2012 - %3, November

Republicans Getting Cold Feet on Entitlement Reform

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 11:02 AM EST

This cracks me up. We all know that in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, Democrats want some tax hikes and Republicans want some entitlement cuts. But what cuts do Republicans want?

A top Democratic official said talks have stalled on this question since Obama and congressional leaders had their friendly-looking post-election session at the White House. “Republicans want the president to own the whole offer upfront, on both the entitlement and the revenue side, and that’s not going to happen because the president is not going to negotiate with himself,” the official said. “There’s a standoff, and the staff hasn’t gotten anywhere. Rob Nabors [the White House negotiator], has been saying: ‘This is what we want on revenues on the down payment. What’s you guys’ ask on the entitlement side?’ And they keep looking back at us and saying: ‘We want you to come up with that and pitch us.’ That’s not going to happen.”

Well, of course they want the president to make proposals for both sides. Then they can reluctantly agree, and in 2014 run about a billion dollars worth of ads saying that Democrats raised your taxes and cut your Social Security.

This, of course, is yet more evidence that Republicans know perfectly well that cutting entitlements is unpopular. For some reason, however, they've lashed themselves to this particular mast, and now they have to figure out a way to wriggle out from beneath it. Their cunning plan is to make Democrats responsible for all the unpopular proposals and then paint themselves as the protectors of the middle class. But no matter what you think of Obama's negotiating skills, no one's a big enough idiot to agree to that.

Here in the real world, it's time for Republicans to put their cards on the table. You want to cut granny's Medicare? Let's hear your plans. If you want to cut the deficit in the medium term, that also means cutting benefits in the medium term, and that in turn means cutting benefits for current retirees. You can't use the old wheeze about leaving everything alone for everyone over 55.

The blowhard axis of the GOP has been complaining for weeks that Republicans would have won the election if only they'd stuck to Paul Ryan's guns on this stuff instead of muzzling him. Well, now they have a chance to find out. It's time to step up to the plate.

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Good Government Group: No Corporate Cash for Obama's Inauguration

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 10:50 AM EST
A screenshot of CNN's coverage of President Obama's first 2009 inauguration.

President Obama's second-term inauguration ceremony will take place on January 21, 2013, which is also the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic Citizens United decision. Citizens United freed corporations and unions to spend money from their treasuries directly on politics, and opened the door for the creation of super-PACs.

With that anniversary in mind, Public Citizen, the good-government group founded by Ralph Nader, is pressuring Obama to reject corporate donations to his inauguration ceremony. Public Citizen president Robert Weissman writes in a November 29 letter to Obama that the public would likely be left in the dark about which corporations gave money and states that there is a "very real risk of corruption" from letting corporations underwrite the ceremony. Weissman's letter comes after the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration is mulling whether to take corporate money for the inauguration. Obama banned corporate donations for his 2009 inauguration, and instead raised $50 million from hundreds of individual donors.

"The corporate donors to the inauguration will expect—and receive—something in return," Weissman writes. "The concern is less that they get a tax break in exchange for their million-dollar donation than that they get better access—their calls returned faster, their proposals reviewed in a more favorable light."

If the inauguration needs to rely on private donors and not just public funding this time around, Weissman says, that outside money should come in the form of small-dollar donations from individuals.

If inauguration planners do break with the precedent set by the corporate-free 2009 inauguration, it wouldn't be the first time Democrats backtracked on this kind of issue. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters a year before her party's 2012 national convention that planners would not accept corporate money to put on the convention. But strapped for cash, convention planners ended up taking millions from corporations anyway, breaking their pledge.

Read Weissman's letter to Obama urging a ban on corporate inauguration money:

Public Citizen letter to President Obama on corporate inauguration donations

Will Congress End Indefinite Detention of Americans?

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 10:01 AM EST

Will Congress prevent American citizens from being subject to indefinite military detention? A bipartisan group of senators have crafted an amendment to the latest defense bill that they believe will do exactly that. 

