George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Massachusetts Senate Race Turns to Gun Control

(AP Photo/Ricardo Moraes)

Six months after the shootings in Newtown, and one month after the Manchin-Toomey gun control legislation died in the Senate, we already have a test case of how the gun control might play out with voters. It has emerged this week as a major issue in the the special election for John Kerry’s vacated Massachusetts Senate seat—and the Republican candidate’s somewhat comical inability to effectively defend his position is perhaps a promising sign for reformers.

Last week, Representative Ed Markey, the Democratic candidate, released a fairly standard campaign ad promising to “fight for common sense laws to stop gun violence.” It noted that the Republican candidate, former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, “is against banning high-capacity magazines like the ones used in the Newtown school shooting.” Watch:

Gomez and the national Republicans flipped out. “Exploiting a tragedy for political gain is sick,” Gomez said in a statement Friday. “Disgusting, Deplorable and Desperate Attack Ads on Former Navy SEAL Par for the Course for Markey,” tweeted the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Gomez doubled down on this defense today, releasing an ad attacking “dirty Ed Markey,” and making an unusually explosive, and fact-stretching, claim: “Now, Markey actually blames Gomez for the Newtown shooting.” Watch:

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It’s fair to say that Gomez is playing loose with the truth here. “Despite what the ad says, Markey has not blamed Gomez for the Newtown shooting,” The Boston Globe had to explain in a straight news story.

Gomez’s over-reaction suggests awareness of serious vulnerability on this issue. And what’s his actual response? He’s not debating a policy point—not attempting to explain why he opposes a ban on high-capacity magazines—but haphazardly trying change the conversation with an inflammatory attempt to play the victim.

His failure to conjure a sensible, post-Newtown argument against better gun laws might be an important tea leaf for the 2014 midterms, as well as the ultimate future of real gun legislation.

It’s useful to recall where the political debate stands. After comprehensive gun-control legislation died in the Senate last month, polls showed that senators who helped kill the bill faced plummeting approval numbers, while those that stood up for the legislation received notable boosts. Since 90 percent of the public favored expanded background checks for gun sales, this dynamic wasn’t very surprising, and it left reformers with two paths forward.

The first was to immediately try to take another bite at the apple: pressure key holdouts like Senators Kelly Ayotte and Jeff Flake to come back to the table, and try to pass a moderated version of the Manchin-Toomey legislation as soon as it became feasible. There have been some whispers about that possibility, but nothing concrete seems to be happening.

The other (not mutually exclusive) approach is to let the public fury build over the next eighteen months and use it as a weapon in the midterm elections. A vote allowing criminals to have guns is a good wedge to separate Republicans from moderate suburban voters, and if the Manchin-Toomey vote helps cost some members their seats, a humbled 114th Congress could take another swing at gun control legislation

This strategy has the added virtue of potentially tougher legislation: instead of having to modify the already weakened Manchin-Toomey bill (bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines were dropped early on, and a large background check exemption for private sales was added at the eleventh hour), reformers could start all over with a much better package.

Markey’s ad is a perfect example of this latter approach: not only is he hitting his opponent for opposing popular gun control legislation, but he’s widening the debate past Manchin-Toomey, and focusing on assault weapons and large clips. (Gomez, to his credit, has repeatedly backed Manchin-Toomey and expanded background checks, leaving assault weapons and high-capacity clips as the major area of distinction.)*

Gomez's response wasn't to defend a position against high-capacity clips, but rather try to change the story. If gun control opponents can’t do any better than Gabriel Gomez at defending their policies, things are looking up for reform.

*This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Gomez supports Manchin-Toomey and closing the gun show loophole.

Walmart helped make the AR-15, which was the weapon used by Adam Lanza, the most popular assault weapon in America, George Zornick writes.

Budget Cuts Endanger Agency That Saved Countless Lives in Oklahoma

A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Many heroes asserted themselves in Oklahoma yesterday, from the first responders digging through the rubble for survivors, to the teachers who shielded children from the massive tornado that touched down as the school day was ending.

While perhaps not as heralded, certainly the experts at the National Weather Service deserve some credit for saving lives as well. One of the best ways to prevent high body counts when tornadoes barrel through populated areas is to warn residents ahead of time—which is the job of the NWS. They did it well yesterday, issuing early warnings allowed countless people to seek shelter before mayhem arrived.

But the NWS has, in recent years, suffered under serious budget restraints placed on it by deficit hawks in Congress and the White House. Far from the public view, the NWS is starting to come apart at the seams—and the full effects of the sequester haven’t even been felt yet. So what if, next time, the NWS isn’t able to do its job as well?

The tornado in Oklahoma yesterday provides a good case study for both the crucial import of the NWS’s work and the very small margin for error. Tornadoes present a particular challenge because, while the conditions that create them are easily identifiable—warm, moist air from the gulf colliding with warm, dry continental air and cold, dry air from the Rockies—the tornadoes themselves are incredibly unpredictable. Scientists still are not sure why some thunderstorms produce them and others do not.

The tornado simply appears, almost out of nowhere. In Oklahoma, it was well over a mile wide, with furious 200 mile per hour winds shredding most everything in its path, which, it quickly became apparent, would include a densely populated suburb. This is what it looked like:

This is a terrifying experience for most involved, but not an uncommon one in America—in fact, 75 percent of all tornadoes occur here. This map from the Smithsonian shows fifty-six years of tornado strikes and the path they took:

When a tornado appears, the National Weather Service sounds the alarm. In Oklahoma on Monday, the alert came sixteen minutes before the tornado actually touched the ground, which is three minutes more than the thirteen-minute average warning the NWS provides. It triggered emergency broadcast alerts throughout the region and blaring air-raid sirens that allowed hundreds of thousands of people to seek shelter.

As a tornado is forming, NWS workers are synthesizing a rapid amount of data from radar, satellites, on-the-ground meteorologists, and citizens calling in what they see. The alerts have to be accurate—and they have to be quick.

