2011 - %3, April

How Condoms Are Shutting Down the Government

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 12:45 PM EDT

So it looks like a government shutdown is now all but inevitable. But why?

Mr. Reid said that Republicans had “drawn a line in the sand” on issues of abortion financing and changes to the Clean Air Act, and that those issues could not be resolved in the hours left before a government shutdown. “The numbers are basically there,” Mr. Reid said on the floor of the Senate. “But I am not nearly as optimistic, and that’s an understatement, as I was 11 hours ago. The only thing holding up an agreement is ideology.”

....“There is no agreement on a number,” Mr. Boehner told reporters. “I think we were closer to a number last night than we are this morning. We’re going to have real spending cuts. I don’t know what some people don’t understand about this.”

There might still be some disagreement over a compromise budget cut number (Reid only said negotiators were "basically" there, which doesn't mean they're actually there), but I notice that Boehner rather loudly didn't deny that culture war riders to the budget bill are still the big sticking point. The true believers in the GOP might prefer bigger cuts than the Democrats, but their actions suggest that it's the side issues that really have them lathered up. They'd rather shut down the government than allow Planned Parenthood to keep giving out condoms and birth control pills.

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Hospitals: Way More Dangerous Than You Thought

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 12:16 PM EDT

Under the guise of trying to make health care more affordable, House Republicans this week have been debating a measure that would make it much harder for people injured by the health care system to sue doctors or hospitals. Their timing hasn't been great. A day after a hearing on the medical malpractice bill, the journal Health Affairs released the findings of a new study that found that medical errors are way, way more common than anyone thought.

Ten years ago, the Institute of Medicine reported that preventable medical errors killed 98,000 people a year. But Health Affairs reports that the number is likely far higher, in large part because the data on those errors was collected through a voluntary reporting system. And as anyone who's ever looked at malpractice lawsuits knows, no one in the health care system ever wants to voluntarily admit to making a mistake.

So the researchers started tracking errors at three hospitals themselves. As a result, they found that voluntary reporting missed 90 percent of the errors that took place in those hospitals. The study found that 1 in every 3 hospital admissions resulted in an adverse event, a figure that should make everyone shudder. A mere 10 types of errors made up nearly two-thirds of all the adverse events, conditions that included pressure sores and post-op infections—things that don't take rocket science to prevent. The cost of all these errors is high: as much as $17 billion every year, all from hospital screw ups that could be prevented. Perhaps Republicans looking to reduce health care spending should try going after medical errors rather than the people who suffer because of them.

Working the Refs

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 11:35 AM EDT

I feel like I've already written too much — probably way too much — about Paul Ryan's budget proposal. But Ezra Klein makes a point today that's been in the back of my mind too: Ryan's plan is not only not bipartisan, it's deliberately constructed to be as offensive to Democrats as it's possible to be:

Ryan’s budget adds a bunch of extraneous, ideological priorities into the deficit reduction talks. He privatizes Medicare, which costs money. He repeals the resolution authority in Dodd-Frank. He reorients our energy strategy away from renewables and toward domestic production of fossil fuels. He locks in the Bush tax cuts. Most of these decisions are largely unrelated to the deficit, and/or increase it. But they’re polarizing — Republicans love them and Democrats hate them — and by bringing them into the discussion, it’ll make it ultimately harder to come to a deal. Both sides are only willing to compromise on so much, and when you add a lot of items that should [not] have been included in the first place, you run the risk of hitting people’s limits before you’re able to deal with the core issues.

In any kind of serious proposal, you'd expect the author to at least make a few nods in the direction of bipartisanship. They might be fake, but at least they'd be there. But not Ryan. His proposal is a 100% tea party wet dream: Do away with one of the Democratic Party's signature achievements of the 20th century. Slash spending on social programs for the poor. Use the reduced spending to make room for tax cuts on corporations and the rich. Put a hard cap on federal outlays that's almost absurdly low. Give the Pentagon everything it wants. And stitch it all together with supply-side voodoo economics and budget projections so laughable they're almost designed to be insulting.

