Cole County, Missouri, seems an unlikely place for a national Republican group to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a small county of 75,000, and its leadership is solidly red, with few exceptions. One of those exceptions is Pat Joyce, a Democrat who’s held her seat on the country circuit court for two decades. Until a few weeks ago, with $17,000 on hand and her opponent nearly $13,000 in debt, her chances of serving another term seemed good.
That financial advantage vanished abruptly in mid-October when the Republican State Leadership Committee stepped in with $200,000 to save Republican Brian Stumpe. Half of that money went directly to his campaign. The rest went to the RSLC’s local political action committee, which ran a tie-dye hued ad that accused Joyce of being a “groovy” ally of “radical environmentalists.”
Joyce holds a powerful seat, as far as local courts go. Cole County includes the Missouri state capitol, and so the court has jurisdiction over lawsuits against the state, such as legal challenges to ballot measures. But the RSLC’s involvement in the race isn’t necessarily about Joyce—it’s part of a broader campaign to make courts across the country more conservative.
Since 2010, the RSLC has run an aggressive—and successful—strategy to turn states red and keep them that way. This year, the group expanded from legislative and gubernatorial races, putting $5 million into a “Judicial Fairness Initiative” with the aim to elect judges who are “supportive of restraining government.” So far, the RSLC has funded judicial campaigns in Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and North Carolina. The group is still monitoring races in Ohio, Texas and Michigan.
“It’s a conscious campaign to shift the ideological direction of the courts,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks spending in judicial elections. Thirty-nine states elect at least some of their high-court justices. Many began doing so out of concern that executive appointments lacked transparency, but with campaign finance rules increasingly lax, it’s no longer clear that elections are a better mechanism. “We’re seeing money and special-interest influence playing a larger role in these races,” Bannon said. “It’s raising real concerns about whether judicial elections are fulfilling that role of ensuring meaningful accountability and independence for our courts.”
Special interest groups spent a record $15.4 million on ads and other activities in judicial races during the 2011-12 election cycle, according to the Brennan Center. Political action committees are beginning to outspend candidates themselves, said Bert Brandenburg, executive director for Justice at Stake, which advocates for impartial courts.
Brandenburg traces the trend back to the 1990s—and to conservative operative Karl Rove, who built his reputation on capturing high courts in Texas and Alabama. A 2012 report from the Center for American Progress noted that at the beginning of that decade, candidates for state supreme courts raised about $3 million. Within a few years, that figure had quintupled.
“We’re pressuring judges to act like Huey Long on the campaign trail and then turning around and telling them they have to be Solomon in the court room,” said Bradenberg. “A lot of people are getting very afraid that justice is for sale.”
The RSLC is far from the only group pumping money into judicial elections. Just this week, for example, a brand-new group called Campaign for 2016 dropped more than half a million dollars in a bid to unseat a Supreme Court justice in Illinois. But the RSLC appears to be the first national group to focus on those races in a systematic fashion. Americans for Prosperity, the Super PAC backed by the Koch brothers, recently waded into a judicial campaign in Tennessee. But in general, Brandenburg said, the new class of politically minded billionaires have not discovered judicial elections. “But they could at any moment.” If they do, the results could be disastrous for the justice system; big money goes a lot further in a state Supreme Court race than in a campaign for the Senate, and the impact of the winner’s decisions can be enormous.
With ideological groups increasingly eager to buy seats on state-level benches, judges are forced to act more like politicians, turning to lawyers and other parties who may later appear before them in court to raise campaign cash. A few states have clear recusal guidelines—California, for example, requires a judge to step aside if they’ve received more than $1500 from an attorney or party in a case within the last six years, in a previous election or for a future campaign—but many do not. “The recusal rules have not kept up with the surge of money we’re seeing in these elections,” said Bannon.
Judges have begun to speak out about the constant pressure to raise money. “I’ve basically got two full-time jobs: A job running a campaign. And full-time job on the court,” North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson told National Journal. “It’s awful.”
During her primary, Hudson was the target of attacks funded by the RSLC, which gave $900,000 to a conservative Super PAC called Justice for All NC in late April. Around that time, Justice for All NC began airing ads accusing incumbent Hudson of not being “tough on child molesters.” It’s not that hard to find criminal cases in a judge’s record where they could have ruled more harshly against a defendant, and so “soft on crime” is a common refrain in ads against incumbents. But most of the money for the attacks is coming from groups whose priorities are not public safety but business. The RSLC has received big donations from North Carolina corporations like tobacco giants Reynolds American and Lorillard Tobacco Company, for example. Regardless of motivation, that spending has perverse effects on justice. The American Constitution Society has found that contributions from business interests make justices more likely to rule in their favor, and that attack ads correspond with an increase in rulings against criminal defendants.
The attacks on Hudson were only the opening salvo in a battle for the North Carolina courts. As of early October, judicial candidates in the state had booked more than $1 million in television airtime, not counting what was spent during the primaries. Two things have made North Carolina one of the most brutal battlegrounds for judicial candidates, one being the sheer number of contested positions. Four of seven seats on the state Supreme Court and three on the Court of Appeals are in play, meaning that the elections could shift the high courts’ ideological balance. Though candidates are technically nonpartisan, many are running along clearly defined party lines. The state Republican and Democratic parties have both endorsed candidates.
