The Nation

‘You Know You’re Getting a Quality Product When the Slogan Is Don’t Tell Anyone Where You Got This’

On his show last night, Stephen Colbert dedicated a whole segment to the death penalty, skewering the cloak of secrecy shrouding many states’ execution protocols.

“Americans support the death penalty, but don’t want to know how the sausage is made,” the Comedy Central host said.

Colbert focused on Tennessee, where death row inmates sued to uncover who is supplying the drugs that will be used to carry out their executions. Tennessee is one of several states, including Georgia, Missouri and South Dakota, with laws granting anonymity to lethal injection drug suppliers.

Watch the full segment:


How the Unemployment Relief Bill Might Weaken Your Pension

Pension protest

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

After months of haggling—and months of suffering by the long-term unemployed—the Senate is finally set to pass a bill Thursday afternoon that will reauthorize benefits for Americans who have been out of work for longer than six months.

Republicans have demanded the cost of the extension be offset, and legislators have devised a pay-for known as “pension-smoothing,” which tweaks the formula employers use to fund their pension plans. But some analysts have raised concerns that this seemingly benign formula change could also endanger the solvency of single-employer pensions, particularly those that are already on shaky ground.

In short, the provision will allow companies to contribute less to their pension plans in the short- and medium-term. This raises federal tax revenue in the near-term because employer pension contributions are tax-deductible. While there are some convincing reasons to do this, it’s possible Congress is assuming too much about the health of corporate pensions and allowing some underfunding that could come back to bite both workers and taxpayers in the years ahead.

The detailed reasons are complicated, but important. Federal rules dictate certain levels at which employers must fund their pension plans to ensure that workers still get their promised retirements even if the company runs into financial trouble. The formula is predicated on interest rates, because they determine how much the pension fund will yield.

Low interest rates naturally mean pension plans don’t have a particularly good long-term outlook, and when the long-term outlook is poor, the formula dictates that companies must contribute more money to the pension funds right now. With interest rates near all-time lows, that’s exactly what has been happening.

But many companies argue that since interest rates are being kept unusually low by the Federal Reserve in order to stimulate economic activity, they shouldn’t actually have to be forking over all this cash to their pension plans.

Accordingly, the pension-smoothing provision in the unemployment bill tweaks the formula to allow companies to contribute less money now, and more later on. (The provision applies only to corporate, single-entity pensions, not state or local pension funds. Also, the “more later on” part of this means it’s not really a revenue- raiser but an accounting gimmick, as we’ve noted before.)

The proposed change has gotten virtually no public attention, but behind closed doors, has been the subject of serious lobbying by business interests. “The businesses always lobby very hard to keep more of their dollars now and not have to put them in those pensions. Many of those businesses are now trying to get out of the pension business altogether,” said Romina Boccia, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has worked on this issue.

“The way that they’re convinced, of course, over on the Hill is these companies come in and they say ‘We want to use this money to create jobs in your district and expand our business there,’ and of course that’s very appealing to lawmakers, especially in an election year,” she said.

There is no doubt merit to the business argument here, and having more cash on hand isn’t a bad thing in this economy. For companies with a good long-term profit outlook and well funded pensions, the pension-smoothing provision makes a lot of sense.

And in fact, the corporate pension gap—which was thought to be an enormous ticking time bomb for much of the recession—rebounded remarkably in 2013. The Towers Watson firm studied the Fortune 1000 pension plans and found they rebounded to pre-2008 levels last year. This chart shows a dramatic increase in the number of companies with well-funded pensions:

But many dangers lurk. Analysts credit two primary factors for the rebound: strong equity returns and increased employer contributions.

So a pension-smoothing plan that reduces contributions rolls back a key reason for recent progress—as would any unforeseen decrease in equity returns. Only one year removed from a perilous corporate pension-funding gap, it is perhaps unwise to immediately give companies a pension-funding pass. (It’s also perhaps unnecessary—as interest rates begin to rise, as they are now, company obligations will begin to decrease anyhow.)

Also, the pension-smoothing provision applies to all pension plans, not just the ones on stable financial footing. So those seven percent of pension plans that are funded below 70 percent—which is already dangerous—will also be able to contribute even less going forward. This dramatically increases the risk of pension fund failure at those companies.

Not surprisingly, those troubled companies have been the ones lobbying hardest for the smoothing change, according to Boccia. “They lobby even harder because they need the cash more than the companies that are doing fairly well right now, and have a pension that’s well-funded,” she said, adding that she raised the issue in a meeting with lobbyists who were pushing for the pension-smoothing fix. “They argued with us that ‘Well, [those troubled companies] need it even more because we need to free up cash now to make sure we’re better off down the road, that we’re more profitable than we are now.”

