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27 posts from January 2010

January 25, 2010

Strange Bedfellows: Why the AFL-CIO teamed up with Citizens United

In my latest piece for Working In These Times, I examine the AFL-CIO's decision to throw in its lot with the conservative Citizens United to challenge campaign finance restrictions on corporate political advertising by corporations. Prediction: This won't end well for labor.

January 24, 2010

If we want to expand Medicaid, we've got to enhance it

I've heard several progressives suggest that Democrats abandon comprehensive health care reform and just expand Medicaid to cover everyone who can't afford insurance. Expanding Medicaid could provide coverage for 35-45 million Americans and ultimately save billions of dollars.

Now that the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority is toast, reformers are brainstorming alternative routes to reform. According to one school of thought, the House should just pass the Senate bill, or a modified version thereof. Another camp maintains that the bill should be broken down into smaller, less controversial chunks which the Republicans wouldn't dare filibuster. Be skeptical of any political strategy predicated on the assumption that something is so universally beloved or obviously beneficial that the GOP wouldn't dare obstruct it.

Continue reading "If we want to expand Medicaid, we've got to enhance it " »

Indulging Bart Stupak is literally not an option

Digby writes:

Yes. And I'm guessing [whether House and Senate Dems can pull together and pass a health care reform bill through budget reconciliation] depends upon whether or not pro-choice women (and men) in both houses are going to have the heinous Bart Stupak amendment forced down their throats as part of the reconciliation "fix." I can't see any way that Stupak and his boys will capitulate otherwise and unless they do, this will not pass the House.

What do you suppose the odds are of that happening?

I'd say the odds are bad. Senate rules wouldn't allow the Stup-ification of the health care bill through budget reconciliation.

Compared to the Stupak Amendment to the House health care bill, the Senate bill would impose fewer restrictions on participating private insurers as to what kind of abortion coverage they can offer.

Now that the Democrats have lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the best hope for passing health care reform is to have the House pass the Senate's bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already made it clear that that can't happen unless the Senate first makes some changes. In order to avoid a filibuster, those changes would have to be approved through budget reconciliation, where they can be passed by a simple majority.

The thing is, you can't just pass any old legislation through budget reconciliation. As the name suggests, only items that mainly affect the budget can be passed that way, i.e., they must "principally affect federal revenues." It would be procedurally straightforward to use reconciliation replace the excise tax on "Cadillac plans" with an income tax on high earners. By the same token, since a strong public option would reduce the deficit, the Senate parliamentarian might deign to let the Senate add a public option through reconciliation.

The Stupak Amendment isn't like that. At its rotten core, the Stupak Amendment is about preventing private insurance companies from selling abortion coverage to private citizens who pay for it with their own money. It has no impact on the budget, or taxes, or the deficit. So, there's no way to buy off Stupak and his cronies through budget reconciliation. Pelosi's going to have to get those votes somewhere else.

January 23, 2010

UK skeptics plan mass homeopathy "overdose"

Kudos to the UK skeptics planning a mass homeopathy "overdose" to protest the fact that the National Health Service wastes public funds on these quack remedies:

There is still time to sign up for one of the most rational dates of 2010: next week's mass homeopathy overdose. At 10.23am on Saturday 30 January, anti-homeopathy activists, organised by the Merseyside Skeptics Society, will down entire bottles of homeopathic remedies outside branches of Boots, the better to demonstrate that these preparations are worthless.

Even though sales of Hahnemann's potions are likely to be unaffected, there remains a chance that the survival of hundreds of sceptics might persuade officials at Nice, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, to re-examine the funding of homeopathy within the NHS. It remains one of the world's great mysteries that the health service, with its austere, cash-strapped commitment to evidence-based medicine, should continue to spend an estimated £4m a year on sugar pills. [Guardian]

At least sugar pills contain actual sugar. Homeopathic tinctures are so heavily diluted that they are unlikely to contain any active ingredient whatsoever. It's such an egregious ripoff that I wouldn't even buy a bottle of homeopathic "medicine" in order to chug it. So, next Saturday, I'll homeopathically OD on a glass of New York City tap water. Same difference.

