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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Why the Supercommittee Should Go Small

The creation of the Congressional “supercommittee” last August was a major victory for Washington’s austerity class. It was shrouded in secrecy, exempted from regular Congressional rules and required to choose between two unpopular options in order to enact $1.2 trillion in savings: a so-called grand bargain that would significantly curtail the social safety net vs. deep, automatic across the board cuts at a time of economic peril.

Yet the $1.2 trillion in savings, which will come on top of the $2 trillion in deficit reduction already enacted during the Obama administration, is not enough for some members of the austerity class. For months groups like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) have been urging the supercommittee to “go big” and enact a $4 trillion deal. Eighty House members, lead by Representatives Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Heath Shuler (D-NC), echo that sentiment in a soon-to-be-released letter. The CRFB even argued that tripling the size of the supercommittee’s mandate “increase the chances of success.”

I find that very hard to believe. During the debt ceiling fiasco John Boehner rejected President Obama’s $4 trillion grand bargain offer and Republicans have only hardened their position since then, with every major Republican presidential candidate saying they would oppose a deficit plan that was even 10:1 spending cuts to tax increases. Believing that a $4 trillion deal can be reached given the current level of GOP intransigence is borderline insane.

Indeed, this week committee Republicans immediately rejected Senator Max Baucus’s $3 trillion debt rejection offer, which included $500 billion in proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. (The triggered cuts—which exempt Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security and require that half the savings come from defense spending—will likely be far more palatable to progressives than any type of grand bargain).

By relentlessly pushing the $4 trillion number, which they claim is needed to stabilize the US debt-to-GDP ratio, the austerians are setting the supercommittee up for failure. That way the austerity class can continue to bang the drum for more and more deficit reduction, writes David Dayen of Firedoglake.

We’ll ALWAYS need $4 trillion. Without that big and urgent a need, you cannot cut things like Social Security or Medicare. You cannot acknowledge the deficit reduction that’s already taken place. You cannot acknowledge the fact that doing nothing would bring the medium-term deficit almost entirely into balance. You cannot acknowledge that the debt situation is trivial relative to the jobs crisis. You must only repeat $4 trillion, $4 trillion, $4 trillion over and over again like a mantra.

Indeed, the “go big” campaign is totally divorced from political and economic reality. Stan Collender, a longtime budget expert at Qorvis Communications, notes three reasons why:

“One, the supercommittee is going to have enough trouble coming up with $1.2 trillion,” says Collender. “Two, if they did come up with $1.2 trillion, it should be considered an extraordinary success, not what the Concord Coalition and CRFB would consider a failure. Three, it’s a supercommittee, not a super hero…. Take half a loaf and go home. $1.2 trillion, on top of the deficit reduction that’s already enacted, would be an extraordinary achievement.”

Aside from the utter unfeasibility of enacting such a plan, the austerity class never mentions the impact a $4 trillion deficit reduction accord would have on the economy in the midst of a recession, particularly if it were weighted heavily toward spending cuts (as is likely to be the case). The IMF recently reviewed 173 cases of austerity over thirty years and found that austerity “lowers incomes in the short term, with wage-earners taking more of a hit than others; it also raises unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment.”

The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer summarized the rest of the report:

An austerity program that curbs the deficit by 1 percent of GDP reduces real incomes by about 0.6 percent and raises unemployment by almost 0.5 percentage points. What’s more, the IMF notes, the losses are twice as big when the central bank can’t cut rates (a good description of the present.) Typically, income and employment don’t fully recover even five years after the austerity program is put in place.

In the wake of the Occupy Wall Street protests, media coverage of the country’s unemployment crisis has expanded drastically on cable news (from a mere 502 mentions of “unemployed” or “unemployment” on CNN/FOX/MSNBC in the last week of July to 2,378 mentions of “jobs” from October 10–16), while coverage of the debt has dropped dramatically (from 7,583 mentions in July to 398 mentions in October). But inside the supercommittee, it’s like the protests, or the economic crisis, never happened.