But as Ezra points out after reading through the details, it's even worse than that. Just in case any moderate Democrats might be inclined to tentatively say something nice about his plan, it's studded with other calculated insults. Repeal Dodd-Frank! Repeal Obamacare! Drill baby drill!

I don't know what motivates Ryan, but it's certainly not a genuine search for plausible grounds for negotiation. Instead, he's produced a document carefully crafted to produce a universally negative reaction from Democrats, presumably because he thinks that will make Democrats look intransigent while the Beltway press is busily thinking up new ways to praise Ryan for his courage and gutsiness.

So far that calculation seems to be paying off. For more, see David Corn on what you get when you Google "Paul Ryan budget serious."

The ECB Cries Uncle

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 10:51 AM EDT

Portugal more or less declared bankruptcy yesterday. Here's how the ECB responded today:

Worried about rising prices, the European Central Bank raised its benchmark interest rate for the first time since 2008 on Thursday, risking damage to weaker economies like Portugal, which only a day earlier became the third country to request an international bailout....The bank president, Jean-Claude Trichet, and other members of the governing council had warned repeatedly over the past month about the risk that higher oil prices would fuel a general increase in prices.

This is nuts. Inflation is a monetary phenomenon. Surging oil prices are a supply and demand phenomenon. Oil prices aren't going up because there's too much money in circulation, they're going up because supply is limited, there's unrest in the Middle East, and demand keeps rising inexorably upward.

I have some sympathy for bond hawks who say that although bond prices aren't currently showing any fear of either inflation or financial collapse, markets can turn quickly and it's best to keep from ever getting to the point when that turn might happen. Still, a little more inflation right now would be a good thing, not a bad one, and economic growth would be a really good thing. Anything that gets in the way of growth is just begging for bigger trouble down the road. This panicky action from Trichet is a big mistake.

So Conservatives Now (Heart) Rationing?

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 10:16 AM EDT

America spends too much money on health care—this much Republicans and Democrats alike can agree on. Where they differ is on the best way to curb costs and unnecessary, inefficient care. In other words, somebody's got to say "no" to unnecessary spending, and that's not something that most Americans are going to want to hear. Democrats have been more willing to face this reality than their Republican counterparts. When the Dems introduced their own cost-controls in the Affordable Care Act—including research that would compare the effectiveness of different treatments, advice for end-of-life-counseling, and an independent board that would set payments for Medicare—the GOP attacked them for creating "death panels" and a Soviet-era bureaucracy to "ration" care.

That said, a growing number of conservatives have begun to admit that some form of rationing is necessary to prevent America's health care system—and the economy as a whole—from self-destructing. "There's no way out but rationing—either by making seniors pay much more for their healthcare or denying them much more than basic care," writes Andrew Sullivan. Some Republicans are now casting Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan as a form of "self-rationing" that would place such decisions in the hands of private citizens, rather than cold-hearted bureaucrats. "Rationing is going to go on within the Medicare system. It's a fact of life" given financial constraints, the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner tells Politico. "The question's going to be, is that decision going to be made by government and imposed top down under the current system? Ryan wants to shift that responsibility to individuals and from the bottom up."

But far from creating a nation of empowered individuals free from government constraints, the Ryan plan will simply shift that authority to the private insurance industry. As NPR reports, the Congressional Budget Office says that insurers would have far greater leeway to do things like "limiting benefits, changing co-payment amounts, managing how patients use services" under RyanCare, free from ObamaCare's consumer protections that prohibit exploitative practices. What's more, private insurance is less cost-effective than government-run health care, forcing seniors to pay more and get less. 

So the elderly may be forced to use less health care under Ryan's plan, and government spending on Medicare will go down. But rather than using scientific research and the consensus of experts to make more cost-effective Medicare choices, the Republicans will take a hatchet to Medicare costs and then hand the weapon over to private insurances. Rationing must happen, yes—but it can be done far more intelligently.

