George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

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

Major Climate Change Bill Coming to the Senate

Only an hour before President Obama is expected to deliver his State of the Union address—in which he might “go big” on the issue of combating climate change—two Senators announced they will introduce comprehensive climate change legislation this week, presenting a possible vehicle in the Senate for Obama’s ambitions.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer will outline the legislation on Thursday morning. Details are scant, though it’s being billed as “major” and “comprehensive” legislation, and will have a carbon tax, per a statement from Sanders’s office:

Under the legislation, a fee on carbon pollution emissions would fund historic investments in energy efficiency and sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. The proposal also would provide rebates to consumers to offset any efforts by oil, coal or gas companies to raise prices.

Boxer is the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, so this is not a fringe effort by any means. And some heavy environmental and institutional groups will be on hand Thursday, including Bill McKibben of 350.org and representatives from the Center for American Progress, Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and the National Community Action Foundation.

We reported last month that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Henry Waxman launched a Congressional task force, which aims to push the executive branch on new regulations, and to serve as a laboratory for new legislation—and while it’s not clear if Boxer is acting through this working group, the legislation is clearly ready to go.

Wait, Harry Reid Can Ignore Holds?

Harry Reid. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File.)

This afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made big news by announcing he would not honor any hold placed on Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense—a response to Senator Lindsey Graham’s announcement on Sunday he would indeed place a hold on the nomination until the administration answered questions about its response to the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Until now, it might have seemed Reid was unable to do this. One year ago, a hold brought down a crucial scientific nominee:

The White House last week withdrew the nomination of Scott C. Doney of Massachusetts to be chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a little over a year after Sen. David Vitter, R-La., placed a hold on Doney's nomination, demanding that the Obama administration send Carol Browner, then the White House energy and climate czar, and Steve Black, counselor to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to the Hill to defend the "scientific integrity" of the administration's drilling moratorium and slowdown in permitting.

Similarly, and around the same time, Obama’s nominee for assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks also fell victim to a hold, again placed by Vitter—this time, he was angry about paltry drilling licenses for the Gulf of Mexico.

But a hold can, indeed, be ignored by the majority leader. A Congressional Research Service report from last year said that while the “exact origin of holds has been lost in the mists of history,” it’s really just a warning to the majority leader by at least one senator that he or she will mount a filibuster, and the majority leader can simply ignore it:

Implicit in the practice is that a Senator will object to taking up a bill or nomination on which he or she has placed a hold. The Senate’s majority leader, who exercises primary responsibility for determining the chamber’s agenda, traditionally in consultation with the minority leader, is the final arbiter as to whether and for how long he will honor a hold placed by a Member or group of lawmakers.

So why did Reid ignore the hold on Hagel, and not the others? One reason might be that the hold came without a real filibuster threat. Hagel reportedly has enough voted to defeat a filibuster, whereas perhaps the other nominees didn’t.

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Another reason Reid might have allowed holds to kill previous nominations is that, in general, Reid simply believes in Senate comity even when it’s not being shown to him. In a 2010 post on Senate holds, Jonathan Bernstein explained that they are tolerated because “all Senators have an interest in the ability of each Senator to have individual influence.” Plus, it allows Reid to better manage the floor by not wasting time on nominations or bills that won’t succeed. So Reid’s default is to let the holds stand, but this time was just too far.

The key question here is whether this was a one-time move by Reid, because of the exceptionally rare (and unfounded) nature of Graham’s threatened hold, or whether this represents a new, get-tough approach to Republican obstruction. I contacted Reid’s office, but it did not respond.

In a way it’s sort of academic—since there was no real filibuster reform, holds will live on. It’s just a sign to Reid that he ought not to bother with even trying to schedule a vote. But if he wasn’t going to make the GOP actually filibuster, nor make them come up with forty-one votes to proceed, as reformers wanted—the least he could do is say “screw your holds,” as he did today. Bernstein, again in 2010, made a persuasive case that at the very least holds on judicial nominations should be summarily ignored.

Although he might ignore a Republican hold, Harry Reid won't be able to ignore Republican filibusters so easily, since he inexplicably capitulated on filibuster reform.

The Sloppy GOP Plan to Stop Lew

Treasury secretary nominee Jack Lew. (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite, File.)

There are many, many important lines of questioning for Jack Lew as he faces Senate confirmation to be the next Treasury secretary. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, Republicans seem uninterested in pursuing them—and have instead settled on a truly ridiculous, and entirely hypocritical, plan to slow down his nomination.

The GOP says the administration’s failure to issue a plan to slash Medicare, which they assert is required by an obscure federal provision, has put Lew’s nomination “at risk.” The silliness of that requirement aside, nobody in the GOP appears to have noticed that the provision also applies to Republicans in Congress—and they’ve also failed to act.

Here’s the background: when crafting the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, the hugely controversial bill that brought us the Medicare Part D drug plan, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress inserted a little-noticed clause intended to force deep cuts in Medicare several years later.

