2012 - %3, March

WH Official on Birth Control Backlash: "I Didn't Think It Would Be This Controversial"

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Ahead of the two-year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act this Friday, the White House hosted a briefing with senior officials to tout the benefits the law has had for women so far. It was notable in light of the most recent health care reform related dustup over coverage of contraception.

Deputy chief of staff Nancy-Ann DeParle and deputy assistant to the president for health policy Jeanne Lambrew rattled off the law's many accomplishments—including the coverage of preventative services, the removal of lifetime limits on benefits, and an end to gender-based rate differences.

I asked if the Obama administration thinks the fight over contraception coverage in recent weeks has been advantageous.

"I guess I think that it does help to highlight the differences in approach," said DeParle, though she noted it wasn't a fight the White House sought out. The administration was simply following the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine on preventative care for women. "I'm shocked, honestly, at how much difference there is. It really surprised me. I didn't think it would be this controversial."

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WATCH: What's Fox News' Beef With David Corn's "Showdown"?

Wed Mar. 21, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Mother Jones' DC bureau chief David Corn joined Martin Bashir on MSNBC to discuss Corn's new book, Showdown, which gives an inside account of Obama's battles with the GOP, starting with the game-changing 2010 midterm elections and ending with the beginning of the 2012 campaign season. Corn also addresses the controversy that's developed over his claim in Showdown that Fox News promoted the idea that Obama is Muslim to its viewers.

Also, don't miss excerpts from Showdown about the inside story of the tense White House night during the bin Laden raid and Obama's plan to win reelection in 2012.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Revolving Door: Romney Ag Team Edition

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 4:55 AM EDT

For the casual observer like me, it's hard to make sense of the GOP presidential primary, what with all the crazy talk and the recurrent Santorum surges. But people who follow these things closely tell me that despite the chaos, Mitt Romney will likely emerge as the nominee.

That means it's time to start contemplating what a hypothetical President Romney might get up to on food and agriculture issues. The embattled Republican front-runner hasn't expressed his views on ag policy. But just last week, Romney telegraphed his food-and-ag agenda by announcing his Agriculture Advisory Committee.  

Surprise, surprise: Big Ag interests rule the roost. Here are some highlights.

Attack No. 2 on "Showdown": Rush Can't Read?

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 4:10 AM EDT
There he goes again.

Did someone once call Rush Limbaugh an idiot? Whether or not that was a fair criticism, it's clear that the recently besieged, over-the-top radio talker lacks certain reading comprehension skills.

On his Wednesday show—and for the second time this week—he assailed my new book, Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party, a behind-the-scenes, narrative account of decision-making within the White House following the disastrous (for Democrats) 2010 midterm elections. And, once again, Limbaugh got it wrong.

His obsession remains a Washington Post article that details the collapse of the Grand Bargain deficit-reduction deal President Barack Obama attempted to strike with House Speaker John Boehner last summer. The Post article, in Limbaugh's feverish reading, fingers Obama as the culprit—and Limbaugh has been braying about this for days, insisting that the president killed those talks and Boehner was a stand-up guy. As Showdown notes (pp. 322-327), Obama did try to change the contours of the deal after Senate Republicans announced support for a debt package that included more revenues than Boehner and Obama were discussing. But Obama at that juncture offered Boehner the choice to ease up on entitlement cuts rather than add more revenues. And that was when Boehner bolted.

But that's not what's at dispute here. Limbaugh, referring to the book and my appearance today on MSNBC's Morning Joe, asserts—j'accuse!—that my version of events is completely at odds with the Post's account. He pounces on my exchange with Willie Geist when he asked me if Obama and Boehner were truly close to an agreement before the "third wheel"—that is, the tea party Republicans in the House—derailed the accord.

Indeed, they were, I replied, and recounted the story reported in the book (pp. 309-312) about moderate House Republicans coming to Boehner's office to warn him that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was telling House GOPers that Boehner had gone RINO—Republican in Name Only—in his dealings with Obama. These moderate Republicans, allies of Boehner, feared that Cantor was preparing to lead (or reap the benefits of) a House GOP mutiny. Get out, they counseled the speaker. Consequently, Boehner skedaddled, the talks undone by his fear of a tea party rebellion.