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A final danger is that Congress will just keep extending the pay-less periods of pension-smoothing. The provision in this week’s unemployment insurance bill is actually just an extension of a similar provision in the transportation bill two years ago, which was about to expire.

Any failure of a pension fund would result in a taxpayer bailout via the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation—along with the serious benefit reductions for workers that usually come along with a bailout. That’s not to say the unemployment relief bill shouldn’t be passed because of this provision, but the possible implications shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Read Next: John Nichols on a resounding vote against the Koch brothers

Why Jeb Bush Isn’t Actually a Safe GOP Choice for 2016

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush speaks at the American Legislative Exchange Council's 40th annual meeting in Chicago, August 2013. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Jeb Bush—along with three sitting governors, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and John Kasich—spent last weekend in Las Vegas for the “Sheldon Primary,” appealing to the uber-wealthy, ultra-conservative Sheldon Adelson at the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Adelson, a casino magnate, is wondering where to place his bets in 2016—and with Christie in deep trouble, Bush is getting a close look.

There’s been a flurry of Bush-is-running pieces in the media since mid-March, a clear sign that Bush’s team is orchestrating something, sending up a trial balloon. Fox News notes that if he runs he might have to go up against a protégé, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, but that nevertheless:

A powerful network of Jeb Bush loyalists, from previous high-ranking campaign staffers to top donors, increasingly have been communicating and coalescing as they await a decision from the former Florida Republican governor on whether he will run for president in 2016. "We are keeping our powder dry."

Over at the Washington Post, a piece on Bush’s incipient campaign provides a number of details on the who’s who on Jeb’s team. Here’s the intro, in the piece by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa:

Many of the Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft former Florida governor Jeb Bush into the 2016 presidential race, courting him and his intimates and starting talks on fundraising strategy.

According to the article, Bush is keeping in touch with key politicos around the country, such as Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and he’s in regular touch with Sally Bradshaw, his political aide, strategist Mike Murphy and fundraiser Jack Oliver. He’s also brought on board a spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, and travels alongside Josh Venable, an official as Bush’s education foundation who “serves on the side as Bush’s liaison with big donors,” the Post reported.

Like Christie, Bush would be the candidate of the GOP’s Establishment. It’s the millionaires and billionaires—literally the 1 percent of the 1 percent—who’ve been courting both, as likely opponents of the Tea Party wing of the Republican party. And like Christie, who’s alienated some on the far-right for his relatively mainstream positions—accepting the Medicaid provision of the Affordable Care Act for New Jersey, slamming critics of “sharia law,” acknowledging the need for gun control, and avoiding taking hard-right positions on issues such as immigration and gay rights—Bush has annoyed far-right Republican and Tea Party types on a number of fronts, including immigration and education, where Bush (like President Obama) supports the Common Core for schools.

And, as John Dickerson points out in Slate—citing CNN’s John Avlon, reporting back in 2012—Bush has also taken issue with Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge:

I ran for office three times. The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed the pledge. I cut taxes every year I was governor. I don't believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people. Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad—they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party—and I don't—as having an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement, doesn't allow for finding some common ground.

George Will, writing April 2 in the Washington Post, worries that hard-line, compromise-hating folks among the “flammable Republican base” will blow up Bush before he gets started:

[Bush] wisely favors immigration reform responsive to the needs of the US workforce and the realities of the 12 million who are not here legally but are neither going to “self-deport” or be deported. His enthusiasm for the Common Core is misplaced, but conservatives, in judging it, should judge Bush with a generosity he has earned by his exemplary record as an education reformer favoring school choice.

Unfortunately, there are too many Republicans who, honing their knives and lengthening their lists of unforgivable heresies, seem to derive more satisfaction from burning Republicans at the stake than from defeating Democrats.

If anyone is honing their knives to attack Bush, however, they ought to take a look at Bush’s involvement with the failed firm, Lehman Brothers, whose collapse helped precipitate the 2008 financial crisis. Jeb Bush had the unfortunate timing to sign on as a consultant to Lehman Brothers just before its fall, and not only that: the state of Florida may have lost, and lost big, with Lehman. All this is certainly worth looking at.

The Florida State Board of Administration, which oversaw an investment fund of $26 billion dollars on behalf of over 1,000 school districts, towns and local agencies in the state lost hundreds of millions of dollars because it invested in sub-prime mortgage derivatives sold by Lehman Brothers. The SBA was supposed to keep its money in safe investments because it was used to pay teachers, repair roads and other everyday needs of the towns and schools. For years it was invested in safe Treasury bonds, other government debt and corporate bonds.