“The adrenaline is building up. You’re looking at storms that you know are just really bad,” Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, told The Nation. “It takes a special kind of person because you have to juggle ten or fifteen balls all at the same time, and then make life-and-death decisions based on that.

“It’s an extremely stressful, extremely busy time,” he said. “[It’s like] when an accident is occurring and you have seconds to make a decision as to whether to turn right, or left, or slam on your brakes or whatever—but stretched out over a couple hours. That kind of feeling.”

Five minutes after the tornado touched down on Monday, but twenty minutes before it hit Moore, Oklahoma, the NWS issued a strongly worded “tornado emergency” advisory:

This no doubt saved hundreds of lives in Moore. According to ABC News, the Plaza Towers Elementary School does not have an underground shelter—but the fourth, fifth and sixth grades had enough time to evacuate to a local church, where they remained safe. The entire school building was destroyed.

The NWS deserves enormous credit here. But what if it wasn’t up to the task? That’s an increasingly real possibility. Just this month, Sobien’s group, which represents 4,000 employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (of which NWS is a part), issued a warning that the budget battles are imperiling crucial NWS functions, and creating “[r]educed efficiency and accuracy for tornado events due to reduced alertness of short staffed offices.” Hurricane monitoring and response is also endangered, along with crucial wildfire monitoring efforts and a wide array of other NWS activities.

Since taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans have targeted NOAA for severe cuts—they came out of the gate proposing a massive 28 percent cut in their first budget that year, which was moderated by the end of the process.

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But the assaults on the NOAA budget continued, and the agency couldn’t escape the sequester, which will lop 8.2 percent from the NOAA budget. This lead the acting administrator to institute an across-the-board hiring freeze in March, and four days of mandatory furloughs are on the horizon. (There is already a 10 percent vacancy rate at the agency.)

This is all occurring at an agency that could badly use more money, not less. The satellite equipment there is badly antiquated, and the Government Accountability Office said the “satellite gap” is one of the thirty biggest threats facing the federal government.

“Remember that bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis? The Weather Service is like that bridge a week before it collapsed,” Sobien said. “The strains are happening. I’m just seeing things just not working the way they should be.”

In fact, amidst all the turmoil yesterday, the NWS suffered some notable problems. In the evening a communications outage affected offices in Chicago; Anchorage; Binghamton, New York; and Kentucky, according to Sobien. The Nation confirmed this outage with an official at the NWS office in Chicago.

In addition, Sobien says the NWS office in Midland, Texas—the next office upstream from Oklahoma City that does upper-air surveillance of storms with weather balloons—declined to do a special weather balloon release after the storm to help monitor conditions because of budget concerns. (An official at that office said he was not aware of that particular situation.)

Those ended up being trivial outages, but next time might be different. If a disaster strikes where a NWS office is under-staffed, it’s easy to see how lives could be lost.

“The National Weather Service is an inherent government service, like the Post Office, like the FBI, you can name a dozen others. We had this debate about the National Weather Service a hundred-plus years ago, and said, yeah, this is a service we want for everyone,” Sobien said. “To be dismantling that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Here’s how to help Oklahoma after yesterday’s devastating tornadoes.

Congress Is Ready to Fight Over Deep Food Stamp Cuts

Volunteers fill bags for a school lunch program. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta.)

Late Wednesday night, the House Agriculture Committee passed a comprehensive, $940 billion farm bill. This was a first step towards making a real, five-year bill law—something the last Congress failed to do, and something that, by all accounts, this Congress deems an absolute necessity.

But one central issue could derail the farm legislation once again: food stamp cuts. Republicans are demanding even deeper cuts than what they proposed last year, and Thursday morning on Capitol Hill, several House Democrats made it clear they are willing to let the farm bill die if it contains those steep cuts.

The bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee last night slashed $20.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, $4 billion more than what the committee proposed last year. These cuts would take away food stamps from nearly 2 million people, and several hundred thousand low-income children would stop receiving free school meals.

At a press conference Thursday morning, several prominent Democrats drew red lines around the cuts. “Lest anyone think that this [debate] is going quietly into the night, you have another thing coming,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro. “Maybe, and I can’t say for sure, maybe we’ll take a look at whether this bill can move at all.”

Representative Jim McGovern was more direct. “The $20.5 billion cut in SNAP is a poison pill. It means that we shouldn’t be supporting the farm bill,” he said.

The stakes are extremely high here. The agricultural community—from farmers to the multibillion-dollar industry players—badly wants a new farm bill, and powerful senators from rural states, in particular, are bent on enacting it. President Obama has repeatedly pressed Congress to pass one.

These threats from McGovern and DeLauro, who were joined by Representatives Marcia Fudge and Barbara Lee at Thursday’s event, carry real weight. The backdrop is that many conservatives oppose the House Agriculture committee bill in part because the SNAP cuts are too small—Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget calls for $135 billion in cuts to food stamps and for the program to be block-granted to the states.

Many far-right conservatives will likely oppose the farm bill for this reason, and for many other reasons—voting yes on a nearly trillion-dollar bill isn’t easy for them. That means Democrats will be needed to secure House passage, and if liberal members can mobilize enough colleagues to join them in steadfast opposition to the food stamp cuts, the farm bill might not pass. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did not return a request for comment about how she would instruct members on this issue.)

Even if the bill does pass the House, food stamp cuts could still blow up final passage when the House and Senate try to reconcile their bills. The Senate version of the farm bill cuts one-fifth of what the House proposes. Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon that she would not accept the food stamp provisions of the House bill.

“I absolutely reject the level of cuts [to SNAP] and the way this is done in the House,” Stabenow said. “That policy does not have support in the United States Senate. I won’t support it the conference.”

McGovern said he hopes Obama, too, will prioritize the food stamp fight over simply getting a bill passed. “We need the White House to come up here and help us a little bit on this,” he said. “I really do believe there ought to be a line in the sand drawn, by this White House, that you’re not going to sign a farm bill with any SNAP cuts. Certainly not cuts of $20 billion.”