Not so, says Limbaugh, waving the Post article: the "Washington Post doesn't say anything like this." But Limbaugh misses one essential point. The Grand Bargain talks broke down twice. The account I related in response to Geist's question referred to the first time the negotiations fell apart. The Washington Post piece covers (in great detail) the second time the talks disintegrated, about two weeks later.

Limbaugh doesn't seem to understand this. (It's spelled out clearly in Showdown.) Instead, he conjures up conspiratorial notions involving a clash between "far left" media outfits (me versus the Post). He rants:

Now we have two versions of the same story that are at big variance with one another. We don't pretend to know what it all means yet. But one thing that is happening is that there's discord on the left over this whole thing, and for some reason a lot of people think that what happened in that debt deal last summer could come back to really bite Obama on his reelection. That has us scratching our head too.

But he apparently didn't scratch for for too long, because he's sure that he's grasped the bottom line: "They're trying to cover up what is apparent to all, and that is [Obama's] incompetence."

Being misread (and misconstrued) by Limbaugh is hardly akin to being called a slut, but this episode shows the guy can't keep a simple story straight. When he says he can't "pretend to know what it all means," that, apparently, is literally true.

Romney Changing His Economic Tune

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 6:41 PM EDT

Last month I noticed that Mitt Romney seemed to be changing his economic message. Instead of the economy sucks and it's Obama's fault, it had morphed into the economy's recovering but it would be recovering even faster if not for Obama. Today, Mark Barabak and Paul West of the LA Times suggest that this is a pivot that's here to stay:

Mitt Romney entered the presidential contest as Mr. Fix-It, saying his business know-how was precisely what could rescue the struggling economy from its deep and devastating slump....But after months of steady job growth, improved consumer confidence and big gains on Wall Street, the economy seems in less dire need of fixing, and Romney has been forced to alter his message or risk seeming out of touch.

"I believe the economy's coming back," Romney said at a breakfast stop Monday in Springfield....But he gave absolutely no credit to President Obama — "the economy always comes back after recession" — and insisted the administration's policies had made matters worse and the recovery slower than it should have been.

....If the slow but steady improvement continues and Romney hangs on to become the GOP nominee, the choice presented to voters in the fall could rest on a pair of abstract arguments: one candidate saying he would have done better and the other insisting things could have been worse.

Maybe Romney doesn't have a choice, but this is a tough message. The true believers will truly believe, as always, but will anyone else? If the economy really is improving, it's not very convincing to say "Yeah, but I could have done even better." It bodes ill for Romney that he's apparently decided this is his best shot.

Mitt Wins! Mitt Wins! (Nothing Changes)

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 6:33 PM EDT
Mitt Romney.

In his first major test since a pair of disappointing third-place finishes in Mississippi and Alabama, Mitt Romney crushed Rick Santorum in Tuesday's Illinois primary, adding to his already considerably delegate lead and placing him closer to the GOP presidential nomination. 

For Romney, that's the good news. The bad news is that this whole process isn't going to end anytime soon.

Addressing supporters in Gettysburg—yes, really—Santorum framed this election once more as the most important since 1860 while attempting to spin his poor performance for the best. "We're gonna win central Illinois, we're gonna win western Illinois," he said. "We won the areas where conservatives populate and we're happy about that." And then he took a shot at Romney, who just moments earlier told supporters in Illinois that "economic freedom" will be on the ballot next fall. "It all boils down to one word, and that's what's on the ballot in this election, and that's the word 'freedom,'" Santorum said. "I am pleased to see that Governor Romney is now adopting [that message]."

Romney and his affiliated super PAC, Restore Our Future, outspent Team Santorum 21:1 in the Chicago media market (where almost half the state resides) and 7:1 statewide. That mattered. Romney's lead over Santorum among Illinois primary voters grew in each of the polls conducted this month, from +4 to +6, +9, and eventually +15. The former Massachusetts governor's biggest victories during the 2012 race have been defined by his ability to significantly outspend his top opponent on the airwaves, and in Illinois, 74 percent of voters said campaign ads influenced their vote. (One small caveat: As Nate Silver points out, Romney's advertising advantage is still relatively tame compared to his expenditures in early states like Iowa.)

The night also reinforced what we already know: If Romney is, in fact, quite vulnerable, there's little to suggest that Santorum is capable of beating him. Despite casting himself as a candidate who can appeal to rural and rust-belt voters, Santorum got crushed in a state that has both in abundance. And he effectively handed the result to Romney before the polls even opened by failing to get his delegates on the ballot in four Illinois congressional districts. Santorum didn't make matters any easier with his own tactical decisions, opting to spend most of last week in Puerto Rico, ostensibly for the purposes of rounding up support ahead of the territory's caucus—which handed all 20 delegates to Romney.