Buried in the legislation was something known as the “Medicare trigger.” It required the Medicare trustees to issue an annual “alert” if they determined that Medicare general revenues (that is, the amount collected in federal income taxes for the program) would finance more than 45 percent of Medicare expenditures over the next six years. This was supposed to be a warning that the program was becoming insolvent, despite the rather arbitrary selection of a 45 percent cutoff.

Once that report has been issued by the trustees—which it has been every year since 2007—the bill said the president must send legislation to Congress within fifteen days, explaining how he or she will bring Medicare expenditures back under 45 percent of general revenue for the following six years. Congress must consider that legislation, but is not required to pass it.

President Obama has completely ignored this provision for his entire first term—and now, since as Treasury Secretary, Lew would also become chairman of the Medicare trustees, and since he’s been in the White House for four years, Republicans think they have a big ol’ gotcha.

“Congress will need documents pertaining to [Lew’s] role in the violation of this law, as well as a concrete legislative proposal that brings the administration into legal compliance,” said a letter from Alabama Senator Jeff Session last week to the White House. “Failure to do so could make it difficult for Mr. Lew’s nomination to move forward.” Eight GOP Senators sent a similar letter last week, too.

You can see the beauty of this plan from the eyes of the GOP—even if they can’t stop Lew, perhaps they can get the White House to issue a sweeping plan to reduce Medicare, which is something the Republicans badly want but have been afraid to directly propose. Or at the very least, Republicans can beat the White House up for this supposed failure.

But there’s one problem—these Republicans apparently didn’t read the entire 2003 Medicare bill. It also says that regardless of whether the president submits legislation, relevant committees in the House and Senate must also create legislation to cut Medicare back under 45 percent, by June 30 of that year. See:

So there should have been Congressional responses to the Medicare trigger for the past several years. This is also the conclusion of a Congressional Research Service report on the trigger. The relevant committees in the House are Ways and Means, Judiciary, and Energy and Commerce. In the Senate, it’s the Finance Committee. “Medicare funding legislation” is specifically defined in the bill as either relating to what the president submitted, or failing that, “any bill the title of which is as follows: ‘A bill to respond to a medicare funding warning.’”

Yet not since 2008 has any such bill been produced. Notably, for the two years that Republicans have controlled all three of those committees in the House, there have been no bills responding to the Medicare trigger, nor even any attempt The Nation can find to pass one out. The Senate Finance Committee, controlled by Democrats, has similarly failed. We can find no effort on behalf of the committee’s Republicans—many of whom signed that letter to the White House last week—to pass out a bill dealing with the Medicare trigger, either.

So forget the gotcha. Whatever obligation Obama hasn’t fulfilled regarding the Medicare trigger, neither have Republicans in Congress. Also, when the 2003 bill was passed, there were some constitutional questions raised about whether Congress could compel the president to present legislation. (Indeed, that’s what the White House is arguing now: “[T]he Executive Branch considers the requirement to submit legislation in response to the Medicare funding warning to be advisory and not binding, in accordance with the Recommendations Clause of the Constitution,” the Office of Management and Budget said on February 5.)

If one gives credence to that argument, then Republicans have much more straightforwardly failed to respond to the Medicare trigger they’re so hyped up about.

In any case, the trigger is worth ignoring—it’s only the Republican hypocrisy in doing so that’s notable. The Medicare trigger is a really cynical bit of policy: the 2003 legislation drastically expanded Medicare expenditures by creating Part D, so the trigger was designed to go off very quickly. And the way the trigger is set up virtually guarantees deep benefit cuts with no progressive tax increases.

Think about it: if the president and Congress took the trigger seriously, they would have to create a plan that ensures the general fund revenue pays for less than 45 percent of Medicare expenditures. But that means the government can’t raise progressive income taxes, or that percentage would actually get higher. So instead the only remaining options would be raising regressive payroll taxes, raising premiums, or cutting benefits and provider payments.

In a 2008 paper, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities called the trigger “an ideologically driven approach to Medicare financing that would effectively protect the nation’s most affluent residents and corporations at the expense of Medicare beneficiaries and working families of more modest means.”

It would be extremely unusual for Obama to issue such a plan, which is likely why he hasn’t—the question is, if they’re so fired up about it, why hasn’t the GOP? 

Does Mitch McConnell’s Pro-Gun Stance Threaten His 2014 Chances?

You may have heard that there’s a tough pro–gun control ad up in Kentucky this week targeting Senator Mitch McConnell, who faces re-election in 2014. The powerful spot features a veteran speaking to camera with his grandson on his lap. The man, a Kentucky resident named Rodney, calls for an assault weapons ban and background checks—but the thrust of the ad is to depict McConnell’s anti–gun law stance as a direct byproduct of his gun industry funding. Says Rodney: “Senator Mitch McConnell is funded by the gun industry, and he opposes common-sense reforms. Senator McConnell, whose side are you on?”

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is behind the ad, and they released some polling earlier this week as well, showing that 82 percent of Kentuckians favor criminal background checks for gun owners (versus 13 percent opposed) and 50 percent favored an assault weapons ban (versus 42 percent opposed). It was conducted by Public Policy polling, rated by Fordham University as the most accurate pollster in 2012.

