2011 - %3, May

Navy Will Perform Same-Sex Marriages

| Mon May 9, 2011 3:29 PM EDT

The military establishment, it appears, is willing to drag congressional Republicans kicking and screaming into the post-Don't Ask, Don't Tell era. The US Navy has authorized its chaplains to perform same-sex marriages on military bases in states that legally recognize such unions. That news came in a memo from the service's head chaplain (PDF), dated April 13:

Consistent with the tenets of his or her religious organization, a chaplain may officiate a same-sex, civil marriage: if it is conducted in accordance with a state that permits same-sex marriage or union; and if that chaplain is, according to the applicable state and local laws, otherwise fully certified to officiate that state’s marriages...if the base is located in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, then base facilities may normally be used to celebrate the marriage. This is true for purely religious services (e.g., a chaplain blessing a union) or a traditional wedding (e.g., a chaplain both blessing and conducting the ceremony).

The policy's unlikely to have a significant impact on gay or military communities: There's no naval base, for example, in Iowa, one of five states (along with the District of Columbia) that recognize same-sex marriages. And until the DADT repeal is certified by the Pentagon, no service members are likely to be hitching up at the Washington Navy Yard. Not only that, chaplains who disagree with gay marriage on theological grounds are under no obligation to perform the ceremonies, which shrinks the pool of willing wedding officiators to virtually nil.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [14]

| Mon May 9, 2011 3:01 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

Toward a Unified Theory of Republican Flip-Flops

| Mon May 9, 2011 2:16 PM EDT

Why have Republicans changed their minds recently on issues like cap-and-trade and the individual mandate? My take is that they never really supported these things in the first place, and endorsed them only as a temporary tactic to fight off more liberal proposals from Democrats. But once those liberal proposals were off the table (or could be plausibly defeated in a straight-up vote), they didn't need to pretend to support alternatives anymore and simply reverted to opposing any change at all.

A couple of days ago Ezra Klein improved his counterargument that the real reason is simply partisan opposition to all things Obama. If Republican attitudes had changed gradually, that would be one thing. But if they changed almost overnight between 2007 and 2009? Then it sounds like Obama is the real source of these flip-flops.

I was thinking about this last night, and the topic of campaign finance disclosure popped into my mind. Republicans used to be all for it. Then the Supreme Court handed down its pro-business Citizens United ruling, allowing businesses to spend freely in elections but also making it clear that Congress could require disclosure of campaign contributions if it wanted to. Suddenly Republicans were dead set against disclosure. Norman Ornstein picks up the story:

In March of 2000, a Wall Street Journal editorial said, “Our view is that the Constitution allows consenting adults to give as much as they want to whomever they want, subject to disclosure on the Internet.” That same year, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell asked, “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”....Last month, Mitch McConnell now says he views disclosure as “a cynical effort to muzzle critics of this administration and its allies in Congress.” He savaged the White House for considering an executive order to require corporations getting federal contracts to disclose its corporate spending on campaigns....What’s more, last fall, McConnell pulled out all the stops to prevent passage of the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required all corporations and unions to disclose their campaign spending. McConnell managed to pressure every Republican from supporting cloture, leaving the legislation, which had passed the House, stuck at 59 votes in the Senate.

....What to make of the turn away from support for disclosure? I can draw only one conclusion: The earlier support for disclosure was a façade. McConnell, McGahn, and the Journal, among others,don’t actually want transparency or any regulation. At base, they are for a wholly unregulated, Gilded Age-style campaign system where big and secret money rules.

This is actually evidence for both flip-flop theories, I think. Ornstein is almost certainly correct that Republicans want no regulation of campaign finance at all, and at any given time are simply adopting the most extreme position they think they can get away with. On the other hand, there's not much question either that the rock-solid Republican opposition to the DISCLOSE Act was largely motivated by pure partisan hostility. In the end, I guess maybe we don't really have to choose between these two explanations of Republican behavior at all. Why can't they both be true?

