Lemony Snicket Explains Why He Ponied Up $1 Million to Planned Parenthood

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:23 PM EDT

Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket and the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events children's books, announced yesterday that he and his wife, the illustrator Lisa Brown, would donate $1 million to Planned Parenthood.

The women's health care provider, which has been the target of multiple suspected arsons this summer, is currently facing potential funding cuts from Congress. We spoke to Handler and Brown about their decision to support the organization.

"Arson and propaganda, not to mention the umpteenth threat of defunding, seemed to demand some counterbalancing."

Mother Jones: Why did you decide to give such a large sum to Planned Parenthood?

Daniel Handler and Lisa Brown: We've been enthusiastic supporters of Planned Parenthood for a long time, and watching their recent deceitful pummelling was frankly more than we could take.

MJ: What's your connection to the organization?

DH & LB: We're Americans and human beings.  We believe in people making their own reproductive choices.  Planned Parenthood has been essential in the lives of many, many people around us.

MJ: Why do you think your donation is needed right now?

DH & LB: Arson and propaganda, not to mention the umpteenth threat of defunding, seemed to demand some counterbalancing.

MJ: Where do you think reproductive rights are headed in the US?

DH & LB: Truth and justice will prevail, but we ought to make it happen sooner rather than later.

Planned Parenthood tweeted back at the couple:


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Whose Tax Plan Is Best For Millionaires?

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:03 PM EDT

So here's where we stand. Marco Rubio has a tax plan with a top rate of 35 percent that promises to boost our economic growth rate to 3.5 percent per year. Jeb Bush then came out with his plan, which has a top rate of 28 percent and a growth rate of 4 percent per year. Then Donald Trump announced his plan, which has a top rate of 25 percent and a growth rate of 6 percent per year.

Who's next? Carly? I advise her to announce a plan that has a top rate of 20 percent and promises growth of 8 percent per year. Ridiculous? Sure, but who's going to call her on it? I mean, what's Bush going to do? Get into an argument about whose supply-side growth assumptions are the most out of touch with reality?

Besides, she has to compete with Ben Carson, who doesn't have an official tax plan but has vaguely said he likes the idea of a flat 10 percent tax based on the Biblical practice of tithing—though he's been a little wobbly on whether his tax rate would really be exactly 10 percent. I guess even God can be improved on.

In case you're curious, here are the top tax rates on the rich from each of the leading candidates. The most dynamic defenders of free enterprise are at the top, while the losers are at the bottom:

  • Carson: 10-15 percent
  • Paul: 14.5 percent
  • Huckabee: ~17 percent (23 percent FairTax that eliminates the payroll tax)
  • Trump: 25 percent
  • Bush: 28 percent
  • Christie: 28 percent
  • Rubio: 35 percent
  • Fiorina: ?
  • Cruz: ?

Watch These Dudes in Congress Tell Planned Parenthood How to Protect Women's Health

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 5:45 PM EDT

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards appeared today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in the most recent congressional hearing examining the use of taxpayer funds by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. This was Richards' first appearance before Congress. She had not been invited to participate in either of the two hearings conducted by the House Judiciary Committee earlier in the month, in the wake of the heavily edited and controversial videos released by anti-abortion activist David Daleiden.

Planned Parenthood receives approximately $450 million annually in federal funds, nearly all of which are reimbursements for women's health services from programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. According to Planned Parenthood, last year 41 percent ($528.4 million) of its revenue came from government health services grants and reimbursements.

"The question before us is: Does this organization—does Planned Parenthood—really need a federal subsidy?" said House Oversight chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). "Every time we spend a federal dollar, what we're doing is pulling money out of somebody's pocket and we're giving it to somebody else. What I don't like, what I don't want to tolerate, what I don't want to become numb to is wasting those taxpayer dollars."

Here are some of the recurring themes from the hearing that attempted to answer his question.

