2011 - %3, July

This Week in National Insecurity: Debtageddon Edition

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

While you were watching The Town on Blu-Ray the DC debt-ceiling drama, a lot happened in the national security sphere. In this installment: We're defenseless against default, would-be domestic terrorists do it wrong, a Russian diplomat rips red-staters, a Vets' Hall of Fame inducts...Rick Scott, a fighter jet has gremlins, and the DOD outputs an epic cyber fail.

The sitrep:

• Yes, going into a debt default could make America less safe. Kind of a dilemma for conservative hawks.

• A Planned Parenthood clinic was firebombed in Texas. Terrorism? Perhaps. Al Qaeda? No, because they probably know better than to use diesel in a Molotov cocktail.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 29, 2011

Fri Jul. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Third Platoon, Bravo Battery of the Automatic Battalion, 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery Regiment, light up the Zabul province night by firing illumination from their M777A2, 155 mm howitzer at suspected enemy movements from FOB Pasab, Zharay District, Zabul province, Afghanistan, July 20. (Photo by Sgt. Christopher McCann)

What the USDA Doesn't Want You to Know About Antibiotics and Factory Farms

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Reservoir hogs: According to peer-reviewed research, factory farms may be a "significant reservoir of resistant bacteria." Yum!

Here (PDF) is a document the USDA doesn't want you to see. It's what the agency calls a "technical review"—nothing more than a USDA-contracted researcher's simple, blunt summary of recent academic findings on the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant infections and their link with factory animal farms. The topic is a serious one. A single antibiotic-resistant pathogen, MRSA—just one of many now circulating among Americans—now claims more lives each year than AIDS.

Back in June, the USDA put the review up on its National Agricultural Library website. Soon after, a Dow Jones story quoted a USDA official who declared it to be based on "reputed, scientific, peer-reviewed, and scholarly journals." She added that the report should not be seen as a "representation of the official position of USDA." That's fair enough—the review was designed to sum up the state of science on antibiotic resistance and factory farms, not the USDA's position on the matter.

But around the same time, the agency added an odd disclaimer to the top of the document: "This review has not been peer reviewed. The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Department of Agriculture." And last Friday, the document (original link) vanished without comment from the agency's website. The only way to see the document now is through the above-linked cached version supplied to me by the Union of Concerned Scientists. [Note, added Sept. 23, 2011: the above link originally went to a cached version, which has since disappeared; so I uploaded a PDF version).

What gives? Why is the USDA suppressing a review that assembles research from "reputed, scientific, peer-reviewed, and scholarly journals"?

Rick Scott, Military Hero for a Day

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 5:59 AM EDT

Embattled Florida governor Rick Scott had to scuttle another one of his big plans yesterday. The plan was to create a Hall of Fame for the state's prominent military veterans—with him as an inaugural inductee.

Scott, a Navy vet (more on his service record in a sec), was joined on the list of inductees by exactly zero Medal of Honor recipients. Not Fort Lauderdale's local hero, Sandy Nininger, who died in hand-to-hand combat trying to keep the Japanese from overrunning the Philippines in 1942. Not Bud Day of Ft. Walton Beach, the "most decorated US service member since General Douglas MacArthur," who was a POW in Vietnam (and a Swift Boater during the 2004 election). Not Paul R. Smith of Tampa, who manned a machine gun to protect his company of 100 soldiers in the 2003 battle for Baghdad's airport—and who posthumously received the first Medal of Honor awarded in the Iraq war.

Who else was on the VIP list of Florida military heroes? Six former state governors who fought in the Civil War on the losing side. One, Abraham Allison, assumed office in 1865 when his predecessor realized the Confederate cause was lost and committed suicide. Allison then went into hiding, was arrested by federal troops, and served six months in prison for his role in oppressing the Sunshine State's slave population.

What Republicans Want

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 5:55 AM EDT
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Speaker of the House, addresses the nation about the debt ceiling crisis on Monday, July 25.

It's no surprise that political partisans tend not to like each other. Generally, though—with obvious and famous exceptions aside—the level of personal hostility on Capitol Hill has usually been kept down to manageable levels.

Until now. To a degree rarely seen in the past, Republican policymaking lately seems to have been driven at least as much by pure political venom as it has by ideology or interest-group pressure. House Speaker John Boehner certainly gets this. When he was trying to whip his troops into line to vote for his debt ceiling bill on Wednesday, his pitch was simple: "President Obama hates it. Harry Reid hates it. Nancy Pelosi hates it. Why would Republicans want to be on the side of President Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi is beyond me." That was enough for conservative firebrand Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.). Boehner's plan wasn't perfect, he said in a Facebook post, but "the fact Pelosi, Reid and Obama hate it doggone makes it perfect enough."