The Tea Party vs. "Media Marxism"

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 9:46 AM EDT

For the past year, tea party groups have been rallying their members to oppose "net neutrality," the rules outlined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that ensure a level playing field on the Internet. The rules prevent big corporate Internet providers like Comcast from discriminating against different types of content and applications, or from trying to force website operators to pay more for their content to be accessible online. That way, Internet providers can't limit users' access to preferred sites (i.e., the ones who pay more). The rules, in effect, ensure that even the smallest, poorest tea party group has the potential to reach a large audience through its website, unimpeded by Comcast and other big companies.

Yet tea partiers inexplicably equate net neutrality with Marxism. Last fall, when activists were organizing around the issue, Jamie Radtke from Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation and a current Senate candidate, said of net neutrality: "I think the clearest thing is it’s an affront to free speech and free markets." This week, ahead of today's House vote on a measure that would roll back the FCC's net neutrality rules, Tea Party Patriots blasted an urgent alert to activists urging them to call on lawmaker to vote in favor of the move:

Net neutrality is an innocuous sounding term for what is really media Marxism. This is an ideological attempt by those on the left to control the greatest means for the distribution of information ever devised. It provides a playing field which the government does not control, and this is immensely troubling to those on the left.

The tea party's position on net neutrality has seemed counterintuitive, given just how badly conservative activists could be screwed by the big cable and phone companies should net neutrality rules be repealed. The whole movement has been organized online, making the Internet's level playing field a crucial element to its success. Yet tea partiers claim that net neutrality is just another sign of government overreach. They don't seem to recognize that they are effectively advocating against their own interests—and Comcast is more than happy to have their help in doing so.

A New York Times story this weekend helps to explain the tea party's odd net neutrality fixation. The story focused on a conservative Astroturf group that has cozied up to the tea party movement to advance political causes for various corporate interests, everything from protecting Asian paper companies from US tariffs to—you guessed it—fighting net neutrality.

The Institute for Liberty, as the group is known, is headed by Andrew Langer, a former executive at the National Federation of Independent Business, a lobbying organization that claims to represent small businesses but often walks in lockstep with the US Chamber of Commerce. The Institute has been a regular presence at tea party events for the better part of two years. Langer himself spoke at the Tea Party Patriots "continuing revolution" protest in DC last week. He freely admitted to the Times that various interest groups have given him money to push activists on pet issues (though he declined to disclose the donors):

In a recent interview, he explained how the institute pitched its services to opponents of the Obama health care plan, resulting in a $1 million advertising blitz. "A donor gave us some money, and we went out on the ground in five states in the space of like six weeks," he said.

In a classic Astroturf move, the Times also discovered that the Institute had used the names of dead people on a "grassroots" petition it sent to the US Department of Agriculture supporting efforts by the chemical giant Monsanto to relax restrictions on its pesticide-resistant alfalfa. The paper credits Langer with getting tea partiers to oppose net neutrality. Given just how contrary the tea party position on net neutrality is to the movement's own best interests, Langer should be congratulated on his PR coup.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 7, 2011

Thu Apr. 7, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

Capt. Donna Buono (left), the commander of Company B, 3rd Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, and an AH-64 Apache pilot, introduces Afghan Air Force Maj. Gen. Abdul Razik Sherzai, the commander of the Kandahar Air Wing, to the helicopter during the general's visit with Task Force Thunder here April 2. Sherzai met with Col. Todd Royar - the task force commander - and his subordinate leaders to discuss future partnering opportunities between their two units. Task Force Thunder comprises the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade and its subordinate battalions, which are deployed from Fort Campbell, Ky., along with MEDEVAC additions from Alaska and Germany, Chinook assets from the Hawaii National Guard and Australia, and the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Combat Aviation Regiment, from Fort Hood, Texas. Photo via US Army

Beck's Brain

| Wed Apr. 6, 2011 4:43 PM EDT

I happened to tune into Glenn Beck for a few minutes today, and I really think the guy is losing his mojo. He was going on and on about how he was going to put everything together for us today and tomorrow, but I found myself just yawning through the whole thing. (Though the image of Samantha Power "whispering in Obama's ear" was sort of amusing. I don't imagine that Power is the whispering sort.)