Now, in more PPP polling results released first to The Nation, we see that hitting McConnell for his gun-industry backing is indeed fertile territory in Kentucky:

Who do you think Mitch McConnell represents more in Congress: his big campaign contributors or regular Kentucky voters?

His big campaign contributors: 53%

Regular Kentucky voters: 36%

Not sure: 11%

The poll was conducted February 1-3 among 712 likely voters in Kentucky, with a 3.7 percent margin of error.

We don’t yet know the impact of the ad itself, as the polling was done before it was released—but it’s clearly hitting McConnell in established soft spots. The PCCC received significant small-dollar donations this week after word of the ad spread, allowing it to extend the buy until Tuesday—including during the Louisville Cardinals game this weekend, the Sunday talk shows, and the State of the Union address.

This has larger implications not only for 2014 but for the gun debate in Washington now—if McConnell feels threatened at home by his pro-gun stance, he might be more willing to move bills on universal background checks and other measures.

Nine Things John Brennan Needs to Explain Today

John Brennan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)

Targeted, extrajudicial killings outside theaters of war—95 percent of which are carried out with armed drones—have become an increasing and disturbing staple of US national security policy over the past decade. George W. Bush ordered fifty non-battlefield targeted killings, more than any other president, and President Obama has already more than septupled that number. Moreover, Obama has expanded the internal legal justification for these strikes to include American citizens as victims, and is reportedly creating an institutional framework for at least another decade of targeted killings.

Despite this dramatic and unprecedented development—which has happened almost entirely in secret, with the administration refusing to even acknowledge the existence of drone strikes until very recently—there hasn’t been one congressional hearing into these killings. Not one.

Already, the looming hearing forced the administration to provide members of the committee with Office of Legal Counsel memos that attempt to justify the legal rationale behind targeted killings, which followed the leak to NBC News of a non-classified Department of Justice white paper on the same topic.

But these revelations have created more questions than answers. Here is a non-exhaustive list of basic questions senators should require Brennan to answer today. To invert the recent parlance about the DoJ memo, this is a floor, not a ceiling—just some basic questions the public deserves answers to.

(1) First of all, why not release the OLC memos to the public? Showing them to a handful of senators is a step in the right direction, but Obama boldly released the infamous Bush torture memos at the start of his administration, and there’s just no compelling argument why these memos are any different. Let the people know how their government is justifying extrajudicial killings—especially since any American can is eligible as a target. Also, do any other memos exist, and will they be released?

(2) Why do “informed, high-level official(s) of the United States” get sole determination over whether the government can kill an American? First of all, what’s the framework for deciding who this is? It doesn’t explicitly mention the president—which advisers have this power? Where is the cut-off? Moreover, why is there no judicial review before the government denies a citizen due process and kills him? This is a truly radical concept.

(3) When should the Authorization for Use of Military Force expire? One answer to the prior question is that Congress explicitly gave the president authorization to combat Al Qaeda and “associate forces” when it passed the AUMF in 2001, and so Obama (and future presidents) can order the deaths of anyone who fits that description, American or otherwise, without judicial review. That may be true—so when should the AUMF be repealed? At what point is it fair to say that Al Qaeda has been defeated, given that it’s provably been greatly diminished in size and is without its leader, Osama bin Laden? How many “associate forces” are we going to keep including in that definition? Brennan would likely punt this question by saying that’s up to Congress, which is true, but as the guy tasked with carrying out the killings it’s certainly fair to ask for his input.

(4) Relatedly, what about the “filling the bucket” problem? This was the terminology of former White House chief of staff Bill Daley. He meant, at what point is enough enough? If we keep adding people to the “kill list,” or the “disposition matrix” as they call it, while the power of Al Qaeda is simultaneously being diminished, aren’t we just killing less and less important people, because we can? In the words of a former counterterrorism official to The Washington Post, “Is the person currently Number 4 as good as the Number 4 seven years ago? Probably not.” Can Brennan at least acknowledge that?

(5) Is the administration open to ending “signature strikes” and if so, can it at least acknowledge the inherent problems with it? The centrist Center on Foreign Relations has called on the administration to end “signature strikes,” which are when instead of specifically targeting Al Qaeda leaders, unknown and anonymous people who fit certain criteria are targeted. (One official told The New York Times that there’s an inside joke that “three guys doing jumping jacks,” is a terrorist training camp.) A key fact of our drone warfare policy is that a vast majority of those killed are not in Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but “low-level militants”—and who sometimes aren’t even involved in any plots against the United States, but rather against allies.

(6) Why is the DoJ so overly broad with the definition of “imminent”? The DoJ memo says drone strikes against Americans can only happen if there’s an “imminent” danger, and then proceeds to strip virtually all meaning from that word. Brennan should be pressed heavily on this indefensible expansion. A good test question: say someone—and American—just had an idle fantasy in their head about blowing up the Pentagon. If they scribble it on a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it out, and the CIA comes across it, can they kill that person under the current DoJ guidelines? (The answer is almost certainly ‘yes.’)

