2012 - %3, July

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 3, 2012

Tue Jul. 3, 2012 10:45 AM EDT

Marines with Company G., Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, return from a patrol in Shoalwater Bay, Queensland, Australia. The Marines have set up in defensive positions in and around the simulated town of Raspberry Creek, in preparation for the advance of the Australian Army's 1st Brigade. The coming assault is one of the key battles of Exercise Hamel 2012, the multi-national training evolution between the Australian Army, US Marines, and New Zealand Army, serving as 1st Brigade's certification exercise. The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and is the nation's force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jonathan Wright.

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The Dog That Voted

| Tue Jul. 3, 2012 10:25 AM EDT

Hey, guess what? My piece about voter fraud in the latest issue of the magazine, "The Dog That Voted," is now out! The origins of the Republican crusade against voter fraud can be traced back to a lot of sources, but for all practical purposes it turns out that you can peg it to the 2000 election fiasco. Not the famous one in Florida, but the less famous one in Missouri, which produced three Republicans dedicated to pushing the cause of photo ID thoughout the country: John Ashcroft, the embittered U.S. senator who lost his reelection bid that night and went on to become George Bush's Attorney General; Kit Bond, Missouri's other senator, who went on to write the first-ever federal voter ID provision; and Mark "Thor" Hearne, who went on to become national counsel for the 2004 Bush campaign and then started up the American Center for Voting Rights, an organization funded by dark money and dedicated to spreading fear of vote fraud throughout state legislatures across the country. It was a lengthy campaign, but in the end it was a very effective one:

In retrospect, the campaign against voter fraud was long, patient, and strategic. Sen. Kit Bond got the ball rolling in 2002 when he made sure ID requirements were part of HAVA. In 2005, a commission on voting rights headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker III gave a bipartisan blessing to photo ID rules. Thor Hearne spent the following two years barnstorming the country with dramatic tales of voter fraud. Meanwhile, the Justice Department and the Bush White House browbeat US Attorneys around the country to crack down on voter fraud, even firing a handful (including David Iglesias, then the US Attorney for New Mexico) who apparently weren't zealous enough. And then, finally, the 2010 election brought new GOP majorities to 11 states—and with them a brand new wave of restrictive voting laws.

So: why are Republicans so obsessed with voter fraud? And how effective are photo ID laws at suppressing left-leaning votes? The answers to both of these questions are a little less obvious than you might think. But it's a fascinating story. Check it out here.

Louisiana Gives Us a Taste of Mitt Romney's Education Policy

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 9:06 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore has been sounding the alarms over Mitt Romney's education proposals for a couple of months now, and I keep meaning — but somehow forgetting — to link to his posts about this. It's probably all part of my love-hate relationship with education policy in general. But today he's got another post up on the subject, so let's take a look. He's riffing on a TPM piece about the kudzu-like growth of Bobby Jindal's voucher program in Louisiana:

In heading his state in the direction of universally available vouchers rationalized by public school failure, Jindal is not, of course, holding any of the private school beneficiaries accountable for results, or for common curricula, or, it appears, for much of anything. A big chunk of the money already out there is being snapped up by conservative evangelical schools with exotic and hardly public-minded curricular offerings, with the theory being that any public oversight would interfere with the accountability provided by "the market." So if you want your kid to attend, at public expense, the Christian Nationalist Academy for Servant-Leader Boys & Fecund Submissive Girls, that's okay by Bobby.

Does that last sentence sound a wee bit unfair? Well, here's a Reuters report from a few weeks ago about where kids with vouchers are actually likely to end up:

The top schools [] have just a handful of slots open....Far more openings are available at smaller, less prestigious religious schools, including some that are just a few years old and others that have struggled to attract tuition-paying students.

The school willing to accept the most voucher students — 314 — is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.

....At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains "what God made" on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution. "We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children," Carrier said.

But let's not be too hasty. If these kids are doing well, maybe we shouldn't care if they get their lessons from DVDs liberally sprinkled with Bible verses. The problem is that while public schools — and, increasingly, public school teachers — are being held rigidly accountable for their students' test scores, most voucher schools aren't. Here's the Louisiana Budget Project:

Louisiana requires almost no accountability from voucher schools....While voucher students are required to take the same assessment tests as public school students, there are no penalties for private schools if they fail to measure up to their public counterparts. In fact, Gov. Jindal vetoed language in a 2011 appropriations bill that would have removed participating schools if their students’ scores lagged those in the lowest performing schools in the Recovery School District, which incorporates most New Orleans public schools.