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That started to change in 2007 just when the sub-prime mortgage crisis exploded and the housing market was collapsing. At the start of the year the SBA started first to tiptoe into mortgage-backed securities. But when headlines blared that Bear Stearns was liquidating its $4 billion dollar hedge funds because the mortgage-backed securities they held collapsed, the SBA did the opposite and started buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of such investments, mostly from Lehman Brothers.

That summer, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was hired as a consultant to Lehman Brothers. Bush claims that he had nothing to do with the sale of the bonds to the state, that he was involved with the private equity side of the bank, but he has not answered questions about how his connections with the SBA and other officials might have facilitated the transactions. Until he left office in January 2007, Bush, as governor, was one of the three board members of the SBA and obviously knew its executives well.

In November of that year, as more and more of the fund’s holdings were downgraded to below acceptable risk levels for its investments, school districts and local agencies that had money in it took it out. By the end of November they had liquidated about $12 billion of the fund. But it still lost significantly when Lehman tanked.


Read Next: Christie Watch reports on Jeb Bush and the ‘Sheldon Adelson primary’

A Resounding Vote Against Koch Brothers Dollarocracy

Madison, Wisconsin

Protesters in Wisconsin, 2011, where communities are voting to amend the constitution. (Darren Hauck/Reuters)

Even as the US Supreme Court attempts to expand the scope and reach of the already dangerous dominance of our politics by billionaires and their willing servants, Americans are voting in overwhelming numbers against the new politics of dollarocracy.

The headline of the week with regard to the campaign-finance debate comes from Washington, where a 5-4 court majority has—with its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision—freed elite donors such as the politically-ambitious Koch Brothers to steer dramatically more money into the accounts of favored candidates, parties and political action committees. The decision makes it clear that the high court's activist majority will stop at nothing in their drive to renew the old Tory principle that those with wealth ought to decide the direction of federal, state and local government.

But the five errand boys for the oligarchs who make up that majority are more thoroughly at odds with the sentiments of the American people than at any time in the modern history of this country's judiciary.

We know this because the people are having their say with regard to the question of whether money is speech, whether corporations have the same rights as human beings and whether billionaires should be able to buy elections.

In every part of the country, in every sort of political jurisdiction, citizens are casting ballots for referendum proposals supporting a Constitutional amendment to overturn US Supreme Court rulings that have tipped the balance toward big money.

In so doing, these citizens are taking the essential first step in restoring democracy.

On Tuesday, thirteen Wisconsin communities, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning answered the call of constitutional reform. Even as groups associated with billionaire donors Charles and David Koch were meddling in local elections in the state, voters were demanding, by overwhelming margins, that the right to organize fair and open elections be restored.

It even happened in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s hometown of Delavan, where voters faced the question:

Shall the City of Delavan adopt the following resolution:

RESOLVED, the City of Delavan, Wisconsin, calls for reclaiming democracy from the corrupting effects of undue corporate influence by amending the United States Constitution to establish that:

1. Only human beings, not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations nor similar associations are entitled to constitutional rights, and

2. Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we hereby instruct our state and federal representatives to enact resolutions and legislation to advance this effort.

76 percent of the Delavan residents who went to the polls voted “Yes!”

They were not alone. A dozen other Wisconsin communities faced referendums on the same day. Every town, village and city that was offered a choice voted to call on state and federal officials to move to amend the US Constitution so that citizens will again be able to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars.

The Wisconsin votes provided the latest indication of a remarkable upsurge in support for bold action to renew the promise of American democracy. Since the Supreme Court began dismantling the last barriers to elite dominance of American politics, with its 2010 Citizens United decision, sixteen states and more than 500 communities have formally requested that federal officials begin the process of amending the constitution so that the court's wrongheaded rulings can be reversed.

Last fall, John Bonifaz, the co-founder and executive director of the reform group Free Speech For People, calculated that “In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America."

Since the start of 2014, however, the movement has seen a dramatic acceleration in the grassroots pressure for action. During the first weeks of March, forty-seven town meetings called for a constitutional amendment—in a move that put renewed pressure on the New Hampshire legislature to act on the issue.

It is the experience of big-money politics that has inspired renewed activism for reform.

Wisconsin has had more experience than most states with the warping of democracy by out-of-state billionaires, "independent" expenditures and SuperPAC interventions. Governor Walker’s campaigns have reaped funds from top conservative donors, including the Koch Brothers. And a Koch Brothers-funded group, Americans for Prosperity waded into contests this spring for the local board of supervisors in northern Iron County, where mining and environmental issues are at stake; and in the city of Kenosha, where school board elections revolved around questions of whether to bargain fairly with unions representing teachers. In other parts of the state, business interests poured money into school board contests and local races Tuesday, providing a glimpse of the role corporate cash is likely to play in local, state and national elections in the months and years to come.