The fact that creating jobs is absent from the committee’s mandate illustrates just how isolated it is from the economic situation today. Last month, Senator Jeff Merkley proposed a very sensible idea: any proposal from the committee should be evaluated by the Congressional Budget Office to see what impact it would have on jobs and to make sure it would not increase the already high unemployment rate. You’d think leaders in Congress would have already thought of that. But to date, Merkley’s proposal has only eleven cosponsors. No wonder the disconnect between Congress and the public grows wider every day. 

Paul Ryan: Class Warrior for the Wealthy

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent does a great job of dismantling Paul Ryan’s new speech at the Heritage Foundation, where the Wisconsin congressman absurdly accused President Obama of “sowing social unrest and class resentment.”

Lest there be any doubt, Ryan should now be regarded as a first-rate demagogue and class warrior for the wealthy, rather than the deep thinker behind the intellectual resurgence of the GOP.

Ryan’s speech, however, is sure to get a lot of coverage in Washington. After all, he’s now considered a very serious person inside the Beltway, willing to take “bold” and “courageous” unpopular positions. As I wrote in my recent piece, “How The Austerity Class Rules Washington,” Ryan largely owes his rise to the so-called centrist deficit hawks in DC, who’ve validated his radical policy prescriptions.

Here’s the relevant section from my post:

The unholy alliance between the austerity class and supply-side conservatives, who talk a good game about deficits but in fact care principally about cutting taxes and government spending, has shifted the debate over the economy and the deficit far to the right since Obama took office. By promoting an age of austerity, the deficit hawks have enhanced the power of “starve the beast” conservatives like Grover Norquist, whose goal for years has been to shred the New Deal. The austerity class’s infatuation with Representative Paul Ryan is a prime example of this addled love affair.

In 2008, when Ryan introduced his radical budget road map—which called for turning Medicare into a voucher system, privatizing Social Security and redistributing income upward by drastically cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and largest corporations—MacGuineas praised his “tremendous courage and leadership.” When Ryan reintroduced his plan in 2010, the CRFB lauded his “thoughtfulness and courage.” The CRFB failed to mention that Ryan’s plan would increase the deficit, from a debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 percent in 2010 to 175 percent by 2050. “Paul Ryan added a huge amount to the deficit,” says John Irons, policy director at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “To call that even remotely fiscally responsible was not a correct analysis. It’s almost as if they said, We don’t care what your plan does—as long as you talk tough on deficits we’re going to support you."

Indeed, in January the CRFB, the Concord Coalition and the Comeback America Initiative (all funded by the Peterson Foundation) gave Ryan a cherished fiscal responsibility award, despite his deficit-exploding budget, hostility to tax increases and votes in favor of the Bush administration’s deficit spending. Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, introduced Ryan by quoting Time magazine: “The irony of Ryan’s rise is that he has vaulted to popularity by embracing historically unpopular ideas.” Said Bixby, “And I thought to myself, now there is a deficit hawk…. If we limit ourselves to popular ideas, we’re never going to solve the problem.”

MacGuineas said the award honored Ryan for being the first politician to put forth a budget plan in 2011, which she called “the most fiscally responsible of any of the plans.” Technically, that’s true. Ryan’s budget, a modified version of his road map, achieves a modest $155 billion in savings over ten years by proposing what the CBPP calls “the most severe and wrenching budget cuts in US history—two-thirds of which would come from programs for people of low or moderate incomes” (i.e., Medicaid, Pell grants, food stamps and low-income housing).

The award to Ryan illustrates just how dangerously obtuse the austerity class’s definition of fiscal responsibility is. The deficit hawks succeed by making the debate over the deficit a pure accounting game, with no acknowledgment of the adverse impact a plan like Ryan’s would have on the broader economy and on so many Americans if it became law. “If [you’re] willing to slash spending so that long-run deficits are brought under control, then it’s fiscally responsible,” Jim Horney, vice president for federal fiscal policy at CBPP, says of the Ryan plan. “But if by fiscally responsible you mean putting the budget on a sustainable path but making sure that government is able to meet the needs of the people of the United States, then I think it’s a terribly irresponsible plan.”

So long as Ryan is taken seriously by the political establishment in Washington, his outlandish attacks on President Obama and extreme policy positions will continue to get top billing.

