2011 - %3, June

Replacing Tim Geithner

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 6:37 PM EDT

Bloomberg is reporting that Tim Geithner might resign as Treasury Secretary after the debt ceiling fight wraps up. Ezra Klein thinks he's going to be almost impossible to replace:

I’m not saying that because he’s done such a bang-up job, or because he’s got such a winning personality. I’ll leave those questions for a future article. It’s because the confirmation process is broken. As Slate’s Dave Weigel reported, “the time between nomination and confirmation votes has nearly doubled since the Reagan era, when the sclerosis really started. It took Reagan 114 days for nominees to get confirmed; it takes Obama closer to 200 days. By the White House’s own count, more than 200 nominees are in limbo.”

Many of those nominees are non-controversial. The Treasury Secretary won’t be. The economy is the central political issue right now, 2012 is an election year, and Republicans have sufficient votes in the Senate to mount a filibuster. Under those circumstances, it’s very difficult to imagine them permitting the confirmation of any Treasury Secretary.

I think there are two reasons that this is probably not right:

  • Treasury Secretary isn't a controversial appointment. Think about this from the perspective of Republican senators: it's not a lifetime appointment; Obama is almost certain to nominate a sober, moderately liberal, establishment-approved kind of personality; and in any case, the truth is that the Treasury Secretary has only modest power that's independent of Congress's authority. Geithner's successor would be very unlikely to seriously affect deficit negotiations, spending priorities, budget battles, or Obama's reelection chances.
  • Our nomination process is indeed broken, but it's broken only for the less visible class of appointments. This is important: Republicans have routinely held up circuit court judges, ambassadors to medium sized countries, agency heads, deputy and assistant cabinet positions, and so on. But they haven't held up Supreme Court appointments, cabinet secretaries, or other highly visible appointments such as Fed chairman, head of the CIA, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs. These kinds of nominations get too much attention, and that's exactly what Republicans don't want. They want their obstructionism to fly below the radar. Holding up a Treasury Secretary for anything other than a slam dunk reason would make their obstructionism far too public and would risk engaging the normally jaded DC press corps, which treats the obstruction of lesser appointments as just garden variety partisan politics.

I know this seems counterintuitive, but just take a look at the record: all of Obama's major appointments — the kind that get front page treatment — have been approved without all that much fuss. Republicans just don't want to practice their usual brand of obstructionism when the spotlight is shining. It's only the lesser lights that get filibustered for months on end.

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A New Way to Measure the Achievement Gap

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 6:15 PM EDT

Do schools consider all students equally capable of succeeding, or only those from wealthy neighborhoods? That is the big question the hardworking folks at ProPublica attemp to answer in their newly published report, "The Opportunty Gap." Many studies have shown that high school students who take honors and advanced placement classes have a greater chance of attending and doing well in college. ProPublica's reporters took tons of dense government data on student enrollment across the country in higher-level classes, like AP math and physics, and turned it into an interactive database for the rest of us.

Is it helpful? I think so, for two reasons. First, as Time education columnist and EduWonk blogger Andy Rotherham told me recently, "It's a lot easier to find information about buying a car or a washing machine than it is choosing a school." No Child Left Behind requires schools to provide "accountability report cards," and in California, these reports, like this one on Mission High school (PDF), usually contain much of the information in the ProPublica database. But if parents, students, teachers and reporters like me want to compare different bits of data, like percentage of experienced teachers, for similar schools in their state or the district, the process either kills a lot of trees or time. Unfortunately, ProPublica's database will be out of date in the next school year (unless they'll update it each year, the methodology section doesn't say), at least for folks picking schools. 

But hopefully it will have a longer life span among education policymakers and journalists. When education wonks and reporters judge the quality of public education, test scores carry the most weight in the national debate. ProPublica's database gives weight to other crucial indicators. For example, its report found that Florida leads the nation in the percentage of high-school students enrolled in high-level classes, and it has made greater strides in closing the achievement gap than many other states. At the same time, Florida's test scores are below national average. So, this data definitely provides some important texture that test scores miss.

Those are my quick reactions. I'd love to hear from parents, students, and teachers if you think this database and analysis are helpful.

Kansas to Shut Down All but One Abortion Clinic Friday

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 4:43 PM EDT

This story has been updated below.

It's official. Every abortion provider in the state of Kansas has been denied a license to continue operating as of July 1. As we reported last week, strict new state laws put in place this month threatened to close the remaining three abortion clinics in Kansas. The staff of one of these facilities, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park, initially thought their operation could survive the strict new standards. But on Thursday afternoon, Planned Parenthood announced that the Overland Park clinic has thus far been denied a license to continue operating—effectively cutting off access to legal abortion in the entire state.