And it's not just the debt ceiling. Take cap-and-trade legislation to reduce carbon emissions. As recently as 2008, plenty of Republican leaders were for it. John McCain backed cap-and-trade, and so did Tim Pawlenty. Newt Gingrich even cut a commercial with Nancy Pelosi where he declared to the world that "our country must take action to address climate change."

But then Democrats introduced an actual cap-and-trade bill, and in the blink of an eye it got tarred as "cap-and-tax" and opposition became practically a litmus test for movement conservatives. Republicans couldn't run away fast enough. Gingrich's recent attempt to disown his own words was almost poignant, while Pawlenty's groveling has been all but cringe-inducing. "I just admitted it," he said. "I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, explain it away. I’m just telling you, I made a mistake."

In recent months this has metastasized into all-out war as House Republicans have bombarded a pending appropriations bill with amendments to roll back environmental rules:

Although inserting policy changes into appropriations bills is a common strategy when government is divided as it is now, no one can remember such an aggressive use of the tactic against natural resources.…The unusual breadth of the attack, explained Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), is a measure of his party’s intense frustration over cumbersome environmental rules.

“Many of us think that the overregulation from EPA is at the heart of our stalled economy,” Mr. Simpson said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Simpson's suggestion that the EPA is responsible for our parlous economic condition could hardly have been suggested seriously. It's just filler, the kind of thing that gurgles up from the recesses of a politician's mind because they have to say something when a reporter asks what's going on. Grist writer David Roberts gets closer to the truth when he points out that Republicans are even going after a Bush-era regulation that prevents the Defense Department from using fossil fuels that are dirtier than petroleum. The catch? Even the Pentagon doesn't want this rule repealed. "Repeal or exemption could hamper the department's efforts to provide better energy options to our warfighters," wrote Elizabeth King, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs.

No matter. Republicans want it repealed anyway. Why? Ideology is probably part of it, as is fealty to coal interests. But that's not the whole story. Repealing it just because it's something Democrats like seems to be part of it too. Welcome to the modern Republican Party.

Gut Check Time for John Boehner

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 12:29 AM EDT

The big news tonight is that John Boehner has shelved plans to vote on his debt ceiling proposal. Why? Because he couldn't round up enough Republicans to vote for it. A hardcore rump of tea party nihilists is now treating him the same way that he's treated President Obama for the past few months: rejecting every deal offered, regardless of how good it is or how much harm rejection will do to the country.

It would be easy to shed crocodile tears about this, but there's really nothing here to gloat about. It's just undiluted bad news if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Whether D-Day comes on August 2nd or — thanks to better-than-expected tax receipts — a few days after that, hardly matters. We're not only headed for unprecedented fiscal chaos when it comes, but we're taking a real risk of throwing the country back into recession too. Granted, that's the Armageddon scenario, and things might not turn out that badly in the end. But I'd just as soon not take the chance. Our economy is just too fragile to risk it.

But it's possible — barely — that there's some good news here. If Boehner can't get the tea partiers in the House to support his proposal, and if Harry Reid can't find 60 votes in the Senate for his, then pretty shortly they'll figure out that there's only one way to pass something: forge a compromise that can get substantial support from both Democrats and non-tea-party Republicans. Such a compromise is almost certainly available, and all it takes to get there is for Boehner to be willing to admit the obvious: the tea partiers just aren't willing to deal, period. They want to burn the house down so they can build something better from the ashes. They're insane.

So walk away from the tea partiers. Instead, strike a deal that a hundred non-insane House Republicans and 20 or 30 non-insane Senate Republicans can support. Add that to a majority of the Democratic caucus and you're done. You've saved the country.

It won't be as a good a deal as Republicans could have gotten a month ago. What's more, it would take some guts from Boehner, who might very well be jeopardizing his speakership if he does this. But it will save the country. Surely that's still worth something?

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The Cost of Healthcare Reform

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 5:46 PM EDT

CMS is a government agency that has long offended my OCD sensibilities because it stands for Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and really ought to be called CMMS. But today I'll link to them anyway. They've completed a new projection for total national health expenditures through 2020, and it's shown in the chart on the right. The green line shows the old projection and the red line shows the new projection after passage of the 2009 healthcare reform act. Basically, they expect a one-year spike in spending growth in 2014, when most of the law takes effect, followed by slightly lower growth for most of the rest of the decade.

So how does that work out? For the decade as a whole, CMS projected an annual growth rate of 5.7% pre-reform compared to 5.8% post-reform. To put that into dollars, it means that in 2020 our total spending on healthcare will be about $40 billion higher than it would have been without healthcare reform. So what do we get for that money?

