2014 - %3, April

Ted Cruz: Conservative Darling. Grandstanding Senator. Campaign-Finance Reform Ally?

| Thu May 1, 2014 10:51 AM EDT

For the first time since the McCutcheon v. FEC decision, the Supreme Court's latest ruling further rolling back restrictions on the flow of money in American politics, members of the Senate on Wednesday tackled the onslaught of "dark money" washing through 2014 races and the future consequences of McCutcheon. (Short answer: More wealthy Americans pumping more money into political races in 2014 and beyond.)

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens headlined Wednesday's hearing, organized by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). Stevens took a decidedly progressive tack in his remarks, declaring that "money is not speech" and calling on Congress to write campaign-finance rules that "create a level playing field" for all political candidates. But perhaps the more revealing set of comments came from an unlikely source: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the self-styled populist always trying, as he reminds us, to "make DC listen" to the little guy. 

In short, Cruz, who's as conservative as they come, may have more in common with the campaign-finance reform crowd than he realizes.

He raised eyebrows, for instance, as he described his vision for America's campaign finance system. "A far better system," he said, "would be to allow individual unlimited contributions to candidates and require immediate disclosure." The unlimited contributions part of that statement is standard conservative fare: If billionaires like Tom Steyer or Sheldon Adelson or Michael Bloomberg want to underwrite their preferred candidates with bottomless dollars, go ahead and let them. But the latter half—"require immediate disclosure"—is significant. It's a break from GOP leaders including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus who've soured on the idea of disclosure. Angus King later said he was so struck by Cruz's comments that he'd scribbled them down. Might Senate Democrats have an unlikely ally in Cruz if and when the DISCLOSE Act gets another vote?

At the hearing, Cruz went on to assail his fellow members of Congress for caring more about hanging onto their seats than pursuing real legislative solutions. "Our democratic process is broken and corrupt right now because politicians in both parties hold onto incumbency," he said. "We need to empower the individual citizens." Funny thing is, that's what Democrats who support the Government By The People Act and other fair elections programs want as well. Fair elections backers say candidates spend too much time raising money from wealthy individuals, which not only shrinks the field of people who can run for office but arguably makes those candidates who do run more receptive to well-heeled funders. Give candidates a reason to court lots of small donors—say, offering to match donations of $150 or less with six times that in public money—and you expose them to a diverse array of people. Meanwhile, your Average Joe, without his Rolodex full of well-to-do friends, can now mount a competitive bid for office. If Cruz wants to "empower the individual citizens," fair elections is one way to do it.

Not that Cruz hung around long enough on Wednesday to hear these kinds of ideas. He high-tailed it out of the hearing after delivering his remarks. Maybe he had a fundraiser to get to.

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Bill Nye: "You Can Hate Me, You Can Hate Everything, But Science Education Is What Leads to Innovators"

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 6:12 PM EDT

On Tuesday, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) appeared on NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers to tell the story of how he and Neil deGrasse Tyson ended up taking that "Presidential Selfie" with President Obama. During his appearance he also discussed his friendship with Tyson—how they get together and drink wine and talk about women and space exploration—and his recent debate with creationist Ken Ham, and the need for much more science literacy in America:

We want to raise awareness of science literacy, specifically, in this case, science illiteracy—striking science illiteracy. And the reason I bring this up, you can hate me, you can hate everything, but science education is what leads to innovators. It leads to that kooky internet that the kids use, their electric computer machines...The Facebooking, and the tweeting, and the Instagramming—all that would not exist without our understanding of science...And then we would not be able to feed this many people around the world without understanding science. So this is deeply important to me, and I hope that in the coming years awareness will be raised, and voters and taxpayers will not let these people with these...wrong views about nature...try to get on school boards.

Watch:

"I fight this fight out of patriotism," Nye told me last year, regarding his war on anti-science politics. "We can't have economic growth without basic investment in science and research. And we can't have irresponsible school board members in Texas teaching that the earth is 10,000 years old. We can't have us embracing scientific illiteracy."

"He's 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. "The president lights up when he sees Bill," another official mentioned.

Now here's that "Presidential Selfie":

Bill Nye Neil deGrasse Tyson Barack Obama selfie
thescienceguy/Instagram

(H/t Mediaite)

Quote of the Day: CO2? What CO2?

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 5:59 PM EDT

From Les Woodcock, a former professor at the University of Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, explaining why he thinks climate change is a crock:

There is no reproducible scientific evidence CO2 has significantly increased in the last 100 years.