The Koch Brothers had mixed success Tuesday. Three Iron County Board candidates who were attacked by Americans for Prosperity mailings and on-the-ground "field" efforts in the county won their elections—beating incumbents who were promoted by the outside group. But in Kenosha, two school board contenders who were seen as anti-union zealots won.

There were, however, no mixed results when voters were given a clear choice between dollarocracy and democracy.

The signal from Wisconsin is that grassroots politics can and does still win.

In fact, it wins big.

Encouraged by groups such as United Wisconsin and Move to Amend, activists went door to door in the depths of winter to place amendment questions on local ballots in towns, villages and cities across the state. Many of the communities were in heavily Republican regions of Wisconsin. Yet, the pattern of support was strikingly consistent; in no community did an amendment proposal win less than 60 percent of the vote, and in several the support was over 85 percent.

“Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in our elections. Now, Wisconsin voters are standing up to the corrupting influence the flood of special interest money has had on our elections and in our state and national capitols where laws are made,” says Lisa Subeck, the director of United Wisconsin. “Tuesday’s victories send a clear message to our elected officials in Madison and in Washington that we demand action to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy.”

Whether all those elected representatives will get the message remains to be seen. Several of the communities that voted Tuesday are in the district of Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who has already introduced an amendment proposal and has been an ardent backer of reform. But many other communities are represented by recipients of the big-money largesse of Wall Street traders, hedge-fund managers, casino moguls and billionaires looking to cover their bets.

Communities in the home district of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted by margins as high as three to one to support an amendment strategy. The results were similar in conservative Waukesha County, which has historically been a Republican stronghold; in the city of Waukesha, for instance, 69 percent of the electorate called for action to amend the constitution. In Wauwatosa, the Milwaukee suburb where Governor Walker now maintains his voting residence, the vote for an amendment was 64 percent.

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Wisconsin has several legislative proposals to put the state on record in support of a constitutional amendment. But they face uphill climbs in the current Republican-controlled legislature. And Walker shows no enthusiasm for reforming the system that has so richly rewarded his campaigns. Yet, grassroots activists like Ellen Holly, who helped organize the amendment vote in Walworth County—the heart of Paul Ryan's district and Walker's old home turf—is not blinking. She says it's essential for the Move to Amend campaign to take the fight into even the most conservative areas and to deliver messages to politicians like Ryan.

The widespread support for overturning Citizens United, especially from rural and Republican-leaning areas offers a reminder that the reform impulse is bipartisan and widespread. The same goes from the broad coalitions that have developed. Among the loudest voices on behalf of the referendum campaign in rural Wisconsin was the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which hailed Tuesday’s voting as “a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy."

Citizens United has allowed big money to drown out the voices of ordinary people and created an environment where, too often, our elected officials are sold to the highest bidder,” says Subeck, a Madison city council member who this year is running for the legislature on a promise to focus on campaign-finance issues. “To fully restore public trust in our democracy, we must return control of our elections to the people through common sense campaign finance reform, starting with the reversal of Citizens United.”


Read Next: Ari Berman on the McCutcheon decision and voting rights.

Dude, de Blasio Should Totally Go the Informal Route

Bill de Blasio

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and wife Chirlane McCray bag lunches with girl scouts from Brooklyn Troop 2260. (AP Photo/New York Daily News, Susan Watts, Pool)

The trappings of power are so aptly named. So many of the mini-controversies of Bill de Blasio's young mayoralty have been the byproducts of power's privilege: the Findlayter phone call, the motorcade blowing stop signs, the hush-hush AIPAC speech. None of these incidents deserved the ink it got (though some of the excess can be blamed on the way de Blasio handled them). But strung together the kerfuffles etch out a deeper truth, which is that the perks that come with a big job can be as much liability as luxury.

This week, with the charter and budget battles fading, the mayor is trying to turn a corner and shed some of the formality that came with the office he took three months ago. He held a roundtable with City Hall bureau chiefs, where he jocularly chided them for not wanting to meet outside and, when he did get snippy, at least prefaced it with “dude.” Bro, that's pretty relaxed! He also reportedly wants to be called “Bill” more often, and at a press conference at a Brooklyn school on Tuesday, schools Chancellor Carmen Farina did so refer to hizzoner. He's holding an off-the-record press get together at Gracie Mansion on Friday, where he and the corps will play Twister and down a few of the mayor's trademark cherry Jello-shots.