In 2014, the Affordable Care Act will greatly expand access to insurance coverage, mainly through Medicaid and new state health insurance exchanges which will facilitate the purchase of insurance. The result will be an estimated 22.9 million newly insured people.

....Out-of-pocket spending is projected to decline by 1.3 percent as the number of people with insurance coverage increases and many services formerly paid for out of pocket are now covered by insurance....The newly insured are expected to consume more prescriptions because of substantially lower out-of-pocket requirements for prescription drugs.

Not bad for only $40 billion! 23 million more people will be covered, out-of-pocket spending will decline, and prescription drugs will be more widely available. All for less than $2,000 per person, which is a considerable bargain.

The White House, of course, thinks that ACA will reduce costs more than CMS suggests. You can read their argument here. But even if it doesn't, CMS is projecting a mighty small price for something that's going to benefit so many.

Debt Ceiling: Clueless GOPers Edition

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 5:18 PM EDT

A pack of rookie House Republicans went public on Thursday with their support for House Speaker John Boehner's retooled deficit reduction bill, which would trim spending by $917 billion over ten years in exchange for a short-term debt ceiling increase. But what stuck out at the freshmen's press conference wasn't their newfound support for Boehner's bill (some had been undecided until late). It was their inability to cite real-life facts to support their positions.

First there was Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He described the Boehner bill as a "win" for the American people, and for a country sagging under the weight of a $1.3 trillion deficit. That deficit, Kinzinger insisted, was President Obama's fault. After all, in 2007, under President George W. Bush, we had all the same corporate tax loopholes and tax rates that are in place now, and back then the deficit was only about $160 billion. Today it's more than eight times higher. And because Barack Obama is president today, that means the deficit clearly must be all his fault.

Holy wrong. As this New York Times graph highlights, the deficit skyrocketed under President Bush in 2008, as the government grappled with the bursting of the housing bubble and the financial meltdown—a crisis that goes unmentioned by Kinzinger.

Moments later it was Rep. Scott Tipton's turn to bash the Democrats. "They have no plan," he said. "They have no ideas." Well, that's not quite true. President Obama has outlined any number of ideas—cutting $4 trillion over 12 years, trimming defense and non-defense spending, even shrinking entitlement programs by $650 billion—over the past few months. To say Obama has no plan nor any ideas, as the GOP insists on doing, is so wrong it's laughable.

On went the boisterous speeches, with one GOP freshman even brandishing a piece of paper with the University of Notre Dame's famous "Play Like a Champion Today" slogan on it. After a while, the assembled rookies looked hot and ready to wrap. But not before a reporter asked about the Boehner bill's sure death in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"The Senate's gonna pass this thing!" Rep. Kinzinger yelled.

Never mind the 51 Senate Democrats and two independents who pledged to vote against it should it pass the House, or President Obama's promise to veto it. As White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's assured reporters today, Boehner's bill is "a political act that has no life beyond its existence in the House."

That didn't seem to bother Kinzinger, though, who stood there grinning alongside his fellow freshmen, all of them sweating in their suits and skirts before the biggest vote of their short political careers.

Quick Hit: Damn, Dirty (Smart) Apes

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 4:42 PM EDT

I've been strangely entranced/repulsed by the trailers for The Rise of Planet of the Apes, the Planet of the Apes prequel which explains how those damn, dirty apes got so smart in the first place. (Hint: it involves James Franco and DNA). This movie has everything I could want: San Francisco-centric plot, science experiments gone horribly wrong, people of color speaking with British accents, and did I mention James Franco?

It got me thinking: how smart are chimps anyway? Well, pretty smart. When raised by a human, chimp babies outperform human babies of the same age in IQ tests. As adults, chimps make and use spears to hunt. They are better than humans at some memory tasks and form complex social hierarchies. A new study this week showed that not only are they smart, they stay that way throughout their lives: humans, on the other hand, suffer brain shrinkage and dementia in old age. "Understanding differences in aging between humans and other primates may help scientists figure out why human brains are susceptible to age-related dementias," said one writer of the study.

Wait a second. If chimpanzees don't get Alzheimer's and their brains don't age, why is James Franco experimenting on them in Rise of Planet of the Apes? Studying their brains makes sense, but testing would be better done on an animal that actually develops Alzheimer's like mice, wouldn't you think? At any rate, chimpanzees have recently been trumped by orangutangs as the most intelligent non-human animals. Unlike chimps, orangutangs make little hats out of leaves to wear when it rains. They're almost entirely vegetarian and are pretty peaceful, in contrast to chimps who go on the occasional murder-spree. I guess chimps are a better fit for The Rise of Planet of the Apes, since our new orangutang overlords would probably just amp up habitat conservation and institute a fruit-based currency system. That sounds about as terrifying as a manatee-led revolution. That is to say, slow and gentle and not really fit for the silver screen.