Newt Gingrich, who led the field when Public Policy Polling surveyed Illinois in October, didn't even break single digits. He's done—but you already knew that.

The race may seem all but over, but it's not likely to end anytime soon. Santorum is the heavy favorite heading into Saturday's Louisiana primary, and a win there will only reinforce the notion that Romney can't win Southern voters. The ex-senator is also a heavy favorite in next month's big Pennsylvania primary. Romney, meanwhile, is continuing to waste money and resources he'd much rather be using on the general election. He spent more money than he took in over the last month. Get ready for more of the same.

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USDA Not Changing Policy on Environmental Review for Rural Loans

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 5:38 PM EDT

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the US Department of Agriculture was considering changing its policies on loans to home- and business-owners in rural areas to require environmental review on properties with oil and gas leases. The possible change would have subjected those properties to a thorough examination of the potential risks posed by fossil fuel extraction before the USDA granted loans—which could have been a very big deal in rural communities where hydraulic fracturing, a process used to extract natural gas from shale rock, has become an issue. But a statement issued by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday indicates that the department is not moving forward with those plans.

Currently, lands where an oil or gas company has a leases to drill are granted what's known as a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act, a law that requires environmental review on any federal projects. The article over the weekend indicated that USDA was considering requiring this NEPA review before granting loans and loan guarantees through the Rural Housing Service and the Rural Business and Cooperative program, two USDA efforts designed to help rural homeowners and businesses, respectively by providing low-interest loans. The USDA provides a total of $165 billion in loans and loan guarantees, and a lot of that money goes to states where oil and gas leases are becoming more common.

If the USDA did decide to enforce NEPA review on properties with oil and gas drilling leases, it would likely have had broad implications for anyone seeking a loan for property on that land, as it could affect property and resale values. It would have meant closer scrutiny of potential environmental impacts, and would have made it more difficult—if not impossible—to obtain these rural loans on leased land if the review cited major impacts, as the Times piece noted. 

Here's Vilsack statement on Tuesday, affirming that those properties will still be exempt from those reviews:

As indicated in previous statements, USDA will not make any policy changes related to rural housing loans. The information provided to Congressional offices on March 8, 2012 was premature and does not reflect past, current or future practices of the department.
Tomorrow, I will authorize an Administrative Notice reaffirming that rural housing loans are categorically excluded under the National Environmental Policy Act.

According to sources who have been following the issue in Washington, the possible change to require NEPA reviews was only a discussion draft and had not been approved by senior officials. The USDA did not respond to a request for further comment on potential concerns within the agency about these loans and enforcement of NEPA.

Environmental groups that have been following concerns related to fracking expressed disappointment on Tuesday about the USDA's decision not to enforce NEPA on these loans."We'd hope Secretary Vilsack would stand by the assessment of his colleagues at USDA who believe a full, thorough environmental review of these leases take place first," said Environmental Working Group spokesman Alex Formuzis. "The potential risks fracking poses to our land, air and water demands the government take the necessary precautions at its desposal when possible."

The Very Non-Serious Paul Ryan

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 2:05 PM EDT

Earlier this morning I said that since Paul Ryan's latest budget proposal caps revenues and cuts Medicare and Social Security only modestly, this means that "everything non-elderly gets whacked hard."

But what does that mean? Well, it turns out that the Congressional Budget Office has put a concrete number to "whacked hard" here. Medicaid and CHIP (children's healthcare) would decline from 2% of GDP today to 1% of GDP in 2050, and everything else — that is, everything other than Social Security and Medicare — would decline from 12.5% of GDP today to about 4% of GDP in 2050.

This is, to put it mildly, nuts. Defense spending alone amounts to 4% of GDP, and it's vanishingly unlikely that this will ever fall much below 2-3% of GDP. This means that all domestic spending will decline from about 8% of GDP to 1-2% of GDP by 2050. That's prisons, border control, education, the FBI, courts, embassies, the IRS, FEMA, housing, student loans, roads, unemployment insurance, etc. etc. It's everything. Whacked by about 80% or so.

This is not a serious plan. I don't care how serious Paul Ryan sounds, or how many numbers he spouts, or how many charts he buries us under. It's not serious.