OK, the last bit probably won't happen on Friday, but you do get the idea that a little less formality will suit de Blasio, who on becoming public advocate in 2009 dismissed the security team and driver that came with that office. So far, de Blasio's goofy sense of humor has been a poor fit with some of the staging that comes with his current office, like the airless Blue Room at City Hall.

I write this blog clad in parochial-school style slacks and a tweed sportscoat with elbow patches that my late Dziadzia might have found a little stuffy, so I'm not suggesting that all decorum go out the window. Government is a serious thing and being mayor of a city of 8 million people requires some symbolism of authority, especially since much of the mayor's power comes not from statute but from his bully pulpit. But there's a point where the accessories of an office actually undermine its value because they make it impossible to communicate clearly with the public.

For instance, there's the mayoral podium. It's a very impressive thing, wrapped in rich blue fabric and displaying on its front a large bronze city seal—the thing just sort of says “mayor.” De Blasio travels with it to events; it was there in a tiny classroom at the P.O. Suarez school in Bushwick yesterday. Bloomberg traveled with a podium, too. But according to people who remember this stuff, mayors before Mike didn't regularly do so. This might be a tradition de Blasio lets go. For one thing, because he is so tall, he's constantly toeing into place a step for shorter people whom he invites to the podium. This can look like the mayor is trying to scrape something off his shoe. For another, he doesn't need it. He's a tall guy and, especially since he shaved off de Beard, looks like a man who's in charge. He's the mayor wherever he goes and whatever he stands behind.

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This is the kind of ephemera I'm constantly nagging the mainstream press about focusing on, so shame on me. But I do feel the way we've come to package our politicians has real-world implications. Take the apparently inescapable trend of having a politician stand in front of a screen patterned with a logo describing the thing the politician is talking about, e.g. Obama talks about strengthening America in front of a backdrop that says “Strengthening America” over and over, so that anyone who's just glancing at a TV screen in a Jiffy Lube waiting room or glancing at a front page while looking for the weather forecast will know, if nothing else, that Obama is strengthening America. (Wouldn't it be great if we could go back through history and insert these backdrops behind earlier leaders? Lincoln in front of “Freeing the Slaves” or Nixon with “Secretly Bombing Cambodia” behind him?)

The thinking behind this stage-management is that people won't understand or take the time to learn what a politician is doing or saying unless you spell it out for them in Crayola. A progressive vision of government has to have a little more faith in its message and its ability to communicate with people. That's why de Blasio has stressed transparency as part and parcel of his progressive agenda: Inclusion is an antidote to inequality, and stripping away some of the wax that's built up on our public offices is a way to invite people in. The mayoral podium seems a little waxy, to me... dude.


Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on the "Rise of the Progressive City."

‘WSJ’ Faults Obama Administration for Fort Hood Shootings—Others Blame Media, Too Few Guns

Guns exhibit

Guns hang at an exhibit booth during the 2013 National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Houston, Texas. (Reuters/Adrees Latif)

You have to hand it to the Wall Street Journal. They do it cleverly and between the lines, but in an editorial today they pinpoint as the main reason for yesterday's shootings at Fort Hood by a mentally-troubled soldier the actions and inactions of agencies under the Obama Administration (with no mention of the easy purchase of the weapon or any other factors):

And as military officials seek lessons from the tragedy to try to prevent similar events in the future, they should expect no help from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, known as Samhsa. According to a Journal editorial this week, this arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "uses its $3.6 billion annual budget to undermine treatment for severe mental disorders."

Samhsa bureaucrats spend much of their time and taxpayers' money opposing efforts by doctors to promote medical intervention in such serious cases. Among the reforms sought by health professionals—and impeded by the bureaucracy—are "'need for treatment' standards in civil-commitment laws, or assisted-outpatient laws so courts can require the mentally ill to receive treatment to avoid hospitalization."

Military officials might also wish to consider the work of E. Fuller Torrey, who last year described in our pages how the federal government spends far too much time and money treating "the worried well," rather than the truly ill—and the truly dangerous.

Torrey, in fact, is a well-known advocate of returning to the days of institutionalizing the mentally ill against their will. Here's a piece at Scientific American criticizing a recent "60 Minutes" segment after the Naval Yard massacre that featured Torrey. You can find online much other criticism of Torrey from top professionals and journals.

Of course, it's absurd that the shooter would have been locked away before the attack.  Latest reports reveal that he had a clean record, a psychiatrist had indeed seen him in the past month and found no threat of violence, and simply prescribed a sleep aid.