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The House Agriculture Committee bill cuts SNAP primarily by eliminating “categorical eligibility”—a method that forty states use to make sure needy families get food stamps. The 1996 welfare law allowed states flexibility with food stamp qualification limits by aligning them to more generous rules used under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and that’s the flexibility the GOP wants to eliminate.

Generous, of course, is really a misnomer here. The qualification for food stamps—130 percent of the poverty level—often excludes needy families who technically exceed that limit, but have disposable income well below 130 percent because of childcare and other expenses, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains. Also, the SNAP asset limit of $2,000 hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1986 and has fallen 53 percent in real terms.

So forty states, both red and blue, use the flexibility provided by categorical eligibility to make sure needy families don’t get screwed out of food stamps. If that eligibility is scrapped, as the GOP proposes, the Congressional Budget Office estimates 1.8 million low-income will stop getting food stamps and 210,000 needy children will stop getting free meals at school.

This is an outcome that far-right members of the House proudly champion. “It seems to me that the goal of this administration is to expand the rolls of people who are on SNAP benefits, the purpose of which is to expand the dependency class,” said Representative Steve King during Wednesday’s committee debate.

McGovern and his colleagues also see this debate in moral terms, though naturally very different ones. “Here’s the deal: we have 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry. Seventeen million of them are children. We’re the richest, most powerful country in the world. We all should be ashamed,” he said Thursday.

“The debate around the farm bill yesterday should not have been focused on how we should cut SNAP. We should be talking about how we improve and expand SNAP,” he added. “We should be talking about how we invest more in nutrition, invest more in the effort to end hunger.”

Read George Zornick on another under-covered issue: integrating veterans back into society.

A National Commission to Heal 'Psychic' Wounds of War

An Iraq veteran holds his son during a ceremony to dedicate his family’s new house in Jacksonville, North Carolina. (Courtesy of the US Marine Corps/Wikimedia.)

There are a number of ways for policy makers to sensibly address the glaring needs of post–September 11 veterans, who are suffering from a true crisis of post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment and suicide. Congress can increase funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, extending job training and unemployment insurance that veterans’ receive, increasing tuition support, and so on.

But there are deeper problems that are much more difficult to solve—the damaged mentality, perhaps, of a country that is essentially indifferent to the traumas of the thousands of citizens sent to fight and die over the past decade.

To that end, Representatives Jim McDermott and Walter Jones have introduced a bill that would create one of the more fascinating Congressional commissions in recent history: the Commission on America and Its Veterans.

They describe it as an effort to “heal the psychic wounds of war”—a kind of truth-and-reconciliation effort to bridge the gap between a battered combat force and the now-indifferent citizenry that ordered them to fight.

“The United States has waged wars, but not all are involved in fighting those wars, and the United States needs to be more deeply and regularly connected with members and their experiences in war and returning from war,” the preamble to HR 1492 reads. “The [n]ation needs a whole-of-society approach to improving the veteran’s position in society.”

McDermott and Jones gathered in a small room on Capitol Hill last week to announce their proposal, to a small crowd that contained relatively few reporters—except the ones at the podium. Sebastian Junger, the documentarian behind Restrepo, which told the story of a platoon serving in Afghanistan, was on hand, along with Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam veteran who wrote the book What It Is Like to Go to War.

Junger and Marlantes have been working with McDermott to help formulate the commission, and tried to describe what the group envisions during last week’s press conference.

“We’re going to try to change the consciousness of this country. It’s not about dollars, it’s not about whether the war was right or wrong, it’s about: does this nation actually share the burden of the killing?” Marlantes said.

“The whole nation builds the rifle—pays the taxes, puts it together, and decides through its representative body how that rifle will be used. The veteran is the person who pulls the trigger,” he said. “But what happens is that when the veteran comes home, it’s like the veteran was the only one that did the killing. We’ve got to change that attitude. They wonder why veterans feel alienated. If there’s an unconscious feeling on the part of the country that, ‘Well, you did it’—that’s going to go a long way to making that veteran’s healing way more difficult.”

The commission would have a few general goals: first, it would hold meetings across the country to kick off a dialogue between post–September 11 veterans and their communities, where the vets would tell their stories and try to share their burden.

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It would also push for a national day of remembrance when the war in Afghanistan finally ends, for veterans of both that conflict and the war in Iraq. “We cannot end twelve years of war without marking it. It’s sort of like, well, is it business as usual to go to war?” Marlantes said. “No, it should not be business as usual. So when we’re done with it, we need to have a solemn way of marking it.”

There would be eighteen members of the commission, appointed by leaders of both parties from the House and Senate.

The legislation says the members cannot be employees of the federal government—and Junger wants to think outside the box. “We think there should be a psychologist on the commission. There should be maybe a poet. Poets know how to turn life into words so that everyone can understand,” he said last week. “Maybe there should be an anthropologist. I mean, imagine, a formal cross-cultural study about how cultures throughout the world have dealt with combat trauma.” He also recommended that members of the clergy be part of the commission, including a Sioux shaman he knows.

“We’re trying to be both effective and creative at the same time,” Junger said. “When people go to war, that means that you are going to kill other people. And right or wrong, it causes an enormous moral burden on anybody—on everybody. The community shares that burden in an organic culture. In this culture, it doesn’t.”

Throughout the press conference last week, all parties involved stressed that it would be a nonpartisan commission that wouldn’t focus on whether the post–September 11 wars have been wrong or right.

That’s a stark contrast to what, for example, former Representative Dennis Kucinich repeatedly proposed: a truth-and-reconciliation effort of a different sort, wherein the political process that led to needless combat was thoroughly interrogated, and the political leaders behind it punished.

But Junger—who opposed the Iraq War—stressed that he believed that for this particular effort to succeed in truly integrating recent veterans into society, it had to step outside politics.

He related the story of a recent veteran he knew that was struggling with having accidentally killed innocent civilians during combat. The soldier told Junger he would try to work through his burden with friends, but that left-wing friends would respond with disgust: “You killed civilians, that’s on you.” Right-wing friends would tell him to brush it off: “You did your job, you did your duty, thank you.”