So if public schools have lousy test scores, they're failures and their students all get vouchers. But if the private schools have lousy test scores, then....nothing. Presumably the magic of the free market will fix them up.

And maybe it will. But this has always been the Achilles' Heel of the voucher movement: its virulent opposition to holding private schools to the same standards as public schools. In some places this means not requiring students to take standardized tests at all, while in other places — like Louisiana — it means requiring the tests but not using them to evaluate how well schools are doing. In other words, they want taxpayer dollars without being accountable to taxpayers.

To the best of my knowledge, research on school choice remains inconclusive. Some studies show benefits from voucher and charter schools, others don't. Part of the reason for this is that test data on voucher schools just isn't always available, largely thanks to lawmakers who are afraid of what it might show. So if Mitt Romney plans to adopt vouchers as his main education proposal — and he does — it would be nice to hear a little bit about accountability from him to go along with it. Unfortunately, because the true core of the voucher movement is made up of social conservatives who just want taxpayer help sending their kids to Bible schools and consider "accountability" to be a code word for an assault on religious freedom, he's not likely to do anything of the sort.

Still-Terrible Virginia Ultrasound Bill Now in Effect

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 5:00 PM EDT

Virginia's invasive new ultrasound law went into effect on Monday, meaning women in the state now have get a medically unnecessary procedure and wait 24 hours before they can get a (legal, constitutionally protected) abortion.

There was major hubbub earlier this year when Virginia lawmakers debated the bill requiring all women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion. The majority of the outrage, however, was directed at the fact that the original version of the bill would have required women in the earliest stages of pregnancy—less than 12 weeks post-conception—to have a sonogram probe shoved up their vaginas in order to achieve the desired effect of producing an image of the fetus.

People flipped out once the transvaginal ultrasound bit hit the news, and the Republican lawmakers pushing the bill had to make the state-sponsored penetration part optional. While women in the state can now opt for the jelly-on-the-belly type of ultrasound instead (even if it doesn't produce the desired image), the new law is still burdensome, as my colleague Maya Dusenbery highlighted several months ago. Women aren't allowed to refuse the ultrasound, it's expensive, and the added procedure and waiting period both make it more difficult for women to follow through with the abortion. Moreover, abortion rights groups argue that the premise of the law—that women just need to see what's in their uterus, and maybe they'll rethink having an abortion—is condescending, at best. 

There's another problematic part of the law that Slate's Dahlia Lithwick pointed out back in February:

What’s more, a provision of the law that has received almost no media attention would ensure that a certification by the doctor that the patient either did or didn't "avail herself of the opportunity" to view the ultrasound or listen to the fetal heartbeat will go into the woman’s medical record. Whether she wants it there or not. I guess they were all out of scarlet letters in Richmond.

Critics of the law continue to draw attention to its problems even as it goes into effect. "The government should have no role in a woman's personal, private medical choices," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia in a statement on Monday. "This is between her, her family and her doctor. Women deserve our support and respect, not the government's will imposed upon them during a time of crisis."

72 Percent of the US Is Experiencing Dry or Drought Conditions

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 3:21 PM EDT

High Park Wildfire, Colorado: USDA via FlickrHigh Park Wildfire, Colorado: USDA via Flickr

The extreme weather that began in June (see Deanna Pan's MoJo coverage here) has rolled over into July.

Yesterday—only the first day of the month—was brutal enough to shatter 27 records and tie 24 records for the highest ever July temperatures (map below).

US monthly highest maximum temperature records set on 01 July 2012 NASA | National Climatic Data CenterUS monthly highest-maximum-temperature records set on 01 July 2012: NASA | National Climatic Data Center

More amazingly, the first day of the month also broke 6 and tied 11 records for the highest ever recorded temperatures on any date at sites in Georgia (Rome: 108°F), Kentucky (Barren River Lake: 108°F), North Carolina (Tapoco: 106°F), and South Carolina (Grnvl Spart Intl Ap: 107°F).

Extreme drought conditions fueling heatwave and wildfires: NOAAExtreme drought conditions fueling heat wave and wildfires: NOAAPart of what's fueling the insane heat are the same extreme drought conditions feeding the wildfires out west. (Tim McDonnell's MoJo wildfire explainer here.)