The assistant managing editor at Bloomberg's Businessweek.com, meanwhile, largely blames the media for 'fueling" copycat shootings even as they exaggerate the number of mass killings in America which he claims are not increasing at all. (At least he mentions the problem of maybe not quite enough gun control.) 

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Fox & Friends, of course, places the blame on soldiers not being able to have arms at the ready to defend themselves—when attacked by other soldiers with arms at the ready.

“There you have our soldiers not being able to arm themselves,” host Elisabeth Hasselbeck opined. “Still, if they have a weapon, they are to register it within five days of purchase, and obtaining it. But then that must be stored away in these lockers so that it cannot be carried on their person, therefore leaving them vulnerable.”

Co-host Steve Doocy noted that the military had decided to restrict sidearms on bases during President Bill Clinton’s (D) administration.

Doocy then pointed to the current Democratic president by quoting a conservative blogger: “Gateway Pundit, which is a way right-leaning blog, what they write this morning is, ‘The Obama administration is responsible for this mass shooting. They witnessed this before, they didn’t learn a thing. Gun-free zones are death zones. It is time to stand up to the lunacy.’”

Jon Stewart, your move.

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How Indigenous Communities in Honduras Are Resisting US-Backed Multinationals

Honduras protest

Members of a Lenca indigenous community protest against the planned construction of a dam in Honduras. (AP Photo/Edgard Garrido)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.


“Screw the company trying to take our river, and the government. If I die, I’m going to die defending life.” So said María Santos Dominguez, a member of the Indigenous Council of the Lenca community of Rio Blanco, Honduras.

April 1 marks one year since the Rio Blanco community began a human barricade that has so far stopped a corporation from constructing a dam that would privatize and destroy the sacred Gualcarque River. Adults and children have successfully blocked the road to the river with their bodies, a stick-and-wire fence and a trench. Only one of many communities fighting dams across Honduras, the families of Rio Blanco stand out for their tenacity and for the violence unleashed upon them.

The Honduran-owned, internationally backed DESA Corporation has teamed up with US-funded Honduran soldiers and police, private guards and paid assassins to try to break the opposition. Throughout the past year, they have killed, shot, maimed, kidnapped and threatened the residents of Rio Blanco. The head of DESA, David Castillo, is a West Point graduate. He also served as former assistant to the director of military intelligence and maintains close ties with the Honduran Armed Forces.

María Santos Dominguez’s prediction that she would die defending life almost came true. On March 5, seven people attacked her as she was on her way home from cooking food at the local school. They assaulted her with machetes, rocks and sticks. When her husband, Roque Dominguez, heard that she was surrounded, he and their 12-year-old son, Paulo, ran to the scene. The men brutalized them as well. They brought a machete down on the child’s head, deeply slashing his face, cutting his ear in half and fracturing his skull. Roque Dominguez’s hand was severely injured, and he also suffered cuts to the face. (Friends of the Earth has organized a petition urging the Honduran government to investigate, which you can sign here.)

This was the second machete attack Roque Dominguez suffered since the community began its blockade. The first, last June 29, by several members of a powerful family allied with the dam company, left his eye, face and hand mutilated. Days later, a soldier murdered María’s brother, Tomás Garcia, and shot his 17-year-old son, Allan, in the chest and back. The two bullets barely missed Allan’s heart.

Washington has admonished Honduran land rights defenders, even singling out the people of Rio Blanco. The US ambassador to Honduras, in her remarks on International Human Rights Day last December 10, accused the Lenca community of trying to block development, and cited them as an example of people incorrectly taking justice into their own hands. And last June 28, according to the newspaper La Prensa, the ambassador called on the Honduran government to prosecute those who encourage small farmers to occupy lands. Weeks later, a Honduran court leveled exactly that charge, and others, against three leaders of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), of which the Rio Blanco community is a member.

The US government has been a strong force behind the exploitation of natural riches on indigenous and small-farmer lands. In 2009, the United States contributed to a coup against President Manuel Zelaya, which was motivated in part by a desire to quash his support for agrarian reform and greater rights for indigenous and land-based peoples. President Obama backed the unconstitutional administration that followed as it gave corporations free rein for resource extraction, including granting forty-one illegal contracts for dams. Many of those contracts are moving forward in today’s pro-business environment, in violation of Honduran and international conventions requiring free, prior and informed consent by the indigenous peoples on whose territories the projects would be located.

During the period between the coup against Zelaya and today, the US government has given not only political support to the anti-indigenous, law-violating administrations, but also almost $40 million in military and police aid—aid used for repression of citizens and for the so-called drug war. The United States also maintains six military bases in the country.