The soldier, according to Junger, was deeply frustrated by both responses. “Why won’t anyone have an adult conversation with me about what war is about? It’s their war,” he told Junger. “They asked us to fight it, and we did it as well as we could. Why are they pretending it’s our war? We were just there.”

Read George Zornick on Benghazi whistleblower Gregory Hicks.

The Troubling Case of Gregory Hicks

Gregory Hicks testifies at a congressional hearing on Benghazi on May 8. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas.)

The tired Benghazi circus staged by Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this week did have one legitimately intriguing moment: Gregory Hicks, a senior diplomat at the State Department, claimed he was intimidated and then demoted for questioning the administration’s response to the September 2012 attacks.

This was a new bit of information, and fleshed out heretofore-anonymous claims in the right-wing media that Benghazi whistleblowers were being cajoled and silenced by federal authorities.

It appears, according to experts, that indeed Hicks not only fits the profile of a whistleblower but is also being unfairly retaliated against by his superiors. The unfortunate backdrop here is an administration with a troubling record of retribution against federal employees who speak out against official policy.

Hicks first testified that State Department officials would not allow him to speak with Republican members of Congress without a State Department lawyer present, which he said had never happened before when meeting with congressional delegations. He also said that Cheryl Mills, a top aide to then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called him to voice displeasure that he had met with Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz without a lawyer anyhow:

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): And didn’t you say—excuse me—didn’t you say, Mr. Hicks, in my first round, that this was the first and only time this had ever happened, where someone from the State Department accompanied a congressional visit, and you were instructed specifically by the State Department, “Do not talk to Congressman Chaffetz or anyone on the committee’s delegation who’s there without this lawyer being present?

HICKS: That’s correct.

JORDAN: And shortly after the one time when you did have a chance to interact with Mr. Chaffetz, and the lawyer was not president—was not present, you got a phone call from Cheryl Mills?

HICKS: That is correct.

JORDAN: And on that phone call, what did she say?

HICKS: She asked for a report on the visit, which I provided. The tone of the report—the tone of her voice was unhappy, as I recall it. But I faithfully reported exactly how the visit transpired.

Hicks also testified that he received an excessively negative performance review once he began speaking out:

HICKS: Prior to the visit [with Chaffetz], Assistant Secretary Jones had visited and she pulled me aside and again, said I need to improve my management style and indicated that people were upset. I’d had no indication that my staff was upset at all other than with the conditions that we were facing.

Following my return to the United States, I attended Chris’s funeral in San Francisco and then I came back to Washington. Assistant Secretary Jones summoned me to her office and she delivered a—a blistering critique of my management style, and she even said, I exclaimed, “I don’t know why Larry Pope would want you to come back,” and she said, she didn’t even understand why anyone at Tripoli would want me to come back.

Finally, Hicks testified he received an effective demotion once he voluntarily left Libya—a decision he made based, in part, on the vitriol he had received from his superior:

HICKS: Based on criticism that I received, I felt that if I went back, I would never be comfortable working there, and in addition, my family really didn’t want me to go back. We had endured a year of separation when I was in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. That was the overriding factor. So I voluntarily curtailed. I accepted an offer of what’s called a no fault curtailment. That means that there’s—there would be no criticism of my departure of post, no negative repercussions. And in fact, Ambassador Pope when he made the offer to everyone in Tripoli when he arrived, (inaudible) he indicated that people could expect that they would get a good onward assignment out of that.

The job that I have right now the between my curtailment and my finding of this job that I have now, I had no meaningful employment. I was in a status called Near Eastern Affairs Over-complement. And the job now is a significant—it’s a demotion. Foreign affairs officer is a designation that is given to our civil service colleagues who are desk officers. So I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer.

The pushback to Hicks’s claims has been swift. The State Department told The New York Times that it’s simply standard policy to have lawyers present for any congressional investigation. Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings also pointed out that Hicks himself said in pre-hearing testimony that the lawyer’s only instructions for Hicks were to withhold any classified details of the ongoing FBI investigation, and nothing else.

On the matter of retaliation, the State Department asserted that after Hicks’s admittedly voluntary withdrawal from Libya, his number simply didn’t come up for a more plum assignment—a common problem. “Since foreign service officer assignments work on annual cycles, by shortening his assignment Mr. Hicks was in the position of finding an ‘off-cycle assignment’. In such situations, it is not uncommon to have difficulty finding a suitable assignment for some time,” Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy press secretary for the State Department, told The Guardian. “The department has not and will not retaliate against Mr. Hicks.”

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Other anonymous State Department officials have since come forward and told reporters that Hicks’s incompetence, not deliberate retaliation, is the reason he’s having trouble getting a good assignment. A State Department employee told Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress that “[Hicks] was removed from here because he was a disaster as a manager…. [it had] nothing to do with him being a whistleblower, it had everything to do with his management capacity or lack thereof.” Another anonymous official told Foreign Policy’s Gordon Lubold that Hicks is a “classic case of underachiever who whines when big breaks don’t come his way.”

Moreover, what may be causing many people to overlook Hicks’s complaints are that the thrust of his testimony was just off—he is strongly critical of Susan Rice’s post-attack characterization that a YouTube video was responsible for motivating the assault, and also critical of high-level commands during the attacks to hold back response teams that wanted to go to Benghazi.

Those two issues have been extensively litigated for months, and there just isn’t much there. Rice was acting on incomplete information, and nothing even resembling concrete evidence has surfaced to prove some sort of cover-up. The rescue teams weren’t deployed simply because Pentagon officials didn’t believe they would reach Benghazi in time—which they probably wouldn’t have. The worst-case scenario here is incompetence, not the world-historical screw-up that Republicans are desperately trying to depict.

But that doesn’t matter, according to whistleblower experts—at all. “Hicks’s whistleblower status is not dependent on whether or not his disclosures are factually correct,” Jesselyn Radack, the Government Accountability Project’s national security and human rights director, told The Nation. “In terms of whistleblower calculus, he fits—he had a reasonable belief that he could get help there in time to at least minimize the damage.”

