Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 27, 2014

Thu Feb. 27, 2014 11:08 AM EST

A U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank, Company C, 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division stares off a camel during a bilateral exercise in the US Central Command area of responsibility, Feb. 19, 2014. The week-long military-to-military exercise fostered partnership and interoperability. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Marcus Fichtl, 2nd ABCT PAO, 4th Inf. Div.)

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Is This the Beginning of the End for Solitary Confinement?

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 8:10 PM EST

Minors, pregnant women, and the developmentally disabled can no longer be placed in solitary confinement in New York State prisons (barring exceptional circumstances) thanks to an agreement between the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the New York State Department of Community Corrections (DOCCS) on February 19. The agreement will require the state to develop sentencing guidelines and maximum isolation sentences for the first time, and will make it the largest US prison system to ban the use of disciplinary solitary confinement for minors.

The agreement came just days before Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for the end of the use of solitary for certain vulnerable individuals at a high-profile congressional hearing on Tuesday. The hearing featured testimony from activists, corrections officials, and former inmates, including Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman, who stated: "Solitary confinement impedes access to important pre-natal and women's health care services. In fact, pregnant women in solitary confinement often receive no medical care. And yet, pregnant prisoners in America are still sent to the SHU [Special Housing Unit]."

New York is not the only state taking steps toward solitary confinement reform. Last week, Colorado Department of Corrections executive director Rick Raemisch, who has committed to lowering Colorado's solitary confinement rate to less than 3 percent of the state's prison population, penned a New York Times Op-Ed about his own experience in willing isolation for a night. At an early February meeting of corrections professionals, Mike Dempsey, who runs the Indiana Department of Corrections' Division of Youth Services, discussed his state's reduction of juveniles in solitary confinement from 48 beds—with some minors serving 24-month sentences—to 5-10 with a maximum sentence of 24 hours. Earlier this month, California, home to last year's massive prisoner hunger strike, held a hearing on the use of solitary confinement—though ultimately prison advocates were unsatisfied with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's proposed regulations.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 26, 2014

Wed Feb. 26, 2014 11:18 AM EST

Recruits of India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, crawl through a simulated battlefield Jan. 24, 2014, as part of a combat training course on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. This course is part of Basic Warrior Training and develops recruits’ newly learned combat skills such as tactical communication and movement. While on Parris Island, recruits receive basic combat training skills that will be built upon throughout their Marine Corps careers. India Company is scheduled to graduate Feb. 14, 2014. Parris Island has been the site of Marine Corps recruit training since Nov. 1, 1915. Today, approximately 20,000 recruits come to Parris Island annually for the chance to become United States Marines by enduring 13 weeks of rigorous, transformative training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caitlin Brink/Released)

Corn on "Hardball": Why Is the Right Still Talking About Benghazi?

Tue Feb. 25, 2014 6:30 PM EST

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Alex Wagner about the Right's persistence on the issue of Benghazi, even after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a review of the attack that occurred more than a year ago. Could it be their silver bullet to keep Hillary Clinton from the White House?

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

Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Kal Penn Set to Appear at the White House's First Student Film Festival

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 6:05 PM EST

On Friday, the White House East Room is set to host its inaugural Student Film Festival. The winning entries, which include stop-motion animation and special-effects-peppered fare, were selected from over 2,000 submissions. The White House announced the contest for American students, grades K-12, last November, and put out a call for short films (three-minute max.) that demonstrate how technology is used in schools today and how it might change education in the future.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to make an appearance at the White House Student Film Festival—as are the following celebrities:

  • Bill Nye (the Science Guy), who has been on a pro-science, anti-creationism/denialism warpath lately. "I fight this fight out of patriotism," Nye told me last year. "[Nye has] been instrumental in helping advance some of the president's key initiatives to make sure we can out-educate, out-innovate, and out-compete the world," an Obama administration official said.
  • Kal Penn, the 36-year-old actor who served stints as associate director for the Office of Public Engagement in the Obama administration and delivered this speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He was at the White House Science Fair last year. He also wants to help sell you on Obamacare.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson, another friend of the Obama White House and science luminary.
  • Conan O'Brien, though unlike the previous three, he is not set to appear in person. He'll be sending a video address.

The film fest will also include a sneak peek at the Fox series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (the successor to the show that made Carl Sagan famous), which will be hosted by deGrasse Tyson and executive-produced by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow.

Click here to check out some of the White House honorable mentions in the festival. Here's one, titled "A Day In The Life of a Tech Nerd":

UPDATE, February 28, 2014, 7:04 p.m. EST: On Friday, Bill Nye posted the following photo of him, President Obama, and Neil deGrasse Tyson—a "Presidential Selfie" in Nye's words:

"So, an astrophysicist, an engineer, and the President of the United States walk into The Blue Room...." reads the caption on Nye's Facebook page.

Could the NFL Yank Arizona's Super Bowl Because of an Anti-Gay Law?