1. Her salary is too high: Chaffetz spent much of his allotted time interrogating Richards about her $590,000 annual salary, which he characterized as "exorbitant." She corrected him, saying her annual salary is actually $520,000. (Female nonprofit CEOs still make markedly less than male CEOs. In 2013, for example, Laurance Hoagland Jr., chief investment officer of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, made $2.5 million, and John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, made $2.1 million.) Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) responded angrily to this inquisition. "The entire time I've been in Congress, I've never seen a witness beaten up and questioned about their salary," she said. "Ms. Richards heads a distinguished organization providing health care services to millions of Americans. I find it totally inappropriate and discriminatory."

2. Her apology was self-incriminating: Several times, Richards was subjected to loud, often aggressive mansplaining about when it is and is not appropriate to issue an apology. Members were referring to a video that PPFA released days after the first sting video in which Richards said, "Our top priority is the compassionate care that we provide. In the [sting] video, one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect that compassion. This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements." Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) repeatedly asked Richards to justify this. "Why did you apologize?" he asked over and over again. "You can't have it both ways. If nothing was done wrong, why did you apologize? You don’t apologize if she didn’t say anything that was wrong."

Richards explained that her apology was more about the setting of the discussion. "I spoke with Dr. Nucatola, and it was inappropriate to have a clinical discussion in a nonconfidential, nonclinical setting," Richards said. "It was that she used bad judgment to have a clinical discussion in a nonclinical setting." The conversation in the sting video was over lunch and wine.

3. Planned Parenthood doesn't provide mammograms: Republican critics of PPFA were also upset that Planned Parenthood clinics don't provide mammogram services, despite the fact that radiology centers usually offer them because Medicaid reimbursements can't come close to covering their operational costs. This point seemed to be lost on committee members who considered the lack of mammography as evidence that Planned Parenthood did not really provide women's health services. Richards explained that when she goes to see her general practitioner and she gets a breast exam, she is referred to a radiologist to get a mammogram. Centers that depend on Medicaid reimbursement are often unable to pay for the equipment and radiologists' salaries. New 3-D mammography technology is even more expensive. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) saw this as evidence that Planned Parenthood fell short in providing acceptable women's health services: "Do you acknowledge that community health centers offer a broader range of services, including mammograms?" To this, Richards replied, "I’m not an expert on what all community health centers provide."

4. Taxpayer dollars are paying for abortions: The repeated expressions of outrage by Republicans over "taxpayer dollars" being used for abortion services was, according to committee member Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), "exhausting." 

"I know my colleagues are more intelligent than this," Lawrence said. "This is not a lump sum we give Planned Parenthood. It is a reimbursement."

Under federal law, no taxpayer dollars are allocated to abortion services. PPFA has submitted its tax filings and reimbursement records, and so far there has been no evidence that it violated this law. That did not stop Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) from expressing concern that "taxpayer dollars are being used to free up services that you provide that are aberrant services in the view of many taxpayers."

5) Planned Parenthood provides too many abortions: Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) does not understand how the 327,000 abortions Planned Parenthood performed in 2014 amount to only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's services. Meadows claimed it was more like 12 percent. But as Richards explained, some patients visit more than once, and for multiple services, bringing the percentage down substantially.

And as my colleague Kevin Drum reported, Chaffetz used a chart from anti-abortion group Americans United for Life that incorrectly claimed that Planned Parenthood's breast examinations have trended radically downward in recent years, while abortion services have substantially risen. In fact, cancer screenings have declined because, as Richards said, "some of the services, like pap smears, dropped in frequency because of changing medical standards about who should be screened and how often." Abortion rates for Planned Parenthood have only increased about 2 percent per year since 2006.

6) Planned Parenthood is in cahoots with President Barack Obama: Toward the end of the nearly six-hour hearing, Jordan asked Richards about the internal workings of her staff. "Since the videos, has anyone from HHS, CMS contacted you?" Richards replied that because she has a big staff, she can't answer that with 100 percent confidence. "Has the Attorney General of the United States Loretta Lynch contacted Planned Parenthood?" Jordan persisted. "Has anyone from the Justice Department contacted Planned Parenthood since the videos surfaced? There are potentially four federal crimes committed here, and all I'm asking is, has the Justice Department contacted you?" Richards repeated that she could not answer his questions with any certainty.