The second reason big money is being spent in North Carolina’s court contests this cycle is that last year the Republican-led legislature repealed the state’s public-financing law, which provided campaign funds if candidates agreed to limitations on fundraising and spending. Now, candidates have to spend more time cozying up to donors in order to compete. Justice Cheri Beasley, an incumbent who relied on the public-financing program for her 2008 campaign, told a reporter that this year she’s driven 40,000 miles in order to attend fundraisers and other campaign events.
The more expensive the races become, the more difficult it is for candidates who haven’t built relationships with wealthy clients or business partners to compete—for example, people who’ve spent their careers as public defenders. On the other hand, someone with a rolodex full of corporate connections will have an easier time raising money. The danger is not only that judges will face conflicts of interest in future cases, but that benches on high courts will be less diverse to begin with.
For now, even judges opposed to the politicization of their profession have little choice but to fundraise. Public financing for campaigns would help, but as North Carolina illustrates, political winds are shifting in the opposite direction. Thirty states still forbid judges from soliciting campaign contributions directly, but even those restrictions are vulnerable; the Supreme Court, which has ruled decisively against campaign-finance laws in recent years, recently agreed to hear a challenge to Florida’s law. “There are growing concerns about whether or not there is going to be a viable way of choosing judges going forward,” said Bannon.
The minimum wage is causing a bit of campaign drama, notably in Wisconsin, as John Nichols reports. Republican Governor Scott Walker, running neck and neck against Democrat Mary Burke, inflamed the debate this week when he rejected complaints that the state’s $7.25 an hour wage floor was too low. “I don’t think it serves a purpose,” Walker said of the labor standard.
One of the most bizarre points in the Walker administration’s argument for why $7.25 is a living wage (it’s not) is that some low-wage workers supplement their earnings with public assistance. It’s true that even many full-time employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere rely on government aid—because their wages are too low. Walker, meanwhile, is no supporter of social programs. If he had his way, there would be an even smaller safety net for workers to fall back on.
Walker isn’t the only candidate digging in his heels against efforts to raise the minimum wage while simultaneously bashing public aid. This isn’t just callous—it’s also dumb policy. There are lots of reasons to raise the minimum wage, like the fact that it will boost the economy and that 80 percent of Americans support it. But one reason in particular should get conservatives’ attention: it will help people get off government aid programs and save the government money.
How many people? About 1.7 million, according to a brief released Thursday by the Economic Policy Institute, which examined the implications for public-assistance enrollment of raising the federal wage floor to $10.10 an hour.
Nearly half of all recipients of government aid work full time, but because lawmakers have let the minimum wage stay low while the cost of living rises, many workers can’t get by on their earnings. The result is that roughly half of all workers making hourly wages below $10.10 rely on public assistance directly or via a member of their family, according to EPI. And about half of all the funds for the six main types of government support—food stamps; the Earned Income Tax Credit; the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children; the Section 8 Housing Choice voucher program; and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—go to people working for less than $10.10 an hour.
Those programs were designed to provide temporary support to people who were down on their luck, noted David Cooper, an economic analyst at EPI and the brief’s author, on a call with reporters. “They were not intended to act as long-term subsidies to employers so businesses could get away with paying poverty-level wages,” he said. As it stands now, the government is essentially giving a $45 billion handout every year to companies that pay less than $10.10 in order to patch the gap between what they pay their employees and what those workers need to survive.
It’s important to note that raising the wage floor wouldn’t justify cuts to the safety net. Even $10.10 is below a living wage in many cities, and there are still an awful lot of people without full-time work. “Given the extraordinarily high rates of poverty and child poverty that persist in the wake of the Great Recession, there is every reason to think that current levels of spending on these programs are woefully inadequate to truly combat poverty and lift living standards for program participants,” Cooper wrote.
But raising wages would free up money that could be used to benefit those who aren’t directly affected by the increase. Cooper estimates that lifting the wage floor to $10.10 would save the government at least $7.6 billion annually—money that could be used to strengthen and expand safety net programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit or be invested in infrastructure projects that create jobs.
In 1983, when the Department of Health and Human Services assembled the first task force to examine women’s health issues, the appointed experts made it clear that the defining challenges weren’t only related to differences between men and women but also to inequality between some women and others. One fact the panel noted in its final report was that Hispanic women died in childbirth three times as often as white women; black women died four times more frequently. “If a woman is a member of an ethnic or a cultural minority,” the report stated bluntly, “her health is at risk.”
Thirty years later, that’s still the case. A new report from the Alliance for a Just Society found that women of color in the United States still face higher barriers to accessing care and leading healthy lives. In seven states, for example, infant mortality for black women is at least twice as high as it is for white women. In nineteen states, the diabetes rate is at least 50 percent higher among Latina women than white women. In the majority of the states, women of color are uninsured at higher rates than white women.
The state-by-state examination of women’s health disparities suggests that they aren’t just historical holdovers but are exacerbated by a recent political decision: the refusal to expand Medicaid. Most of the states receiving low grades for women’s health in the Alliance report were among the twenty-one that have refused to accept federal money through the Affordable Care Act to expand their Medicaid programs. That decision stranded many people in a coverage gap—too poor to qualify for subsidies on the insurance exchanges and too wealthy to meet their state’s Medicaid eligibility criteria. As The New York Times noted last year, black Americans are disproportionately affected.
Seven of the ten states that received a failing grade in the report—which considered insurance coverage, access to care and health outcomes—rejected the expansion: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Idaho and Texas. In all, seventeen of the twenty-one states that have refused the federal money received a C grade, or worse.