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 5:24 PM EST

A "religious freedom" bill that would allow discrimination against LGBT residents passed the Arizona Legislature and is currently sitting on Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's desk. Both of Arizona senators, the state's chamber of commerce, Apple, and American Airlines have all asked Brewer to veto the bill. Another critic, though, might have the biggest bargaining chip—and has shown the state before that it's not afraid to use it.

Arizona is set to host next year's Super Bowl, and the big game's host committee is not happy:

We share the NFL's core values which embrace tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination. In addition, a key part of the mission for the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee is to promote the economic vitality of Arizona. On that matter we have heard loud and clear from our various stakeholders that adoption of this legislation would not only run contrary to that goal but deal a significant blow to the state's economic growth potential. We do not support this legislation.

An NFL spokesman noted the league's anti-discrimination policy and said the league was "following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law." Would the NFL go so far as to move the country's biggest sporting event due to a social issue? History suggests that yes, it would.

The 1993 Super Bowl was supposed to be held in Tempe, but the league backpedaled in the midst of a controversy over celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then-Gov. Evan Mecham had abolished the state's MLK holiday, arguing it had been illegally created through executive order. A public vote on the holiday was scheduled for 1990, and players and NFL officials began to express their displeasure over playing the Super Bowl in a state that wouldn't honor King. "If there is a smear on the Martin Luther King holiday of any kind, I would personally lead the effort to rescind the Super Bowl," said then-Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, who was head of the Super Bowl site selection committee. "We wouldn't go there. How could anybody in his right mind go to play there?"

NFL officials made it clear that the state would not keep the Super Bowl if voters turned down the holiday, a move that infuriated Mecham, who called it "a shameful and disgusting attempt to blackmail this entire state." (Mecham, it should be noted, had earlier been impeached and removed from office on charges of obstruction of justice and misuse of government funds.) Arizona voters turned down MLK Day, and then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue took the Super Bowl away less than 12 hours later.

"I don't believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the NFL," Tagliabue said at the time. "I will recommend to NFL clubs that this Super Bowl be played elsewhere. I am confident they will follow the recommendation. Arizona can continue its political debate without the Super Bowl as a factor."

League officials said Arizona could host the big game in 1996 if the state approved the holiday by then. Voters complied, approving it in 1992.

Given that the NFL is expecting its first openly gay player next season, and considering anonymous team officials' comments on the matter, league administrators are likely hyperaware of the kind of publicity an Arizona-based championship would get if the state's anti-gay bill is signed into law. Perhaps most importantly, the state would lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars if the big game is moved elsewhere—just as it did in 1993. Multiple outlets reported Tuesday that Brewer was likely to veto the bill. As one source told NBC News, "She doesn't want to take any actions that could jeopardize the economic momentum we've seen here in Arizona."

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A GOP Lobbyist's Plan to Save America's Sons From Scary Gay Football Players

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 11:40 AM EST

A day after basketball player Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete to play in one of the country's big four pro sports, a DC lobbyist said he's working on legislation to keep gay players from ever following suit in the NFL.

Jack Burkman—whose lobbying firm, JM Burkman and Associates, pulled in $3.5 million last year—said he has garnered support for a bill that would ban gay football players from the professional ranks.

As the Hill first reported:

"We are losing our decency as a nation," Burkman said in a statement. "Imagine your son being forced to shower with a gay man. That's a horrifying prospect for every mom in the country. What in the world has this nation come to?"

Burkman said he came up with the idea after college football star Michael Sam came out as gay a few weeks ago. If drafted, Sam would be the first openly gay player in the NFL…

"If the NFL has no morals and no values, then Congress must find values for it," Burkman said.

(No word on what Burkman thinks about the four gay NFL players who came out after their playing days were over: Dave Kopay, Esera Tuaolo, Wade Davis, and Rod Simmons, who died Thursday.)

Publicity stunt aside, this isn't the first time Burkman has weighed in on gay rights. In February 2013, he took to his Radio America show, Behind the Curtain With Jack Burkman, to discuss the softening of the Boy Scouts' ban on gay members, lamenting how the "establishment media push[es] everybody around, forcing us all to accept homosexuality as just something natural." He continued: "Ladies and gentleman, if you have a son in the Boy Scouts, get him out. Get him out now."

Burkman, onetime counsel to former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), is no stranger to controversy. In 2006, he went on MSNBC's Scarborough Country and said that "within hours of those towers going down," the wives of the 9/11 victims "were ready to make money and exploit this tragedy." Then, in 2007, he was linked to the DC Madam.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 25, 2014

Tue Feb. 25, 2014 11:08 AM EST

Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, disembark a CH-46 Chinook helicopter during a squad competition at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., Feb. 12, 2014. The helicopter provided initial transport to the nearly 10-mile course, where squads then navigated the different obstacles on their own. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Charles Santamaria/Released)

Hagel's Pentagon Cuts Target Top Brass

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced major cuts to the Pentagon budget. If implemented, the proposal would shrink the Army to its smallest size since World War II. Tighter budgets, Hagel said, require a smaller force, though he maintained that a downsized military still "would be capable of decisively defeating aggression in one major combat theater—as it must be—while also defending the homeland and supporting air and naval forces engaged in another theater against an adversary."