January 22, 2010

Chill Out: Pelosi hasn't given up on health reform

People are getting way too worked up about Nancy Pelosi's announcement that she doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate's health reform bill right now.

"In every meeting that we have had, there would be nothing to give me any thought that that bill could pass right now the way that it is," Pelosi said yesterday, "There isn't a market right now for proceeding with the full bill unless some big changes are made."

Now, maybe Pelosi doesn't have the votes right now, but such is the life of the Speaker of the House. Just because she doesn't have the votes in hand doesn't necessarily mean she can't get them.

If Pelosi does have the votes right now, she'd be a fool to say so. In the wake of Martha Coakley's defeat, all eyes are on the House. If health care reform is to survive, the House will have to pass the Senate bill "as is." But that wouldn't necessarily be the end of the story. The Senate could still fix some stuff the House doesn't like through budget reconciliation. In theory, it could even put the public option back.

Pelosi would be foolish announce that the House could pass the Senate bill right off the bat. She'd lose all her leverage with her Senate colleagues. If Pelosi assures them she has this all wrapped up, the Senate won't change a thing.

Pelosi's using the oldest negotiating trick in the book: "Sorry, guys, my hands are tied. The yahoos in my caucus will never accept your deal. I guess the whole thing goes down in flames. That is, unless you give them X. Then maybe I can talk some sense into the hoopleheads."

Pelosi probably needs some major concessions in order to get the votes. For example, there are probably at some hardline House Democrats who would get on board if the Senate first passed reconciliation instructions abolishing the so-called "Cadillac plan" tax. Getting rid of the tax is a high priority for the labor movement.

I've been told by several experts on legislative procedure that it is possible to pass the reconciliation instructions first as long as the president ultimately signs the health care bill first.

So, don't panic. Pelosi has shown no signs of giving up on health reform. She's just doing her job.

January 20, 2010

How could Coakley outspend Brown 5:1 and still lose? (Updated)

This is even more embarrassing than I thought. Democrat Martha Coakley spent more than five times as much as Republican Scott Brown and she still lost the election.

As of December 31, 2009, Coakley had raised a total of $5,236,955, of which she spent $4,294,566. Brown raised  $1,220,077 and spent $852,927. If those trends continued through to election day, Coakley outraised Brown by more than 4:1 and outspent him by 5:1. Yet she still lost by 5 points.

The official records for the last few weeks of the campaign aren't available from the FEC yet. (Update: The Brown campaign claimed a last-minute fundraising surge in January. I've heard estimates of up to $12 million. It's not clear how much money Coakley's campaign raised in January, but she presumably took in several million of her own.)

The FEC figures don't include independent expenditures on behalf of either candidate. We know that Brown got a lot of help from the Tea Party movement that doesn't show up in his campaign finance record. Then again, some choice and labor groups came through with late independent expenditures for Coakley.

Coakley aides groused that the D.C. Democratic establishment failed to step in until it was too late. A Democratic senate race in Massachusetts shouldn't need a lot of hand holding from the national party. Amazingly enough, Coakley's lead dwindled during a month when her opponent held over three times as many campaign events as she did.

Update: According to the Boston Globe, the Brown camp claims to have spent $13 million, nearly all of which came from online donors in the final weeks.  But the same story says that the Coakly camp and its allies allies also launched a multi-million dollar advertising onslaught at the last minute, to little avail. Anyone know how much Coakley raised/spent in January?

Ping pong: The House needs to pass the Senate health care reform bill now

Martha Coakley's defeat needn't doom health care reform. The Democrats will now lose their filibuster-proof majority, but remember, the Senate already passed its bill. The easiest way to save health care reform is for the House to pass the identical bill, a strategy known as "ping pong." In that case, there would be no need to send the conference report back to the Senate for approval. The bill could go straight to the president's desk. Signed, sealed, delivered.

The Democrats would also have the option of tweaking some aspects of the bill through budget reconciliation.