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(7) Can Brennan pledge that lethal drones will never be fully autonomous? Drones are already unmanned, and can respond to certain stimuli without human direction. Also, the government is developing certain pre-set criteria that make people eligible for “signature strikes.” You can see where this is going. Government officials have said anonymously that ongoing drone research and development does not include drones that can make lethal decisions without human input, but can Brennan explicitly confirm that, on the record and under oath? Can he rule it out as something he would pursue as CIA director?

(8) Can Brennan admit that the administration is vastly undercounting civilian casualties to drone strikes? By virtually every external measure, the civilian casualties from drone strikes are, by many orders of magnitude, much higher than the administration admits. (They only recently admitted there were any). The public knows it, journalists know it, foreign governments know it. Why can’t Brennan just be honest about it?

(9) Relatedly, what is an honest assessment of the blowback from drone strikes, and is it worth it? Drone strikes in Yemen, which vastly expanded under Obama following the Fort Hood shootings and the Christmas bomber plot, are unquestionably responsible for a rapid expansion of radicalism in that country. Do drone strikes create a vicious cycle in which more people are radicalized, thus requiring more strikes? As one former counterterrorism put it, “The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower. You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.” The man convicted of trying to blow up a truck in Times Square complained to the judge that “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.” Is Brennan at all alarmed by the blowback effect, and how does he honestly evaluate the risks? He has previously said that he’s seen “little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits,” and he should be pressed on that obvious misperception. (An inquiring senator might point out that former general Stanley McChrystal disagrees. He’s said that “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes…is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”)

This is far from an exhaustive list, but just some of the fundamental questions that need to be answered. There are other areas that need to be explored too, like Brennan’s earlier support for “enhanced interrogation” during the Bush administration, which he has since disavowed. Brennan’s initial written answers to some committee questions paint the picture of a man unwilling to be forthcoming about most of this, but senators have a responsibility to press him.

The drones now patrolling our borders are indicative of the emerging surveillance state here at home, Todd Miller writes.

The Best Sequester Plan in Washington

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s plan to replace the sequester cannot pass the 113th Congress. But then again, Paul Ryan’s (in)famous “Path to Prosperity” had zero chance of being passed by a Democratic Senate and being signed by Barack Obama when it was unveiled in spring 2011, and yet it met with widespread (and often laudatory) press coverage.

So just because it won’t win a Congressional vote, it doesn’t mean the CPC sequester plan, unveiled Tuesday on Capitol Hill, should be ignored—especially because it has the notable advantage of being entirely sensible and “calculator-friendly,” as Steve Benen puts it. It evenly balances cuts and revenue, unlike every other plan out there; it cuts only from exorbitant and unnecessary defense programs and not badly needed government services like community health centers and home energy assistance, and most importantly—it makes investment and job-creation a goal.

The CPC plan, which you can read here, starts with a very important premise: to actually achieve an even balance of spending cuts and revenue increases, as the White House claims it wants to do, one must first take into account all the deficit reduction measures of 2011 and 2012. (An even balance of cuts and revenue increases is of course somewhat arbitrary, but does represent a very tangible compromise position between two approaches to addressing the deficit—and it’s the approach the White House is already pushing, so the CPC is happily endorsing that framing).

In any case, recall that Congress already agreed to $1.7 trillion in spending cuts in the first debt ceiling deal in August 2011, and then earlier this year, agreed to raise $737 billion in revenue by letting the high-end Bush tax cuts and other measures expire. The revenue raised is less than half of the amount of cuts already enacted.

So even if the coming sequester agreement, whatever that might be, does have a 1:1 spending cut to revenue balance, the overall deficit reduction we’ve done will not be even. Accordingly, the CPC plan first scraps the entire sequester, which would slant the final outcome even more towards spending cuts, and replaces it with enough new revenue to make the final outcome balanced.

The inevitable right-wing framing would be that all the big-government progressives are refusing to cut spending and only want to raise taxes—but, in fact, the “Balancing Act” simply evens out the final mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. See:

The revenue increases the CPC proposed are also broadly non-controversial, and dovetail with what some leading Senate Democrats are already talking about anyhow. They mainly involve ending silly tax loopholes that overwhelmingly benefit big corporations and the very wealthy:

  • 28 Percent Limitation on Certain Deductions and Exclusions ($482B)

  • Close Carried Interest Loophole ($17B)

  • Close Loopholes for Jets and Yachts ($4B)

  • Close International Tax System Loopholes ($161B)

  • End Fossil Fuel Subsidies ($94B)

  • Close Exclusion of Foreign-Earned Income Loophole ($71B)

  • Close Corporate Deductions for Stock Options Loophole ($25B)

  • Close Estate Tax Loopholes ($23B)

  • Close S Corporation Loophole ($13B)

  • Reduce Corporate Meal and Entertainment Deduction to 25% ($70B)

But, you may be saying—by scrapping the entire sequester, there won’t be any cuts to defense spending!

The CPC plan addresses that, with serious cuts to wasteful Pentagon spending designed much better than the hatchet approach of the defense sequester. A popular caricature is that progressives must love the defense sequester, but in reality, it’s not all that great—it cuts equal amounts across the board from all levels of defense spending, so things that don’t really need to get cut see the same reductions as incredibly wasteful programs that just need to be zeroed out.

