Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 22, 2014

Wed Jan. 22, 2014 11:15 AM EST

Cpl. Chase Roesner, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense specialist with Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group, pops a capsule of tear gas to train Marines aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Jan. 7, 2014. Marines received training on conducting reconnaissance and identifying potential CBRN threats, operating equipment designed to protect personnel from chemical threats and decontamination procedures to ensure Marines do not become casualties. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Shaltiel Dominguez/ Released)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Nevada Dems Slam Boehner for Fundraising off Nevadans Rather Than Extending Their Unemployment Benefits

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Last week, 100 House Dems asked House Speaker John Boehner to cancel this week's legislative recess and keep the House in session to hash out legislation that would renew expired unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Instead, Boehner traveled to unemployment-plagued Nevada for a fundraiser.

The state's Democratic lawmakers were quick to pile on. "Speaker Boehner skipped town to fundraise in Nevada instead of scheduling a vote to extend unemployment insurance benefits that thousands of Nevadans rely on," says Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.). As long as Boehner was in town, Horsford says, he should have "take[n] the time to explain to unemployed Nevadans why he continues to ignore them."

"Once again, Speaker Boehner has chosen politics over the people," adds Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.). He "would do well to take time from his fundraising schedule to meet with families in District One and hear their struggles to put food on the table, pay their mortgage, and put gas in the car."

Boehner attended a Las Vegas Country Club luncheon last Friday to help raise cash for the re-election of Nevada GOP Rep. Joe Heck. The cost was $2,600 a head for a roundtable plus lunch—$1,000 for lunch only.

The Obama Administration Wants to End Racial Discrimination by Car Dealers. Why Are 35 Dems Getting in the Way?

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 4:34 PM EST

Dozens of Democrats are pushing back against an Obama administration effort to curb racial discrimination by car dealerships.

In late March, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the consumer watchdog agency dreamt up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)—issued new, voluntary guidelines aimed at ensuring car dealerships are not illegally ripping off minorities. Since then, 13 Senate Democrats, including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.); and 22 House Dems, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), have joined 19 House and Senate Republicans in signing letters to the agency objecting to the anti-discrimination measure. Consumer advocates and congressional aides say the lawmakers' backlash against the anti-discrimination rules is unjustified, and that Dems have backtracked on civil rights in this instance because of the colossal power of the car dealership lobby, which has spent millions lobbying Congress in the months since the CFPB issued these new guidelines.

Auto dealers "wield enormous amounts of power," one Democratic aide explains. "There's one in every district. They give a lot of money to charity. They're on a bunch of boards. They sponsor Little Leagues."

When a dealership makes a car loan, it often sells the loan to a bank or credit union, which, in return, allows the dealership to mark up the interest rate. Here's the problem: Some dealerships have been accused of charging higher rates to black and Hispanic customers, potentially costing consumers millions of dollars in overcharges. The CFPB's anti-discrimination guidance reminds lenders that they are liable under federal law if car dealerships they work with charge higher interest rates to minority borrowers. The guidance suggests that lenders help prevent discrimination by educating dealers, increasing oversight, and either capping dealership interest rates or requiring dealers to charge a flat fee.

Auto dealers are up in arms. If lenders follow the CFPB's advice, dealership profits could fall by hundreds of dollars per car sold, according to the Department of Justice. Car dealer trade groups claim that the CFPB has not adequately proved that discrimination is a problem in the industry. Dealerships have spent millions lobbying Congress over the past year, including on this very issue. Many Democrats have the auto dealers' back. In their letters to the CFPB, Dems claim that they appreciate the CFPB's goal of curbing discrimination by car dealerships. But they echo the dealers' arguments, and demand that the CFPB provide the detailed methodology it uses to determine that some dealers may be discriminating.

The CFPB maintains that the way it detects discrimination in the auto industry should be no mystery to Congress. These methods, which are similar to those used by the DOJ and other federal banking regulators, have been used in voting rights cases, discrimination cases, and jury selection cases for decades, a CFPB spokeswoman notes. Here's how it works: Because customer race and ethnicity data is not available for auto loans, the CFPB uses proxies, including geography and surname, to see if lenders are allowing dealerships to charge higher interest rates to minorities. The CFPB has responded to lawmakers' requests for this methodology in letters, at a public forum on the issue, and on its website.

If lawmakers don't trust the feds' definition of discrimination, they can also look to the courts. In December, the DOJ and the CFPB reached a $98 million settlement with Ally Financial and Ally Bank over claims that Ally's markup policies resulted in illegal discrimination against over 235,000 minority borrowers. At least seven class-action lawsuits have been filed over the past 14 years that allege auto-dealers unfairly overcharged minorities. And "nothing has really changed in the marketplace" to force auto lenders and dealerships to change their practices, says Chris Kukla, the senior counsel for government affairs at the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit consumer rights group.