Occupy Wall Street Hits K Street

If you want to understand how the top 1 percent have accumulated such power in American politics, look no further than Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor. Wall Street has long been the dominant player in the capital. “The banks,” Senator Dick Durbin said in 2009, “are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

The financial sector has spent more money on campaign contributions and lobbying than any other sector of the economy—$4.6 billion on lobbying since 1998, according to Open Secrets. This year, commercial banks and securities and investment firms have spent over $82 million on lobbying, employing over 1,000 lobbyists.

Given these facts, it makes sense that the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to K Street. Since October 1, demonstrators have gathered in MacPherson Square, their numbers and visibility growing in recent days. Yesterday Harvard professor Larry Lessig, one of the pre-eminent advocates of true campaign finance reform, spoke to Occupy K Street. Nation intern Cal Colgan attended the talk and passed on some notes.

“Forget the 99 percent,” Lessig said yesterday. “We are the 99.95 percent of people who have never maxed out in a Congressional election campaign by giving the maximum amount. It is .05 percent of America who have given $2500 in the last election to a Congressional candidate, .05 percent, and Congress listens to them.” These are the same people who pay lobbyists to convince lawmakers to gut crucial regulations and oppose new ones.

Said Lessig:

It is the first time in American history where we have seen a collapse followed by no fundamental reregulation of the financial services sector because [the banks] have the power to block change from either the Democrats or the Republicans, because they can say to the Democrats or to the Republicans, “If you don’t back us, we guarantee you will lose in the next election.” They are the largest single group of contributors to Congressional elections of any in the country, and they hold this country hostage because of that power, because of that corruption.

Lessig called on the demonstrators to make confronting this legalized system of corruption a central organizing principle of the growing movement, and for the left to unite with populist Americans on the right who are similarly frustrated by the stranglehold of money and politics. 

It’s worth quoting his extended remarks on this topic:

Now this movement begins on Wall Street and it points to that corruption. And it teaches the world about that corruption by demonstrating against that .05 percent that sets the rules for 99.95 percent, and sets the rules not because they’re smarter, not because they have a better vision of what America needs, but because they have the power to block and control this political system.

Now my belief is if this movement can take that message and carry it from Occupy Wall Street here, to Occupy K Street, and to look down K Street to all the other places where exactly the same kind of corruption is practiced, and talk about this problem as a problem of corruption, then this movement has the opportunity to unite people of very different views.

I spent time at a Tea Party convention in Arizona talking to people who were deeply concerned about this country. They didn’t talk about gay rights. They didn’t talk about abortion. They talked about getting our government back in control. Those grassroots populist members of the Tea Party—forget their leaders—would agree with this point about the corruption of the system. And if this movement can begin to speak about these issues in a way they can hear, where the focus is not against policies they agree with, for example against the free market, but instead against a corrupted market.

You may or may not believe in capitalism, but there is no one who believes in crony capitalism except the crony capitalists, and we can build a movement, you can build this movement, to unite around the idea that the time of crony capitalism has got to come to an end. There is no one on the left or the right who defends the system of crony capitalism; they just practice it.

Lessig has already explored this idea with the likes of MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan and Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots. Lessig’s call to join forces with parts of the Tea Party on the government corruption issue remains a controversial one in Occupy circles. “Lessig got mostly a positive response, but during the Q&A session there were a few speakers who were skeptical about his claims that the rank-and-file members of the Tea Party have much in common with the Occupy movement,” Colgan writes.

Still, I think Lessig is on to something. The public’s bipartisan disgust with the amount of concentrated wealth on Wall Street and K Street has the potential to lead to a new McCain-Feingold coalition, but this time one that advocates reforms that can actually fix the problem.

Reporting by Cal Colgan

Obama Denounces New GOP Voting Laws, Says the Justice Department Is Investigating

In an interview with Philadelphia radio host Michael Smerconish last week, President Obama for the first time denounced the wave of new laws passed by Republicans designed to restrict the right to vote for millions of Americans.

Said the president:

I will say that my big priority is making sure that as many people are participating in our democracy as possible. Some of these moves in some of the other states that we’ve seen try to make it tougher to vote, restricting ballot access, making it hard on seniors, making it hard on young people.

