In news that should surprise no one, the Department of Health and Human Services has announced a set of temporary waivers for companies that provide mini-med healthcare insurance:

Thirty companies and organizations, including McDonald's (MCD) and Jack in the Box (JACK), won't be required to raise the minimum annual benefit included in low-cost health plans, which are often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees.

....The plans will be exempt from rules intended to keep people from having to pay for all their care once they reach a preset coverage cap. McDonald's, which offers the programs as a way to cover part-time employees, told the Obama administration it might re-evaluate the plans unless it got a waiver....The waiver program is intended to provide continuous coverage until 2014, when government-organized marketplaces will offer insurance subsidized by tax credits, says HHS spokeswoman Jessica Santillo.

In other non-shocking news, HHS also announced a couple of days ago that 3,000 companies so far have signed up to take part in a program that protects early retiree programs until healthcare reform fully kicks in in 2014. There are certain to be unanticipated bumps in the road as healthcare reform unfolds over the next few years, but so far everything that's happened has been pretty much according to plan. Somebody tell the Wall Street Journal.

America's Non-Decline

David Bell on the common theme of America's decline:

Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of “America’s decline” had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam war; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current “Great Recession.”

....What is particularly fascinating about these older predictions is that so many of their themes remain constant. What did our past Cassandras see as the causes of America’s decline? On the one hand, internal weaknesses — spiraling budget and trade deficits, the poor performance of our primary and secondary educational systems; political paralysis — coupled with an arrogant tendency toward “imperial overstretch.” And on the other hand, the rise of tougher, better-disciplined rivals elsewhere: the Soviet Union through the mid-'80s; Japan until the early '90s; China today.

My guess is that this is a bit more of a conservative impulse than a liberal one, since conservatives tend toward both an over-rosy view of the near past and a religious temperament that views man as a fallen creature. Still, that doesn't mean they're wrong. After all, in relative terms America has declined since World War II. How could it not? There's simply no possible world in which a single country could retain the kind of power and influence that America held over a shattered world in 1945. As other countries rebuilt and grew, the inevitable consequence was that their power would grow relatively faster than ours.

But what's remarkable, really, is how little America has declined. We are perpetually astounded that our military might doesn't guarantee us instant victory anywhere we go and that other countries are routinely able to make trouble for us, but that says more about our national psyche than about our actual global influence or military power. If anything, our ability to project power may be greater today than it's ever been, and it's certainly greater relative to other countries than it was 50 years ago. Economically, our share of GDP fell surprisingly little in the postwar era, from 28% to about 22%, and has stayed very nearly flat since 1980. And political idiocy aside, our ability to lead the world in a rebound from a world historical financial crash has actually been pretty impressive.

Anyway, I find that when I'm feeling depressed I think America is in terminal decline, and when I'm in a good mood I don't. Despite being sick at the moment, I'm in a relatively good mood today, so I don't think we're in decline. But ask me again next week and I might change my mind.

The midterm elections aren't even over, but some tea partiers are already zeroing in on their targets for 2012. Amped up by the big primary upsets this year, they're sending warning shots to a host of Republican leaders who've dared to cross the aisle to work with the other side. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, already has a conservative GOP primary opponent. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Indiana) have all drawn fire from the right wing of their party.

Their unforgivable sins? Snowe voted for the stimulus and the Senate version of the health care bill. Corker worked on the financial regulation bill with Democrats, though he ultimately voted against it. Hatch voted for TARP and also worked with Democrats on health reform, though he didn't vote for it either. All three incumbents have shifted to the right in recent months, refusing to vote for major Democratic legislation. The Journal speculates that they might already be responding to pressure from the tea party's right flank:

The four draft staff reports that the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released yesterday had quite a bit to say about the Obama administration's botched handling of the BP oil spill. You can see the reports on the spill size and dispersant use for more.