There are many things that a climate skeptic could say. Some are more ridiculous than others, however, and on a scale of 1 to 10, this one is an 11. There are no complicated computer models involved in calculating atmospheric CO2. You just measure it. For pre-modern data, you use ice cores. That's it. Two centuries ago, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was about 280 ppm. Last year it crossed the 400 ppm mark. This is about as controversial as germ theory. Here's the chart:

Now, it's fair to ask why you should care about the fact that some random elderly former professor is badly confused about a simple and uncontroversial measurement. Answer: because there are plenty of people who don't care about evidence one way or another and are willing to glom onto anyone who tells their audience what it wants to hear. "Professor Woodcock is the latest scientist to come out against the theory of man-made global warming," crows Breitbart.com. "Former NASA Scientist: Global Warming is Nonsense," tweets tea party hero Erick Erickson. "Another Scientist Dissents!" screams Climate Depot.

"I literally cannot imagine a statement that would be more scientifically incorrect and humiliating than the one Professor Woodcock made," says Ryan Cooper, from whom I learned about this. "It's like saying you don't believe in the existence of cheese....It's no wonder that only six percent of scientists are Republican."

Nonetheless, there you have it. In the tea party precincts of the conservative movement, even the simplest version of reality doesn't matter. If cheese denial is how you demonstrate you're part of the tribe, then anyone who denies cheese is a hero. The fact that you happen to be happily munching away on a slice of pizza at the time doesn't faze you at all.

After Offensive Comments, Paul Ryan Will Let Black Lawmakers School Him on Poverty

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 5:23 PM EDT

On Wednesday afternoon, anti-safety-net crusader Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in an attempt to make amends after he said on a radio show last month that urban poverty is caused by the lack of a work ethic in inner cities. At the meeting, Ryan admitted he didn't "know everything about poverty," and agreed to sit down with CBC members in the coming months to discuss specific solutions proposed by black lawmakers to address the needs of historically disadvantaged communities.

"The sky didn't open up," says CBC member Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), who was at the meeting. "But there were some productive things that happened."

In a conversation with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett on March 12, Ryan said, "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."

At the time, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the CBC, called Ryan's remarks "a thinly veiled racial attack." Ryan denied the comments had anything to do with race. He said he was merely criticizing the fact that inner city men are "isolated" from economic opportunity. This isn't the first time Ryan has used racial rhetoric when talking about poverty. In a 2005 speech, he associated the "victimization class" with minorities, and in 2012, he said inner-city poverty and crime was a cultural problem.

At the Wednesday gathering, CBC members pounced on that walk-back by pointing out that if Ryan wants to prevent the isolation of inner-city men, his most recent federal budget proposal certainly doesn't reflect that; it drastically cuts social programs designed to support them. CBC members introduced Ryan to the caucus' alternative federal budget plan, which would require that 10 percent of all federal agencies' funds be directed to areas that have had a poverty rate of at least 20 percent for the last 30 years. CBC lawmakers say the plan would do much to improve socio-economic conditions in inner cities and other areas that struggle with persistent poverty.

"[Ryan] said he doesn't know everything about poverty and how to alleviate it," Moore says, and so he agreed to sit down with the CBC's budget writers to discuss the lawmakers' plan in more detail. (The CBC and Ryan have not yet pinned down a date for the upcoming meeting.)

Moore says that despite Ryan's offensive remarks a few weeks ago, the face-to-face meeting went over pretty well. "We were very cordial," she says.

An Awful Lot of People Seem to Have Fibbed About Responding to the Heartbleed Bug

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

Via Hayley Tsukayama, check out this question about the Heartbleed bug from Pew Research:

That's pretty impressive, no?

"I think it’s a pretty striking number," said Lee Rainie, the center's director, in an e-mailed statement....Rainie added that the urgency of the coverage likely prompted people to act quickly to address the issue. "We didn’t ask people how they'd heard about Heartbleed, but I'd guess that it was a combination of media coverage plus chatter in users’ networks via social media and e-mail," he said. "And much of what we were seeing was the basic message, 'This one is really serious and you need to respond.'"

I too think this is a pretty striking number. But I don't believe it for a second. If you had security consultants make personal house calls to every internet user in the United States, I don't think 61 percent would change their passwords. I would frankly be surprised if 61 percent of internet users even know how to change their passwords.

Am I being too cynical? Maybe. But what I'm curious about is where this number comes from. Since I doubt that the real number of password changers is even half of the Pew number, why did so many people fib about it when a pollster called them? And what does that say about how people respond to pollsters in general?

US Supreme Court Endorses EPA's Efforts to Reduce Cross-State Pollution

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

This story originally appeared on the Guardian's website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The US supreme court endorsed the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to deal with air pollution blowing across state lines on Tuesday, in an important victory for the Obama administration as well as downwind states.