As you can see in the map above, 72 percent of the lower 48 is now classified as experiencing dry or drought conditions. And don't expect things to get better soon. 

 

July to September temperature and precipitation predictions (click for larger version): NASA | Climate Prediction CenterJuly to September temperature and precipitation predictions (click for larger version): NASA | Climate Prediction CenterNOAA's Climate Prediction Center's drought monitor (above) shows drought, plus anomalously high temperatures, persisting for the next three months. 

Only the Pacific Northwest is expected to harbor below normal temperatures. Seattle, expect a tourist boom.

500 mb chart for 0700 30 June 2012. As high temperature dome slides into the Southeast another is developing in the Southwest:Note that another dome of high pressure is developing in the southwest again: NOAA500 mb chart for 0700 30 June 2012: NOAA The good news is that the high-pressure ridge that brought so much misery to the eastern US is slowly sliding westward.

The bad news is that another one is building behind it in the Southwest.

Heat index: NOAA via WikipediaHeat index: NOAA via Wikipedia

Making matters worse, the extremely high temperatures in the East are abetted by extremely high humidities. Aberdeen, Mississippi suffered 104°F temperatures yesterday. But its dewpoint of 84° at 3 pm made for a heat index (air temp + relative humidity) of a paralyzing 136.

 Sea surface temperatures anomalies on 02 July 2012 (click for larger version): NOAASea surface temperature anomalies on 02 July 2012 (click for larger version): NOAA

As you can see in this map of global sea surface temperature anomalies, the ocean is considerably warmer than average in most of the Gulf of Mexico, and scarily above average off the Eastern Seaboard. That's like gasoline to the flames of humidity.

(Note also the Mediterranean's crazy hot water temps and correlate with Spain's epic heat and wildfires currently underway.)

Tropical Storm Debby rainfall totals: NOAATropical Storm Debby rainfall totals: NOAAThe only force that's likely to cool off US waters off anytime soon is a tropical cyclone.

The waters around Florida are currently cooler than average (see sea surface temps map, above) thanks to the devastation of Tropical Storm Debby last week.

Fire and brimstone? Or flood and havoc? Doesn't seem to be a whole lot of comfortable middle ground anywhere these days.

Walking Out on Congress

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 3:17 PM EDT

Gregory Koger comments on the fact that most Democrats didn't actually vote against the Republican contempt resolution aimed at Eric Holder last Thursday. Instead, they simply walked out:

The nice thing about this tactic is that it is a suitable response to the situation the Democrats found themselves in. The contempt resolution stank of politics (the inquiry was not into the Fast and Furious operation per se, which began during the Bush Administration, but Holder's response to the scandal), so Democratic opposition was a natural response. However, the National Rifle Association was "scoring" the vote, so a "nay" vote would downgrade Democrats on the NRA's year-end evaluation. Nonvoting solves both problems: it expresses not just disapproval, but disrespect for the proposal of the majority party and the legitimacy of the proceedings. At the same time, it gives conflicted members some latitude for how they explain their position. And, depending on how the NRA scores nonvoting on this roll call, it may enable them to avoid a downgrade on their annual NRA score.

I doubt very much that the NRA will cut anyone some slack on this, especially since the abstainers were all Democrats. Nonetheless, I'm surprised minority parties don't do this more often. Not frequently, mind you: voting records are important for most of them, and they want to have solid evidence that they were on the right side. But on the occasions when it's appropriate to register some contempt of your own over legislative kabuki, walking out is a pretty good way to do it if you know beforehand that you're going to be on the losing end anyway.

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Government Secrecy Costing Even More Money These Days

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 3:16 PM EDT
"Psst! When are we launching those covert ops, again?"

$12 billion is a lot of money. $12 billion can buy you one NFL lockout, the most expensive house in the world (twelve times over), or a month's worth of occupying Iraq.

It's also the amount the Obama administration spent to keep government information classified in 2011.

Via the Federation of American Scientists, citing figures reported last week by the Information Security Oversight Office:

The estimated cost of securing classified information in government increased last year by at least 12% to a record high level of $11.36 billion. An additional $1.2 billion was spent to protect classified information held by industry contractors...The ISOO report breaks down the expenditures into six categories (personnel security, physical security, etc.). But it does not provide any explanation for the rapidly escalating cost of secrecy...While some essential security costs are fixed and independent of classification activity, the failure to rein in classification and especially overclassification is a likely contributor to marginal cost growth.