While Few Noticed, Hawaiian Lizard Went Extinct

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 1:34 PM EDT

Copper-striped blue-tailed skink.: Credit: Chris Brown, USGS.

Copper-striped blue-tailed skink: Chris Brown, USGS. 

A species of lizard native to the Hawaiian Islands—the copper striped blue-tailed skink (Emoia impar)—is now officially extinct. The species was once common throughout the Hawaiian Islands and is still found on other island groups in the tropical Pacific.

But the last confirmed sighting in the state of Hawaii was on the Na'Pali coast of Kauai in the 1960s. Repeated field surveys between 1988 and 2008 on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawai'i yielded no evidence of their existence.

The authors of a new paper in the science journal Oryx write that this is a case of a cryptic extinction—that is, when a species easily confused with a similar species goes missing for decades and no one notices. From the paper:

The introduction and spread of a similar skink Lampropholis delicata across the islands appears to temporally follow the decline of Emoia impar, although there is no evidence of competition between these species. It appears that  Lampropholis delicata is spreading to occupy the niche vacated by the extirpated Emoia impar. Further confusion exists because the skink Emoia cyanura, which is very similar in appearance to Emoia impar, appears to have been introduced to one site within a hotel on Kaua'i and persisted as a population at that site for approximately 2 decades (1970s–1990s) but is now also extirpated. 

Big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala): April Nobile / © AntWeb.org / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala): April Nobile / © AntWeb.org / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

So what was the driver behind this extinction? It remains something of a mystery, though there are hints that predation by invasive ants was a factor. The authors write:

A review of the plausible causal factors indicates that the spread of the introduced big-headed ant Pheidole megacephala is the most likely factor in this lizard decline... This study highlights the cryptic nature of this early species extinction as evidence that current biogeographical patterns of non-charismatic or enigmatic reptiles across the Pacific may be the historical result of early widespread invasion by ants. 

 

Paul Ryan's Less Terrible 2012 Take on Medicare

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 1:26 PM EDT

As I recall, last year's version of the Paul Ryan voucher plan for Medicare basically amounted to mailing seniors a check each year to pay for health insurance. The value of the check went up at the rate of general inflation, which is much lower than the rate of medical inflation. Within a few decades, this means that the checks would cover no more than half or two-thirds of the cost of insurance, and seniors would be forced to pay huge sums out of pocket. Democrats were unamused.

But here's an interesting thing. A few months ago I linked to a Yuval Levin proposal for Medicare reform that basically told his fellow conservatives to put their money where their mouths are. If conservatives really believe that competition is the key to holding down costs, he said, then let's make Medicare competitive. Levin proposed that each year Medicare would define a minimum benefit level, and then providers in each Medicare region would bid for business. The traditional fee-for-service Medicare plan would be among the bidders, and the second-lowest bid would become the value of a voucher sent to each senior. You could pay more for a more generous plan if you want to, but at all times "there would be at least one option that would cost less than the Medicare benefit, and seniors choosing that option would get the difference back as cash in their pockets; [and] there would be at least one plan that cost the same as the benefit, so that seniors could obtain it with only the same out-of-pocket costs they have today."

At the time, I suggested that liberals might very well be OK with this idea. After all, it's pretty much how Obamacare works. Within the insurance exchanges set up by PPACA, providers engage in competitive bidding based on a minimum coverage package defined by the government. The size of the federal subsidy for low-income families is set at the value of the second-lowest bid.

So here's what's interesting: this is basically what Paul Ryan is proposing this year. He's not quite willing to trust the free market completely, so his proposal also includes a cap on cost growth that's equal to GDP plus 0.5%. This is similar to the growth cap mandated in Obamacare. I have a problem with using this same number for Medicare, however, because it doesn't contain the word "per capita," and the retirement of the baby boom generation is going to increase the number of Medicare beneficiaries at a higher rate than the rest of the population.

Still, it's a start. The basic competitive framework is worth a look. The growth rate formula is negotiable. The regulatory apparatus is negotiable too. It's not prima facie ridiculous.

Now, given the slowdown in Medicare growth over the past couple of decades, along with the cost controls that are already part of Obamacare, I'm not really in favor of adopting a plan like this. I think we should give Obamacare a chance to work instead. Still, Ryan's plan is a step in the right direction. I'll give him that.