Car dealers have also complained that regulating the interest rates dealerships can charge will increase costs for consumers. Consumer advocates disagree: "I don't believe…[dealers'] ability to mark up prices…in any way benefits consumers," says Stuart Rossman, director of litigation the National Consumer Law Center, an advocacy group. Jeff Sovern, a law professor and expert in consumer law at St. John's University in New York, adds that the low prices some customers have been paying may have been subsidized by the higher prices paid by minorities. "It's not usually considered a defense that the beneficiaries of racism should keep the lower prices that other groups pay for," he says.

So why the outcry amongst Democrats? Congressional aides and consumer advocates say that the auto dealer industry's lobbying efforts are intense. "Dealers are a powerful lobby," Kukla says. "These people sell things for a living. They're good at advocating."

"I'm not surprised that any politician" would cave to the dealerships, Rossman adds. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), an industry trade group, has spent $3.1 million on lobbying in 2013, according to lobbying disclosure forms. "The dealerships made a very concerted push to get [members of Congress] to sign those letters" criticizing the guidance, Kukla says.

None of the 35 Democrats responded to requests for comment for this story, nor did the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, another industry trade group. NADA declined to comment.

The oddest aspect of Democrats' push back on the CFPB anti-discrimination measures, advocates say, is that in issuing the guidance, the CFPB didn't actually create any new regulation or law. "The funny thing is that… [the CFPB] is getting hit…because someone is actually enforcing rules already on the books," says the Dem aide.

"It's not that controversial," Rossman adds.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 21, 2014

Tue Jan. 21, 2014 11:08 AM EST

Marines and sailors with 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, transport a simulated casualty to an evacuation site as part of a medical evacuation drill Feb. 16, 2013 at the Ojojihara Maneuver Area on mainland Japan. During the drill, Marines and corpsmen rehearsed the proper procedures for assessing, treating and transporting casualties from the field to the next level of care. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Terry Brady/RELEASED)

Pot Grows on Harry Reid

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 5:52 PM EST

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used to be firmly against legalizing marijuana because of its reputation as a gateway drug. But reputations are just a construct, man. Free your mind.

On Thursday, Reid told the Las Vegas Sun that his views on teenage David Brooks' favorite baser pleasure have evolved. "If you'd asked me this question a dozen years ago, it would have been easy to answer—I would have said no, because it leads to other stuff, but I can't say that anymore. I think we need to take a real close look at this. I think that there's some medical reasons for marijuana."

Nevada is one of twenty states where medical marijuana is legal, but in September three of its largest cities placed local moratoriums on applications for new dispensaries. Reid's support could go a long way toward lifting those moratoriums.

Reid, who said he's never tried marijuana, didn't go so far as to say that he would endorse full legalization, as in Colorado. ("I don't know about that. I just think that we need to look at the medical aspects of it.") But he did acknowledge the neat and groovy point that spending billions of dollars going after pot smokers is irrational. "I guarantee you one thing. We waste a lot of time and law enforcement going after these guys that are smoking marijuana."

How does this affect you, a (possibly) healthy pot-curious millennial from a state other than Nevada? It doesn't directly. But it's yet another sign that the nation's views towards marijuana may have reached a tipping point. Today, 55 percent of Americans support legalization, up from 43 percent last year, according to CNN/Opinion Research. Colorado and Washington have become the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana, and on Wednesday, New Hampshire's House of Representatives passed a bill that would see the Granite State become the third. (Though it isn't expected to survive the Senate.)

So, anyway.

Harry Reid: Hippie.

Marijuana: Likely to be legal in most of the country by 2020.

Obama's NSA Reforms More Transparent Than Expected—But Expectations Were Really Low

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 3:34 PM EST

On Friday, President Obama released his plan to reform the NSA's sweeping surveillance program. Obama offered much praise for the NSA, and he's not ending the agency's controversial bulk collection program, which scoops up information about Americans' telephone calls. But he is making substantial changes to how the program currently runs, indicating that he may be more willing to risk the ire of the intelligence community for the sake of transparency reforms, than he's been in the past. Many oversight questions, though, are still being left to the intelligence community, and the reforms Obama announced on Friday only address a sliver of the surveillance issues raised by the Snowden leaks. Most notably, the president did not address many of the internet-related revelations produced by the Snowden documents. But he tried to offer some real reform to civil libertarians (though hardly meeting the demands for widespread changes) while providing much support to the intelligence community, which will not likely cheer the reforms the president is implementing. 