"The federal government experimented with indefinite detention of United States citizens during World War II, a mistake we now recognize as a betrayal of our core values," said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) Wednesday while introducing the amendment. "Let's not repeat it." Feinstein, who co-authored the amendment with Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has support not only from Senate Democrats Chris Coons (D-Del) Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) but also Republican Senators Rand Paul, (R-Ky) Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill). "Granting the United States government the power to deprive its own citizens of life, liberty, or property without full due process of law goes against the very nature of our nation's great constitutional values," Lee said. The amendment could be voted on as early as Thursday, but it'll still have to survive the House, where the GOP majority has scuttled similar efforts to prevent indefinite detention of Americans.

About a year ago, President Barack Obama signed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act promising not to use Congress' authorization of war against Al Qaeda to deny American citizens suspected of terrorism a fair trial by placing them in indefinite military detention. Senators, deadlocked over whether or not the Constitution allows such detention, agreed to adopt an amendment that left unaswered the question of whether Americans could be detained without trial. This year, Feinstein and Lee think their amendment blocking such detention for American citizens and legal permanent residents can pass. 

Not all civil liberties groups however, are supporting the effort. That's because they think anyone on American soil should be given a trial if accused of a crime, given that the Constitution protects "persons," rather than "citizens." The Feinstein-Lee amendment is "inconsistent with the constitutional principle that basic due process applies to everyone in the US," says ACLU legislative counsel Chris Anders. Not only that, but Anders worries that the amendment could be construed to actually imply that the government has the constitutional authority for such detention.  

The way the amendment reads now, a foreign visitor like Umar Abdulmutallab—the Nigerian who tried to explode a bomb in his underpants on a flight to Detroit several years ago—could still be subject to indefinite military detention. 

So why does Feinstein and Lee's amendment only apply to US citizens and legal residents? Becuase that's what could pass, Feinstein said Wednesday. While she could support extending the protection to any person apprehended on US soil, "the question is whether there is enough support in this body," Feinstein said. "I do not believe there is." 

NH Produces Weirdest Political Story of 2012, All Time

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 9:58 AM EST
New Hampshire state Rep.-elect Tim O'Flaherty (D)

Democrats won big on election night in New Hampshire. They held onto the governor's office, took back two seats in Congress, and won control of the state house of representatives. But for progressives, the victories went even deeper than that: At least four seats in the legislature went to activists with the Occupy Wall Street satellite, Occupy New Hampshire. Granite State progressive blogger Bill Tucker catches the group touting its success on Facebook: "We aren't going to reveal names, they can if they want. But we have 4 or 5 people who were very involved Occupiers, and another handful who were part of the network—either already Reps or newly elected. We got juice—or maybe just a little pulp."

How did this happen? It's largely a consequence of the state's uniquely enormous legislature. At 400 members (for 1.3 million people) it's the third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world, and you only need about a thousand votes to win a seat.

With the election wins, New Hampshire becomes the first state where Occupiers have secured an actual foothold in the political arena. But they're not the only group of ideological activists who are winning elections in the Granite State; they're following the trail already blazed by members of the Free State Project, the movement to repopulate New Hampshire with libertarians and slowly turn the state into a small-government (or no-government) paradise. As I reported in a piece for the magazine last summer, the movement has finally begun to make inroads in the state legislature, winning seats—while often keeping their affiliation under wraps—and then getting to work deregulating margarine and de-funding high-speed rail. As conservatives struggled statewide this November, the libertarians held their own. Free State Project president Carla Gericke announced:

Over the past eight years, FSP participants who have become state representatives went from zero to 1, to four, to 12-14 in 2010, to eleven this cycle. We only have 1,100 movers on the ground. With only 5% of our goal movers in NH, political FSP participants held onto the status quo while Republicans got trounced. Baby steps, people. It ain't called a "project" for nothing!

Take, for example, the case of newly elected Rep. Tim O'Flaherty, a self-described "anarchist" who ran as a Democrat and edged out Republican challenger Dan Garthwaite in a Manchester district. As it happens, both O'Flaherty and Garthwaite are supporters of the Free State Project. They're also roommates. The two rivals live at "Porc Manor," a Manchester home that's become a flophouse of sorts for Free States. (Supporters called themselves "porcupines" because they bristle only when provoked.) A 2009 landlord manual for Porc Manor offers tip for renting to Free Staters, noting that, for instance, "A lot of porcupines will frown on deposits, mostly because they feel their status as acknowledged defenders of property rights makes them immune to the reasons landlords require deposits."