The court's 6-2 decision unblocks a 2011 rule requiring 28 eastern states to reduce power-plant emissions that carry smog and soot particles across state lines, hurting the air quality in downwind states.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing the court's majority opinion, said the EPA's formula for dealing with cross-state air pollution was "permissable, workable and equitable".

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Here's the Easiest Way to Fund the Interstate Highway System: Just Restore the Damn Gas Tax

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 1:40 PM EDT

With a few exceptions, the interstate highway system is blissfully toll-free. That may be about to change:

With pressure mounting to avert a transportation funding crisis this summer, the Obama administration Tuesday opened the door for states to collect tolls on interstate highways to raise revenue for roadway repairs.

....The question of how to pay to repair roadways and transit systems built in the heady era of post-World War II expansion is demanding center stage this spring, with projections that traditional funding can no longer meet the need. That source, the Highway Trust Fund, relies on the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, which has eroded steadily as vehicles have become more energy efficient.

....With the trust fund about to run into the red and the current federal highway bill set to expire Sept. 30, Congress cannot — as its members often note — keep “kicking the can down the road.”

Hold on. It's true that we're using a bit less gasoline than in the past. But that's not why the Highway Trust Fund is in dire shape. It's in dire shape because the federal gas tax has been cut nearly in half since it was last changed two decades ago. In 1993 dollars, it's now about 11 cents per gallon. If it had just kept up with inflation, highway funding would be in fine shape.

Now, there's arguably a good reason to allow tolls. Basically, it makes driving on interstates more of a pain in the ass, which probably means marginally less driving on interstates. And less driving is good for the planet. So if you think that making it less convenient to drive is a good idea, tolls might help.

But you know what else would cut down on driving? Gas taxes restored to 1993 levels. So what's the point of dicking around instead with tolls and corporate tax reform and all that? The answer, of course, is Republicans, who have sworn a blood oath never to raise taxes, even if "raising" actually means "keeping them at the same level." So instead of just bumping up the gax tax by a dime or two and then indexing it to inflation—no muss, no fuss—we're going to play a bunch of idiotic and annoying games merely to keep our roads in decent repair.

Thanks, Republicans. I appreciate it.

Lethal Injection Is a Terrible Way To Kill People

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 12:07 PM EDT

"[T]onight, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death."—Madeline Cohen, assistant federal public defender.

Last night, Oklahoma became the latest state to botch an execution while using a new lethal injection protocol. Five minutes after injecting convicted murderer Lockett with 100 milligrams of the sedative midazolam, executioners administered two other drugs designed to paralyze him and then stop his heart. But instead of dying, Lockett started writhing and kicking and lifting his head and shoulders up off the gurney. The execution was eventually halted, but Lockett died a while later from a heart attack. State officials said that the cause of the problems was a "blown" vein line that prevented the drugs from entering the bloodstream.

Thanks to the disastrous course of events, Governor Mary Fallin (R), who recently promised to defy the state's highest court and execute Lockett despite a legal stay in the case, postponed the killing of Charles Warner, who was slated to be executed last night after Lockett. Lockett and Warner had prompted a state constitutional crisis when they filed suit over the state's secrecy statute that had denied them complete information about the source and purity of the new drugs they would be executed with.

A lower state court had found the statute unconstitutional, and after a convoluted back and forth between the higher courts, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay of the executions so the issues could be fully litigated. But Fallin threatened to execute the men anyway and accused the court of overstepping its authority; meanwhile, the state legislature began impeachment proceedings against the justices. A few days later, the court caved and allowed the executions to move forward, resulting in what witnesses called the "torture" and death of Clayton Lockett.

Experts had been watching the proceedings closely because Oklahoma planned to use a combination of drugs that has only been used once before in an execution, in Florida this year. In 2011, international pharmaceutical companies either stopped making or refused to sell prisons the drugs that had long been used in lethal injections, creating a shortage in death-penalty states. These states have sought a variety of dubious ways to address the shortage, including illegally importing the old drugs or trying out new but slower-acting drugs, as they did on Lockett.

When it was first used in Florida, midzolam—one of the new drugs used on Lockett—was given at a dose five times higher than what Oklahoma said it would use. As it turned out, though, the bungled execution may have had little to do with the drug protocol and a lot to do with a pretty common problem in lethal injection. According to Austin Sarat, an Amherst college professor and author of the timely new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, lethal injection is more prone to these sorts of debacles than any other form of execution used in the US since the late 19th century. His data show as many as 7 percent of lethal injection executions go awry, and often for the same reasons why Lockett suffered so much: The veins of death row inmates can't handle the needles.