For 2010, the ISOO put the total secrecy price tag at around $10.17 billion, a 15 percent increase from 2009. The 2010 and 2011 estimates are lowball numbers, though, because the ISOO reviews the classification of 41 agencies, but not the CIA and NSA, among others. (For certain intelligence agencies, the act of classifying is itself classified, so wrap your head around that.)

The ballooning financial cost of classification is more or less in lockstep with how the "most transparent administration ever" conducts business with regards to national security matters. When taken together with the Obama administration's Xeroxing of Bush-era State Secrets policy—and its unprecedented clampdown on leaks and whistleblowing—it's surreal to look back on what the president said on, for instance, his second day in office:

The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, that it should not be disclosed. That era is now over.

It's safe to say that it is long past due to officially declare the Obama era a transparency #fail.

Mississippi's Lone Abortion Clinic Can Stay Open, For Now

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 2:29 PM EDT

On Sunday, a federal judge in Mississippi issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state from enforcing new regulations on abortion clinics. The ruling will allow the Jackson Women's Health Organization, Mississippi's lone abortion clinic, to stay open for now.

The restraining order temporarily blocks a new law requiring doctors at the Jackson clinic to have admitting privileges at a local hospital in order to continue performing abortions. CNN reports:

The judge's order blocks enforcement of the law at least until the next hearing on the matter, which is scheduled for July 11.

"I'm jubilant," said Diane Derzis, clinic owner and president. "It means the constitutional rights of women to make their decision, for the time being, is in place."

The law in question is one of several types of regulations that abortion-rights advocates often refer to as "TRAP laws," short for "Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers." These are laws that only apply to abortion clinics and are designed to make it difficult for them to continue operating.

Although the Mississippi law might not seem like a big deal on its face, it threatened to make it impossible for women in Mississippi to obtain a safe, legal abortion. Only in-state doctors can get admitting privileges at the hospitals near the Jackson clinic, but most of the doctors who work at the clinic commute from out of state. Even if they moved to Mississippi, the doctors at the Jackson clinic would also have to send a certain number of patients to the hospital each month—and obstetricians/gynecologists working at a family planning clinic don't usually have any reason to admit a woman to the hospital. The Jackson clinic already has a patient-transfer agreement with a local hospital for the (very rare) cases in which there's some sort of complication that requires a woman to be admitted to a hospital.

In general, getting hospital admitting privileges can be difficult for abortion doctors, because it often means they have take on hospital rounds or be otherwise available for the hospital. And many hospitals, including two out of the three in the Jackson area, are affiliated with religious organizations, which don't usually have much interest in helping a doctor who provides abortions. 

At least eight states have a law like the one in Mississippi, according to the Guttmacher Institute. But although lawmakers in other states often claim these bills as efforts to ensure that women seeking abortions are able to get them in a safe place, Mississippi lawmakers weren't shy about declaring that their goal was to end abortion in the state.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the Jackson clinic in court, issued a statement on Sunday evening cheering the latest development, but noted that the "battle is far from over," since they will be back in court on July 11 seeking a permanent injunction against the law.

Conservatives Still Freaking Out Over Roberts' Vote

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 1:05 PM EDT

Chief Justice John Roberts shocked conservatives last week when he rescued the Affordable Care Act by voting with the high court's Democratic appointees to uphold the individual mandate—the part of Obamacare that requires Americans to buy insurance or pay a fine—as constitutional under the federal government's power to tax. Roberts' decision has set off a frenzy of punditry speculating on Roberts' inner motivations, fueled in part by a report from CBS News' Jan Crawford that suggests the Chief Justice buckled to political pressure.  

There were countless news articles in May warning of damage to the court - and to Roberts' reputation - if the court were to strike down the mandate. Leading politicians, including the president himself, had expressed confidence the mandate would be upheld.

Some even suggested that if Roberts struck down the mandate, it would prove he had been deceitful during his confirmation hearings, when he explained a philosophy of judicial restraint.

It was around this time that it also became clear to the conservative justices that Roberts was, as one put it, "wobbly," the sources said.