Radack has represented numerous federal whistleblowers, including many from the State Department. She said that not only is Hicks unquestionably a whistleblower but that his immediate poor performance review and subsequent inability to get a good assignment easily categorize as improper retaliation.

“Those are two of the most classic, beginning ways to start the retaliation,” she said.

Maybe Hicks is a bad manager, and maybe he isn’t—but Radack strongly cautioned against anonymous sources trashing his character, something she has repeatedly seen in other whistleblower cases. “This is very typical of the kinds of attacks and baseless caricatures that whistleblowers get painted about them as soon as they blow the whistle,” she said. “The kind of smears I’m hearing are pretty much in keeping with the smears I hear of other whistleblowers, including other State Department whistleblowers I have.”

Radack also noted that while it may be State Department policy to have a lawyer present at all staff meetings with Congress, it isn’t a good one. “My organization sees that as really just a whistleblower deterrent, because if you’re going to Congress over something that your agency is doing, then obviously the lawyer is going to stop you. These are impediments that are being put up, in my opinion, that work against whistleblowers,” she said.

“The whistleblower has a First Amendment right to petition Congress for a redress of grievances, and under that prong, I think they should—do not pass go, go directly to Congress,” Radack continued.

The important context here is that the administration has a initiated an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers—it has employed the Espionage Act a record six times to prosecute government officials suspected of leaking classified information. A former CIA officer, for example, is currently in federal prison for identifying an intelligence operative involved in illegal torture. (That operative is not in jail.)

That makes the apparent retaliation against Hicks all the more troubling—even if the larger Benghazi drama being pumped up by Republicans is essentially a partisan sham.

In fact, that’s hurting the cause of whistleblowers, too, according to Radack. “The fact that [the GOP is] dramatically claiming that the hearing’s revelations would be every bit as damaging as Watergate, and that this has been so politicized, is unfortunate,” she said. “Obviously whistleblowers get smeared enough. But if they’re put in the middle of a political firestorm like this, they are even more likely to be caricatured with all the bad things that are said about whistleblowers.”

Earlier this week, Congress heard another compelling bit of testimony: Yemeni rights activist Baraa Shiban’s explanation of why drone strikes endanger the United States and its interests, George Zornick writes.

The Most Compelling Testimony From the Congressional Drone Hearing

Serious, public explorations of the United States’ drone policy are uncommon in Washington, to say the least—but on Wednesday the Congressional Progressive Caucus held a hearing on Capitol Hill that was remarkable for its breadth and critical approach to current policy. The thrust of the hearing was to ask the administration to both limit the scope of its drone strike policy and be transparent about what it is doing.

Here are four of the most compelling bits of testimony from the proceeding:

(1) In the video above, Yemeni human rights activist Baraa Shiban spoke directly to the very real toll drone strikes are taking in his country. He said:

Another reason strikes are more damaging than the US realizes is that, while the US may not be acknowledging or discussing dead civilians, Yemenis are.…

The farmers from Sabool showed us videos of people pulling charred bodies from the wreckage. They were scarcely recognizable. But besides the horror of it all, one thing struck me about the footage I watched. In it, you could see many Yemeni farmers gathered around the carnage filming exactly the same thing.

This is how stories of US injustice percolate through Yemen. Terrible images like those I saw can take on a life of their own. US aid reaches these areas rarely, if ever.… This is not a pointless popularity contest for America. Every lethal mistake the US makes is kerosene for an insurgency. And it all comes at a critical time for Yemen.

(2) Adam Baron, a freelance journalist based in Yemen, expanded on how civilian casualties from drone strikes are providing a useful recruitment tool for extremist groups, and drew on his reporting there:

For the civilians under the crossfire, anxieties provoked by fears of another ‘mistake’, continue to fuel distrust and resentment against the US and Yemeni governments, rather than against AQAP. In some areas, AQAP has managed to reap the benefits from such sentiments. The situation in al-Baydah is particularly telling. In a recent military offensive, swaths of tribesmen in the area opted to fight the government on the side of Al Qaeda, rather than cooperate with US forces to push the militants out.

“Some tribesmen are fighting the army even more than Al Qaeda is,” a contact from the area told me at the nascence of the winter military push. “People are angry about drone strikes and condemn foreign intervention. Al Qaeda has really been able to build popular sympathy.”

(3) Naureen Shah, the acting director of the Columbia Law School Human Rights clinic, addressed in her testimony the importance of establishing routine investigations of civilian casualties from drone strikes—both to comply with international law but also to dignify the concerns of local communities. She stressed these investigations must be public and transparent:

Moreover, established systems to investigate war crimes and serious violations of the laws of war would build legitimacy into the Administration’s position that drone strikes are conducted in compliance with international humanitarian law. Adequate investigation systems would address some of the concerns of cooperating governments and help allay the international community’s concerns.

Secret or unacknowledged investigations would likely be insufficient to address the moral dimensions I have identified. Secret investigations cannot provide dignity and a sense of justice to communities impacted by drone strikes. Secret investigations do not provide answer to widely publicized reports of particular cases of civilian casualties from drone strikes, which cause the United States to lose credibility on the world stage and appear deaf to criticism. Whereas the results of investigations can ordinarily be aggregated and systematically analyzed to determine the validity of pre-strike estimates and intelligence, secret investigations may not serve this function.

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(4) Eight members of Congress entered into testimony a letter they sent President Barack Obama, demanding further clarification of the legal justifications behind drone strikes. It read, in part:

The information from the Justice Department meme leaked on February 4, 2013, in the context of an increasing devolution of accountability, transparency and Constitutional protections in US counterterrorism operations, leaves us deeply concerned about what appears to constitute overly broad authority language….

These are vague legal boundaries that raise the risk of the executive branch authorizing the deaths of American civilians otherwise protected by the Constitution and appear to effectively vitiate due process of law without meaningful oversight or accountability….

As you state in your recent State of the Union address, “we must enlist our values in the fight.” We ask, therefore, that you follow through with your commitment to engage with Congress to ensure that the ways in which we target, detain, prosecute, and kill suspected terrorist are consistent with the commands of our Constitution, including our system of checks and balances.