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Washington's support also helped Juan Orlando Hernández impose himself as president following the November 24, 2013 elections, guaranteeing an agenda promoting multinational looting of natural resources. Though the elections were marred by violence, intimidation and blatant fraud by backers of the ruling party—including the buying of votes, the counting of ballots from dead people, manipulation of the count and the selling of election-worker credentials—the US ambassador called them transparent. Hernandez’s business-at-any-cost position was clear from his time as president of the National Congress, when he passed a law that gave mining corporations priority access to water over the needs of the people living in the area, and championed a law creating “model cities,” which essentially turn land over to corporations to manage. As president, Hernandez is now pushing forward these “Special Economic Development Zones.”

Freshly out of the hospital, María Santos Dominguez insists on returning to her home in Rio Blanco and continuing to fight the dam. Many have warned her of the dangers, but she is, to quote one human rights worker who knows her well, “so unbudging.”

COPINH issued a communiqué on March 6 that read in part, “We demand that the authorities not leave this case to impunity… as they have so many aggressions against many Lenca members of COPINH in Río Blanco. We demand justice and an end to violence and threats against the individual and collective rights of the Lenca People of Río Blanco.”

María said, “As Lenca people, these are our lands. Our ancestors fought to defend this land for us. We also have children and grandchildren, and we are going to defend this land for them.”


Read Next: Sam Badger and Giorgio Cafiero on the triumph of the oligarchs in Honduras.

Lawmakers Ask Obama for a Tally of People Killed by Drones


US drone in Afghanistan (AP Photo/Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force)

While questions about transparency have of late focused on the government’s surveillance programs, some members of Congress would like to direct some of that scrutiny towards another aspect of the national security state: the targeted killing program.

On Wednesday, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff and Republican Walter Jones introduced a bill that would compel the Obama administration to report annually how many people are killed or injured in US drone strikes—and, critically, to make a clearer distinction between combatants and civilians.

How many people the US is killing via drones, and who those people are, has been difficult to determine because of official secrecy. Last year, facing criticism for a lack of transparency and accountability, President Obama announced new guidelines for strikes designed to minimize casualties. The question the reporting requirements seek to answer is whether the government really is “meeting the standard that we’ve set of not striking unless to a near certainty we’re sure that there are going to be no civilian casualties,” Schiff told The Nation.

Administration officials and lawmakers sympathetic to the intelligence agencies have argued that drone strikes result in a low number of civilian casualties— “typically…in the single digits,” Dianne Feinstein claimed in 2013. It’s fair to ask whether we can really draw a meaningful line between nine dead innocents and ten. There’s also evidence that the administration has crafted a definition of civilian so as to artificially lower the casualty count. Reportedly, the administration considers all adult males within the strike zone as combatants—effectively, assuming guilt by location.

“It’s important that we understand how the administration will be defining ‘combatants’ to be able to evaluate the numbers that we ultimately get,” Schiff said. Are we defining combatants in a way that we clearly know who they are, that they’re fighting against us? Or do we have a more amorphous definition where it’s difficult to tell?”

The requirement would cover all strikes outside “theatres of conflict,” which at the moment refers only to Afghanistan. Schiff emphasized that the public report would not provide any information that would be damaging to national security and thus worthy of classification; it would be a bulk annual tally, with no information about particular strikes, their location or the department involved.  Significantly, the legislation compels the administration to provide a count for the deaths and injuries from drone strikes dating back to 2008. That would open the door for critical evaluation of claims made by officials and lawmakers like Feinstein about the number of civilians killed.

A coalition of human rights organizations including Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights hailed the bill as a “modest yet crucial step toward ending excessive secrecy about US drone strikes.” Their statement went further in probing the civilian-military distinction, arguing that pre-emptive, targeted killing in the absence of a direct threat is unlawful regardless of how one defines militant. “Outside the narrow and exceptional circumstances of armed conflict, where international human rights law applies, the United States can only target an individual if he poses an imminent threat to life and lethal force is the last resort. For this and other reasons, we do not necessarily agree that the terms ‘combatant’ and ‘civilian’ apply,” reads the statement.

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Schiff said the greatest challenge is getting the bill out of the House intelligence committee, which last year rejected a similar measure, rather than passing it through the full chamber. Still, he judged it “likely” that a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans similar to the one that drove congressional opposition to the NSA’s surveillance programs will unite to call for transparency in the drone program.

“We’re taking a very small step here because even small steps, in this area, are difficult,” Schiff said. He was clear, however, about its implications. “It’s a way of building support for, ultimately, a change in policy.” Reporting the dead as a statistic may be only a first step, but it’s a necessary one on the way to a conversation about the very real people killed in our name.

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the most recent breakdown in Israel-Palestine peace talks.

