll conducted after last month's midterms asked Americans about their top policy priorities. The five most popular ideas are all items that come directly from Obama's agenda. Indeed, the Speaker may have gotten laughs with his response, but the president remains far more popular than Congress, the Republican Party, and Boehner himself.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, on March 1, 2013.

Obama taps Ash Carter for Pentagon

12/05/14 10:58AM

Last week, President Obama surprised much of the political world, asking for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's resignation. This morning, Obama surprised no one, choosing Ash Carter has Hagel's successor.
President Obama will nominate Ashton Carter for U.S. defense secretary Friday, according to a White House official. He will replace outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel, who resigned under pressure last week.
 
Carter joined the Obama administration in 2009 as a top arms buyer, eventually rising to be the Pentagon's second-in-command from 2011 to 2013. There he managed the Pentagon's budget, its 2.4 million employees and rose within the ranks of the administration. The 59-year-old resigned in late 2013 after being passed up for the defense secretary job. Most recently, Carter has worked as a senior executive at the Markle Foundation, where he has focused on technology and the economy. Carter is also a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University.
As we talked about briefly the other day, Carter is a real policy wonk with a fascinating background. For example., he's a Rhodes Scholar with degrees in theoretical physics and medieval history, along with an expertise in nuclear policy.
 
That said, Carter would hardly arrive at the Pentagon as a rookie. He was Under Secretary of Defense for more than two years in Obama's first term, followed by a stint at Deputy Secretary of Defense for two more years, during which time he managed the Pentagon's day-to-day operations.
 
If the White House hoped to avoid a bruising confirmation fight, Carter is arguably the smartest -- and safest -- or all possible choices. He's already been through the Senate confirmation process twice, and was approved with unanimous support in both cases. Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has sung Carter's praises, describing him as "a hard-working, honest, and committed public servant."
 
Barring some shocking revelation, Carter seems very likely to earn Senate support early next year.
 
That said, as the process unfolds, there will be one specific thing I'll be eager to hear more about: the time Carter called for a preemptive strike on North Korea.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at an event Oct. 7, 2014, in New Brunswick, N.J. (Photo by Mel Evans/AP)

For Chris Christie, good news is relative

12/05/14 10:12AM

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and his team will probably feel quite satisfied with reports like these, but as is often the case for the scandal-plagued governor, the good news is burdened by some important caveats.
A legislative inquiry into the George Washington Bridge scandal couldn't determine whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie knew about the controversial lane closures before they occurred, with investigators saying they were stymied by a lack of access.
 
The 136-page report -- reviewed by The Wall Street Journal -- found "no conclusive evidence" that Mr. Christie "was or was not aware" of the September 2013 lane closures in advance or while they were happening.
 
But the report found that accusations by a former ally of the potential 2016 Republican presidential contender left "open the question of when the governor first learned of the closures and what he was told."
While I have not yet read the report in question, news accounts from reporters who have seen it suggest this is hardly an exoneration. The legislative investigation didn't say Christie was unaware of the misconduct, only that investigators couldn't conclusively answer the question one way or the other.
 
This same report, meanwhile, also apparently concluded that the lane-closure scheme was part of a deliberate political plot hatched by top members of Christie's staff.
 
And why did they do that? We still don't know and the report concedes it lacks information needed to explain the mystery. The report notes that because "several critical witnesses" have not testified, the record of the incident "remains incomplete and leaves several important questions unanswered."
 
And whether the governor and his allies like it or not, the public still deserves answers to explain Team Christie's abuses and misconduct. Indeed, even if every word of this leaked information is accurate, the governor still has a serious problem on his hands.

A closer look at the best year for jobs since 1999

12/05/14 09:28AM

We talked earlier about the surprisingly strong U.S. job market, which created a whopping 321,000 jobs in November, far ahead of expectations. Because month-to-month data can get a little noisy, I thought it'd also be worth looking at the numbers in an annual context.
 
Above is a separate chart showing job growth by year for the four most recent presidential administrations -- the blue columns point to the two Democratic administrations (darker blue for overall job growth, lighter blue for private-sector-only growth), and the red columns point to the two Republican administrations (darker red for overall job growth, lighter red for private-sector-only growth).
 
The point is, 2014 isn't just an encouraging year as compared to other years in the Great Recession era; it's actually a strong year on its own. Indeed, more jobs have been created this year than in any year of the Bush/Cheney era -- or the Bush/Quayle era, for that matter.
 
The Clinton era is, for good reason, generally seen as the best American economic period in recent memory, and the above image certainly helps show why. But take a closer look and you'll notice this year's job growth is actually stronger than two of the eight Clinton years.
 