We strongly urge you to release the documents requested in this letter for the reasons articulated above.

Read George Zornick on the GOP’s Working Families Act—and why it’s a hoax to attract women voters.

The GOP's New Outreach to Women: It's a Trap

Speaker of the House John Boehner has promised to pass Martha Roby’s Working Families Flexibility Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)

House Republicans are launching their first concerted effort to win back female voters on Tuesday with the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013, a bill that’s being packaged as a lifeline to working moms across the country.

Unfortunately, the legislation is a particularly cruel hoax—a slick attempt to give employers more power, and hourly workers much less.

At first blush, the idea sounds good. The bill would allow hourly workers to convert overtime pay into time off: in other words, instead of getting paid for extra hours, they could stockpile additional vacation time. The pitch here is that working parents could have more flexibility in their schedule and an enhanced ability to balance work and family. “This week, we’ll pass [Representative] Martha Roby’s bill to help working moms and dads better balance their lives between work and their responsibilities as parents,” House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday.

The GOP is specifically invested in convincing women this bill is for them. The GOP spent $20,000 last week on a digital ad campaign focusing on so-called “mommy blogs,” like Ikeafans.com and MarthaStewart.com, and geo-targeting Democrats in swing districts. “Will Rep. Collin Peterson stand up for working moms?” one iteration of the ad asked.

A fawning National Review profile of Roby, the bill’s sponsor, explains how she wasn’t sure she could handle a run for Congress in 2009 because of concerns about taking care of her children while running for a House seat and potentially becoming a member of Congress—and how those concerns have now inspired her to push this important legislation.

But it’s not too hard to see how pernicious this legislation truly is. “Flexibility” is a word that should make hourly workers check for their wallets—employers hold most of the power in the relationship with hourly workers, which is all the more true if they are not unionized. So “flexibility” to decide if you want to get paid for overtime work, instead of getting fewer hours later on, can quickly become a way for employers to withhold payment for overtime work while also cutting your hours down the road.

Over 160 labor unions and women’s groups sent a letter to members of Congress on Monday, protesting that the Working Families Flexibility Act is “a smoke-and-mirrors bill that offers a pay cut for workers without any guaranteed flexibility or time off to care for their families or themselves.”

Republicans say this isn’t true, and that there are safeguards in the bill that would prevent employers from muscling their employees into surrendering overtime pay. “It is illegal for them to do that. There are enforcement mechanisms in the bill,” Eric Cantor said in February.

But this is where they’re being really tricky—the bill does give workers the right to sue over such intimidation, but denies them the right to use much quicker, and cheaper, administrative remedies through the Department of Labor. It also gives the Department of Labor no additional funds to investigate nor enforce provisions of the act.

So if hourly workers get intimidated into giving up overtime pay in exchange for working even fewer hours down the road, they’re more than welcome to hire a lawyer and sue—a rather improbable outcome given how expensive that might be. Otherwise, tough luck.

There also isn’t quite as much flexibility in the act as it seems. As the National Partnership for Women and Families points out, while the bill does allow hourly workers to turn overtime pay into as much as 160 hours of comp time, it gives them no right to decide when they can use that time—even if there’s a family emergency. That’s still entirely up to employers.

Further hampering workers’ flexibility is that once they bank more than eighty hours in comp time, employers can unilaterally decide to cash out any additional hours. Also, workers who decide later that they need to cash out the comp time they’ve earned can do so—but employers have thirty days to cut the check, which could certainly be a problem for hourly workers on a tight budget.

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Moreover, this isn’t even a new idea. Republicans proposed this same bill ten years ago, prompting the late Molly Ivins to remark “the slick marketing and smoke on this one are a wonder to behold.”

The legislation, simply, is a straightforward boon to big employers. “It pretends to offer time off but actually asks [employees] to work overtime hours without being paid,” Judy Lichtman of the NPWF told reporters on a conference call Monday. She added that it’s simply a “no-cost, no-interest loan to the employer.”

House Democrats will be nearly, if not entirely, unified in opposition. “The Working Families Flexibility Act sounds good, but it is a sham and we are going to call it out for what it is. It would cause more harm than good and we are going to reject it,” Representative Rose DeLauro said yesterday during the same conference call.

Due to the Republican majority in the House, the bill is likely to pass on Tuesday, but Senate passage seems dubious at best, and the White House has already issued a veto threat.

Of course, if Republicans are indeed interested in providing extra flexibility to help hourly workers balance family concerns with their jobs, they could pass paid family leave legislation. Only 11 percent of all private industry workers have access to paid family leave, and the United States is the only high-income country in the world not to mandate it. Unlike the Working Families Flexibility Act, paid family leave is generally something the employee has the unilateral ability to exercise.

Unfortunately, that’s something Congressional Republicans are deeply opposed to enacting. They blocked a proposal from President Obama in 2011 that would have created a $1.5 billion fund to push paid family and medical leave programs at the state level, and several similar efforts to enact such laws at the federal level.

In 1993, when Congress considered and ultimately passed the Family and Medical Leave Act—which mandates only twelve weeks of unpaid family time off—Republicans were apoplectic. One House member from North Carolina called it “nothing short of Europeanization—a polite term for socialism.” A young John Boehner, years from becoming House Speaker, said the legislation would “be the demise of some [businesses].

“And as that occurs,” he said, “the light of freedom will grow dimmer.”

Additional reporting by Nation DC intern Anna Simonton.

UPDATE: The final vote on the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 has been pushed back to Wednesday. 

Also, it's worth knocking down a particular Republican talking point on the bill, as expressed by Eric Cantor's communications director to me over Twitter, among many other places. They argue that, since federal workers already enjoy the ability to trade overtime pay for extra time off, workers in the private sector should enjoy the same rights. 

The problem with this argument is that the federal government is not a profit-driven employer likely to muscle workers into giving up overtime pay in return for reduced hours. If that did happen, federal workers are unionized and enjoy many employment protections that Walmart workers, for example, do not. 