“Expanding Medicaid is the single biggest thing we can do to improve women’s health across the country,” said LeeAnn Hall, the executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society. “Where they’re having clear investments for healthcare you see clearly that there are better outcomes…. Then you see these states that consistently are underperforming and not advancing the Medicaid expansion. The stark reality of that, and the implications for women, is dramatic.”
Still, Hall noted that insuring low-income women via Medicaid is “necessary but insufficient” to close the gap. That black and Latina women are more likely to be poor than white women in the first place and therefore have more to lose from opposition to the Medicaid expansion is its own injustice. Racial barriers to economic opportunity and a lack of healthcare providers in low-income communities are two other challenges Hall noted. Health inequities between Latina women and others may also be aggravated by a broken immigration system. “We know that women who are undocumented, or have members of their family who are, are more fearful of going in and getting the care that they need,” said Hall.
The “war on women” is often described in terms of right-wing affronts to sexual and reproductive healthcare, from attempts to ensure that employers can deny birth control coverage to their workers to efforts to make abortion services impossible to access, if not overtly illegal. It’s easy to chalk up these trends to ideological discomfort with women”s sexuality. But the debate is also about which types of women should be able to make their own choices—or, in the case of Medicaid, which ones deserve care. What’s increasingly clear is that the damages of this “war” are, like illness, borne by certain women more than others.
A Republican senator is urging his colleagues to hold up the $1 billion the White House has requested to combat the Ebola virus in part because the plan “focuses on Africa.”
“I ask you to oppose fully allowing the additional $1 billion in reprogramming requests until previously requested additional information is available for members of Congress to be fully briefed,” Louisiana Senator David Vitter wrote in a letter to members of the Senate Appropriations and Armed Services committees. The $1 billion that the administration has requested would be redirected from funds from the war operations budget to pay for the construction of medical facilities, supply distribution, medical training and for military and civilian personnel. Most of the money has been held up for nearly a month, as Republicans on key committees demand more details from the administration.
While Vitter criticized Obama for not fully presenting a plan, he apparently knows enough about it to be concerned that it “focuses on Africa, and largely ignores our own borders.” Vitter wants the United States to bar noncitizens traveling from countries affected by Ebola from entering the country.
While Congress delays, world leaders are pleading for assistance. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Thursday that twenty times more aid was needed in West Africa to fight the epidemic. Speaking at the same World Bank conference, the director of the Centers for Disease Control called for swift action. “Speed is the most important variable here,” Thomas Frieden said. “This is controllable, and this was preventable. It’s preventable by investing in core public health services.”
Senator Chris Murphy, in an interview on MSNBC on Thursday morning, called the delay in Congress “unconscionable.” He said the committees should release the full funds this week. Murphy acknowledged that some of the questions committee members have about the administration’s plan are “legitimate,” but noted that his colleagues only selectively care about missing details.
“In contrast to the lack of questions we asked when we made a decision to get involved in a war in the Middle East that’s going to cost us $10 billion a year, we seem to have a different level of inspection when it comes to questions being asked about money that’s going to protect the United States from a very real and very present threat of Ebola,” Murphy said.
Many lawmakers (and the media) are in a frenzy about the prospect of Ebola spreading through the United States, but there’s a conspicuous lack of urgency when it comes to doing more to treat the epidemic where it’s already having a devastating effect. Members of Congress have been far quicker to criticize the president for inaction than their colleagues. On Thursday, twenty-six lawmakers wrote to Obama asking him to “take aggressive action to combat and prevent the spread of this disease in the United States,” specifically by banning travel to the US by citizens of affected countries. Meanwhile, the congressional committees that have to approve the redirected funds have blocked most of it until they get a more detailed plan from the administration.
Pentagon officials will brief congressional staff this week, so it’s possible the funds could be approved within days. But it’s also possible that the details of the aid plan will only spur further obstruction from members who want a plan more focused on turning the United States into a fortress than treating the crisis at its heart. (Read Jonathan Cohn for more on why, from a public health perspective, the focus should be on West Africa.)
There are valid concerns about militarizing the response to Ebola. But that isn’t what’s driving criticism from people like Vitter who believe the plan “focuses on Africa” too much. Furthermore, the money held up in Congress would also fund civilian assistance. Even the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has acknowledged that the scale of the crisis and the lack of basic infrastructure is great enough that all types of aid should be part of the response. “To curb the epidemic, it is imperative that states immediately deploy civilian and military assets with expertise in biohazard containment,” Joanne Liu, the international president of the organization said at a UN briefing in September. “Without this deployment, we will never get the epidemic under control.”
Update: On Friday, Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, agreed to release $750 million for the Ebola response. Inhofe's approval was the last hurdle to the funding transfer.
A month out from the midterm elections, Republican candidates around the country are confronting a shared, and significant, vulnerability: education.
The conservative wave of 2010 allowed Republicans to implement slash-and-burn governance in several states—what Kansas Governor Sam Brownback called a “real live experiment” in tax cuts for corporate interests and cuts to services for everyone else. One of the most devastating casualties was public schools and universities.
Now, several Republicans could fall victim to their own experiment. Conservatives are on the defensive in Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin over their records on education. The issue features prominently not only in local and gubernatorial campaigns but also in Senate races that many predicted would be referenda on Barack Obama, not on conservative governance at the state level.