Not too shabby.

U.S. job growth soars, tops 300k

12/05/14 08:50AM

Any Republicans asking "where are the jobs?" today should probably have their heads examined.
 
The new report from Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the U.S. economy added 321,000 jobs in November. The overall unemployment rate stayed at 5.8 and remains at its lowest point in over six years.
 
Once again, public-sector layoffs did not drag down the overall employment figures. Though jobs reports over the last few years have shown monthly government job losses, in November, the private sector added 314,000 while the public sector added 7,000. The latter may not sound like much, but after several years in which that total was negative, it's at least somewhat heartening.
 
As for the revisions, all of the news was excellent: September's totals were revised up from 256,000 to 271,000, while October's figures were revised up, from 214,000 to 243,000. Combined, that's an additional 44,000 jobs.
 
All told, this is one of the best jobs report Americans have seen in many years. There were some spikes in early 2010, but those were largely the result of temporary Census hiring, while this new data points to genuine, robust job growth. It remains very difficult for President Obama's critics to explain these numbers: the hiring boom is underway after tax increases and full implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
 
All told, over the last 12 months, the U.S. economy has added over 2.73 million jobs overall and 2.66 million in the private sector. What's more, November was the 50th consecutive month of positive job growth -- the best stretch since 1939 -- and the 56th consecutive month in which we've seen private-sector job growth – the longest on record.
 
At this point, with the calendar year nearly over, 2014 will easily be the best year for U.S. job creation since 1999.
Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014.

Congress' ISIS debate and the 'strange conspiracy of silence'

12/05/14 08:01AM

The day after the midterm elections, President Obama made a surprise announcement during a press conference: he'd welcome congressional authorization for the use of force against Islamic State targets in the Middle East. "The world needs to know we are united behind this effort and the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support," he said.
 
The comments were overdue, but welcome -- the U.S. military offensive began in August, and given the scale of the mission, it seemed pretty obvious that Congress had a responsibility to debate and endorse the campaign. Indeed, by some estimates, the U.S. military has now launched more than 1,100 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, all as part of a mission lawmakers have not authorized.
 
Maybe Congress will meet its obligations before wrapping up for the year? Apparently not. Consider the bizarre scene in the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday.
It takes a lot to surprise Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has served in the chamber for nearly 30 years, but Thursday's Foreign Relations Committee water bill debate did just that.
 
The committee considered a surprise effort by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to try to attach a Declaration of War against the terror group known as Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL to an unrelated water bill the committee was considering.
 
"It was the most bizarre meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee that I have ever attended in my life, or ever expected to attend," McCain said.
Members were supposed to tackle a pending proposal to expand international access to clean water, but Paul instead offered a surprise: a Declaration of War, to be considered as an amendment to the water bill.
 
Several committee Democrats who support authorizing force against ISIS were willing to take up Paul's proposal, but they collectively backed off and agreed instead to have a separate hearing on Monday.
 
But even that will be largely for show -- even if the Foreign Relations Committee were to debate, write, and approve a resolution authorizing force, there almost certainly won't be enough time for the Senate to consider such a measure, and the odds of a House vote are even more remote.
 
"There's not a snowball's chance in Gila Bend, Ariz., I promise you," McCain told Roll Call of an AUMF clearing the Senate before the end of the lame-duck session.
 
And that's a problem.

Blast off and other headlines

12/05/14 07:36AM

Orion spaceship blasts off in first test on the road to Mars. (NBC News)

Phoenix police shooting is latest to ignite outcry. (AP)

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus want the Brown, Garner families invited to the State of the Union. (The Hill)

Pres. Obama to announce his Defense Secretary nominee this morning. (The Hill)

Louisiana's Senate race will be decided tomorrow. (The Advocate)

Why House Democrats keep bringing a life-sized Ronald Reagan cutout to the floor. (New York Magazine)

Excerpts of the NJ legislature's interim Bridgegate report are leaked to the press. Read them here. (NJ.com)

The Philippines will get hit by a Super Typhoon this weekend. (The Weather Channel)

Thousands of Einstein documents are now a click away. (NY Times)

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Citations for the December 4, 2014 TRMS

12/05/14 12:43AM

Tonight's guest:

  • Anne Thompson, correspondent, NBC News
  • Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-winning, nationally syndicated columnist
  • Kate Osborn, producer, The Rachel Maddow Show
  • Zachary W. Carter, the current corporation counsel of New York City and the former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York
  • Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nashed

After the jump, tonight's links...

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