I think that’s a big mistake, and I have made sure that our Justice Department is taking a look at what’s being done across the country to ensure that people aren’t being denied access to the franchise.

The fact that Obama invoked the Justice Department is very important, since the department has the authority under the Voting Rights Act to approve, deny or modify these laws. “The Justice Department should be much more aggressive in areas covered by the Voting Rights Act,” Congressman John Lewis told me recently.

There are signs that is starting to happen. The Justice Department recently sent pointed letters to Texas and South Carolina, two states that have strict new photo ID requirements, asking for more information on what kind of impact the laws will have on minority voters. And last month, the department found that Texas’s new redistricting maps for the state house and US House of Representatives violated the Voting Rights Act by shortchanging Hispanic residents. (A three-panel federal district court in Washington, which also has authority under the VRA, is now reviewing the Texas maps.)

Career lawyers in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, who were frequently sidelined and overruled during the Bush Administration, are reasserting their authority and independence under Obama. They may be the only ones who can halt the GOP’s war on voting.

GOP Voting Laws Could Swing the 2012 Election

In a recent article, “The GOP War on Voting,” I examined how GOP officials have passed laws in a dozen states since the 2010 election designed to impede traditionally Democratic voters at every step of the electoral process, which could prevent millions of students, minorities, legal immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots in 2012.

Here’s the summary:

Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states—Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia—cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures—Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin—will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democratic—including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans.

Now, thanks to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, we have the best estimate yet for just how many voters will be impacted: “these new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012,” the report states (emphasis added).

According to the report, “states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012–63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.” It just so happens that of the twelve most competitive swing states in the country, “five [Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada and Ohio] have already cut back on voting rights.”

The Brennan Center notes that “these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities”—in other words, those most likely to vote against the GOP.

Here’s how the Brennan Center calculated the number of voters adversely impacted by the new laws:

(1) New photo ID laws for voting will be in effect for the 2012 election in five states (Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin), which have a combined citizen voting age population of just under 29 million. 3.2 million (10.3%) of those potential voters do not have state-issued photo ID.

(2) New proof of citizenship laws will be in effect in three states (Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee), two of which will also have new photo ID laws. Assuming conservatively that those without proof of citizenship overlap substantially with those without state-issued photo ID, we excluded those two states. The citizen voting age population in the remaining state (Alabama) is 3.43 million. Of those potential voters, 240,000 (7%) do not have documentary proof of citizenship.

(3) Two states (Florida and Texas) passed laws restricting voter registration drives, causing all or most of those drives to stop. In 2008, 2.13 million voters registered in Florida and, very conservatively, at least 8.24% or 176,000 of them did so through drives. At least 501,000 voters registered in Texas, and at least 5.13% or 26,000 of them did so via drives.

(4) Maine abolished Election Day registration. In 2008, 60,000 Maine citizens registered and voted on Election Day.

(5) The early voting period was cut by half or more in three states (Florida, Georgia and Ohio). In 2008, nearly 8 million Americans voted early in these states. An estimated 1 to 2 million voted on days eliminated by these new laws.

(6) Two states (Florida and Iowa) made it substantially more difficult or impossible for people with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored. Up to one million people in Florida could have benefited from the prior practice; based on the rates of restoration in Florida under the prior policy, 100,000 citizens likely would have gotten their rights restored by 2012.

It’s important to put these numbers in perspective. Again and again, GOP lawmakers point to voter fraud as the reason for these new laws, even though study after study, investigation after investigation, has found that voter fraud is a minuscule problem in American elections. A major probe by the Bush Justice Department between 2002 and 2007, for example, failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter. Of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only eighty-six people for voter fraud. A much-hyped investigation in Wisconsin, meanwhile, led to the prosecution of only .0007 percent of the local electorate for alleged voter fraud.

So essentially, based on a handful of suspicious incidents, 5 million eligible voters could be disenfranchised in 2012.

GOP to Obama, Fed: Don't Improve the Economy!

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” Mitch McConnell said days before the 2010 election.