The new law, which takes effect Friday, establishes new standards for abortion providers—standards apparently designed to make compliance difficult. The rules require changes to the size and number of rooms, compel clinics to have additional supplies on hand, and even mandate room temperatures for the facilities. Given that the rules were released less than two weeks before clinics were expected to be in compliance, many providers knew they wouldn't be able to obtain a license to continue operating. The laws, often called "targeted regulation of abortion providers," or TRAP laws, are an increasingly common legislative maneuver to limit access to abortion by redering it tough, if not impossible, for providers to comply.

With today's announcement that the Overland Park clinic was denied a license, Kansas becomes the first state to effectively make the legally protected right to obtain abortion services moot. One clinic in Kansas has already filed suit against the new rules, and a hearing on that suit is planned for Friday. Planned Parenthood is also expected to sue. The clinics are also expected to seek an injunction to block the law from being enforced. UPDATE: Planned Parenthood has filed suit. They are seeking an emergency injunction to allow their clinic to remain open while the lawsuit is pending.

"The women of Kansas waiting on their scheduled procedures will pay the immediate price for this outrageous and flagrant exertion of the radical GOP’s legislative muscle under the Brownback administration," said Kansas NOW in a statement Thursday, referring to conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. "The freedom and right to legal healthcare has been denied to the women of Kansas." 

UPDATE: In a statement issued Thursday evening, Peter Brownlie, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, seemed to hold out some hope that its clinic could still obtain a license to continue operating, even as the organization sought an injuction to block the law from taking effect. "We have been targeted in this bill and Kansas women are the ones who will suffer if their health care is taken away," said Brownlie. "This is radical, extreme government intrusion into private health care."

UPDATE 5:45 PM EST THURSDAY: The Associated Press is reporting that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, after initially denying a license to Planned Parenthood, has now changed their mind. Stay tuned for more updates. PP said inspectors were back at the clinic Thursday reevaluating it, after earlier this week indicating that they would not be able to obtain one.

UPDATE 6:08 PM EST THURSDAY: Planned Parenthood just announced that the health department has, in fact, decided to grant it a license to continue operating. The PP clinic in Overland Park will remain open. "Notwithstanding that the regulations are burdensome and unnecessary, the findings of the inspection indicate what we have known and said throughout this process: Planned Parenthood operates with the highest standards of patient care and has rigorous safety procedures in place," Brownlie said.

UPDATE 7:15 PM EST FRIDAY: A federal judge in Kansas City has blocked the new abortion clinic regulations from taking effect.

Want To Know More? Mother Jones has been covering this story from the beginning. We were ahead of the national media on the story that Kansas might close its clinics, and on Monday we told readers about other states that are trying to follow Kansas' lead. Earlier today, we told you about how one senator is trying to tack an abortion ban on to a trade deal, and yesterday, we explained how Planned Parenthood is under attack in states around the country. We also have a map of abortion coverage bans around the country, and we were the first to tell you about how a bill passed in the Republican-led House of Representatives could change the definition of rape for the purposes of abortion law and deny statutory rape victims access to Medicaid-funded abortions.

Stephen Colbert Wins PAC Approval—Without Destroying Political Cash Laws

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 2:45 PM EDT

When Stephen Colbert created his own so-called super PAC and said he planned to use his satirical Comedy Central show to promote it, he seemed to be using that age-old shtick—parody—to highlight the growing political power of corporations after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. At the least, his ploy would bring some attention to the nation's dysfunctional political money watchdog, the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

So last month the television host, in his bombastic conservative persona, asked the feds to let him use staff, equipment, and airtime from his show to help his PAC without having it count as a political contribution from Comedy Central's parent company, the media giant Viacom. (Viacom doesn't want to be in the business of donating to Colbert's PAC.)

Today Colbert got what he wanted—sort of. The FEC ruled this morning that Viacom resources can be used to fund "Colbert Super PAC" ads or promotions without the PAC having to report them as corporate donations. But there's a catch: those ads can only appear on Colbert's eponymous show. Any Colbert Super PAC ad that appears elsewhere, the FEC ruled, must be reported as a campaign contribution—something Viacom wants no part of.

Here's the legal background. Campaign finance law includes something called the "media exemption." This applies to corporate-owned newspapers, magazines, TV outlets, and other publications that run stories, editorials, and commentary backing a candidate. The exemption says that spending doesn't count as a corporate contribution because it's for a legitimate media purpose.

However, reformers and good government groups argued (PDF) Colbert's PAC doesn't fall under the "media exemption." Colbert's a satirist, not a reporter. His plan to use "Colbert Report" resources to pump out ads and billboards for his PAC goes beyond Viacom's role as a news company, and so shouldn't be covered by the media exemption, they said. As such, any work done by Colbert's staff or using Viacom resources should be reported as donations, they maintained.