Jordan then escalated his attack. "Have you had any conversations with the president of the United States?" he asked. "Since the videos have surfaced, how many times have you been to the White House? How many times have you been to the White House since Mr. Obama's been president?" Richards again said she couldn't be sure, but Jordan was ready with an answer. "Our count shows that you, your board members, and senior staff have been to the White House 151 times in six and a half years."

Investigations are also ongoing in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and in the House Judiciary Committee. So far, no wrongdoing has been found. Six state investigations that were triggered by the videos have also been closed after finding no evidence that Planned Parenthood violated law.

A subpoena has been issued to anti-abortion activist Daleiden for his investigative materials, and according to Chaffetz, they have been received but not yet opened or examined.

Lying With Charts, Anti-Abortion Edition

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 3:13 PM EDT

During this morning's Planned Parenthood hearings, Rep. Jason Chaffetz displayed a chart that seemingly showed a huge increase in the number of abortions they've performed. Actually, though, the number has increased only about 2 percent per year since 2006. How did this happen? Well, it turns out that Americans United for Life, which made the chart, decided to ignore the y-axis. But I'm sure it was an honest mistake, probably due to poor math skills from a lifetime spent in the liberal public education system. So as a public service, I've replotted the data using conventional "numbers" and "slopes." You're welcome.

POSTSCRIPT: And why has the line for cancer screenings gone down? According to Cecile Richards, it's because "some of the services, like pap smears, dropped in frequency because of changing medical standards about who should be screened and how often."

UPDATE: Tim Lee helpfully points out that Planned Parenthood also provides STD testing and contraceptive services. If you add everything up, you get the rather boring chart below. I guess that doesn't make very good TV, does it?

Water on Mars Is the New Fake Moon Landing

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 2:24 PM EDT

I spend a depressing amount of time writing about crackpots these days. On the other hand, it can be pretty amusing too. So does that mean I'm depressed but having fun anyway? Um....I guess so. For example, here's Rush Limbaugh yesterday commenting on the news that NASA has discovered running water on Mars:

I said, "what do you think they’re gonna do with this news?" I said, "look at the temperature data, that has been reported by NASA, has been made up, it’s fraudulent for however many years, there isn’t any warming, there hasn’t been for 18.5 years. And yet, they’re lying about it. They’re just making up the amount of ice in the North and South Poles, they’re making up the temperatures, they’re lying and making up false charts and so forth. So what’s to stop them from making up something that happened on Mars that will help advance their left-wing agenda on this planet?"

....OK so there’s flowing water on Mars. Yip yip yip yahoo. You know me, I’m science 101, big time guy, tech advance it, you know it, I’m all in. But, NASA has been corrupted by the current regime. I want to find out what they’re going to tell us. OK, flowing water on Mars. If we’re even to believe that, what are they going to tell us that means? That’s what I’m going to wait for. Because I guarantee, let’s just wait and see, this is September 28, let’s just wait and see. Don’t know how long it’s going to take, but this news that there is flowing water on Mars is somehow going to find its way into a technique to advance the leftist agenda. I don’t know what it is, I would assume it would be something to do with global warming.

I dunno, I just can't tell anymore. Is he serious? Is this meant as a joke? Or what?

But I guess it doesn't matter, since his audience will take this seriously regardless. So now we can expect some new kind of conspiracy theory to make the rounds about how the Obama administration is fabricating news about water on Mars. Probably to distract attention from Hillary's email server. Or Benghazi. Or Planned Parenthood. Or one of the dozens of other mind-blowing scandals that Obama somehow keeps under wraps thanks to his pals in the liberal media. Or, as Rush says, maybe it's really all about global warming something something something.

Or something.