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The “Balancing Act” finds $278 billion in cuts in truly necessary areas, including reducing the amount spent on nuclear weapons and relocating unnecessary overseas military bases:

  • Rep. Markey’s Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures ($106B)

  • Limiting Excessive Contractor Compensation ($50B)

  • Relocate Troops from Europe to the U.S. ($3B)

  • Reduce Troop Levels 4% by Attrition ($48B)

  • Limiting the Purchase of Virginia-class Nuclear Subs to one per year ($22B)

  • Replacing F-35s with F-18s ($23B)

  • Eliminate one Ford-class Carrier ($14B)

  • End Production of the V-22 Osprey ($9B)

  • Limit Military Bands ($2B)

  • Reduce General & Flag Officers to Cold War Standard ($1B)

Of course, these cuts would throw the balance back towards the spending cut side. But the coup de grace of the “Balancing Act” is this: It takes the savings from cutting wasteful Pentagon spending and plunges it right back into job creation. The savings from $278 billion in Pentagon cuts is spent on a one-year extension of the Making Work Pay tax credit ($61B), along with $55 billion for hiring teachers and $160 billion for infrastructure investments. All told, the CPC estimates that investment would create one million new jobs.

An even balance between spending cuts and tax increases. Ending tax loopholes that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy, while cutting wasteful Pentagon spending and investing in new jobs. It’s the most sensible sequester plan in Washington—and because this town is so screwy, it’s also the one nobody is taking seriously at the moment. That’s a shame.

Obamacare may have passed, but now comes the challenge of implementing it, George Zornick writes.

A Big Day for Obamacare

Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File.)

A key project of Obama’s second term will be implementing the major legislative accomplishment of his first term: the Affordable Care Act. Friday ended up being an unusually eventful day on this front.

First, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a slight compromise on the issue of contraception coverage under the new health laws—the issue that thrust Sandra Fluke into the spotlight last year. Under the compromise announced back in February, churches would be able to opt out of the contraception coverage requirement entirely, and nonprofit religious-affiliated institutions would not have to cover employees, but their insurers would.

That principle remained largely intact, with two minor tweaks. First, a slightly larger group of non-profit religious-affiliated employers can opt out of paying for contraception coverage. Until now, there were four basic litmus tests for which organizations could opt out, and have their insurer pay the contraception coverage costs instead:

the inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization

the organization is a nonprofit organization

the organization employs persons who share the religious tenets of the organization

the organization employs and serves primarily persons who share its religious tenets

The new qualifications are that the organization

holds itself out as a religious organization

is organized and operates as a nonprofit entity

opposes providing coverage for some or all of any contraceptive services required on account of religious objections

self-certifies that it meets these criteria and specifies the contraceptive services for which it objects to providing coverage

Importantly, the administration has refused to let for-profits opt out of contraception coverage, which some big chains like “Hobby Lobby” sought.

The other changes are still significant, however. Instead of needing to be an organization with primarily religious employees and patrons, objecting organizations must only have some sort of religious objection and “hold itself out as a religious organization”—a rather loose criterion, and one the organization is allowed to self-certify.

That said, even if a nonprofit opts out, employees are still guaranteed contraception coverage under the new rules—though HHS did tweak requirements about who pays for it. Instead of the objecting organization’s insurer picking up the tab, which religious nonprofits objected to on the grounds their premium payments would still be used for contraception, the insurance company must set up a third-party payer.

Reproductive rights groups were not bothered by the changes—NARAL, for example, said in a statement that it remained “optimistic that these new draft regulations will make near-universal contraceptive coverage a reality.”

But the administration made another decision on the Affordable Care Act on Friday that is far more pernicious—one that will, in the words of The New York Times, “deny federal financial assistance to millions of Americans with modest incomes.”

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One basic premise of the ACA is that if someone can’t afford health insurance, the government will help you get it by providing subsidies. The administration has now decided to judge affordability based only on the cost of coverage for an individual—not his or her entire family.

So in other words, perhaps you can afford health insurance for yourself, but not for your spouse and three kids. In that case? Tough luck. No subsidies.

Advocates for expanded coverage are not pleased:

“This is bad news for kids,” said Jocelyn A. Guyer, an executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University. “We can see kids falling through the cracks. They will lack access to affordable employer-based family coverage and still be locked out of tax credits to help them buy coverage for their kids in the marketplaces, or exchanges, being established in every state.”

A (very small) consolation is that the administration simultaneously ruled that families that fall into this trap will not face the tax penalties otherwise levied on those who don’t obtain health insurance. That’s good, but it’s also an open admission that the administration is quite aware of the coverage gaps that will be created by the new affordability guidelines. The White House is likely trying to bring down the cost of the ACA by reducing subsidies, but with disappointing collateral damage to millions of people that need health insurance.