The budget also targets personnel costs, with cuts to soldiers' housing allowances and commissary subsidies, as well as potential increases in health-care fees for the family of active service members. Hagel also proposed a one-percent pay raise in 2015, though pay for flag officers and generals would be frozen at current levels.

Those cuts take a small swipe at what's known as "brass creep"—the swelling ranks of generals and admirals who earn high salaries and retire with cushy pensions. Congress approved multiple raises during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but a look at base pay rates (what soldiers earn before add-ons like housing allowances and combat pay) shows that the wartime wages didn't trickle down the chain of command.

Any cuts that directly affect the rank-and-file (not to mention retired service members) will be unpopular. Yet they address the reality that even though three-quarters of the Pentagon's budget goes to hardware, contractors, and operations, an increasing amount is spent on the troops. While the number of Americans in uniform increased 3 percent during the past decade, the annual cost per person doubled, to around $115,000.

Though these Pentagon cuts are being described as major, Hagel and the president's proposed future budgets still exceed the limits put on the military by the suspended sequester cuts—which already kept defense spending at the level it was at during the height of the war in Iraq. The United States is in no danger of being knocked off its perch as the world's biggest military spender in the near future. There's much more on the battle to rein in the size of the post-9/11 military here.

 

 

Georgia Lawmakers Want to Allow Businesses to Kick Gay People Out of Diners

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 6:44 PM EST

Update, February 28, 2014: State representative Sam Teasley, the first sponsor listed on the bill, told Mother Jones that he has taken the controversial language out of the bill, so that it is now identical to the longstanding federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He wrote, "After introducing the bill, a number of citizens expressed concerns that the language could be construed in a way that might encourage discrimination. I do not believe that the bill as introduced does that. It was most certainly not my intent and frankly, as a man of faith, that would be inconsistent with what my faith teaches me. My faith teaches that all people, regardless of belief system, are to be treated with dignity and respect."​ The Senate version of the Georgia bill has reportedly been taken off of the calendar. 

A bill moving swiftly through the Georgia House of Representatives would allow business owners who believe homosexuality is a sin to openly discriminate against gay Americans by denying them employment or banning them from restaurants and hotels.

The proposal, dubbed the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, would allow any individual or for-profit company to ignore Georgia laws—including anti-discrimination and civil rights laws—that "indirectly constrain" exercise of religion. Atlanta, for example, prohibits discrimination against LGBT residents seeking housing, employment, and public accommodations. But the state bill could trump Atlanta's protections.

The Georgia bill, which was introduced last week and was scheduled to be heard in subcommittee Monday afternoon, was sponsored by six state representatives (some of them Democrats). A similar bill has been introduced in the state Senate.

The Georgia House bill's text is largely identical to controversial legislation that passed in Arizona last week. The Arizona measure—which is currently awaiting Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's signature—has drawn widespread protests from LGBT groups and local businesses. One lawmaker who voted for the Arizona bill, Sen. Steve Pierce (R-Prescott), went so far as to publicly change his mind. 

Georgia and Arizona are only the latest states to push religious freedom bills that could nullify discrimination laws. The new legislation is part of a wave of state laws drafted in response to a New Mexico lawsuit in which a photographer was sued for refusing to work for a same-sex couple.

Unlike similar bills introduced in Kansas, Tennessee, and South Dakota, the Georgia and Arizona bills do not explicitly target same-sex couples. But that difference could make the impact of the Georgia and Arizona bills even broader. Legal experts, including Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, warn that Georgia and Arizona's religious-freedom bills are so sweeping that they open the door for discrimination against not only gay people, but other groups as well. The New Republic noted that under the Arizona bill, "a restaurateur could deny service to an out-of-wedlock mother, a cop could refuse to intervene in a domestic dispute if his religion allows for husbands beating their wives, and a hotel chain could refuse to rent rooms to Jews, Hindus, or Muslims."

"The government should not allow individuals or corporations to use religion as an excuse to discriminate [or] to deny other access to basic healthcare and safety precautions," Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in a letter to a Georgia House Judiciary subcommittee on Sunday.

State representative Sam Teasley, the first sponsor listed on the bill, did not respond to request for comment Monday.

"The bill was filed and is being pushed solely because that's what all the cool conservative kids are doing, and because it sends a message of defiance to those who believe that gay Americans ought to be treated the same as everybody else," writes Jay Bookman, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Passing it would seriously stain the reputation of Georgia and the Georgia Legislature."