Elites vs. the Public: Round 2

| Mon May 9, 2011 1:28 PM EDT

Who's to blame for our fiscal problems of the past decade? Paul Krugman says elites deserve a lot more of the blame than the general public, but Dan Drezner disagrees: the public, he says, was in favor of tax cuts and in favor of the Iraq war, so they deserve a big chunk of the blame too.

Actually, though, I think Dan's evidence demonstrates exactly the opposite of what he thinks. He's right that polling evidence suggests the public was in favor of both these policies. But the public had been in favor of these things for well over a decade. About 60+% of the public had believed its taxes were too high going back to the beginning of polling on this question in 1957. And support for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein had been in the 50-60% range ever since the Gulf War.

But guess what? Despite this broad support, nobody was crying out for either huge tax cuts or invading Iraq until George Bush and the rest of the GOP started talking them up. Without that, the public would have continued to vaguely think that taxes were too high and Saddam Hussein was a bad guy before switching the TV to Monday Night Football and forgetting about it.

It's true that public support was probably necessary in order to pass the Bush tax cuts and invade Iraq. But the polling evidence is pretty clear that it was far from sufficient. Nothing about public opinion changed in 2001. The only thing that changed was the occupant of the Oval Office. The public isn't blameless in all this, but the polling evidence makes it pretty clear that it was a minor player.

Bachmann Knows When to Duck the Tea Party

| Mon May 9, 2011 1:25 PM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) addresses the crowd during a rally near the U.S. Capitol. The ''Cut Spending Now Revolt'', staged Americans for Prosperity, was held to urge lawmakers to reduce federal spending.

You gotta give Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) credit: She knows how to work the tea party without getting too close to its fringes. On Monday morning, a group of tea party activists convened at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to "blast" Republican members of Congress over the upcoming debt ceiling vote. The tea partiers feared that House Speaker John Boehner and other GOPers would buckle and agree to raising the debt ceiling. The press release announcing the event suggested that the star attraction would be Bachmann—which raised the dramatic prospect of Bachmann doing battle with Boehner and other GOPers dubbed "RINOs" (Republicans In Name Only) by the organizers of this event. But when the press conference kicked off, a spokesman for the organizers revealed that Bachmann would not be there in person. Instead, she had sent a statement, which he read to a small group of reporters. Bachmann said:

If I were there I would tell you that I hear you and I agree: it's time to reject the debt ceiling scare tactics and address the truly frightening reality that our debt is at $14 trillion and growing.... Thank you to the Tea Party for not giving up the fight. Your stubborn determination to return our country to its founding principles give me great hope for conservative accomplishments in the current House of Representative and for even greater victories in 2012.

It soon became clear that Bachmann had made the right move by steering clear of potential photo ops with these tea partiers. The event was weird. It was headlined by William Temple, a tricorn-hat-wearing, musket-carrying Revolutionary War reenactor from Georgia. Temple has been featured in at least one documentary on the tea party, and he's a regular presence at tea party rallies in Washington. At this event, he was dressed to the hilt as his character Button Gwinnett, the second person to sign the Declaration of Independence. Temple's tin cup rattled as he walked to the podium. He thundered on endlessly like the Baptist minister he is—when not reenacting the war for independence, he preaches in a church in Georgia—lapsing in and out of a British accent and occasionally referring to his musket, which was leaning against the wall behind him with a flower stuck in the barrel.

While Temple called on Republicans to vote against raising the debt ceilling and ranted against "wimpy house RINOS who refuse to hide President Obama's Mastercard," he managed to truly get worked up over the move to end the ban on gays in the military. Tea party rallies generally have steered away from divisive social issues, but Temple showed no such reticence. "As a combat veteran, I know we don't have time to worry about the guy behind us," he warned. He took a brief detour from his prepared speech to greet James Manship, a tea party activist who regularly dresses up as George Washington. "Welcome, General," he said, tipping his hat. The General tipped his hat back, and Temple resumed his speech, which included a long digression about the evils of "females in forward combat roles."