Many death row inmates were once IV drug users, and by the time they reach the death chamber, their veins are a mess. Others are obese from years of confinement, which also makes their veins hard to find. Compounding that problem is the fact that the people inserting the needles usually aren't medical professionals. They're prison guards (in Oklahoma they're paid $300 for the job), and they're usually in a big hurry to get it done quickly—an factor that doesn't mesh well with the slower-acting drugs states are now resorting to.

After Florida finally retired "Old Sparky," its electric chair that had a tendency to light people on fire while killing them, it turned to lethal injection in 2000. In 2006, the state botched the execution of Angel Diaz, who took 34 minutes—three times longer than the previous two executions—to die. While on the gurney, he writhed, winced, and shuddered, and witnesses reported that he seemed to be in a great deal of pain. When a heart monitor showed he wasn't dying fast enough, he was given a second dose of one of the drugs. But as it turned out, the needle had gone through the vein and poked out the other side, delivering the drugs into soft tissue rather than the blood stream, a process that's known to cause an extremely slow and painful death. Then-Governor Jeb Bush put a halt to executions in the state for a while afterwards as a result.

In 2009, Ohio attempted to execute Romell Broom but struggled for more than two hours to find a suitable vein in which to administer the injection. He even attempted to help his executioners find an insertion spot. As the poking and prodding went on, Broom was visibly in pain. “At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving," the Columbus Dispatch reported. After two hours, the execution was halted so medical experts could figure out a better way to kill him. So far they haven't, and he remains on death row.

These sorts of incidents are one reason that defense attorneys have been arguing in court that for all its clinical veneer, lethal injection still constitutes unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Oklahoma just gave them some more ammunition for that fight, even without giving up the details of the drugs it used.

 

 

 

Anger at the Plutocracy Isn't Strong Enough to Make a Big Difference in November

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 11:38 AM EDT

Greg Sargent writes today that the Democratic strategy of going after the Koch brothers isn't about the Kochs per se, but "a gamble on what swing voters think has happened to the economy, and on the reasons struggling Americans think they aren’t getting ahead":

Dems are making an argument about what has happened to the economy, and which party actually has a plan to do something about it. Today’s NBC/WSJ poll finds support for the general idea that the economy is not distributing gains fairly and is rigged against ordinary Americans....The Democratic case is that the all-Obamacare-all-the-time message is merely meant to mask the GOP’s lack of any actual affirmative economic agenda, and even reveals the GOP’s priorities remain to roll back any efforts by Dems to ameliorate economic insecurity.

....I don’t know if the Dem strategy will work.

I think Sargent's skepticism is warranted. The problem is that the NBC/WSJ poll he mentions doesn't find an awful lot of evidence for seething anger. Here are the basic results:

Those are not really huge margins. The first question in particular is one they've been asking for two decades, and 55-39 is a very typical result, especially during times of economic weakness.

Given this, and given the extreme difficulty of a party in power taking advantage of economic discontent, will the Democratic strategy of bludgeoning Republicans over their plutocratic leanings work? I doubt it. Specific agenda items like a higher minimum wage, health care success stories, and universal pre-K seem more likely to work. At the margins, a bit of Koch bashing and a few high-profile Wall Street indictments might help a bit too, but only as an added fillip.

Oh, and a nice, short, decisive war against some minor global bad guy would also do wonders. In October, maybe.

No, the New Benghazi Emails Don't Demonstrate a White House Cover-Up

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 11:05 AM EDT

Wait a second. Is a National Review editor allowed to say this about Benghazi?

On the totality of the evidence we have so far, the White House took the intelligence community and diplomatic community’s estimate, which was relatively uncertain, bereft of much detail, and turned out days later to be quite wrong, and played up certain parts of it to avoid questions about their counterterror strategy and the situation in Libya. That isn’t being as straightforward with the American public as they could or probably should have been; it’s also not a lie or a cover-up.

This is a response to Charles Krauthammer's bombastic insistence yesterday that newly released Benghazi emails had revealed "a classic cover-up of a cover-up." But as Patrick Brennan says, they show no such thing.

You know, if conservatives had stuck to a reasonable line like this one in the first place, they could have caused President Obama a lot more damage. Did the White House "play up certain parts" of the Benghazi story in order to "avoid questions about their counterterror strategy"? I'd quibble over some of the details here, but that's fair enough. And there are certainly legitimate questions—although they cut a bipartisan swath—about how security was handled in Libya before the attacks.

Stick to that stuff and you have a story that resonates—and not in a good way for Obama. Take the Krauthammer route, and you get cheers from the Fox News faithful but not much else. That's why no one but a hard core of loons and fanatics cares about Benghazi anymore.