A final interesting development broke in Politico Friday morning: Organizing for Action, the new 501(c)(4) version of Obama for America, is teaming up with another group headed by insurance company executives and ex-administration officials to mount a campaign to get Americans to buy insurance. They’ll run it just like a political campaign:

They plan to use it to unleash the 20 million-address strong email list of Organizing for Action, to hire up to 100 people at Enroll America and to flood television, radio and social media with ads this fall. They even hope to go door to door, walking people through the sign-up process. “This is going to be run like a political campaign,” said Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack, who helped conceive and fund Enroll America in 2010 and is chairman of the board.

There are several elements of that plan destined to provoke grumbling among lefties, but if you accept the already-settled premise that the ACA isn’t a single-payer healthcare system, this is a largely positive development. The more people that sign up for health insurance, the cheaper it will be for everyone else. And there are much worse things Organizing for Action could be getting involved with besides trying to rebut the idea, dutifully stirred by conservatives for years now, that Obamacare is a terrifying contraption that ought to be avoided.

Chuck Hagel’s congressional hearing—funny or just plain sad? George Zornick has the top ten ridiculous questions the defense secretary nominee was asked.

Ten Ridiculous Questions From Chuck Hagel’s Confirmation Hearing

 Republican Chuck Hagel, a former two-term senator from Nebraska and President Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Chuck Hagel appeared before his former colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, seeking their approval for his nomination to serve as secretary of defense. What followed was one of the most absurd, embarrassing hearings in recent Washington memory.

Senators battered Hagel for even small departures from accepted conventional wisdom, subtly (and not-so-subtly) charged that he actually sought America’s destruction, begged him to keep defense spending headed towards their state, and generally thrashed traditional notions of the Senate’s role to “advise and consent” on cabinet appointments.

It was a difficult task to narrow these down, but here are ten of the most ridiculous questions posed to Hagel:

Winners, “Please Admit You Hate America” Division

Senator James Inhofe, R-OK: The question I’d like to ask you, and you can answer for the record if you like, why do you think that the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?

Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC: Do you believe that the sum total of all of your votes, refusing to sign a letter to the EU asking Hezbollah to be designated a terrorist organization, being one of two to vote [against] designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, being one of two on two occasions to vote against sanctions that this body was trying to impose on Iran, the statements you made about Palestinians and the Jewish lobby, all that together—that the image you’ve created is one of sending the worst possible message to our enemies and our friends at one of the most critical times in world history?

Winners, “Please Pledge, Here and Now, To Start A War” Division

Senator John McCain, R-AZ: Do you think that Syrians should get the weapons they need and perhaps establish a no-fly zone? [A no-fly zone would, almost without question, quickly lead to a full-scale air war with Syria.]

Senator Mark Udall, D-CO: Why should Americans trust that you will consider every option when it comes to one of the most serious national security threats facing us today, which is Iran? [There were many, many iterations of this same question.] 

Winners, “Please Promise to Keep the Pork Flowing to my State” Division

Senator Joe Donnelly, D-IN: When we were together, I mentioned to you my visit to Crane Surface Warfare Systems, in Indiana. What they do is they work to create the technologies to control the spectrum, in effect try to win the battlefield before the battle starts on the ground. And so, we were wondering, what can be done, in this time of challenging budgets, that in the area of technology, in the area of spectrum, we can maintain our budget so that, as I said, before the war is ever started on the ground we have won it on the spectrum level?

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT: I would like a commitment that you are committed as well to a fleet of twelve Ohio-class replacement submarines.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH: Our four public shipyards are the backbone of our naval power. But according to the Navy there’s huge backlog of the modernization and restorations projects at our shipyards.… Will you commit to ensuring that this modernization plan is produced, and will you commit to pressing the Navy, within the fiscal constraints that I appreciate, to fully fund the improvements in the long term?

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Winners, “Questions We Really Wish Hagel Would Have Answered ‘Yes’ To”

Senator Mike Lee, R-UT: I understand that you have made a statement that there is no justification for Palestinian suicide bombers, but there is also no justification for Israel to “keep Palestinians caged up like animals.” Did you say it, and if so do you stand by it?

Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX: Senator Hagel, do you think it’s appropriate for the chief civilian leader for the US military forces to agree with the statement that both the ‘perception and the reality’ is that the United States is ‘the world’s bully’?”

Senator Roger Wicker, R-MS: You have corrected the term Jewish lobby. And I assume the correct term now is Israel lobby or Israeli lobby. Do you still stand by your statement that they succeed in this town because of intimidation, and that it amounts to causing us to do dumb things?

In an ideal world, we would have a better nominee than Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. But in the real world, he's a pragmatic choice who may actually fight bloated defense spending, the all-powerful Israel lobby and warmongering of all stripes, Phyllis Bennis writes.

Environmentalists Are Rankled by Some Details of the Sandy Bill

Part of the Stewart B. McKinney wildlife preserve in Connecticut, which will be ineligible for restoration funds under the Sandy relief bill passed this week. (Greg Thompson, US Fish & Wildlife Service.)

After much haggling with conservatives, the Senate finally passed a bill on Monday that provided $50.7 billion in relief to people affected by Hurricane Sandy. President Obama signed it late Tuesday.

That’s certainly a good thing—but along the way, the bill got roughed up a little bit in a couple ways that have irritated environmental groups.