Until now, Temple has been something of a outlier within the tea party, despite his frequent photo-ops in national media outlets. He's the (same) guy everyone wants to snap pictures of at a tea party rally, leading to the mistaken impression that many tea partiers like to dress up. But Monday's press conference marked his first real appearance as a tea party leader. He managed to corral a surprising number of men in suits for the event—people willing to talk seriously about the national debt in spite of occasional cries of "Amen!" and "Huzzah!" from Temple and Manship.

Another speaker at the event was Joseph Farah, the founder and editor of WorldNet Daily, a website that has been a leading promoter of birtherism (and continutes to push the conspiracy theory, even after President Barack Obama has released his original, long-form birth certificate). Farah was promoting his "No More Red Ink" lobbying effort, which he said would generate millions of letters from the grassroots to Congress urging House Republicans to "freeze the debt limit." Joining him was Brian Wesbury, a former chief economist from the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and a CNBC regular. Wesbury argued that that the Fed chairman and Treasury secretary are both wrong to predict that failing to lift the debt ceiling will lead to a default on government debt. (Wesbury also wrote a big story in the Wall Street Journal in January 2008 predicting that the Dow would soon hit 15,000.) Also in the lineup: Daniel Mitchell, a Cato Institute fellow, and Bob Vander Plaats, the tea party candidate for Iowa governor last year and an anti-gay activist who helped lead the campaign to unseat three Iowa state supreme court justices who had ruled in favor of gay marriage. A South Dakota chiropractor who was supposed to talk about tea party fury over Obamacare was, like Bachmann, a no-show.

C.L. Bryant, a Baptist minister from Louisiana and a staple of tea party rallies (and often the only African-American in the line-up), echoed Temple's concerns about ending Don't Ask/Don't Tell and expressed deep disappointment with Boehner. "We did not give you the gavel on Capitol Hill for you to play nice with liberals," he intoned. The press corps was also treated to a speech from Manship, in his George Washington character, as he quoted from his "farewell address" and letters he had written in 1779 decrying the moral evils of debt.

The assembled tea party activists used the press conference to publicize yet another convention of activists planned for Kansas City, Kansas, at the end of September, called the Freedom Jamboree & Tea Party National Straw Poll Convention. The gathering is described on its website as "the ultimate grassroots event," akin to a “Tea Party Woodstock but without all the trash, drugs, and hippies." Temple said that the group is inviting all potential presidential candidates to come to the event and address the crowd.

Given that one presidential contender wouldn't even come to the group's press conference, it's hard to imagine that the next event will draw much of a star-studded crowd of GOP 2012 contenders. But who knows? If you'd told me two years ago that I'd be covering a press conference led by grown men dressed as George Washington and Button Gwinnett, and that reporters from news outlets like the Washington Post would be there taking the whole thing seriously, I never would have believed it.

Bachmann may not have wanted to stand in a room with these guys, but she was still concerned enough about their influence to participate by sending a personal statement that boosted the event's newsworthiness. It may be 2011, but men in tricorn hats still command that sort of respect.

Journalism vs. WikiLeaks

| Mon May 9, 2011 12:57 PM EDT

David Corn has a piece today about a Pakistani businessman who owns several pharmacies in New York City and has been fingered by a Guantanamo detainee as a "possible al-Qaida anthrax operative." So is he? Nobody knows. Maybe the Gitmo detainee was just making stuff up. Maybe it's already been exhaustively investigated and the guy has been cleared. Or maybe he really did have al-Qaeda ties at one time. The Pakistani guy can't be reached, and there's no evidence one way or the other about this aside from the detainee report, so it's impossible to say.