Their living arrangement served as fuel for perhaps the most unusual storyline in any election this year, or maybe ever. As the Manchester Union-Leader's Mark Hayward explained:

In one of the more bizarre moments in the campaign, O'Flaherty wrote to Comedy Central's election Internet site to say he and Garthwaite are lovers, and the election would decide certain role-playing aspects of their relationship. (We're talking dominance and jackboots here.)

But O'Flaherty, who is gay, said he doesn't know Garthwaite well, and he made the comments to undermine his opponent with his Republican base.

No really, this actually happened. Here's what O'Flaherty told Comedy Central's Dan Poppy in an email:

Things were hot and heavy when Dan and I first met and we found ourselves living in the same boarding house. We have had some heated political arguments but I haven't been able to persuade Dan to turn from his Statist beliefs. Lately we've been looking for ways to keep things interesting in the bedroom and we've been exploring some roleplaying. Dan likes to play the cop/thug, forcing me to lick his jackboot.

I've become concerned recently that our roleplaying was counter-revolutionary and contrary to my anarchist principles. Violent revolt was a looming prospect but Dan (the consummate Statist and devout believer in the Democratic Faith) suggested we put the matter to a vote. We agreed we would both run for State Representative but on opposite sides of the ticket, the winner gets to choose his role to play in the bedroom.

Now voters in Manchester's Ward 5 will decide the outcome. If Dan beats me in the election his Statist domination will continue unchecked. If voters should choose me they will quite literally be saying "Fu*% the State(ist)." Please tell your readers to spew their vitriol on my Facebook page.

In his interview with the Union-Leader, O'Flaherty also floated an unusual hypothesis for his primary victory over former state Rep. Richard Komi: "He said Komi may have suffered from name problems; his name is similar to Joseph Kony, the Ugandan guerilla leader whose capture was encouraged by the Kony 2012 effort, a viral Internet video."

On November 8th, when the vote count in Manchester's Ward 5 was made official, O'Flaherty hopped on Facebook with a simple but deliberate message for his supporters: "Victory is mine!" He added, "It was the best $2 i've ever spent!"

And with that, New Hampshire may have finally outdone itself.

Your Couch May Be Killing You

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 6:08 AM EST

It's not your imagination, or a bad trip: Your couch could be trying to kill you.

A new study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that 85 percent of the sofas researchers tested contained flame-retardant chemicals that have been identified as carcinogens and potential neurotoxins. The stats were even worse for newer couches—those made after 2005: 93 percent of those contained chemicals that were either confirmed toxic or had not yet been tested adequately enough to know if they pose a risk. The chemicals accounted for as much as 11 percent of the weight of the foam in the cushions, they found.

Manufacturers use 3.4 billion pounds of flame-retardant chemicals in couches, insulation, carpet padding, and electronics every year to, in theory, prevent them from catching fire. But studies have found that the chemicals aren't actually effective and only make the fumes from fires more toxic.

"Petty much everyone in the country with a couch or a chair with foam have as much as a pound of a chemical like DDT or PCB in their home," Dr. Arlene Blum, the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a coauthor of the paper, told Mother Jones. "Most people think the government protects them, and that if something's in their couch it must be safe." (Blum's flame retardant work was the subject of an excellent New York Times profile in September.)

Twenty-four percent of the sofas tested positive for chlorinated Tris, a carcinogen banned from children's clothing back in the 1970s. While no longer in baby clothes, the chemical is still relatively common in mattresses and car seats and, as this study found, your couch. The researchers also found that some of the 102 couches they tested contained PentaBDE, a chemical that the United States phased out in 2004 because, as the EPA said, the chemicals are "persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment." But as the researchers note, most people keep their couches for an average of 15 years, meaning the older couches are still in many people's homes.

The real problem is that the chemicals don't stay in your couch. They end up in dust and air in your house, which is particularly problematic for children that crawl around on the floor. And for you, too, if you spend a lot of time on your couch or crawling around on your floor.

The researchers also note that it's hard to tell if your couch contains these chemicals. If it has a label noting that it meets California's standards for flammability of upholstered furniture—that it can resist bursting into flames for 12 seconds—then it most likely does have a bunch of chemicals in it. But 60 percent of the couches they tested that didn't have those labels still contained the chemicals.