The first was a $150 million cut in the amount of money that was originally headed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That agency was going to use the money for coastal reconstruction and land acquisition by granting it to Regional Ocean Partnerships, which are multi-state coalitions formed to better manage ocean coasts that touch many different states.

But Regional Ocean Partnerships are an integral part of Obama’s National Ocean Policy, which he created in 2010—much to the dismay of Congressional Republicans and the oil companies who fund them. They hate the policy because, among other reasons, it creates substantial obstacles to offshore oil drilling.

Republicans have repeatedly passed amendments barring any money from going to National Ocean Policy implementation, and when House Republicans saw $150 million going to the Regional Ocean Partnerships in the Sandy relief bill, they axed it—even though it only would have gone to coastline restoration. The money was not restored in the final Senate version, and so NOAA has virtually no money to restore sand dunes, coastal wetlands and other areas damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

The National Resources Defense Council, while applauding passage of the bill, blasted the removal of that money as something that will “impede the protection of our oceans and land.”

House Republicans—specifically, Representative Rob Bishop—also added another provision that could hamstring federal efforts to restore damaged coastline. The Bishop amendment to the Sandy relief bill, which remained in the Senate version, prohibits the federal government from using any of the money to acquire new land.

Bishop supposedly feared a covert federal land grab, but in reality any land acquisition would only be allowed in areas affected by Sandy—just like every other provision in the bill, language specifically limited the funds to that use. And land purchases would simply be used to restore space to areas that suffered irreparable storm damage, and also add additional buffer zones for future storms.

Another provision added to the bill is nakedly punitive—a simple “screw you” to residents of Connecticut.

The Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge includes four sets of coastal islands and spans seventy miles of coastline in Connecticut along the Long Island Sound. It encompasses over 800 acres of barrier beach and tidal wetland, and “provides important resting, feeding, and nesting habitat for many species of wading birds, shorebirds, songbirds and terns, including the endangered roseate tern.”

It was ravished by Sandy and sustained what its manager termed “severe” damage. In the original Sandy relief bill put forward by the White House, the McKinney refuge was slated to receive $9.8 million to fix the damage—a vanishing fraction of the entire $50 billion legislation.

But if you read the final Sandy relief bill, you’ll notice a somewhat odd provision:

The provisions under this heading in title V of this division shall be applied by substituting ‘$78,000,000 (reduced by $9,800,000)’ for ‘$49,875,000’: Provided, That none of the funds made available under such heading in title V may be used to repair seawalls or buildings on islands in the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.

Yes, the legislation specifically took away that $9.8 million and singled out the McKinney refuge as ineligible for restoration.

Why? Because a Republican representative of Louisiana, John Fleming, made the McKinney nature preserve a symbol of supposedly wasteful pork spending in the relief bill.

“For Heaven’s sake we should not be spending money restoring coastlines on islands that nobody ever goes to,” he crowed on the House floor during the debate earlier this month. (Over 17,000 people visit the McKinney refuge each year, and visitors are sort of besides the point to a wildlife refuge anyhow).

But to appease the talking point, House Republicans passed Fleming’s amendment to specifically keep the McKinney refuge from getting any money. Officials now say it will be hard for them to repair the damage and protect the land.

Besides coastal restoration, House Republicans also will likely block meaningful immigration reform.

The Numbers Just Don’t Add Up on Immigration Reform

Demonstrators display placards during a rally in front of the Statehouse, in Providence, R.I., Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Inside Washington on Monday, the realest talk on comprehensive immigration reform came around 3:45 in the afternoon, an hour after the “Gang of Eight” released its comprehensive immigration reform proposal.

That’s when Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of Alabama walked onto the floor of the Senate and started throwing ice-cold water on all this highfalutin immigration talk:

In 2006 and 2007, with the full support of the Republican president of the United States, a bipartisan committee announced with great confidence they had a plan that’s going to fix our immigration system, and we were all just going to line up and vote for it. The masters of the universe decided.

They met in secret, they had all the special interest groups gather, and they worked out a plan that was going to change our immigration system for the better. And we should all be grateful.

It came up in 2006; it did not pass. It came back in 2007 with even more emphasis; it failed colossally. It failed because it did not do what they said it would do. It did not end the illegality. It did not set forth a proper principle of immigration for America, it did not sufficiently alter the nature of our immigration system to advance the national interest of the United States. It did not. And that’s why it didn’t pass.

It had all the powerful forces—it had the TV guys and newspaper guys and the Wall Street guys and the agriculture guys and the civil rights groups and the La Raza groups and the politicians. But the American people said no.

If you substitute “my overwhelmingly white, Southern constituents” for “the American people,” that is indeed exactly what happened. And it is quite likely to happen again. When one examines polls of Republican voters on immigration reform, and then looks at how many Congressional seats are held by the GOP, it is sadly easy to see that despite all the rosy talk, real immigration reform will remain elusive.

One week after November’s election, when defeat was presumably most raw for Republican voters, and stories abounded about the demographic doom facing the GOP, the Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll about immigration reform.