Those words have become the guiding light for Congressional Republicans, and explain nearly every decision the GOP has made since the last election. The better the economy performs, the more likely it is that Obama will be re-elected. The longer the recession lasts, the better the chance that McConnell will get his wish.

This dynamic illustrates why Republicans are opposing policies they once supported in Obama’s new jobs plan, such as a payroll tax cut and infrastructure spending. As one senior GOP Republican staffer told Politico, Republicans “don’t want to co-own the economy.”

It also illuminates why Republicans are taking the unusual step of publicly going after the Federal Reserve today, urging Ben Bernanke not to take further action to stimulate the economy. With Congress eternally deadlocked because of Republican obstructionism, the Fed is perhaps the only institution that can still give the economy a boost.

The Fed, of course, is supposed to be politically independent and should pursue policies that are in the best interest of the American economy regardless of political pressure. But if those policies happen to improve the economy, which in turn improves Obama’s political standing, then Republicans will predictably resort to their default strategy: just say no.

Populist Obama Defends Shared Sacrifice in Deficit Speech

Most of the deficit plans circulating around Washington, whether from Paul Ryan or the Senate’s Gang of Six, call for “shared sacrifice,” yet promote anything but. In reality, these plans allow the rich and powerful to keep what they have while asking those who depend on government—the poor, the elderly, the working and middle class—to make do with less.

President Obama has, at times, reluctantly exacerbated this deficit inequality by acquiescing to spending cuts, flirting with paring back the social safety net and winning no corresponding revenue increases from those who can afford to pay more. The president also made a terrible mistake by prioritizing deficit reduction over job creation for the past year, and bizarrely embracing the Republican fantasy that cutting government will somehow create jobs (in fact, the opposite has occurred—the larger the cuts to government, the more jobs lost).

In recent weeks, however, Obama has sought to change the conversation in Washington away from austerity and toward job creation and real shared sacrifice. His jobs plan, though not big or bold enough, represented an important step in the right direction. And the plan he introduced today to reduce the deficit struck a populist chord, asking the rich to pay their fair share. “We shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class,” Obama said in the Rose Garden this morning.

A few of the key lines:

“Middle class families shouldn’t pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires.”

“I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a teacher or a plumber is class warfare.”

“This is not class warfare. It’s math.”

Ezra Klein summarizes the plan:

Let’s start with what’s in President Obama’s deficit plan: $1.5 trillion in higher taxes, $1.1 trillion in reduced war spending, $1 trillion in non-defense discretionary spending cuts from the debt-ceiling deal, $600 billion in cuts to mandatory spending (of which more than $300 billion will come from Medicare and Medicaid), and $430 billion in reduced interest payments.

Now let’s look at what’s not in President Obama’s deficit plan: There are no cuts to Social Security. There’s no rise in the Medicare retirement age. Instead, the headline policy is so-called the “Buffett rule,” a tax reform principle that holds that millionaires should not pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Moreover, says a senior administration official, Obama issue a veto threat against “any bill that takes one dime from the Medicare benefits seniors rely on without asking the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share.”

The core of this plan, in other words, is not a major concession to the GOP, or a high-profile display of the Obama administration’s independence from party. It’s a populist proposal for increasing taxes on the rich, and a veto threat against cutting Medicare benefits without increasing taxes on the rich.

At first glance, progressive groups liked what they heard.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus:

We stand with President Obama to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from Republican attacks on the benefits that have built and sustained the middle class. We applaud the President’s good-faith efforts to address the real drivers of our national deficit: tax breaks for wealthy elites, two wars, giveaways to big corporations, and the ensuing Republican recession.

MoveOn.org:

For months, hundreds of thousands of members of the American Dream Movement have been urging Washington to focus on creating jobs and making our tax system work for all Americans, not just the super rich. Today, we’re glad to see this message reach the White House. Americans need jobs not cuts, paid for by making millionaires and corporations pay their fair share. The Tea Party led Republicans in Congress have made their position very clear. They want to eliminate Medicare as we know it just so they can protect tax breaks for the rich, all the while doing nothing to create jobs.