All of this raises interesting questions about what you should do with your couch. Blum tossed her chemical-laden furniture years ago, when she found out that she had 93 parts per million of toxic chemicals in her home, which was pretty high. After four years without the toxic furniture, she's is now down to 3 parts per million. The Green Science Policy Institute's primer on "cancer-free couches" is a useful place to start if you want to know more.

African Lions Move Closer to US Endangered Species Act Protection

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 6:08 AM EST

This story first appeared on Scientific American's Extinction Countdown blog.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that African lions (Panthera leo leo) may deserve protected status under the Endangered Species Act. The decision, published November 27 in the Federal Register, comes in response to a petition (pdf) filed in March 2011 by five conservation groups that argued that American hunters pose a major threat to a species that is already in serious decline.

African lion populations have declined by about 50 percent over the past three decades. Current estimates put the total number of the big cats at fewer than 35,000.

Trophy hunting hardly poses the greatest threat to lions—which also suffer from habitat loss, the bushmeat trade, exotic diseases, conflict with livestock farmers and the often illegal trade in lion parts for use in traditional medicine, most of which is fueled by poaching and smuggling—but when you add up the numbers, hunters do have a significant impact on the big cats. According to data gathered for last year's petition, more than 7,000 lion body parts were traded internationally between 1999 and 2008 for recreational trophy hunting purposes, representing more than 5,600 lions. The vast majority of those trophies were imported into the U.S. by, or on behalf of, American hunters.

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Short Takes: "Bidder 70"

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 6:08 AM EST

Bidder 70

GAGE AND GAGE PRODUCTIONS

73 minutes

In the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, Utah college student Tim DeChristopher was angry about the ravaging of public lands by drilling companies, so he monkey-wrenched a federal oil lease auction, bidding $1.8 million for drilling rights with no intention of paying. Facing 10 years in federal prison (and ultimately receiving 2), DeChristopher became an overnight cause célèbre. In Bidder 70, a husband-and-wife documentary team delves into DeChristopher's personal history and taps a roster of activists, scientists, lawyers, and politicians to explore how civil disobedience plays into the modern environmental movement.

This review originally appeared in our November/December issue of Mother Jones.

Quick Reads: "The Injustice System" by Clive Stafford Smith

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 6:08 AM EST

The Injustice System: A Murder in Miami and a Trial Gone Wrong

By Clive Stafford Smith

VIKING

Accused of a sensational double murder in 1986 Miami, Trinidadian millionaire Kris Maharaj seemed destined for death row, and ended up there thanks to a conviction-hungry prosecutor and a hapless defense attorney (now a circuit court judge). This memoir, which reads like a true-crime thriller, describes how defense lawyer Clive Stafford Smith got his client off death row by uncovering brazen misconduct, both judicial (one judge actually solicited a bribe from the defendant) and prosecutorial (withholding evidence). It also turned out that the murder victims, presented in court as upright businessmen, had been laundering cash for a drug cartel, and skimming off the top. Smith's account leaves us utterly convinced of his client's innocence and delivers a powerful indictment of the system we rely on for justice.

This review originally appeared in our November/December issue of Mother Jones.

Et Tu, Susan?

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 11:35 PM EST

The Washington Post reports on the latest in the Republican jihad against Susan Rice:

Even moderate Republican and onetime Rice supporter Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) declined to offer her backing after their 75-minute private session Wednesday....Collins told reporters she was “troubled” that Rice had “decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign” by appearing on five political talk shows to present the administration’s position.

Et tu, Susan? It's deeply depressing that even Susan Collins is endorsing this idiocy, and doing it with such transparent BS. I mean, her complaint is that Rice's mere appearance on the Sunday talk shows was somehow inappropriate? Seriously? She couldn't be bothered to invent anything more plausible than that?

The Post story suggests that nominating Rice "could cost the White House valuable goodwill with Republicans," but honestly, it's hard to see how. If you actually parse what they're saying about Rice, there's literally nothing there. They're simply rephrasing perfectly ordinary actions to make them sound somehow sinister. If even the moderates have decided to go along with this shabby travesty, it means there's not currently even a shred of goodwill among Republicans on this issue. It's hard to see how nominating Rice could reduce that any further.