Sweeping budget cuts have created “a perfect storm that’s put education at front and center at every level of every office,” said Karen White, political director for the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. “It’s really taken a couple of years for these cuts to reach down to the individual level, but that’s now happened.”
In states like Kansas, where 95 percent of children attend public schools, education affects a broad swath of voters. Even in that reddest of red states, the cuts championed by Governor Sam Brownback have alienated many of his former supporters. For their part, Democrats are leveraging education to engage key slices of their own electorate in states like North Carolina, particularly women and minority voters. “People are really using the issue of education to talk specifically to drop-off voters,” White noted.
The NEA plans to spend as much as $60 million this year, with more than 70 percent devoted state-level races. White said that many of NEA’s 3 million members will also be personally involved in their local races, making phone calls and sending handwritten postcards. The second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, plans to spend more than $20 million, a record amount even when considering presidential election years. AFT will spend most of its money trying to defend Senate Democrats and flip governor’s seats in states where education cuts have been particularly harsh.
Polls in several states show education as a top-tier issue. One of those is Pennsylvania, where Governor Tom Corbett reduced public school funding by $900 million, or 10 precent, in 2011. Those cuts, plus more the next year, had a sweeping effect: thousands of teachers were laid off, while 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s school districts increased class sizes, 40 percent cut extracurricular activities and 75 percent were forced to cut instruction in 2013. Democratic candidate Tom Wolf has hammered Corbett over the state of Pennsylvania’s schools, and Corbett is now losing by about seventeen points. The implosion of his campaign isn’t enough to stop Corbett from attacking the state’s teachers, however. Just days ago, the School Reform Commission—appointed by Corbett—abruptly canceled the contract with Philadelphia’s teachers in an attempt to force concessions from the union.
“I’ve never seen this level of anger about what policymakers have done in some places to our schools,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. Weingarten thinks it’s not only underfunding that’s made education a top-tier issue but also the effect of efforts to privatize public education. “The market-based reforms, the top-down reforms, the testing and sanctioning as opposed to supporting and improving has taken hold so much and has been so wrong-headed that you’re seeing this fight back,” she said.
Education cuts in states like Pennsylvania disproportionately affected minority and low-income students, who have long born the brunt of disinvestment in public schools. Even so, cutbacks were deep enough to force voters in wealthier suburban districts where schools are usually well-funded to take note, said Pedro Noguera, a sociologist at New York University. (Noguera is also a member of The Nation’s editorial board.) That may explain why the issue is resonating so widely.
Other close gubernatorial races in which education features prominently include Florida, where Republican Rick Scott “has all but ignored the state’s constitutional duty to provide uniform, high-quality and free public schools,” the Tampa Bay Times wrote in a scathing editorial. In Wisconsin, Madison school board member Mary Burke has drawn sharp distinctions between her support for public schools and the state’s higher education system, and incumbent Scott Walker’s aggressive promotion of vouchers and budget cuts.
In Texas, Greg Abbott is defending $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools, while Wendy Davis says she would increase funding. Polling puts education at the top of the list of voters’ concerns in the state, and for good reason. A state judge ruled in August that Texas has “failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools.” Abbot, who currently serves as the state attorney general, appealed the ruling. The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Leticia Van de Putte, is also running hard on support for public education against an opponent who champions high-stakes testing. “If education isn’t your priority, you’re not prepared to lead Texas,” Van de Putte says in one ad.
The Republican and Democratic candidates for governor in Arkansas are both highlighting their education platforms. Democrat Mike Ross has said he wants to be the “education governor.” Republican Asa Hutchinson ran an ad that focused on his plan for statewide computer science curriculum, and he’s talked of boosting support for early childhood education.
Democrats running for Senate in red and purple states are also picking on education to highlight the impact of Republican policies. In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn warned recently that her opponent’s plan to abolish the Department of Education would hurt the middle class and “eradicate” federal assistance for Georgia’s college students.
No Senate candidate is as focused on education as North Carolina’s Kay Kagan. Over the course of a debate on Tuesday night, Hagan said four times that her opponent, Tom Tillis, “gutted education” when he was the top Republican in the state house. Hagan’s campaign and several outside groups supporting her have made public school cutbacks a centerpiece of a number of ads.
Education is a flashpoint in Colorado, where a county school board that was essentially bought by the Koch brothers in 2012 recently tried to censor AP US history in order to teach the “benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights,” while skirting civil disobedience. Protests erupted in the Denver suburb, which happens to be a swing county that could decide the fate of Colorado’s two vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Senator Mark Udall and Governor John Hickenlooper. Both said they disagreed with the school board’s proposal. Udall’s opponent Cory Gardner, meanwhile, declined to weigh in.
Education is also a hot issue in local elections, where some races are attracting a flood of big money. More than a quarter of a million dollars has poured into the contest for five seats on Minneapolis’s school board, for example. Some of these races, like the one for California school superintendent, are not laid out along a Republican and Democratic axis but are instead contests between corporate “reformers” and allies of traditional public schools and teachers unions. Still, they illustrate the political impacts of widening concern over the state of public education.
“We’re watching people starting to focus on schools and public education,” Weingarten said. “We’re seeing the effect of the starving of schools, the relentless criticizing of them, and the fixation on testing. So we’re seeing in lots of these state races, a conversation about education.”