The only way out of the economic hole we are in is to put Americans back to work. The President has laid out a clear vision to do that. Any Republicans, and Democrats, who oppose these common sense, hugely popular proposals will be standing in the way of a real recovery.

Of course, the super-committee still has the real power in this debate, which is why Obama vowed to veto any plan that only cuts spending without raising revenue on the wealthy. He could go further and vow to veto any proposal that doesn’t stimulate the economy and create jobs (or, inversely, any proposal that would cost jobs). “We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable,” the president said.

In the past, Republicans have simply ignored Obama’s calls to raise revenue and demanded only spending cuts, which Obama and Democrats have unhappily agreed to. Speaker Boehner is doing that once again. But Obama is saying, in essence, that this time will be different. Enough is enough. For once, he’s negotiating from a position of relative strength. We’ll see how long it lasts. Remember, if the super-committee doesn’t reach an agreement, across-the-board spending cuts will kick in.

Washington is still way too focused on cutting the deficit at the expense of creating jobs. The president’s rhetoric and actions helped get us into this predicament. Belatedly, however, the president seems to realize that creating jobs, defending the social safety net and appealing to shared sacrifice is both good policy and good politics.

GOP 2012 Strategy: Disenfranchise Democrats, Rig Electoral College

As Kevin Drum notes, Republicans are especially adept at reducing the structural power of their political opponents after taking office, which is a major way the GOP consolidates influence and authority in American politics.

In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, I write about how the GOP has launched a “war on voting,” passing laws in a dozen states since the 2010 election designed to impede traditionally Democratic voters at every step of the electoral process, which could prevent millions of students, minorities, legal immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots in 2012.

But Republicans aren’t stopping there. Nick Baumann has a startling and related piece in Mother Jones today about how Republicans in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania are further trying to rig the 2012 election to their advantage, this time by tampering with the Electoral College. According to Baumann, Pennsylvania’s GOP legislature and governor want the state’s twenty-one electoral votes—which Obama won in 2008 and Democrats have carried since 1992—to be apportioned by Congressional district instead of the current winner-take-all system on the books in forty-eight states (the exceptions are Nebraska and Maine). It just so happens that Republicans control the redistricting process in Pennsylvania, which will likely result in “12 safe GOP seats compared to just six safe Democratic seats,” Baumann writes. That means Obama could theoretically win the state’s popular vote in 2012, but still lose overall in terms of electoral delegates.

Writes Baumann:

If the GOP presidential nominee carries the GOP-leaning districts but Obama carries the state, the GOP nominee would get 12 electoral votes out of Pennsylvania, but Obama would only get eight—six for winning the blue districts, and two (representing the state's two senators) for winning the state.

As I mentioned, GOP leaders in both legislative chambers, along with Republican Governor Tom Corbett, support this drastic rule change, which would reduce Pennsylvania’s prestige as a coveted swing state but give the GOP a huge advantage in Electoral College math. Republican State Senator Dominic Pileggi has already sent a letter to his colleagues asking them to co-sponsor the legislation, which could be introduced as soon as next month.

Other states controlled by Republicans that traditionally vote Democratic in presidential elections, like Michigan, could follow suit. As Carolyn Fiddler, spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, puts it: “State legislatures could gerrymander the Electoral College.”

Think of it as a continuation of the GOP’s war on voting. The most basic of democratic rights should not be a left vs. right issue but one that both parties work to uphold. Unfortunately, instead of improving our democracy, Republicans are working harder every day to undermine it.

Obama Jobs Speech Changes Conversation

After a year of embracing austerity economics—emphasizing cutting spending and government over creating new jobs—Barack Obama belatedly tried to change the conversation with his big jobs speech Thursday night.

The introduction of the “American Jobs Act” was both a policy and rhetorical shift from the administration, away from the above the fray “most reasonable man in the room” strategy aimed at a narrow sliver of independent voters and toward a more aggressive, feistier Obama, one who is not afraid to run against the do-nothing Congress, take his case directly to the American people and ruffle a few feathers. It’s the Obama, quite frankly, that many of his supporters have been waiting quite some time to see.

That’s not to say everything about the speech or his plan was perfect.