In the end, the FEC gave Colbert his media exemption, but in the narrowest possible way. The decision was lauded by reformers increasingly piqued by the FEC's actions. As I wrote earlier this year:

Ask experts and good-government groups about the decline of the FEC, and they'll inevitably give you an earful about the Freedom's Watch controversy. Or they'll explain how the percentage of groups disclosing their donors has plummeted by more than 60 percent since 2004 (PDF). Or they'll lament how, more than a year after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the FEC has barely begun debating what it means.

Crippled by the kind of paralysis that makes Congress look like a well-oiled machine, the FEC is a shell of a watchdog at a time when more money is gushing into American politics than ever before. "The Federal Election Commission is a national scandal," says Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign-finance reform group Democracy 21. "We have no enforcement of the campaign-finance laws."

Gridlock tops the list of the FEC's problems. In the mid-2000s, the FEC deadlocked on about 1 percent of enforcement actions against alleged violators of campaign finance law. But by 2009, the commission's deadlocked votes spiked to 16 percent, dipping only slightly to 11 percent in 2010. Reformers blame the three conservatives on the six-person commission for clogging up the system, blowing open new legal loopholes, and sometimes even refusing to enforce the laws on the books.

But in the eyes of reformers, the FEC's narrow decision was the right one. "This is the way the law is now," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. In a statement, Tara Malloy, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said, "The impact of today's opinion by the FEC goes beyond Mr. Colbert and his well-known satirical show, and ensures that the numerous television show hosts and commentators who are serious politicians cannot exploit the press exemption."

Hatch Aims To Tack Abortion Ban on to Trade Pact

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 2:20 PM EDT

What does the Korean free trade agreement have to do with abortion? You got me. But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) plans to offer an amendment in today's markup of a handful of trade bills in the Senate Finance Committee that would bar Medicaid funding for abortions.

The amendment is described as seeking "to close the loophole that sends taxpayer dollars to fund operational costs for abortions." It would block Medicaid dollars from being used at "any entity that performs abortions or maintains or operates a facility where abortions are performed." It's hard to begin on how bad this would be. Basically, any facility that offered abortion for any reason—even a hospital providing it as life-saving emergency care for a woman—would not be able to accept Medicaid payment. The effect would be that hospitals and clinics that currently offer abortion would likely stop doing so in order to be able to continue accepting Medicaid money, and the low-income women who rely on Medicaid would be effectively denied abortion coverage entirely.

Of course, if it did pass (which it probably won't), it could conflict with other laws that bar discrimination among health care providers. When Indiana tried to block Medicaid funds from being used at Planned Parenthood last month, it was blocked by the feds because it's illegal to discriminate among health care providers. The state is appealing the court injunction that blocks it from taking effect, but it's not likely that the law is going to hold up.

Rather ironically, the Republican communication staff for the Finance committee, on which Hatch sits as the ranking Minority member, sent out a press release today criticizing the committee Democrats for "including unrelated and highly-controversial provisions" in today's markup by adding a domestic spending program to the list of measures to be considered. Hatch's office declared that move "partisan" and an "abuse" of the trade authority of the committee. At least that provision had something to do with trade.

Rick Perry Stakes His Claim

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 2:16 PM EDT

It is, obviously, perfectly OK for Christians to hold prayer rallies. Just as obviously, Christian prayer rallies will feature Christian speakers, not Muslims or Jews or Buddhists. That's the nature of the beast, and it's hardly unusual for an American politician to attend such events.

But Tim Murphy reports that "The Response," a Houston prayer rally funded by the American Family Association and supported by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is a wee bit more muscular than that:

With this prayerfest, Perry is associating himself with rather radical folks. The American Family Association's issues director, for instance, has said that gays are "Nazis" and that Muslims should be converted to Christianity. Another organizer, Doug Stringer, has said that 9/11 was God's punishment for the nation's creeping secularism. And then there's Jay Swallow, whose endorsement is trumpeted on The Response's website, and who runs "A Christian Military Training Camp for the purpose of dealing with the occult and territorial enemy strong holds in America" (his description). Consequently, it's not much of a mystery why only one of the nation's other 49 governors has so far accepted Perry's invitation to attend the event (Perry invited all of them)—arch-conservative Sam Brownback of Kansas.

So does this mean that Perry is running for president? Maybe! Tim explains more at the link.

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Name Changes and Feminism

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 2:05 PM EDT

As you can see by my new byline, I have changed my last name from Phillips to Quraishi. In case anyone's wondering, the name is Pakistani in origin, as is my new husband's family. Which is why I now know far more than I ever thought I would about the ISI, drone attacks, and why fish is inherently halal but not chicken. It's been an cross-cultural exchange, and one I'm happy to experience.