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Clinics in Texas that were recently forced to stop providing abortions because of sweeping new regulations have filed an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing that the rules put an “undue burden” on women’s rights.
Only seven facilities can provide abortions to Texas’ women after an appeals court in New Orleans ruled last week that the state could enforce the full range of a sweeping anti-abortion law that passed in 2013. The remaining clinics are clustered in four cities; there are now none serving women west or south of San Antonio. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than 900,000 women would have to travel 150 miles just to get to an open clinic.
The clinics are asking the Supreme Court to put the regulations on hold so that some can reopen while the legal battle plays out. If the court does not do so, the plaintiffs argue, “women’s ability to exercise their constitutional right to obtain an abortion will be lost, and their lives will be permanently and profoundly altered.” Clinics have already cancelled appointments and turned patients away. Once they lay off their staff, they “will likely never reopen.”
Whether the court will grant the emergency request or hear the full case remains to be seen. The justices declined to block other parts of the Texas law during a previous round of litigation.
But pressure is mounting on the high court to address the wave of clinic regulations that have passed in recent years, not just in Texas but also in Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma and a number of other states. If the Supreme Court were to hear legal challenges to any of those laws, it would spark the most significant ruling on abortion access since Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case that upheld the constitutional right to abortion but cleared the way for state regulation. The key question for the court will be what, exactly, constitutes an “undue burden” on women’s rights.
With abortion access increasingly fragmented, reproductive rights advocates and abortion opponents both want the Supreme Court to weigh in. Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Politico, “the issues in this case are ripe for Supreme Court review.”
In her decision allowing enforcement of the Texas law to go forward, George W. Bush appointee Jennifer Elrod made a point of mentioning that lower courts had issued conflicting decision on the numerous clinic regulations, something that the Supreme Court considers when deciding whether a case warrants their attention. Highlighting disagreement among circuit courts, writes Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgess, amounts to “a blood-red howler to the Supreme Court telling them to “TAKE THIS CASE!”
If it does, the rights of American women will be in the hands of one man.
It’s time to call bullshit on the GOP’s embrace of over-the-counter birth control. Several Republican candidates, under fire for radical positions on women’s health, have recently adopted the idea in a naked attempt to woo female voters. These politicians say they’re all in favor of access to contraception. But sudden calls for the pill to be available without a prescription do not signal a real shift in conservative attitudes toward reproductive rights. They simply mask tired opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that insurers cover birth control.
The list of Republicans that have endorsed the idea includes Senate nominees Cory Gardner (Colorado), Tom Tillis (North Carolina), Ed Gillespie (Virginia) and Mike McFadden (Minnesota). Republicans running for the House have also spoken up for over-the-counter access.
None of these people were championing the proposal before their campaigns. Instead, they were working to limit women’s access to abortion and other healthcare. Gardner, who started the over-the-counter trend in June with an op-ed in The Denver Post, has campaigned for “personhood” measures that would outlaw abortion and possibly some forms of birth control since at least 2006. Early in his campaign Gardner denounced the state-level personhood legislation he’d supported—yet he’s still a co-sponsor on a federal bill that would have the same impact. Gardner has resorted to claiming that bill doesn’t exist.
Then there’s Tom Tillis, who endorsed over-the-counter birth control during a debate with Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in September. As the top Republican in the state House, Tillis shepherded extreme anti-choice legislation in a decisively dishonest manner, inserting restrictions into unrelated bills like one ostensibly about motorcycle safety. Tillis, like other Republicans trumpeting their support for over-the-counter contraception, opposes not only the ACA’s birth control mandate but the healthcare law in general, which has a range of other benefits for women.
The latest candidate to pivot to contraception when confronted about her record is Joni Ernst, a Senate hopeful in Iowa who supports a personhood amendment as well as criminal prosecution of doctors who provide abortions. “When it does come to a woman’s access to contraception, I will always stand with our women on affordable access to contraception,” she said. Her campaign did not respond to a request to clarify which specific policies she supports that would increase affordability and accessibility.
In case anyone is confused: while affordable contraception does dramatically reduce rates of unintended pregnancy, it does not solve the problems created by cutting off women’s access to abortion services. In fact, attempts to block abortion access—for example, by cutting funds for clinics like Planned Parenthood that provide a range of services besides abortion—can have the perverse effect of making it more difficult for women to get other healthcare, birth control included.
Nor is making contraception available without a prescription an alternative to the birth control mandate (or, needless to say, the entire healthcare law). Over-the-counter birth control has support from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a point that several Republican candidates have pointed out when their motives were questioned. Yet the same medical association is quite clear that women still need insurance coverage for contraception. Not all women can or want to take the pill, and other forms of birth control like the IUD are expensive and require a doctor’s appointment. In June, ACOG warned politicians against using calls for over-the-counter contraception “as a political tool.”
That Republicans need such a tool to alter their reputation among women is obvious. Young women are the key demographic in many midterm battlegrounds, and according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in July and August, they prefer a Democrat-controlled Congress by a fourteen-point margin. (Men, on the other hand, favor Republicans by seventeen points.)
But why over-the-counter birth control, specifically? It’s a win-win-win for Republicans trying to appeal to female voters, while bashing Obamacare and boosting their free-market street cred. Candidates can say they support access to contraption while celebrating a “market-based approach to medicine,” as the editorial board of National Review described it recently. The editors commended Republicans for “running…to get government out of the birth-control business as much as possible, and to free up access to it for the women who want it.”