What's Up With the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 1:32 PM EDT

Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood, is testifying before Congress today, and you can probably guess how that's going. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) went first and asked about grants made to overseas organizations:

"Do any of these funds go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo?" Chaffetz said early in the back-and-forth.

"Congressman, let me tell you —" Richards said before Chaffetz interrupted her.

"No, no, no. We don't have time for a big narrative," Chaffetz said.

"I'm not going to give you a narrative —" Richards said.

"Yes or no," Chaffetz replied, before Richards gave a more lengthy response.

The "lengthy response" took 16 seconds: Richards said that Planned Parenthood gives money to lots of family planning organizations in Africa, and she'd be happy to provide Chaffetz with a list.

But does anyone know what this was all about? Is there some kind of conservative horror story about the Democratic Republic of the Congo making the rounds? You know, the kind of thing no normal person has ever heard of, but that circulates endlessly in newsletters and email chains? I couldn't find anything, but maybe I just don't know where to look.

Anyway, why does Jason Chaffetz care about Planned Parenthood's grants to the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Does anyone know?

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The Fetus Video Described by Carly Fiorina Was Just Released in Full. It Still Means Absolutely Nothing.

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 12:58 PM EDT

On Tuesday, an anti-abortion activist released the full recording of the video discussed by Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina during a GOP debate earlier this month. In her remarks, Fiorina memorably described the video showing a "fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

Time first reported the full video today, despite the fact that activist Gregg Cunningham was unable to confirm where the video was found or if it even had anything to do with Planned Parenthood.

"I am neither confirming or denying the affiliation of the clinic who did this abortion," Cunningham told Time

The video was released just hours ahead of today's much anticipated Planned Parenthood hearing before the House Oversight Committee, where Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood's president, is speaking before Congress for the first time to defend the health organization against Republican attacks. The push to defund the organization comes in the wake of an ongoing sting campaign using secretly recorded and selectively edited videos that suggest Planned Parenthood officials are discussing the sale of fetal tissues from abortions.

Fiorina's description of the abortion video during the September GOP debate was quickly praised by conservatives and her overall performance catapulted her to second place in several polls among the slew of Republican presidential hopefuls. But after the video described by Fiorina was questioned, her supporters scrambled to create their own abortion video using heavily edited footage of several different clips.

Cunningham's refusal to state the video's source on Tuesday, combined with Time's own observation that "there are no images on the full video of any attempt to harvest the brain of the fetus, and there is no sound," was ignored by many on social media who still insist the full recording lends credibility to Fiorina's initial description.

But our own Kevin Drum points out the problem:

The video was not taken at a Planned Parenthood clinic. The fetus shows some reflexive movement, but that's all. No one says the fetus has to be kept alive. No one harvests the brain.

But other than that, Fiorina was 100 percent correct!

Snowden Just Joined Twitter. Guess Who His First Follow Is.

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 12:33 PM EDT

Fugitive leaker Edward Snowden has bunkered down in Russia, but he has remained in the public eye via media interviews, Skype chats, and the like. And now he's taken another step at increasing his profile: He's joined Twitter.

On Tuesday, he put out his first tweet.

And, in a way, he trolled the former government agency he once worked for as a contractor: His first and, initially, only follow was an NSA Twitter account.

Within half an hour of being a tweeter, Snowden had nearly 65,000 followers. As of now, the NSA has 74,000 followers.

Update: Snowden's first Twitter exchange was with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who welcomed Snowden to Twitter. Snowden replied:

Conservatives Have a New Worst Enemy: Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 12:16 PM EDT

In a story which appeared sometime in the past few days,1 LA Times reporter David Savage notes something that's been nibbling at the back of my mind but hadn't quite made it to the front. It's about Chief Justice John Roberts:

He voted against gay marriage, in favor of weakening a federal law against racial bias in housing and for the Arizona Republicans who challenged the state’s independent panel that draws election districts. He joined 5-4 majorities to block an Obama administration clean-air rule and to uphold a state's use of substitute drugs to carry out lethal injections.