My good friend asked me why I decided to change my name, since it is a major pain in the butt, and since I am a kind of rampant feminist. It was a good question. Can changing your name to your husband's be a feminist action? I like to think so. I'm still a feminist and I'm not changing my name because I believe my personal identity ended when I walked down the aisle: I'm changing it because if my husband's going to be hassled by the TSA, I want to be next to him getting patted down too. And I'm doing it because we're having a baby. In a world where divorce rates are high and people move far from their hometowns, I'd like for our child to at least be born into a family where we all share the same last name, where we are all Quraishis. Beyond that touchy-feely stuff, "Quraishi" is honestly just a much more interesting name than "Phillips" and potentially a more memorable byline.

Ironically, in changing my name to Quraishi, I'll be undoing what my mother did for me. My own mother, originally from Japan, specifically gave me the generic, WASP-y name of "Jennifer Phillips" so I wouldn't be racially discriminated against. On paper, I would look just as Anglo as the Emily Patterson or Stephanie Peters I might be competing against for jobs. Everyone would know how to pronounce my name.

Now, of course, I've totally screwed that up. Sorry Mom. I will likely always have to tell people how to pronounce my new last name (kuh-RAY-shee). And sure, there's a chance someone will decide to hassle me someday because of the foreign-ness of my last name. As a woman, however, I think it's a sign of the times that I didn't feel pressured at all to change my last name upon marriage. In fact, people in San Francisco were surprised I was changing it. So while I may be making my life more difficult in some ways ("can you spell that for me again?") and easier in others (e.g. home loans, hospital visits) it is entirely my choice to make. And for that, I am grateful.

Winners and Losers From the Great Recession

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 1:56 PM EDT

So who's benefited and who hasn't from the current recovery following the Great Recession? I think you know the answer already, but just to make it official, here's a report from researchers at Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies:

Between the second quarter of 2009 and the fourth quarter of 2010, real national income in the U.S. increased by $528 billion. Pre-tax corporate profits by themselves had increased by $464 billion while aggregate real wages and salaries rose by only $7 billion or only .1%. Over this six quarter period, corporate profits captured 88% of the growth in real national income while aggregate wages and salaries accounted for only slightly more than 1% of the growth in real national income. The extraordinarily high share of national income (88%) received by corporate profits was by far the highest in the past five recoveries from national recessions.

Here it is in table format, in case you want to see comparisons to previous recessions and recoveries:

Plainly, what's needed to address this crisis is tax cuts for corporations and reduced federal spending on workers. But who will speak up for our downtrodden corporate sector? It is a vexing problem.

Via Economix.

Rick Perry's Christians-Only Prayerfest

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 1:43 PM EDT

In early August, Texas Republican governor and possible presidential candidate Rick Perry will host a prayer summit at Reliant Stadium in Houston. The event, dubbed "The Response" and funded by the American Family Association (which was labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center), is designed to combat the economic, political, and spiritual crises facing the United States by returning the nation to its Biblical roots. The Response's website proclaims, "There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees." And in a video message Perry sent out this week, he noted, "I'm inviting you to join your fellow Americans for a day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our nation." Perhaps Perry should have clarified what sort of "fellow Americans" he meant, for at this event only Christians will be allowed to share the podium with Perry.

Since the event was first announced in early June, organizers have suggested that it would be a great opportunity to convert non-Christians. Now, they've gone even further: According to an email blasted out by The Response, only Christians will be permitted to speak at the non-denominational event. If representatives of other faiths (particularly Muslims) were to be included, the email noted, such inclusion would promote "idolatry." In a message sent out under The Response's official letterhead, Allan Parker, one of Perry's organizers, described the event in less-than-ecumenical terms:

This is an explicitly Christian event because we are going to be praying to the one true God through His son, Jesus Christ. It would be idolatry of the worst sort for Christians to gather and invite false gods like Allah and Buddha and their false prophets to be with us at that time. Because we have religious liberty in this country, they are free to have events and pray to Buddha and Allah on their own. But this is time of prayer to the One True God through His son, Jesus Christ, who is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

With this prayerfest, Perry is associating himself with rather radical folks. The American Family Association's issues director, for instance, has said that gays are "Nazis" and that Muslims should be converted to Christianity. Another organizer, Doug Stringer, has said that 9/11 was God's punishment for the nation's creeping secularism. And then there's Jay Swallow, whose endorsement is trumpeted on The Response's website, and who runs "A Christian Military Training Camp for the purpose of dealing with the occult and territorial enemy strong holds in America" (his description). Consequently, it's not much of a mystery why only one of the nation's other 49 governors has so far accepted Perry's invitation to attend the event (Perry invited all of them)—arch-conservative Sam Brownback of Kansas.

"I don't have to put my child in pageants now."

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 1:38 PM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

Meet Erin Rodriguez, the 31-year-old I've been living with in Ohio this month. Her husband, a state employee, got laid off the week before last, the source of a lot of worry around the couple's newly purchased first home, as well as the source of a sad running joke that their 11-month-old is going to have to enter beauty pageants to earn money. Erin got some news yesterday. I'll just let her tell you.