But sometimes, an image really does tell you a lot about the story. That is certainly the case with this graph documenting the flow rate estimates from the government and outside experts over the course of the disaster. The blue lines represent the official government estimates and the green lines show how much independent experts said was spewing from the Gulf well every day.

Five years ago, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws might as well have been a group of bible-burning terrorist skinheads. A politician who received a donation from NORML would probably return it. Sure, the occasional candidate for statewide office would seek the group's support, says NORML director Allen St. Pierre, "but not the ones who weren't bat shit crazy." 

Recently, however, it's starting to seem a lot more normal to be NORML. Two weeks ago, NORML received its first-ever request for an endorsement by a mainstream candidate for governor. Vermont Democrat Peter Shumlin wanted NORML's stamp of approval and $6,000 from its political coffers, St. Pierre says. And Shumlin is actually polling four points ahead of his Republican rival.

There must have been something in the Rice Krispies that week, because soon after, NORML got a landmark endorsement and fundraising request from a mainstream candidate for state attorney general, Democrat Stan Garnett. If elected, he'll be responsible for enforcing Colorado's marijuana laws.

"I wasn’t sure I was going to live long enough to see mainstream political candidates contact us" asking for support and money, St. Pierre says. "So I think that is a clear tea leaf that we have arrived at."

St. Pierre should probably thank another political oracle, California, where a ballot measure to legalize recreational pot, Proposition 19, is polling better than any of the state's political candidates. It might even help elect some of them. And that could be the only evidence Washington needs to classify yesterday's scourge as tomorrow's wonder drug. 

Lest you are having some nostalgia for the Bush administration as the midterm elections approach, here's a good example of yet another way that administration's legacy is still screwing up people's lives.

Last week, the 11th Circuit court of appeals reversed a truly dreadful decision by a federal immigration judge installed during the heyday of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who helped turn the Board of Immigration Appeals into a dumping ground for unqualified political hacks who couldn't get confirmed to other federal courts. The case involves a Serbian immigrant who was seeking asylum in the US on the grounds that he was persecuted in Serbia for being gay. Mladen Zeljko Todorovic came to the US in 2000 as an employee of a cruise ship and ended up staying here to avoid anti-gay persecution back in Serbia, where he claimed to have been raped while in the military and harassed by the police. 

He applied for asylum, which was ultimately denied for a variety of technical reasons. But during Todorovic's removal hearing, Miami immigration judge Carey R. Holliday said Todorovic's claims of persecution were "highly suspect" because Todorovic simply didn't look gay. Apparently Holliday thought that unless Todorovic was wearing a dress, there was no way the police or military thugs would have known to single him out for abuse. According to the 11th circuit opinion, Holliday said during the hearing:

The Court studied the demeanor of this individual very carefully throughout his testimony in Court today, and this gentleman does not appear to be overtly is not readily apparent to a person who would see this gentleman for the first time that, that is the case, since he bears no effeminate traits or any other trait that would mark him as a homosexual.

Holliday ordered the man sent back to Serbia, a decision upheld by the Board of Immigration Appeals. Todorovic took the case up the federal judicial food chain, arguing that Holliday's conclusions were based solely on specious stereotypes and not in actual fact as required by the law. The 11th Circuit heartliy agreed. Writing for the court, Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus said:

After thorough review, we conclude that the IJ’s decision was so colored by impermissible stereotyping of homosexuals, under the guise of a determination on "demeanor," that we cannot conduct meaningful appellate review of that decision, or of the BIA’s opinion essentially adopting it.

For this sort of quality judging in the immigration system, we have George W. Bush to thank. Holliday was appointed in 2006 at the peak of the Bush administration's illegal efforts to stack the courts with GOP loyalists rather than nonpartisan civil servants. Holliday certainly fit the profile. He was one of about 20 judges whose appointments came under scrutiny by the Justice Department's inspector general in his investigation into the department's politically based hiring practices. Holliday was a Louisiana delegate to the Republican convention in 2004, where he made headlines for trash-talking former Mother Jones editor Michael Moore, who was at the convention filing dispatches for USA Today. He told the New York Daily News:

I would be delighted if he slapped me. Because I could defend myself, and it would all be on camera. He'd be hit from so many angles—he'd never catch me. Four hundred-pounders move very slowly and with no wind at all. I'm 53 and in good shape.