It's important to note here that, during the mark-up for this bill last month, Representative Timothy Bishop, a Democrat from New York, offered an amendment that would make the Working Families Flexibility Act apply "only if the employer enters into an employment contract with the employee that provides employment protections substantially similar to those provided to Federal, State or local employees under civil services laws." 

Every Republican voted against it, and the measure was defeated.*

*A prior version of this story said four Democrats also voted against the Bishop amendment, but they were just not present for the vote. 

UPDATE 2: The House passed the Working Families Flexibility Act on Wednesday afternoon, 223-204.

For better news, read George Zornick on Obama’s promising pick for FHFA director.

Obama Names New FHFA Director

Representative Mel Watt (D-NC) addresses the Democratic National Convention in 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)

This afternoon President Obama will introduce his choice to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency—Representative Mel Watt from North Carolina, a twenty-year veteran of Congress and member of the powerful House Financial Services Committee.

FHFA Director may not seem like a sexy appointment, but the agency has a monumental impact. It controls Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises that own 60 percent of US mortgages. With thousands of foreclosures taking place every week, FHFA is in a position to send a lifeline to many of these distressed homeowners.

For months, the White House, state attorneys general and liberal activists groups have been demanding that the FHFA write down the principal of underwater mortgages held by Fannie and Freddie—in other words, reduce the amount people owe on mortgages that are worth more than their homes. Analysts estimate as many as 500,000 homeowners could benefit from FHFA principal reduction, which could provide an additional boost to the flagging economy.

Acting FHFA Director Edward DeMarco briefly flirted with the idea, but then refused to do it. So activists launched a “Dump DeMarco” campaign, urging Obama to replace the acting director with someone who supports principal reduction.

On that score, Watt is a good choice. He has repeatedly supported the idea of principal reduction and would presumably undertake it at FHFA.

Key reformers in Congress are thus applauding his selection this morning. Senator Elizabeth Warren called Watt an “excellent choice” with a “long record as a champion for working families.” Representative Keith Ellison, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted he was “thrilled that homeowners will finally have an advocate leading FHFA.” The CPC has relentlessly called for DeMarco to be fired and replaced with someone who favors principal reduction.

Watt’s record has some serious blotches, however. His North Carolina district includes the headquarters of Bank of America, and commercial banks are the number-one contributor to Watt’s political coffers over his career. Bank of America is second among individual career contributors.

FHFA has quite a bit of business that overlaps with big banks—in fact, late last year the agency sued several large financial institutions, including Bank of America, for concealing the low value of mortgage-backed securities and contaminating the books of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

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Watt’s transition from a member of Congress that benefits from Bank of America’s largesse to one of the bank’s chief executive branch antagonists naturally troubles some advocates. (Watt’s office would not comment to The Nation about his appointment.)

Most progressive activists, however, are still backing his nomination. “I don’t think we’ll be counted as his loudest cheerleader, but you can’t fall off the floor with where are now. DeMarco is a problem. I think Mel Watt is a solution,” said Bart Naylor, financial policy advocate for Public Citizen.

“Obviously Public Citizen wishes there wasn’t any money involved at all from vested interests. That’s not where we are now, that’s not what we have with Mel Watt,” Naylor said. “Fortunately as FHFA director, he’s not going to take campaign contributions. While he no doubt will be meeting with JP Morgan and Bank of America, those meetings will neither be preceded nor succeeded by campaign contributions.”

Progressive angst about Watt’s ties with the commercial banking industry, and Bank of America in particular, probably won’t appear on congressional roll calls—with Elizabeth Warren backing his nomination, it’s unlikely there’s a senator willing to tack left of her on the nomination. Warren has been a visible proponent of FHFA write-downs for a long time.

Republican opposition is another story, however. The GOP has already blocked one of Obama’s nominees for FHFA Director: Joseph Smith, the North Carolina banking commissioner. Smith had relatively unknown views compared to Watt, who has a long history of backing principal reduction. Senator Bob Corker, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, wasted no time this morning blasting Watt’s nomination.

This is a real problem for homeowners that might be helped by FHFA principal reduction. Even in the best-case scenario, Watt probably wouldn’t be confirmed for several months, if he is confirmed at all.

Consequently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pushing for Obama to take immediate action. Schneiderman’s theory, per a memo his office prepared last month, is that Obama has the legal power to dump DeMarco right away, since he is only an acting director.

Obama couldn’t pick Watt to serve as acting director in this scenario. Federal law says it would have to be one of DeMarco’s three deputies, one of whom might be more inclined to enact principal reduction.

There’s no guarantee the courts would uphold this move, as there are ongoing legal questions about similar White House maneuvers to staff the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board. Schneiderman’s memo cites some legal precedence for the switch, like a 1996 DC Circuit case involving a holdover on the Board of the National Credit Union Association.

But the idea for now is to get a new director in place and get the principal reductions moving as soon as possible.

“This nomination is a good first step, but struggling homeowners cannot afford to wait for the Senate to complete the confirmation process,” Schneiderman said in a statement this morning. “The President should use his legal authority to replace Edward DeMarco with a new acting director who will start the effort to put FHFA on the side of working families immediately.”

Federal regulators failed on several fronts with the fertilizer plant that exploded in Texas, and now the Senate has taken a good first step by beginning a formal investigation, George Zornick writes.

Senate to Investigate Texas Plant Explosion

Firefighters conduct search and rescue at the scene of the fertilizer plan explosion in West, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero.)

A torrent of troubling information about the massive explosion in West, Texas has emerged since April 19—it’s becoming increasingly clear that the federal regulatory structure failed on multiple fronts when it came to the West Fertilizer Company plant.

Tuesday afternoon, Senator Barbara Boxer announced the first formal federal investigation into the tragedy. The Senate and Environment and Public Works Committee will hold hearings soon on what happened in West and how it might have been prevented.

No hearing date has been announced, but Boxer has sent letters to the Chemical Safety Board and the Environmental Protection Agency demanding some very specific answers about what each agency did—or failed to do—before the explosion.