Crawford's report, while extremely interesting, relies on a bit of mind-reading by her sources, several of whom assume the Roberts caved because of public opinion. The reaction to the story and to Roberts' decision in the right-leaning media has been harsh. The American Spectator accused Roberts of committing "constitutional treason," conservative media maven Matt Drudge suggested Roberts' mind was addled by epilepsy. At National Review, Avik Roy concluded that "the bottom line, if Jan Crawford is right, is that conservative justices can be blackmailed by left-wing editorialists." At the libertarian Reason magazine, Peter Suderman writes that "if the story and its speculation about the reasons behind Roberts' switch are true," then Roberts flipped his vote "because prominent Democrats and liberals threatened to throw a temper tantrum if he didn't vote the way they wanted."

Meanwhile, former Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times noticed that conservative pundits started complaining about the liberal media putting "the squeeze to Justice Roberts," about a month ago. According to Greenhouse, that evidence suggests the possibility that conservative clerks or other individuals with knowledge of the court's deliberations leaked news of Roberts' heresy to conservative pundits, who then waged their own campaign to pressure Roberts into changing his vote.

All of this points to the reality that the court, although not merely a partisan institution—ideology and personal motivations play roles as well—is highly partisan. When liberals assumed the mandate was going to be struck down, they wailed about the loss of the court's legitimacy—James Fallows of the Atlantic suggested that a "coup" had taken place. Conservatives responded with mockery: Yuval Levin at National Review wrote that "these people are actually saying that any outcome except the one they want must be driven by an outcome-oriented political crusade." Now conservatives, furious they didn't get the ruling they wanted, are basically saying the same thing Fallows did. Most of Justice Roberts' conservative defenders aren't claiming he was objective and impartial—they're praising his cleverness for supposedly securing a "stealth victory" for conservatives by limiting the federal government's ability to pass new laws under the Constitution's Commerce Clause. I don't know why Roberts switched his vote, or even if he switched his vote, but it's clear many conservatives are angry he didn't behave like a proper member of the team. 

There's something valuable to society in insisting that judges not be partisan figures and interpret the law and the Constitution objectively. But the entire conservative legal movement since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion has been devoted to packing the courts with judges who would rule the way conservatives wanted. Conservatives have been incredibly effective in presenting their legal views as the "correct" ones, but the reality is that conservative views of the Constitution are no less ideological than liberal views of the Constitution. The excuse that this is ideology rather than partisanship doesn't wash—legal ideology tends to track very closely with the partisan preferences of political parties.

No one exemplifies the lack of daylight between partisanship and ideology better than John Yoo, the Bush-era Justice Department official who has joined his conservative colleagues in bashing Roberts. Yoo advises the next Republican president to appoint justices who are like "Scalia or Thomas or Alito, not Roberts." In 2004, discussing the perpetually fence-sitting Republican appointee Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Yoo asked, "if you're just switching back and forth all the time, if you're in the middle all the time, are you really being a judge[?]" 

Conservatives want their judges to consider themselves card-carrying members of the conservative movement, and at the same time they want those judges' rulings, when handed down, to be treated with unquestionable legitimacy even by those who disagree with the decisions. When those judges diverge from the goals of the movement, they are pilloried as though they were heretical senators or members of Congress, conservative angish only magnified by the knowledge that the infidels cannot be knocked back in line by a competitive primary. Having excoriated liberals for calling the court partisan, conservatives are now gnashing their teeth because the court failed to be as partisan as they wanted. That makes the complaints about politics supposedly driving Roberts' decision ring hollow. They wanted politics to drive the decision. They just wanted it to go their way. 

Obama and Romney Are Both Raising Money from Americans Overseas

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 12:55 PM EDT

The post on the right was put up on Saturday morning by Andy McCarthy over at National Review's group blog, The Corner. It is untrue. As my colleague Tim Murphy reports, Obama will spend the Fourth, his daughter Malia's birthday, throwing a party on the White House lawn for military families.

And yet, more than 48 hours later, it's still up without any correction. At least, no correction that I can see. Surely National Review can at least bring itself to post simple corrections to simple factual errors?

In any case, if you're curious about where this comes from, check out Tim's piece. In a nutshell, both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign hold fundraisers overseas because lots of Americans live overseas. The Obama campaign is hosting events in Paris and Geneva, while the Romney campaign is hosting events in Hong Kong and London. All kosher, all above board. Nothing to get in a tizzy about.