As an immigration judge, Holliday made news in 2008 when he denied a request by a Bolivian family to hear their claim that immigration officials had unfairly targeted them for deportation because their daughter was an activist campaigning for passage of the Dream Act. In denying their claim, Holliday wrote that the daughter "freely chose to draw unwanted attention to herself and her family...People who live in glass houses should not throw stones."

Holliday had no immigration law experience before taking the judgeship, and last year, an anonymous Justice Department official told the Daily Journal that Holliday was unqualified for the position. In December 2008, a day before the end of his two-year probation period in immigration court, Holliday abruptly quit the bench, a sign, perhaps, that he knew what was coming. But judging from the Todorovic case, his legacy is going to linger for years to come. Meanwhile, Holliday's connections seem to have taken him back to Louisiana. He's now a state workers compensation judge, where he can use his special observation skills to decide whether or not claimants look sufficiently injured to get compensated for getting hurt on the job.  

(H/T The Asylumist)

The crowd snaked around both sides of San Francisco's Herbst Theater in a dense queue, a high-low jumble of tattoos, porkpie hats, and costly coifs. Poets laureate, ex-Ramparts editors, jazzmen and women, and the rest of a Technicolor volunteer army mustered at The City's war memorial auditorium for a single mission. They were there to plant a flag on the Beaux Arts stage for the peace infantry's longtime generalissimo: 91-year-old Beat patriarch Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Litquake eventgoers buzzed among themselves about the talent that would toast the founding father of San Francisco's cultural and political scene. "Bzz bzz bzz Patti Smith!" one velvety blonde said to her leather-clad beau. "Mrr mrr mrr Tom Waits!" he replied, twice as loud. Between murmurs, they busied themselves filling out a survey for the organizers. Under "Authors you would like to see at Litquake," the blonde put "Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, John Updike," unaware or unconcerned that Updike was dead. Such was the reckless abandon, planned or unplanned, that attended much of the night's intoxicating goings-on. "We are honoring Lawrence Ferlinghetti tonight, so any impulse you have to be quiet or coy is fucked up!" host Marc Bamuthi Joseph—a national poetry slam champion—told the audience. "Throw that out the window!"

At 91, Ferlinghetti decidedly is not dead. Nor is his following among successive generations of auteurs and activists and their adherents. Thus Litquake, the Bay Area's annual literary festival, chose to honor the patriarch of Beat with its Barbary Coast Award, a sort of lifetime achievement that's previously gone to San Francisco fixtures like Amy Tan, Tobias Wolff, and Armistead Maupin. "When I first came out to San Francisco and heard the name Ferlinghetti, I thought it must be a large geographic area," Waits joked before warbling a musical version of the poet's verse onstage. "Turned out, it is."

The Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies didn't do their homework on dispersants before the Gulf spill began on April 20. That's the conclusion of a second staff report released Wednesday by the National Oil Spill Commission. While it's certainly less scathing than the report on the government's handling of questions about the size of the spill, the dispersant report doesn't exactly let the Obama administration off easy--in fact, it lambasts government officials for failing to prepare adequately for a disaster of this magnitude.

Over the course of the spill, 1.84 million gallons of the chemicals were sprayed at the surface of the water and injected at the well head. As we've reported extensively here, the decision to use these chemicals was made with relatively little information about the toxicity of the products or their longterm impacts. BP essentially ignored a directive from the EPA to find an alternative to its product of choice, and the Coast Guard repeatedly approved requests to exceed the limits that the government eventually set on dispersant use.