Fox News Attacks When Black Women Clap Back

Jamilah Lemieux

(Courtesy of Youtube)

This is the first of a series of blog posts I’ll be contributing weekly to TheNation.com. I'll be offering a mix of analysis and original reporting on gender, race and sexual health, and how those issues intersect and overlap. I’m especially interested in how activists and advocates organize their constituencies and advance their goals; their voices will likely show up in this space quite a bit. Thanks for reading. Tips and ideas for coverage are welcome.

Last month, Fox News continued its longstanding practice of attacking progressive black leaders who dare to acknowledge the persistent role of racial discrimination in American life. In addition to the expected jabs at elected officials—for example, Bill O’Reilly referring to Representative Barbara Lee as a “race hustler”—the network took as its targets two women who are neither Beltway types nor policy architects. In March, Fox producers tried a new tactic: Discredit black women intellectuals whose work sparks new conversations about race, gender and sexuality, and try to convince their employers that they’re a liability.

Fox News’ role in the conservative echo chamber has long been to legitimize and mainstream marginal squabbles and gotcha journalism that surface in the far corners of the right-wing blogosphere or are captured by activist-videographers. We've seen it time and again, from the take down of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, to the ACORN sting, to the network's obsession with the New Black Panther Party.

Last week, a faux scandal bubbled up to Fox News from Twitter. In response to news that black conservatives Ben Carson and Armstrong Williams will collaborate on a magazine, EBONY.com senior editor Jamilah Lemieux poked fun at the venture on her personal account, tweeting that she "had drinking games in mind already." Raffi Williams, RNC deputy press secretary and son of Fox News contributor Juan Williams, got involved, tweeting to her that he "hoped you would encourage diversity of thought." She mistook him for white, replying: "Oh great, here comes a White dude telling me how to do this Black thing. Pass." That exchange landed Williams on Fox & Friends. Lemieux had already apologized for the mistake, but on the segment, she was painted as unhinged, and as if the lack of interest she'd expressed in learning more about the magazine made her personally to blame for black Americans' skepticism about the Republican Party. The chyron that ran beneath images of the editor read, “Exposing her true colors: Lemieux spews hate toward black conservatives.” (Full disclosure: Lemieux has been my editor on two pieces for EBONY.com.)

The segment’s most confusing moment came when Williams implied that Lemieux was somehow trampling on his First Amendment rights. He tells the Fox & Friends host, “I’m trying to promote diversity of thought, diversity of opinions, I think that’s what made America great… America’s built for debate. It’s the First Amendment, I think.”

Except that it’s not. The First Amendment prohibits the government from suppressing an individual’s speech. It’s true that at one point Lemieux tweeted to Williams, “I care about nothing you have to say.” But with this she was opting out of the conversation, not pushing for a law that would prevent Williams from expressing conservative views.

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly elevated a similar but more complex case earlier in March. This time, at issue was a videotaped interaction between UC Santa Barbara professor Mireille Miller-Young and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, anti-choice activists who staged a protest on that campus. According to accounts, Miller-Young took a poster showing images of an aborted fetus from one of the protestors and carried it away to her office, at one point obstructing the protestors as they tried to follow her onto the elevator. She faces misdemeanor charges of theft, battery and vandalism as a result. In addition to the legal troubles, Miller-Young has been pilloried in the media. A Los Angeles Times writer called her actions “hotheaded” and “foolish” and a writer at Salon rolled her eyes in similar annoyance over the professor taking the bait.

Point taken. But what’s been missing from discussions of both Miller-Young and Lemieux is that the right wing is having a field day with two black women whose intellectual output offers a new set of stories about who black women are, stories that challenge dominant narratives about race and gender. Miller-Young teaches in the university’s feminist studies department and her work examines racist stereotypes and fetish in porn. Lemieux’s writing, including a response last year to the date rape lyric that eventually ended Rick Ross' endorsement deal with Reebok, consistently calls out misogyny in pop culture and beyond.

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In both cases, employers have released statements in response to the incidents. RNC chair Reince Preibus asked EBONY for an apology for Lemieux's tweets, and the media outlet promptly delivered—a move Lemieux said she understands and accepts as an "inconvenient truth" of the digital media landscape in a long piece she posted yesterday at EBONY.com. The response from a UCSB official has itself become part of the Miller-Young story. While that letter to students clearly defends the freedom of expression on campus, the National Review characterized it as a “smear” on the anti-choice protestors.

As the dust settles on both incidents, it’s worth watching for further response from the institutions that give a platform to Miller-Young's and Lemieux’s work. Their ideas shouldn't struggle to find a home just because Fox News tried to discredit them.


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