Normally, I'd say that even running a story this thin would be criminally irresponsible. But here's the thing: the guy's name and the accusations against him were part of the WikiLeaks release of Guantanamo documents a few weeks ago, so it's all publicly available now. Here's David:

Mother Jones contacted the FBI in Washington and New York and asked for information regarding this suspect. After all, wouldn't the bureau have thoroughly run down such a lead? Each office said that the FBI would not comment on information in a leaked document.

....With the document now in the open—and on the Internet—the public has a right to know whether this potentially dangerous matter has been resolved. (And, if turns out the intel is faulty, the Pakistani businessman deserves to have his name cleared.) The FBI has the usual bureaucratic reasons for not commenting; it does not want to legitimize leaks. But alarming information of this sort does warrant a response. The critical issue is not the leak, but the nightmarish possibility of an anthrax operative on the loose.

So how about it? Is this now a legitimate story, even though the charges are eight years old and have almost certainly been thoroughly investigated by now? Under the circumstances, should the FBI be willing to comment? Should we have run this story in the first place? What would be your call if you were running things here at MoJo?

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The Wrong Side of the Tracks

| Mon May 9, 2011 12:36 PM EDT

Florida's loss is the Northeast's gain today, as the Department of Transportation announced that a major chunk of the high speed rail money that Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) rejected a few months ago will be redirected to the Northeast corridor.

The route, which runs from Boston to Washington, DC, will get another $795 million in high-speed rail funding from the Federal Railroad Administration. This is part of the $2.4 billion that Scott declined back in February at the behest of his tea-party backers.

The line runs right through the Vice President's favorite Amtrak stop, the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Railroad Station in Wilmington, Delaware. The state's congressional delegation is cheering the news. Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, and Rep. John Carney (all Democrats) issued a group press release:

When Governor Scott declined to accept his state's share of these federal funds, we said we wanted to make Florida's loss Delaware's gain, and that’s exactly what we did," Senator Coons said. "The Department of Transportation made the right call in allocating the largest share of Florida’s unused high-speed rail funds to the Northeast Corridor.

The funds will be used to make trains speedier, raise performance and increase passenger capacity. Of course, this isn't just about making Amtrak better; it's a decision that also has political implications. While Scott's tea party fans were pleased by the rejection of high speed rail money, Democrats and Republicans alike criticized the move and tried (unsuccessfully) to sue to circumvent it.

Now not only does Florida not get the money, but residents will also have to hear from their friends and family up north about how great their train service is.

Leverage is Everywhere

| Mon May 9, 2011 11:57 AM EDT

States have always competed with each other to attract corporate business, just as cities and counties compete to attract retail business. Usually they do this by offering tax breaks, which produces a downward spiral in overall tax revenue but doesn't otherwise cause any damage to the overall economy. But now states are competing with each other to attract dodgy insurance subsidiaries:

Companies looking to do business in secret once had to travel to places like the Cayman Islands or Bermuda. Today, all it takes is a trip to Vermont.

....Aetna recently used a subsidiary in Vermont to refinance a block of health insurance policies, reaping $150 million in savings, according to its chief financial officer, Joseph M. Zubretsky. The main reason is that the insurer did not need to maintain conventional reserves at the same level as would have been required by insurance regulators in Aetna’s home state of Connecticut.

....For the states, attracting these insurance deals promotes business travel and creates jobs for lawyers, actuaries and other white-collar workers, who pay taxes. States have also found that they can impose modest taxes on the premiums collected by captives. For insurers, these subsidiaries offer ways to unlock some of the money tied up in reserves, making millions available for dividends, acquisitions, bonuses and other projects. Three weeks after Aetna’s deal closed, the company announced it was increasing its dividend fifteenfold.

This is all possible because, for historical reasons, the insurance industry is regulated at the state level, not the federal level. And it's yet another example of how the bright boys in the finance industry can always figure out new and innovative ways of increasing leverage anyplace that regulations can be gamed in some way: Reducing reserves is, basically, a way of increasing leverage, and it's a great way of making more money. Until it isn't, that is. Unfortunately, "when it isn't" is a timeframe that's hard to predict. The only thing you can really say about it is that it's pretty much inevitable, and when it finally happens a whole lot of people are going to feel a whole lot of pain.