To understand why this sudden embrace of “access” is a racket, and a dangerous one, consider Kevin Williamson, National Review’s self-described “roving correspondent.” In a recent post titled “Five Reasons Why You’re Too Dumb to Vote,” Williamson characterizes women who care about preserving access to abortion or the birth control mandate as “women who cannot figure out how to walk into Walgreens, lay down the price of a latte, and walk out with her own birth-control pills, no federal intervention necessary.” He goes on to applaud the editorial board’s endorsement of the over-the-counter birth control fad.
A few days later, Williamson declared that women who have abortions should be hanged. “I’m torn on capital punishment generally; but treating abortion as homicide means what it means,” he said on Twitter. To be clear: what “pro-life” Williamson is arguing for is putting one in every three women in the United States to death.
“Democrats are not resisting the GOP’s suggestion because of any quibbles with its policy substance,” National Review said in response to suggestions that the GOP’s embrace of over-the-counter birth control smacks of opportunism. “They hem and haw because they want to continue to depict Republicans as intent on keeping contraceptives away from women.”
It doesn’t matter what Republicans are or aren’t intent on. The bottom line is that a variety of conservative positions, from opposition to the ACA to federal funding for women’s clinics, have had or would have the very real effect of making it more difficult for women to access healthcare in general and contraceptives specifically.
Furthermore, contraception is hardly the sum of women’s medical needs. When conservatives fight to empower women to make decisions about their own bodies in all cases, regardless of income, then maybe we’ll take them seriously. In the meantime, there’s little of substance in an ideology that promotes birth control without a prescription for some women and hanging for others.
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Last week, the federal government announced that it will detain as many as 2,400 women and children on property in Dilley, Texas, that is currently used as a “man camp” for oilfield workers. The new facility will be the largest family detention center in the country, and the third to open since the number of children and families crossing the US-Mexico border shot up early in the summer. Since then, the number of minors caught at the border has fallen back below last year’s levels.
Human rights groups are alarmed that the administration is nevertheless planning to double the number of people in family detention. The controversial practice of locking up women and their children, many of whom are awaiting asylum hearings, had been all but abandoned before this year. Calls for closing the two other centers opened this summer in Texas and New Mexico have intensified in recent weeks due to reports of “deplorable” conditions.
“The Obama administration is playing with the lives of these women and children in order to earn political points. What it comes down to is the administration being tough on immigration,” said Silky Shah of the Detention Watch Network. Shah’s organization joined more than 160 civil and immigrant rights, faith-based, and criminal justice organizations signing a letter to the Obama administration on Thursday criticizing the proposed Dilley facility and calling for the closure of the other family detention centers.
Another cause for concern is the company that the government chose to operate the new detention center, Corrections Corporation of America. CCA got its start in Texas three decades ago when it scored a contract for a federal immigration detention center in Houston. It’s now the largest private prison operator in the country. CCA has been sued a number of times for negligence, abuse and other mistreatment. The company is currently under investigation for allegations of fraud and corruption at the Idaho Correction Center.
CCA has profited handsomely from the criminalization of noncitizens, but its record on immigration detention is particularly poor. The government stopped holding families at a CCA-run detention center in Taylor, Texas, in 2009 after the company was sued for mistreating women and children, some of whom reported that they were forced to wear prison uniforms. In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union released records of 185 allegations of sexual abuse at CCA detention centers over four years; fifty-six of the reports came from facilities in Texas.
Even before the government’s contract with CCA for the Dilley center was announced last Tuesday there were questions about the deal. According to a Texas nonprofit, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency did not take public bids before it signed up CCA. That the government and the company are tight is not particularly surprising, as CCA has vastly outspent other private prison companies on lobbying.
CCA was profiting from the refugee crisis at the border before the Dilley deal, too. Investors anticipated that the surge in migrants would necessitate new detention services; CCA’s stocks went up by 8.5 percent in August, compared to a 1.5 percent rise in the S&P. "Investors see this as an opportunity. This is a potentially untapped market that will have very strong demand," Alex Friedmann, an activist investor who holds CCA stocks, told CNN Money.
Concern about the role of prison corporations like CCA and the GEO Group, the company that operates a family center in Karnes, Texas, (and has its own dubious record of abuse), is only a small part of the backlash to the expansion of family detention, however. Many of the women and children are pursuing asylum, and advocates contend that mass detention—no matter who's running the facility—is inconsistent with international guidelines for the treatment of refugees, as well as physically and psychologically harmful to children. Lawyers report that instead of evaluating on a case-by-case basis and releasing those whose fear of return is credible until their court date, officials are effectively denying bond en masse by setting it nearly six times higher than the national norm.
“Many of these women and children have claims to protection and asylum here in the United State. To respond by locking them up in centers that are remote, far away from legal services…. It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Katharina Obser of the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Danielle Rosché, an immigration lawyer who volunteered at a family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, witnessed and heard stories of illness and inadequate medical care, undercooked food, weight loss and lack of access to legal services. Every child she interviewed reported diarrhea or fever. “‘Detaining’ is a nice word for it,” Rosché said about conditions at the facility. “We’re putting people who have not been convicted of any crime in these facilities and we call it civil detention, but that doesn’t make it any better.”
Detaining families is significantly more expensive than alternatives like releasing people with monitoring bracelets. So why is the government intent on expanding the practice? Government attorneys have argued against releasing noncitizen mothers and children under bond on the basis that they present a “national security threat.” The agency claims that detention will discourage other migrants from crossing the border.