Bulk Phone Records Collection: Not Going Away, But More Hurdles for the NSA

The biggest change announced on Friday deals with the government's practice of sweeping up Americans' phone records in bulk—a practice that 60 percent of Americans oppose. Privacy advocates had hoped that Obama would take this opportunity to end the program. Instead, he announced that he'll be making some big changes to how it operates. He ordered the attorney general and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to implement a system in which NSA analysts must get approval from the FISA court to search the records. There will also be a new limit on the number of people the NSA can investigate via these records ("two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.") These are significant changes—ones that could ruffle feathers at the NSA, which has claimed that any changes to the program would undermine its ability to combat terrorism. However, the real test will be whether the judicial review process will be stringent enough to satisfy critics. In the past, the FISA court has been criticized as a "rubber stamp" court. 

Bulk Phone Records Storage: Going Somewhere, No One Knows Where

Obama ordered the intelligence community and the attorney general to come up with a new way to store phone records collected under the program, without having the government hold on to this data. This certainly will create some hurdles for the NSA, but it doesn't mean that the NSA is no longer permitted to collect telephone records. It's just about how they'll be stored. While the intelligence community has to come up with recommendations before March 28, it's entirely unclear when this policy will be implemented, because no third-party outside of phone companies—which have indicated they don't want this responsibility—really exists. 

National Security Letters: Less Secret, Still No Judicial Oversight

Obama is making some modest changes to the process by which the government can use National Security Letters to compel businesses to secretly provide private records to federal investigators. Companies will now be able to disclose these requests—but at some yet-to-be determined point. The specifics are up to the attorney general. Privacy advocates will undoubtedly be disappointed by the fact that Obama is refusing to require judicial review before the government issues these secret orders. 

The Top-Secret Spy Court: More Transparency, But Congress Should Figure It Out 

Obama is asking the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to annually review which decisions made by the FISA court can be declassified. He is also asking Congress to put together a panel of advocates that will provide an independent voice in "significant cases before the court." This is not quite as strong as having an in-house privacy advocate on every case, but it's a serious change. 

Everything else:

And...that's pretty much it. Obama's reforms don't cover reports that the NSA has been working to undermine the internet's encryption—such as by hacking into Google—and don't entail a major overhaul of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which governs PRISM, the program that's been accused of sweeping up internet communications. So it seems that any kind of online surveillance the government may be carrying out, will remain largely intact: "We’d hoped for, and the internet deserves, more," says Alex Fowler, global privacy and policy leader​ at Mozilla. "We’re concerned that the President didn’t address the most glaring reform needs." 

Obama maintains that there have been no alleged abuses of the telephone records collection program, which contradicts what the top-secret spy court has found. But his reforms indicate a greater willingness to reconsider aspects of the NSA's surveillance programs, and they've somewhat exceeded expectations. He does say these reforms are only a start, which might be a small comfort to privacy advocates who are looking for much more.  

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

WATCH: Senate Candidate Claims IRS is Training "Brown Shirts" to Enforce Obamacare Using Assault Weapons

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 11:58 AM EST

This election season, as in 2012, many sitting Republicans face challenges from tea party candidates, who aren't afraid to tout conspiracy theories or say brash things about women's bodies. One GOP Senate challenger, vying against veteran Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has gone as far as claiming that the IRS is training an army of "Brown Shirts" to enforce Obamacare—with assault weapons no less.

South Carolina state Sen. Lee Bright argued in a speech last August that we should "get rid of that IRS." (See the video above). He also discussed comments from US Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, who toured a federal law enforcement facility last spring and reported seeing IRS agents training with the semi-automatic AR-15 rifles. Bright added:

If that’s true…and they're doing assault-weapon training, the Brown Shirts are next because that's the enforcement for Obamacare, is the IRS. If you don't have an IRS, you don't have Obamacare. That's the mechanism that's controlling our lives for far too long.

In fact, the armed agents Duncan saw probably belonged to a special criminal investigation division, which sometimes goes after drug traffickers and money launderers. At the time, according to Politico, Duncan questioned whether "that level of firepower is appropriate when they could coordinate operations with other agencies, like the FBI, especially in a time of austerity." That's a far cry from likening IRS agents to Nazi storm troopers.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 17, 2014

Fri Jan. 17, 2014 11:17 AM EST

A Marine is pulled under an obstacle Jan. 12 during an endurance course at the Jungle Warfare Training Center on Camp Gonsalves. The Marines are with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, currently assigned to 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, under the unit deployment program. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Stephen D. Himes/Released)

New Voting Rights Act Bill Won't Stop ID Schemes

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 6:55 AM EST

Civil rights advocates and some progressives are voicing concerns about a bipartisan Voting Rights Act overhaul introduced in both houses of Congress Thursday. The proposal would reinstate federal oversight of states with a recent history of voter discrimination, though it leaves voter ID laws off the list of grievances that qualify as discrimination.