Is the $450 billion legislation—an extension of unemployment benefits, an extension of the payroll tax cut, repairing schools and crumbling infrastructure, rehiring teachers and first responders, job training for the long-term unemployed, a tax cut for companies that hire new workers—big enough to spur a true economic recovery? Probably not. Half of it is tax cuts. Ezra Klein tweeted that “White house believes this plan would add one to two percentage points to GDP growth next year.” But Harvard economist Jeffrey Liebman, a former Obama adviser, says “we need real GDP to grow at 4.5 percent a year for two years to bring the unemployment rate below 7 percent.” So even if Obama’s entire plan passed as is, there would still be more to do.

Will Obama’s to-be-determined deficit speech undermine the momentum from his jobs speech? Perhaps. The president left open the possibility for significant changes to Medicare and Medicaid, which won’t be popular with many Americans. The super-committee still has the power in Washington. Once its deadline nears, the conversation may once again revolve around deficits instead of jobs, especially since there’s no built-in incentive forcing the committee to focus on jobs, as compared to the triggered spending cuts.

But for now, Obama’s speech was an important first step in changing the conversation and defining the debate on his own terms. I particularly liked the section where he invoked Abraham Lincoln to argue for the essential role of government in America. Think of it as the president’s long-awaited reply to the Tea Party. Said Obama:

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future—a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad; launch the National Academy of Sciences; and set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.

Ask yourselves—where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.

Obama returned to the theme of shared sacrifice and contrasted the conservative view of the economy, “that the only solution to our economic challenges is to simply cut most government spending and eliminate most government regulations,” with his own. Said the president:

But what we can’t do—what I won’t do—is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades. I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe that’s a race we can win.

If the choice next November is between Obama in this speech vs. Republicans in Congress or the GOP hopefuls debating last night, Obama will win.

 

On Capital Punishment, Perry Is Bush on Steroids

The most disturbing and telling moment in last night’s GOP presidential debate, as my colleague Jamelle Bouie has noted, came when the audience heartily applauded Brian Williams’s mention of the 234 executions Gov. Rick Perry presided over in Texas.

Here’s the full transcript of the exchange. (Huff Po has the video).

WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. [Applause] Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which—when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.

But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.

[Applause]

WILLIAMS: What do you make of the dynamic that just happened here? The mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause.

PERRY: I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens—and it’s a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.

In fact, the death penalty process in Texas has been irrevocably broken for quite some time. There is ample evidence that Perry ordered the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham—a case described in chilling detail by The New Yorker’s David Grann—even when presented with clear proof of Willingham’s innocence, or at the very least persuasive doubt about his supposed guilt. Perry then dismissed members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who were investigating Willingham’s case, in order to try to cover up his cavalier execution of a possibly innocent man. That alone, in my opinion, should disqualify Perry from seeking the presidency.

But Perry’s reckless handling of the most severe power granted to a state executive—the power to take another life—didn’t stop there. According to the Texas Tribune, Perry’s “parsimonious use of clemency is notable because of continuing concerns about the ability of prisoners facing capital charges in Texas to retain quality legal representation, the execution of those who were minors when they committed their crimes, the ability of some prisoners to understand their punishment intellectually and the international ramifications of executing foreign nationals.”

In at least three cases currently before the state, serious questions have been raised about the legal handling of the cases, the guilt of the defendants, and Texas’ refusal to hearing new evidence that may well prove their innocence. Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic has a detailed summary of each case: Duane Edward Buck, Larry Ray Swearingen and Hank Skinner.

Since 2001, forty-one death row prisoners in Texas have been exonerated based on new DNA evidence. One prisoner, Anthony Graves, spent twelve years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. “When we’ve had twenty exonerations in Dallas County alone, obviously someone may have been executed for a crime they didn’t commit,” says Dallas County DA Craig Watkins. The fact that Perry has “never struggled…at all” with these cases tells us something about his moral compass, or lack thereof.

As my colleague Liliana Segura tweeted yesterday, “After Bush, anti–death penalty folks could not fathom a worse presidential candidate. Little did we know.”

When it comes to executing people—innocent or otherwise—Perry is Bush on steroids.

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