Specifically, Boxer wants to know, among other things, why the EPA isn’t concerned with how much ammonium nitrate is stored at chemical plants under its jurisdiction. Here’s her full list of questions, sent to acting EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe:

The plant’s ammonium nitrate stock has been a subject of considerable debate since the explosion. The West Fertilizer did report its ammonium nitrate inventory to state and local authorities, as recently as February. It did not, however, report it to the Department of Homeland Security, as it is required by law to do. (Any operations that have a ton of ammonium nitrate or more must report it to DHS; West Fertilizer Co. had 270 tons.)

The company also did not report its ammonium nitrate stock to the EPA, and what Boxer’s getting at here is that it wasn’t even required to.

Even though the Clean Air Act mandated the EPA to reduce the risk from explosive chemicals, ammonium nitrate isn’t on the list, despite being one of the more common explosive chemicals in commercial operations today. It’s also one of the most dangerous—it’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

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This isn’t an accident—the Sunlight Foundation reported last week that agribusiness giants have been lobbying the EPA hard not to regulate ammonium nitrate. Since 1998, lobbying disclosures from the Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute have indicated “safety and security of chemical facilities” as their most frequent lobbying priority. The two groups have spent $2.9 million and $14.4 million on lobbying respectively in that period.

Now Boxer wants to know why those lobbying efforts have apparently been successful. It’s good that manufacturers have to disclose their inventory to DHS, but that agency is concerned with whether criminals can get access to the dangerous explosive—not more routine safety issues concerning storage and safety. That’s what the EPA should be doing.

Boxer’s questions for the CSB are more routine; she wants “a list and description of all recommendations you have made in the past relating to reducing risks at facilities that handle highly explosive and toxic materials and whether they have been adopted by government or industry.”

The hearings are a useful leverage point for Boxer—she reminds each agency that EPW will convene them soon and asks for answers by May 16. You can bet that EPA and CSB officials will be called to testify.

This is a good start, but what remains to be seen is if other Senate commmitees—and their counterparts in the House—will follow suit. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has jurisdiction over the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which only inspected the plant once since it opened.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are planning even deeper cuts to food stamps, George Zornick writes.

House GOP Plans Even Deeper Food Stamp Cuts

Volunteers fill bags for a school lunch program at the Cleveland Foodbank. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta.)

Lost in the shuffle of last year’s big fiscal cliff deal was the deal that didn’t happen on a new farm bill.

One of the major points of contention was funding for food stamps through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, run by the US Department of Agriculture. Republicans in the House proposed steep cuts: $16.5 billion over the next decade, which would eliminate food assistance to as many as 3 million low-income Americans. The Senate countered with a farm bill cutting $4.5 billion from SNAP over the same time period.

There was simply no deal to be had on the farm bill, and so Congress passed a simple extension until September 30. Now Congress has to start over—all prior versions of the farm are dead, since there’s a new Congress.

And this time around Republicans are only going to increase, not moderate, their demands for steep food stamp cuts. Representative Frank Lucas, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told the Capital Press this weekend that the new House farm bill will mandate $20 billion in SNAP cuts over the next ten years.

Democratic leadership in the House is already blasting Lucas’s proposal. “SNAP doesn’t just offer much-needed support to vulnerable Americans, it provides a significant boost to the economy, nearly doubling the return of every dollar we put into it,” Drew Hammill, communications director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, told The Nation. “Just when you think you’ve seen the extent of [the House GOP’s] misguided priorities, they strike at the ability of millions of low-income children, the elderly and American families to put food on the table.”

There’s going to be a lot of blowback to Lucas’s proposal—not only from Democrats, particularly in urban areas, but from some Republicans, particularly in the Midwest, who know that cutting food stamps depresses food sales, which in turn hurts farmers.

Some other Republicans, like Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, oppose the cuts because so many people in their state rely on nutrition assistance. “I come from a state where we have higher-percentage participation [than the national average],” Cochran said last year. “I have never had to apologize in Mississippi for supporting it,” he said, referring to food stamps.

But, as is so often the case in recent years, it’s a hardcore group of conservatives in the House that are roiling debate over an issue that used to be mainly non-controversial, and pulling it to the right. The backdrop here is that Representative Paul Ryan’s most recent budget, like the ones before it, demanded food stamp cuts that make Lucas’s plan look as if it was crafted by Mother Teresa.

Ryan’s 2013 budget blueprint calls for $135 billion in food stamp cuts over the next ten years, with $125 billion coming in the first five years. That would toss up to 13 million people from the program.

Boehner has openly acknowledged that hardcore conservatives who found Lucas’s cuts too timid were a primary reason the House couldn’t pass a farm bill last year.

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“The current situation that we face is we’ve got people who believe there’s not enough reform in the farm bill that came out of (the House Agriculture) committee,” Boehner said last September, when he announced the House wouldn’t try to pass a final farm bill. “We’ve got others who believe that there’s too much reform in the bill that came out of the committee.” (Read “reform” as “cuts” here, a good rule of thumb for most Washington budget debates.)

But to be clear—Washington should, if anything, be debating an expansion of food stamp benefits. Research shows that for every federal dollar spent on food assistance programs, there is $1.84 in economic benefit.

And the conservative rationale for cutting the program is based on faulty assumptions. Ever since 2009, conservatives have been railing against the rapid expansion of the SNAP program as if it was a policy choice by Obama. (Recall Newt Gingrich’s endless invocations of the “food stamp president” during the 2012 GOP primary.)

But food stamp usage increased as a natural function of the steep recession, which created a lot more people who were eligible for the program. (In fact, Republican counties are responsible for most of the food stamp growth.) Republican demands to enact deep SNAP cuts, while crudely punitive to the millions of low-income Americans who depend on food stamps, are also unnecessary. Spending on SNAP will decrease significantly over the next ten years all by itself as the economy recovers, as this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows:

But Lucas’s proposal makes clear the Republicans will still use the current peak to try to enact deep cuts. There’s no doubt that a ferocious battle is looming.

Read George Zornick on Congress's gun control reform failure and where we go from here.

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