But there’s very little evidence to support that claim. In order to back up its argument, the Department of Homeland Security has cited a study from Vanderbilt University—a study that actually indicates the opposite, one of its principal authors says.
“[M]y Report does not in fact support DHS’ conclusion that detaining these mothers and their children during the course of removal proceedings will deter illegal migration to the United States,” political science professor Jonathan Hiskey wrote in an affidavit. [Emphasis his.] “Further, there is absolutely no evidence in the Report that US policy with respect to detention has any influence at all on the decisions women and their children are making with respect to migration.”
Obser said that the government’s detention-as-deterrence policy has the perverse effect of keeping individuals who have real claims to protection from making them. Lack of access to legal services has been a common complaint in the family centers. Rosché is concerned that other women may be choosing voluntary deportation instead of fighting for asylum in the courts because conditions in detention are so bad. It’s not that none of their claims are valid. Only three asylum cases from women held at Artesia have gotten a final verdict from a judge, but in all of the cases the women’s claims were upheld.
Even if detention were effective as deterrence it would be inconsistent with guidelines laid out by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. “Detention policies aimed at deterrence are generally unlawful under international human rights law as they are not based on an individual assessment as to the necessity to detain,” they read.
It’s not clear whether the government plans to expand family detention centers beyond Dilley. Certainly, there will be encouragement from the private prison lobby to do so. Locking up more women and children might line CCA’s pockets, but it doesn’t actually serve the government’s goal of returning people who do not have legitimate claims to asylum to their home countries more quickly. As Rosché pointed out, the backlog in the immigration courts is a bigger hurdle. “Why don’t we spend that $200 a day to hire more judges?” she asked.
When it comes to halting climate change, many of the people expected to be leaders instead bury their heads in the sand. More than 130 Republicans in the House of Representatives deny the basic science of global warming; many other elected officials acknowledge the world is changing in profound and dangerous ways, but aren’t inclined to do anything serious about it.
For now, those leading on climate are ordinary people; kids and grandparents and workers who have a greater interest in a habitable planet than in securing campaign cash. Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of New York on Sunday for the appropriately named People’s Climate March, calling for an end to political inaction.
Still, it is possible to find commitment to climate justice in corners of the US Capitol, and there were elected officials among the other marchers in New York on Sunday, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The march left no question about the passion and diversity of the climate movement. So what happens next? On Tuesday, I spoke with Ellison about the significance of Sunday’s action, his idea for funding the transition to a sustainable economy, and converting climate activism into political action.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
* * *
Zoë Carpenter: What was your experience like at the march?
Representative Keith Ellison: I was exhilarated. You know, I just was so elated to be around such tremendous energy. People from truly all walks of life, all united in the idea that we have to take climate action.
I met one guy who was an AIDS activist, and he was telling me how his whole life had been dedicated to helping people who were living with AIDS have greater justice, more access to healthcare and housing. But, he said, “I’m into this thing because, hey, if the climate burns up the planet, makes it uninhabitable for humans, my main issue we can’t do anything about, right?”
I was talking to some folks who were concerned about Ferguson and Trayvon Martin who had something similar to say: “This is our key issue, but if the climate is wrong, then it’s all wrong.” There were some labor folks there who said, “Look, our issue is better pay and working conditions for working people, but if there’s no habitable earth to live on, then there ain’t no jobs.” For many people, maybe the environment and the climate is their main thing, but for many people it was not their main thing. But they understand the centrality of it.
One lady pointed out something that was really interesting. She was with the nurses, and she was pushing for financial transactions tax—a bill I’m carrying in the House—and her point was, “Look, we’re nurses. We want climate action now because we know respiratory illnesses and a whole lot of other problems flow from greenhouse gas emissions and the air quality.” And she said, “If we pass a financial transactions tax, we will be able to fund the expense of converting from this status-quo fossil-fuel economy into a renewable one.”
I saw a lot of people making important connections, working outside of their silos, but all united in this idea that we need climate action. Lots of people of color, a lot of women, a lot of older people, a lot of teenagers—you know, just all kinds of folks.
Did anything surprise you about the march?
I was surprised at how people really seemed to grasp the interconnectedness of everything that’s going in to the issue of climate. No matter what occupies most of their time, they get it.
Related to those interconnections—you mentioned labor. I know you’ve been a big supporter of striking fast-food workers and other labor organizing. But there’s an assumption, often, that labor and environmentalism are opposed. What’s the significance of linking climate and labor activism?
It’s essential. If you look at the narrative of climate deniers, they always seem to say, “Well, jobs are what it will cost you if you want a healthy environment.” The people who are always trying to push the Keystone pipeline, or always more drilling—the “drill now, drill later” people, all these people—they are always telling us that jobs are what are at stake.
So it is essential that labor and environment be in dialogue and be looking for opportunities to operate cooperatively so that we can make it clear to everybody that there are great, well-paying union jobs that are environmentally friendly. And that people in the environmental world who are pushing for action on climate are aware of the fact that people have got to make a living. That’s our challenge, to convert to an economy that is zero-waste, that is not emitting CO2 gases. We can’t meet the challenge unless we’re in some sort of dialogue, and some sort of partnership.
You mentioned the Robin Hood tax. Can you explain a little bit more about it, and how it’s related to climate change?