New Birther Conspiracy: It's a Trap!

| Mon May 9, 2011 11:33 AM EDT
President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate.

Since President Obama released his birth certificate two weeks ago—and perhaps more significantly, since President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden—the ranks of America's birthers have thinned considerably. According to a recent Washington Post poll, just 10 percent of Americans now strongly suspect that the President was not born in the United States; the number of true believers is even smaller.

But 10 percent of the American public nonetheless represents a fairly sizable niche market. So conservative site WorldNetDaily is still dutifully parsing the available evidence—a missing watermark here, a sloppy signature there, broken twigs everywehere—that might cast some doubt on the legitimacy of the birth certificate. Yes, it's promoting the most obvious explanation: the document is fraudulent. Leading the way is Jerome Corsi, a WND senior reporter and author of the new Obama conspiracy tract, Where is the Birth Certificate? (In light of Obama big reveal, Corsi's editor, WND editor Joseph Farrah, called the title "unfortunate.")

Here's the latest from Corsi:

A private investigator claims employees of the state Department of Health forged three Hawaiian birth certificates for Barack Obama to "screw with birthers."

Takeyuki Irei told WND one document placed the birth at Kapiolani hospital, another at Queens Medical Center and a third in Kenya.

The 57-year-old detective, who has been a P.I. since the 1980s, said he was stunned when he discovered that the purported copy of Obama's original birth certificate released by the White House was more or less an exact image of one of the forgeries...

Irei explained the state employee told him the fake records were kept in a vault in Room 303 of the Hawaii Department of Health. The room, next to the director's office, is well known and holds files such as the records of residents of the Kalaupapa leper colony on the island of Molokai.

Wait a minute—is President Obama a leper?

Anyway, it's not really worth sorting through this story, but the main takeaway is that the fake birth certificates originally embraced by birthers were actually planted by the Obama crew to undermine the birthers' investigations—and to set up the context for the release of the real (but still fake) birth certificate put out by the White House late last month. Is your head spinning? Suffice to say, the hard-core birthers aren't going away anytime soon.

Arizona Legislature Holding Pledge Drive for Border Fence

| Mon May 9, 2011 10:24 AM EDT

Perhaps smarting from the Florida state legislature's war on bestiality and droopy drawers, Arizona has fired a fresh salvo in the battle for the title of America's craziest state.

A new law that Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed in late April authorizes the construction of a border fence along the state's border with Mexico to halt the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. But there's a catch: Because the state has no money, it plans to finance construction solely through private donations and then use prison labor to build the wall on the cheap. The first order of a business is to set up a website to plug the project. From the Associated Press:

"We're going to build this site as fast as we can, and promote it, and market the heck out of it," said [Steve] Smith, a first-term Republican senator...

Part of the marketing pitch for donations could include providing certificates declaring that individual contributors "helped build the Arizona wall," Smith said. "I think it's going to be a really, really neat thing."

Totally. There's some key context missing here, though. Namely: This isn't the first time Arizona has tried soliciting donations to carry out state business. In 2010, faced with an extraordinary budget deficit due to the deflated housing bubble and some pretty terrible legislating, the legislature passed a new law that sought to balance the budget by kindly asking citizens to donate money to the "I Didn't Pay Enough Fund" (their phrase, not mine). If, as the name suggests, you feel like you haven't paid enough in taxes, you can choose to pay a little bit extra, which the state will then put to good use—say, for buying tanks to break up cockfighting rings. Per the Phoenix New Times, the bill is expected to chip about $2,500 off of the $2.5 billion state deficit, leaving only $2.4999975 billion to go. Baby steps, people; baby steps.