The top line was that more Americans were now backing a pathway to citizenship. (A pathway to citizenship is essential to any comprehensive immigration reform—it is comprehensive immigration reform. Otherwise we’re just talking about more border security.) But when broken down by party identification, the results weren’t nearly as promising:

Not only did a mere 37 percent of Republicans nationwide favor a pathway to citizenship, only 11 percent strongly supported it. By comparison, 47 of the 60 percent who opposed it felt strongly about that view. 

This fairly unified base of voters is who Senator Sessions is talking to when he goes on about “illegality,” and makes not-so-subtle nativist appeals to the “proper immigration policy for America,” one that is in the “national interest of the United States” and that the “American people” have already spoken on. (In Alabama, I doubt support for citizenship would even sniff the 37 percent level it receives among Republicans nationally.)

Many of Sessions’ colleagues, particularly in the House—where districts are small and meticulously tailored to include only the reddest voters—have already similarly dismissed the Gang of Eight proposal on its face because it contains a pathway to citizenship, or “amnesty” as they derisively call it. “This will be a green light for anyone who wants to come to America illegally and then be granted citizenship one day,” said Representative Lou Barletta. “When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration,” said Representative Lamar Smith, a key member of the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.

Are these members acting in the best long-term interests of the Republican Party? Almost certainly not. Any strategist in D.C. can tell you that. But they are responding to different, more immediate incentives involving their deeply conservative base—and they are responding rationally.

Thanks to the gerrymandering that took place after the 2010 Census, Democrats would need to win the national popular vote by more than seven points to take back the House, according to an analysis by Ian Millhiser at the Center for American Progress. That’s a whopping margin unlikely to happen anytime soon: even Obama’s relatively overwhelming win in November was just under 4 points. The reality is that House Republicans almost need not worry about the national vote—they are nearly invincible to that.

Rather, the only obstacle to staying in office are primary challenges from the right. And when the base hates citizenship for undocumented residents, supporting it is your one-way ticket out of Washington. The consultant class in D.C.—the elites that Sessions was thumbing his nose at—just won’t be able to force real immigration reform upon these members.

So can real reform pass with a majority of Republicans opposing it? In the Senate, even assuming an immigration bill gets unanimous Democratic support—no sure thing, given the number of Democratic Senators up for re-election in red states in 2014—you’d need five Republican crossovers. In the House, even if every Democrat supported a comprehensive immigration reform, seventeen Republicans would have to vote for it as well to ensure passage.

Maybe, maybe this happens. Forget bipartisanship—this is the only real hope for real immigration reform: a Democratic bill with a small handful of Republicans willing to walk the plank.

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But it’s more likely that the Republican leaders of this new approach to immigration reform will bail out long before that happens, thus denying everybody cover and scuttling the whole deal. Alex Pareene noted yesterday that Gang of Eight member Senator Lindsey Graham has a long, long history of pulling out of bipartisan negotiations at the last minute because of an objection he’d had the whole time anyway. (This familiar maneuver has allowed Graham to simultaneously portray himself as both a leading statesman and hardcore conservative, often with the help of a compliant Beltway press.) Since Graham is facing a South Carolina primary race in 2014, I’d bet almost anything he pulls the same switcheroo again.

Marco Rubio, too, has to first face Republican primary voters if he wants to be elected president in 2016. And in South Carolina last year, 49 percent of GOP voters in this key primary state said that if a candidate supported even “limited amnesty,” it would make them “unacceptable” as a nominee.

Accordingly, Rubio may already laying groundwork for a Graham-esque two-step. Tuesday morning, Rubio slammed Obama for a soft stance on border security the president had not yet taken, and said it “does not bode well in terms of what his role’s going to be in this or the outcome.” Later in the day, he told Rush Limbaugh—another powerful and dedicated foe of real immigration reform—that he would insist that any citizenship efforts be contingent upon certain border security “triggers,” likely in the form of certification by a panel of border state officials. This would probably kill the deal, because Democrats don’t want to give people like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer veto power over citizenship for 11 million people.

Rubio can walk away if and when Democrats don’t agree to these triggers. He can tell Republican primary voters he stood up to the Democrats and ultimately opposed a citizenship process—yet, if he makes it to the general election, he can flip the frame and remind everyone that he was leading a push for comprehensive immigration reform. This may not be best outcome for the Republican party, but it’s the best outcome for Rubio’s 2016 prospects.

(In that case, by the way, he’d be following in the footsteps of the last leading Republican crusader for immigration reform, John McCain—thus making make Sessions’ prediction all the more prescient. McCain co-sponsored that doomed 2006 and 2007 push, which included a pathway to citizenship. But when it fell apart, he pretended in the primary he was never really for a path to citizenship anyhow. You may recall his infamous statement in the primary debates that he would not have supported his own bill if it came for a vote.)

Talk about new electoral realities and real, comprehensive immigration reform is exciting—but ultimately, far too optimistic. The electoral realities are the same as they have ever been for the GOP, and ultimately Republicans will probably kill this bill. It’s not right, it’s not fair, but it’s simply the latest iteration of the prevailing political story of the past two years—Republicans can and will stop anything their ever-shrinking base wants them to.

In more disappointing news, read how Harry Reid and the Democrats capitulated on fillibuster reform.

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