The report criticizes the EPA for not considering the possibility that dispersants "might have to be used in the massive volumes required in the Gulf" prior to the April 20 spill or "the distinct possibility that massive volumes of dispersants might be needed at the subsea level." It concludes:

Neither omission can be justified on the ground that a major subsea spill was wholly unforeseeable. The oil and gas industry has been extracting high volumes of oil from reservoirs in the Gulf for twenty years. This is not a new, unanticipated development. Nor is deepwater drilling.

The report also criticizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for not previously evaluating the "potential impacts of voluminous and extended use of dispersants on marine life and the nation's fisheries."

These failures, the report states, meant that "the National Incident Commander, the EPA Administrator, and the NOAA Administrator were seriously handicapped when the Macondo well explosion occurred and decisions had to be made immediately in the absence of adequate contingency planning." The lack of adequate planning also "made unclear the lines of authority between various federal agencies in determining whether dispersants should be used."

Still, the report concludes that government responders acted as reasonably as possible with regard to dispersant use given the minimal information they were working with. "Given the conditions under which officials like Admiral [Thad] Allen and EPA Administrator [Lisa] Jackson were acting, there is no clear evidence that their decisions to authorize high volumes of dispersants, including at the subsea, were unreasonable," it concludes.

But that doesn't mean that there's nothing to criticize in the response. Two sources informed the commission staff that the EPA "waited until late June to permanently install one of the Agency’s most senior officials at the Unified Command Center in Robert, Louisiana." The report notes that EPA "could have done a better job of ensuring that its on-scene representatives had both the expertise and the authority to make decisions regarding the use of dispersants."

It also notes that the fact that BP and its contractors were in charge of applying the dispersant "fueled public distrust of the decision to use dispersants." While the commission staff did not find evidence of BP or contractors intentionally violating government directives on their use, the situation did create the impression of impropriety.

[Read more MoJo coverage of the Afghanistan War anniversary in "How to Lose a War in Nine Years": Two experts explain why US opinion turned so dramatically against the campaign.]

Nine years ago today, George W. Bush introduced the world to Operation Enduring Freedom, and the world’s been enduring it ever since. You might be left with the impression that there’s not much new to say about the Afghanistan War, especially if you’ve relied on the mainstream media to tell the story. The Atlantic Wire’s resident conflict reporter, Max Fisher, took justifiable issue with the AP's by-the-numbers reporting Wednesday, summing the problem up in a tweet: "If you have to use a photo from 2006 to fit your narrative about Afghanistan's status in 2010, its time to go home."

But since 9/11, milbloggers—service members, journalists, and researchers who hold more than a passing interest in America’s expeditions abroad—have offered a less monolithic view of the violence. They come from all across the political spectrum. Some still champion the war; some never did and still don’t. They don’t have much to say about the OEF anniversary itself. But taken together, their recent posts offer a telling inside look at a decade-long conflict that’s changed America forever, for better or worse.

[Read more MoJo coverage of the Operation Enduring Freedom anniversary in "Happy Birthday, Afghan War!": What milbloggers in the know are writing, and what it says about the state of the war today.]

What happened? Wasn't Afghanistan the war (almost) everybody agreed was worthwhile? Didn't candidate Barack Obama gauge the political winds correctly when he said, "When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won...getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan"?

Goodbye to all that. On Thursday, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) will enter its tenth year, and fair or not, US citizens see it much the same way they see Iraq: as an albatross around the nation's collective neck. Nearly two-thirds of the public now oppose the Afghan campaign; in mid-October 2001, it was favored by a staggering 88 percent of Americans (PDF). Politicians and armchair pundits have cited a bevy of reasons for the war's plummet in popularity—a decline that's been going on so long, it looks inevitable to most Americans now. But I solicited the advice of two political scientists on different sides of the political spectrum who found reason to be surprised by the turn; their conclusions are similar, and they have big implications for the Obama presidency—and future US security.