Alternatively, the Democrats could fast-track the bill and vote before Scott Brown is sworn in. House and Senate leaders have already cobbled together some kind of compromise bill. If they sent what they've got to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring, there could be a vote in 10 days. Harry Reid said last night that Brown won't be seated until the votes are certified, which could take 15 days. Unfortunately, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va) has already come out and said that he opposes a Senate vote before Brown is sworn in. The fast-track strategy is contingent upon a 60-vote majority. If Webb, or anyone else in the democratic caucus balks, the plan fails.

Maybe Webb is bluffing. If push came to shove, would he really kill health reform to make some obscure point of pseudo-civics? Webb's a fiscally conservative Democrat and he expects the combined House-Senate health care bill will be at least somewhat more progressive than the Senate version. No doubt he's aware that if he nixes (or threatens to nix) the fast-track option, the House Democrats will be forced to line up behind the Senate bill. Somehow, I doubt Harry Reid has the fortitude or the inclination to test Webb's resolve.

So, that's the choice facing the Democrats: Ping pong or ignominious defeat. I know my preference.

January 19, 2010

Pentagon contractor etches Bible "codes" on rifle sights

A Pentagon contractor with a $660 million contract to make rifle sights for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is etching Bible references onto their product, ABC News reports. The company, Trijicon, confirms that it has always engraved these "codes" on its rifle sights:

One of the citations on the gun sights, 2COR4:6, is an apparent reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament, which reads: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."

Other references include citations from the books of Revelation, Matthew and John dealing with Jesus as "the light of the world." John 8:12, referred to on the gun sights as JN8:12, reads, "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." [ABC]

Military spokespeople swear the Pentagon had no idea it was buying rifle parts etched with Christian propaganda. Let's hope they're telling the truth.

Trijicon should lose the contract and the people responsible for the Bible code fiasco should lose any security clearances they may have. There should be an investigation to determine if anyone inside the military condoned the codes.

It is totally unacceptable for a contractor entrusted with national security to be peddling Christian propaganda. If Trijicon didn't have enough sense to tell the Pentagon that it was inscribing Christian codes on equipment bound for wars in Muslim countries, it doesn't deserve our trust. Trijicon is doing the Taliban's work by reinforcing the perception that the U.S. is waging a Christianist crusade against Muslims.

[HT: Boing Boing]

January 18, 2010

Why Roeder's manslaughter defense will probably fizzle

Newsweek has a good explanation of why Scott Roeder's attempt to plead voluntary manslaughter in the murder of Dr. George Tiller is unlikely to prevail.

First off, Roeder's admitted actions don't meet the legal criteria:

This means Roeder has to demonstrate not one, but four things. First, that there was a threat to a third person. Second, that the threat was imminent. Third, that imminent threat was the result of an unlawful act. And, fourth, that he honestly believed all of this. If Roeder fails to prove just one, his defense falls apart. Roeder will have to convince the jury that he believed the fetus counts as a "third party"; so far, no state has ever declared a fetus a person. Proving Tiller to have been an imminent threat also poses a challenge, given that he was shot at church, not at his abortion clinic. Even if Roeder could prove that he honestly believed the fetus to be a third party, and that Tiller was indeed an imminent threat, he would still have to convince the jury that he honestly believed Tiller was committing an "unlawful act." Such a belief, however, would have absolutely no basis: despite numerous attempts by former Kansas Attorney General Phil Kline, Tiller was never convicted of performing an "unlawful" abortion. [Newsweek]

The judge has the option of telling the jury to disregard the defense's argument.

However, it's misleading to say that no state has ever declared a fetus a person. Thirty-seven states, including Kansas, have some kind of fetal homicide law, according to the National Council of State Legislators. Generally speaking, these laws treat fetuses as people if they are harmed by a violent crime. That's not the same as full-fledged legal personhood, but it's a troubling step in that direction. Presumably, in Roeder's case the jury would have to decide whether a fetus is a person for the purposes of a voluntary manslaughter defense.

January 14, 2010

UN: Guatemalan lawyer orchestrated own contract killing to frame president

UN human rights investigators have determined that a Guatemalan lawyer to predicted his own assassination on video orchestrated his own murder to frame president Alvaro Colom. And it would have worked, too, if it hadn't been for those pesky kids at the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.