Tea Party "Leaders" The GOP Should Ignore

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 2:50 PM EDT

The Washington media was buzzing Wednesday after the leaders of the Tea Party Patriots came to town and announced that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) deserved a primary challenge, along with any other Republican who voted to raise the debt ceiling. Mark Meckler, a national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, told the Daily Beast that Boehner's deficit plan was "an embarrassment." At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Meckler declared Boehner's numbers "fake" and "phantom."

It was an interesting choice of words, since they might also describe the number of tea partiers Meckler and his co-coordinator, Jenny Beth Martin, claim to represent. In the news coverage, Tea Party Patriots has been consistently identified has having at least 3,500 local chapters, making it one of the largest tea party organizations in the country. But many of those chapters are, to use Meckler's term, phantom, which raises the question of whether the GOP House leadership should really be paying quite so much attention to the noise coming from the tea party leaders working the media circuit right now.

Last fall, the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner tried to verify the TPP’s numbers. She attempted to run down every one of its local chapters. Out of the 2,300 chapters TPP then claimed to have, Gardner could only identify 1,400; of those, she was only able to make contact with 647. Most had fewer than 50 members, and some consisted of a single person. That's a fraction of the 15 million people TPP's leaders often claim to represent when they're on the Hill demanding that Republicans refuse to increase the debt ceiling. Which raises the question of why, exactly, Republicans are taking them so seriously.

There are other reasons to question the wisdom of Republicans taking economic advice from national leaders of the Tea Party Patriots and other top tea partiers in the news this week. Consider the fact that before riding the tea party movement to national fame, Meckler was a high-ranking distributor for Herbalife, a company considered by many consumer groups and regulatory agencies to be a pyramid scheme. After that, he got into "affiliate marketing," an industry responsible for all of those "tiny belly" ads haunting the Internet that the FTC says are a scam. His colleague, Jenny Beth Martin, also doesn't have a great track financial record. In 2007, she and husband lost their house and ended up owing the IRS more than $500,000 in back taxes.

In print and TV interviews this week, Martin claimed that the majority of her members thought Boehner should be replaced as House speaker. The comments went viral and led to plenty of media coverage about tea party intransigence. It also prompted an outcry from tea party leaders working at the state level in the trenches, many of whom have disassociated with TPP because of displeasure with their tactics. Billie Tucker, the founder of the First Coast Tea Party and an influential tea party activist in Florida, fired off an email to Martin expressing her dismay at Martin's claim to represent the entire movement when talking about Boehner. She wrote:

Jenny Beth: Who the heck is giving you guys advice and pr help?

Calling for Boehner to resign did nothing but create more chaos in a chaotic time in our country. The media will and has run with it as if the entire tea party "membership" thinks Boehner should resign.

Boehner may not be doing the best job BUT…the timing of your statement caused me to have to answer to the press for it. Next time you plan to make such a big, hairy, audacious statement, why not let us in on it beforehand so we can prepare for the attacks and maybe your highly paid PR firm could give us talking points too.

Martin's comments didn’t even dovetail with those of activists at a tea party rally held on the Hill yesterday during the debt ceiling negotiations. Most of the speakers, from a variety of tea party groups, were calling on the Senate to get behind the Boehner plan and also to push the speaker to call for larger cuts.

The Republicans should also not be too concerned about the saber rattling of Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, despite his landing a coveted spot on the Washington Post's op-ed page on Thursday bashing Boehner. The Tennessee-based Phillips is essentially a tea party of one. He is a prodigious blogger and occasional radio host who's advocated such things as limiting voting to property owners and warning that WASPs are on the verge of extinction

Few of the real tea party groups in his state will work with him because they see him as an opportunist. Last February, he borrowed $50,000 from a local businessman to help front the six-figure speaking fee for Sarah Palin to headline a tea party convention he organized in Nashville. Phillips charged attendees more than $500, prompting most of the larger tea party groups and even many within the state to boycott the event.

Last July Phillips tried again to host a tea party convention, this time in Las Vegas at the Palazzo Hotel. The event was first postponed to October and unltimately canceled entirely for lack of interest. Last week, the hotel sued Tea Party Nation for stiffing the hotel on more than $500,000 for the unused rooms he booked. Phillips, you could say, knows something about not paying the bills, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the kind of expert the GOP ought to be making policy around.

All of this is not to say there might not be a tea party movement out there poised to seek retribution should Republicans should they raise the debt ceiling. It's just that these particular folks you see on Fox News threatening to primary Boehner don't necessarily represent them.