But as Roberts this week marks the 10th anniversary of becoming chief justice, he finds himself in the crosshairs of right-leaning pundits and GOP presidential hopefuls who brand him a disappointment and openly question his conservative credentials because of the one case of the six in which he voted with the court’s liberals. The decision marked the second time Roberts had voted to uphold President Obama’s healthcare law.

Roberts has indeed been getting a lot of flak from conservatives, despite the fact that on high-profile cases he's been pretty much a conservative's dream. The only big case in which he deviated was Obamacare. But whether conservatives like it or not, this really does demonstrate a very conservative sense of judicial restraint. Obamacare was a historic and substantial piece of legislation duly passed by Congress and signed by the president shortly after a landslide election, and in the end Roberts was unwilling to strike it down on a thin pretext.

But relitigating Obamacare isn't the point here. The point is that this is the only major case where Roberts has deviated from political conservatism, and he's been practically disowned because of it. Compare that to the fate of liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. They both joined conservatives in striking down mandatory Medicaid expansion, a major piece of the law. Liberals were almost unanimously aghast.2 But that was it. It was one case. There's been no big movement among liberals to disown them and demand that future presidents appoint more reliably liberal justices.

Now, you can argue that conservatives have good reason to be ultra-vigilant, having been serially disappointed by justices Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter. Still, this backlash against Roberts carries real risks for conservatives:

That same month [when he upheld Obamacare for the second time], he joined with Kennedy and the court’s liberals to block most of an Arizona law that targeted immigrants living there illegally. Roberts agreed that federal authorities, not the states, had control over immigration policy.

Since then, [Brianne] Gorod says there has been some shift in Roberts’ votes and opinions. “He now occasionally breaks company with his conservative colleagues,” she said. “He is concerned about the reputation and legitimacy of the court. He’s also concerned about increasing partisanship in Washington. This doesn’t mean he is becoming a liberal.”

One of the things that conservatives have generally done better than liberals is to avoid mocking people who might one day join the cause. Here they're running the risk of doing just that. If conservatives make it clear that they now hate Roberts' guts, his tribal affiliations are going to weaken. That may not be judicially defensible, but it's human nature. If they don't want to end up with another David Souter, they should cool it on Roberts. Otherwise they might end up with one sooner than they think.

1It was on the front page of the print edition today. The search function says it doesn't exist at all. The online version—finally located via Google—says it went up on the 25th. Typical LA Times.

2Except for me. I continue to think it was the legally correct decision.

Carly Fiorina Now Even Wronger About Planned Parenthood Video

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 11:15 AM EDT

During the Republican debate earlier this month, Carly Fiorina referred to the Planned Parenthood sting videos made by the Center for Medical Progress: "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table," she said, "its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

That does not appear on the video. The video does include an interview with a technician who claims that she has seen this happen, and there's some spliced footage of an abortion used to illustrate her testimony. But that's it. Nevertheless, Fiorina has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on the accuracy of her obviously inaccurate statement.

Today, the provider of the footage released the entire 13-minute video:

He [] made no claim that the images shown in the video had anything to do with Planned Parenthood, the organization that Fiorina and others have targeted for federal defunding. “I am neither confirming or denying the affiliation of the clinic who did this abortion,” Cunningham said.

....The full source video, which is extremely graphic, lasts about 13 minutes, and shows a fetus being extracted from the mother, placed in a metal bowl, prodded with medical instruments and handled by someone in the room. At times the fetus appears to move, and at other times it appears to have a pulse. There are no images on the full video of any attempt to harvest the brain of the fetus, and there is no sound. Cunningham said the jump cuts in the video are the result of the camera being turned off and on.

So there you have it. The video was not taken at a Planned Parenthood clinic. The fetus shows some reflexive movement, but that's all. No one says the fetus has to be kept alive. No one harvests the brain.

But other than that, Fiorina was 100 percent correct!