Well, the Robin Hood tax is a good idea in and of itself, without regard to anything else. But it fits into the climate change argument because we do need to move around and we need energy sources that are green and renewable to do it. That takes money. We do need to turn the lights on.
So how do we convert? Where are we going to get the money? Well, I think that Wall Street helping to pay for the conversion is incredibly appropriate. I mean when they screwed the economy in 2006, ’7, and ’8, the American people, right or wrong, bailed them out. Well, we’re in a climate mess—what are they going to do? They did good in America. Are they going to do well by America, is the question.
My bill, the Robin Hood tax, is very simple: a small tax on stocks, derivatives, and bonds. You put it all together, it raises about $300 billion a year. We can use that money to make the conversions we have to make, retrain people that we have to retrain, invest in industries we need to invest in. They money is certainly available to make the changes that need to be made.
Besides legislation like that, where do you think that the climate movement should go from here? Now that there’s been a huge show of public support for action, how do we translate that into political movement?
We need to convert that energy into political dividends. I think that we need to create a political climate in which being pro-climate is highly beneficial, and being anti-climate action is detrimental. So that’s what we have to do. We need questionnaires to go out. We need candidates to answer questions about where they stand on climate action, about where they stand on carbon taxes, and stuff like that.
We need people who want to run. I bet you there were people at that march on Sunday who feel like, “You know what, I never thought electoral politics had any answers for our society.” But if we’re going to have a green economy, if we’re going to have an economy that takes climate action, it’s going to take people who are in office. Somebody’s got to be in office—will they be climate activists or not?
There were people in those 400,000 who are going to run, who are going to work on campaigns, who are going to maybe even be our president one day. God willing, they’re going to remain loyal to the cause that inspired them in the beginning. Movements like this always throw up leaders. And I’m telling you there are some people who were among those 400,000 on Sunday who you or I have never heard of, but who we will hear from. And they’re going to help lead us out of this mess.
Is that how we might define success of an event like the march—that it produces self-sustaining leadership?
That is one way, but there are many other ways. One way to define success is that it generates people who will offer leadership. Another way is that it will generate an electorate that is educated and mobilized around climate action. For the people who are in office now, we’ve got to make them understand that your action on climate is not going to hurt you. In fact, it might actually help you.
I met a woman from West Virginia, and she was fired up about climate action. And she lives in a state where the special interests—you know, they’re not too concerned about people dying in a mine cave-in, and they’re not too concerned about people not being able to drink the water, but they’re always messaging that if you don’t do everything that the mining industry, the coal industry, wants, then you’re not for jobs.
Well, people like her are getting inspired by those 400,000 voices that were assembled in New York, right? These people are getting more courageous. They’re getting a little bolder. They’re creating a political mandate.
So there are a lot of ways [to define success]: leadership, electorates. People get stronger and bolder and little bit more creative. And then you get people who are working together, who are talking and exchanging ideas, and their creativity feeds off each other. So you may have some new movements, based just on the collision of great ideas that came together at the march.
Marches like this are really important, but a lot has to do with what happens after the march. The president, for example, has been thinking about a year of action, as we have this deadlocked Congress and it’s so hard for us to pass anything. Will the president feel like, “Hey—I’ve got a mandate to take climate action now”?
And then, of course, this was an international movement. You have people in Istanbul, and Lisbon, and all over the globe taking action at the same time. It helps fuel what’s going to happen in Paris next year [when signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate will meet], and at all these important international events where we need the whole world to cooperate. The leaders in China and India and Brazil are watching this, too.
As military leaders make the case for deepening military engagement in Syria and Iraq to Congress on Tuesday, more than two dozen groups are calling on lawmakers to seek answers to a number of questions about the mission that the Obama administration has so far failed to address.
“If the past decade of war in the Middle East has taught us anything, it’s that we must demand answers to hard questions before launching into war,” Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, said in a statement. “That’s why, today, groups representing millions of Americans are calling on Congress to debate and be held accountable for America’s next steps in Syria and Iraq—so we don’t make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past.”
Congress has signaled it’s disinclined to have that debate by pushing any real consideration of military action until after the midterm elections. Though a number of lawmakers have called on the president to ask Congress for authorization, many are not looking for a chance to deliberate so much as to show off their hawk bona fides. Tuesday’s campaign, which includes phone calls to lawmakers, social media asks (using the hashtag #AmericaMustKnow) and petition signatures, is intended to point out the serious gaps and inconsistencies in the president’s strategy that Congress (and until recently, the media) have largely failed to take on.
“The public is told there’s no imminent threat to the US, so why are we rushing to war? Could weapons given to Syrian rebels eventually be used against the US?” reads an ad placed by MoveOn and Win Without War in Politico. “How could military force undermine nonmilitary strategies? How will we know when our objectives have been met? What is our clearly defined exit strategy? Under what legal authority are we intervening in Iraq and Syria?”
MoveOn collected more than 10,000 questions from its members. “How will the United States fund this new military offensive? How much will it cost?” asked a Vermont woman named Linda. According to an analysis by the National Priorities Project, one of the groups involved in Tuesday’s action, taxpayers are shelling out $312,500 every hour for military action against ISIS.
Others chimed in via Twitter:
— Angela K. Miller (@angelakkmiller) September 16, 2014
The organizations directing questions to lawmakers during Tuesday’s day of action include the Institute for Policy Studies, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Peace Action, and CREDO.