Anyway, I had just tuned out because Beck wouldn't get to the point and life is too short for this kind of rambling. I want mainlined conspiracy theorizing! I want a direct look into Beck's brain! Luckily, when I returned to my computer, I learned that Steve Brodner has given us exactly that for the upcoming issue of the magazine: a schematic breakdown of Beck's brain. Click the thumbnail on the right to see it full size.

The EPA's Moment of Truth

| Wed Apr. 6, 2011 4:24 PM EDT

Tension is running high in both chambers of Congress. "It's a sad day," said Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) on the House floor, where Congressional representatives are sparring over the future role of the Environmental Protection Agency. As we've reported previously, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Kent.) introduced H.R. 910 as an effort to reverse the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Now, all is coming to a head.

The main thrust of the bill is that Congress, not the EPA, should have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, but the debate is heating up as Republicans and Democrats clash over larger implications of bill, including accepting the science behind climate change, the effects on health, and local economies. In their last line of defense, some House Democrats are pushing back by introducing a dozen amendments that would "clarify" the H.R. and retain some of the EPA's powers, some of which failed to pass by a voice vote. Dems are motioning to send them into a roll-call vote.

Meanwhile, the Senate just rejected Sen. Mitch McConnell's (R-Kent.) amendment to a small business bill mirroring H.R. 910, by a narrow 10 votes. The Senate is now proceeding with three similar small business bills.

Watch the action live on C-SPAN (for the House) and C-SPAN2 (for the Senate).

[Update: The Senate has rejected all four motions. Read more on this at Nature.]

 

Kloppenberg Bags Narrow Victory, But Recount Looms

| Wed Apr. 6, 2011 3:45 PM EDT

By the slimmest of margins, liberal JoAnne Kloppenburg, a long-time assistant attorney general, upset conservative sitting justice David Prosser in the race to fill the seventh seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Kloppenburg topped Prosser by a mere 204 votes in a race in which 1.48 million Wisconsinites cast a vote. In a statement declaring herself the winner, Kloppenburg said, "Wisconsin voters have spoken and I am grateful for, and humbled by, their confidence and trust.... I look forward to bringing new blood to the Supreme Court and focusing my energy on the important work Wisconsin residents elect Supreme Court justices to do."

Not so fast, says Prosser's team. It's almost certain that Prosser will demand a recount of the election, which would be the first statewide recount in 20 years. And depending on how the recount goes, Prosser has the option of legally challenging the election results, not unlike former US Sen. Norm Coleman's challenge in his battle against Al Franken, a legal fight Franken ultimately won. And like the Coleman-Franken legal battle, a challenge by Prosser could potentially end up before Wisconsin's Supreme Court on which he currently sits. The election, in other words, is hardly over.

Nonetheless, Kloppenburg's unofficial victory marks a momentous win for the labor unions and progressive groups that galvanized her campaign and propelled her from an also-ran to a competitive candidate. The Prosser-Kloppenburg race was seen as a proxy fight pitting unions and progressives against Republican Governor Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues who want to kneecap public-sector unions in Wisconsin. Heading into election day, the stakes were high: A Kloppenburg win would prove that unions are still a force to be reckoned with on election day. But if Kloppenburg lost, the movement sparked by the Wisconsin protests would undoubtedly lose some of its momentum, and conservatives would dismiss the uprising in Wisconsin as a flash in the pan.

Mind you, the fact that Kloppenburg was even competitive in the race was a victory for unions and progressives. As I reported yesterday,

Before the votes are counted, Wisconsin progressives have considered the race a victory. Months ago, no one thought Kloppenburg had a chance of toppling Prosser. That she became a competitive challenger indicates that energy from Wisconsin's protests can be funneled into electoral politics. "Had the protests not happened, Prosser would've skated to victory with an easy victory," says Robert Kraig. "Even if she comes up short, a very powerful message has been sent."

Now, it looks like Prosser's the one who could come up short. If a recount confirms Kloppenburg as the winner, it would seal one of the most momentous election upsets in years.