The original Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 and amended most recently in 2006, subjected states and counties that had historically used a "test or device" like literacy tests or racial gerrymandering to restrict voting to special oversight—any new election laws in those places had to be approved as nondiscriminatory by the federal government.

The formula for determining which jurisdictions needed oversight—which included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia along with parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota—was ruled unconstitutional in a controversial Supreme Court decision last year. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts called the formula outdated, writing, "It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between states in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today's statistics tell an entirely different story."

Voter ID laws are exempted from the violations list, meaning restrictive changes passed in North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere won't be held against those states. "

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to revamp that formula and reinstate the Voting Rights Act's protections. Under the proposal, any states whose electoral changes violated federal laws (like Texas' redistricting attempt, which federal judges tossed out in 2012 due to its dilution of minority voting power) five times over the past 15 years would be subject to federal scrutiny, while any local jurisdiction with three violations or one violation and "persistent, extremely low minority turnout" would get the same treatment. Under these rules, only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas would fall under statewide federal oversight.

While members of the Congressional Black Caucus signaled their support for the legislation, according to National Journal, the Hispanic Caucus and civil rights organizations have expressed misgivings. Voter ID laws are exempted from the violations list, meaning restrictive changes passed in North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere won't be held against those states. "These [voter ID] laws make it harder for people of color to have a say in our democracy," said Katherine Culliton-González, director of voter protection for the civil rights advocacy organization Advancement Project. "There's no reason for this distinction. It's arbitrary." (Voter ID laws can still be blocked if the Department of Justice or federal courts deem them unfair; they just won't count toward a state's five-violation total.)

Culliton-González also took issue with a provision that only court rulings, not consent decrees or settlements, will count in a state's violation total. Organizations like Advancement Project often settle voting rights lawsuits to get changes implemented faster, she said, whereas the proposed bill would incentivize drawing out court proceedings.

Still, Advancement Project and the ACLU have called the legislation an important first step. Provisions like the voter ID exemption may be necessary to win support from conservatives and other lawmakers from affected states, even if the legislation is a longshot to pass. For progressives on the fence, it's a matter of how much they're wiling to compromise to see a big element of the Voting Rights Act back in action.

 

This Guy Died and Asked For His Blood to Be Splashed on a Nuclear Facility

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 5:38 PM EST
In July 2012, an elderly nun breached the Y-12 facility carrying baby bottles filled with a comrade's blood.

Later this month, Megan Rice, an 83-year-old Catholic nun, could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for breaking into Tennessee's Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex and splattering the walls of a weapons-grade uranium warehouse with human blood. That may sound pretty far out—the blood, but also the stiff potential sentence and the notion of an octogenarian breaching a high-level nuclear facility guarded by machine guns and tanks. In any case, the symbolic spilling of blood isn't all that unusual, especially for Rice's fellow Christian peace activists in the Plowshares Movement.

"The blood could be seen as a surrogate for the blood of Christ...and its pouring could be interpreted as a symbolic act of Christian purification."

"We use real human blood frequently in these kinds of actions," says Paul Magno, who spent nearly two years in federal prison in the mid-1980s for breaking into a Pershing missile factory in Orlando, Florida, where he spread blood on missile-launcher parts. "It means terror and bloodshed if these things are ever used, and even if they are not, because we are taking so much of humanity's future to just sustain an arsenal."

According to a paper by Barnard College religion professor Elizabeth Castelli, the first documented use of human blood in an anti-war protest was on October 27, 1967, when four men entered the Baltimore Customs House and poured a mix of their own blood and animal blood on Vietnam War draft files.

One of them, Tom Lewis, became a lifelong peace activist. He died in his sleep in 2008 and and was cremated, but not before his comrades extracted and froze some of his blood for use in one final action. In July 2012, it was thawed and placed into eight baby bottles, which Rice emptied onto the walls of the Y-12 uranium unit.

The radical Catholic priest Philip Berrigan, who also took part in the Baltimore draft protest, initially rejected the blood idea as too "bourgeois" and "tepid," according to his biographers. But he eventually came around, and began to elaborate a theological interpretation: "The blood could be seen as a surrogate for the blood of Christ, he envisioned, and its pouring could be interpreted as a symbolic act of Christian purification—a kind of echo of the sacrifice of the Mass."