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Want More Oversight? Hire More Spox.

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 7:24 PM EDT

Via Paul Waldman, USA Today has a quickie analysis of the evolution of committee staff in the House:

Since Republicans took control of the U.S. House in January 2011, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has led a cost-cutting effort that has trimmed staff for House committees by nearly 20%, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But the number of committee staff responsible for press and communications work has increased by nearly 15% over the same period, according to House spending records.

....Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the numbers are "completely unsurprising. We promised responsible oversight of the Obama administration, and effective oversight requires communicating with the American people."

I love that response from Steel. If you had asked me to defend the indefensible here, I would have spent a few minutes starting at the ceiling and drooling before quietly slinking away in shame. But not Steel! He's a pro. He instantly comes up with something, and apparently manages to say it with a straight face. It's completely ridiculous, but that doesn't matter. It kinda sorta makes sense if you don't actually think about it, and that's good enough.

Anyway, there you have it. Effective oversight requires sending ever more outraged email bombs to your tea party base about Benghazi/IRS/Solyndra/Fast & Furious/Bergdahl/Syria/etc. That's oversight, baby. Jeebus.

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7 Things We Hate About Belgium

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 4:19 PM EDT

Our glorious fighting boys of the US men's soccer team are playing Belgium today in their first elimination match of the World Cup.

We want the US team to win. You should too!

Here are some of the things we hate most about Belgium.

1. King Leopold II
This guy! He oversaw one of the cruelest regimes in history in the Congo. His regime was responsible for 10 million Congolese deaths. If there is a hell, King Leopold is burning in it.

2. Tintin
Sure he's cute and so is the dog. But he's a terrible reporter and also Herge was a real racist.

A frame from Tintin's first adventure, "Tintin in the Congo" Wikimedia Commons

3. The Smurfs
Did you know that possibly the most annoying cartoon franchise in the history of animation was set in a Belgian socialist village? No amount of French fries will make up for that crime against humanity.

4. Dr. Evil
Not only is he evil, and Belgian, but he was a seminal character in one of the most grossly overrated, discussed, and imitated films of the 1990s.

5. Jean-Claude Van Damme
He's quite good at kicking, but Street Fighter was awful. Also, 1999's Universal Soldier: The Return, in which "the Muscles from Brussels" has to off a rampaging fight computer-led robot army. Critics were not impressed. As the New York Post put it, Van Damme's accent "makes Stallone sound like a master of elocution".

6. Belgian waffles aren't even a thing in Belgium
"What is known in North America as the 'Belgian waffle' does not exist in Belgium," sayeth Wikipedia.

7. They are somehow even worse than us on gender equality.
For all the flack the United States gets over gender equality, the US actually beats Belgium handsomely on a few important counts. In 2011, the last year that data is available, 90.1 percent of US women got at least a secondary education. In Belgium, only 72 percent did. In the US, the boards of publicly traded companies are 12 percent women. In Belgium? 10.8 percent. In the US, 57 percent of women were at work in 2012— way above the OECD average of 54 percent, and way, way above Belgium's rate of 47 percent.

No surprise that a country with fewer women in the workplace also has fewer women overseeing things. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, 13.9 percent of US working women held down some managerial responsibilities—more than double the OECD average that year. In Belgium, only 8 percent of working women were managing anything. Worse yet, that figure has fallen to 4.7 percent as of 2011.

On the other hand Audrey Hepburn is from there and she was the best. Still, all in all, USA > Belgium.

Via ohmyglobyougays.tumblr.com/
 

Take Two: Hobby Lobby Was About More Than Abortion After All

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 3:18 PM EDT

In the Hobby Lobby case, the only contraceptives at issue were ones that the plaintiffs considered to be abortifacients. Thus my post yesterday that the case was really about abortion: "This is not a ruling that upholds religious liberty. It is a ruling that specifically enshrines opposition to abortion as the most important religious liberty in America."

That was then, this is now:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday confirmed that its decision a day earlier extending religious rights to closely held corporations applies broadly to the contraceptive coverage requirement in the new health care law, not just the handful of methods the justices considered in their ruling....Tuesday's orders apply to companies owned by Catholics who oppose all contraception. Cases involving Colorado-based Hercules Industries Inc., Illinois-based Korte & Luitjohan Contractors Inc. and Indiana-based Grote Industries Inc. were awaiting action pending resolution of the Hobby Lobby case.

Until now, fans of the Hobby Lobby decision have made the point that abortion really is different from most other religious objections to specific aspects of health care. Christian Scientists might forego most medical treatments for themselves, for example, but they don't consider it a sin to assist someone else who's getting medical treatment. Thus they have no grounds to object to insurance that covers it. Conversely, members of some Christian denominations consider abortion to be murder, and obviously this means they have a strong objection to playing even a minor supporting role that helps anyone receive an abortion.

But what now? Is there a similar argument about contraception? Sure, Catholics might consider it sinful, but it's not murder, and as far as I know the church wouldn't consider your soul to be in danger if, say, you drove a Jewish friend to a pharmacy to pick up her birth control pills.1 Nonetheless, the court has now ruled that a religious objection to contraceptives is indeed at the same level as a religious objection to abortion. In other words, just about anything Catholics consider a sin for Catholics is justification for opting out of federal regulations. I wonder if the court plans to apply this to things that other religions consider sinful?

1I could be wrong about this, of course. But I'll bet it's a pretty damn minor sin.

Man Tapped to Draw the New Wonder Woman Doesn't Want Her to Be Feminist

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 2:45 PM EDT
Lynda Carter is not amused.

David Finch, the artist who's taking over DC Comics' Wonder Woman, says he wants the feminist icon to be "strong"—but not "feminist."

In an interview with Comic Book Resources News, David and his wife, newly appointed Wonder Woman writer Meredith Finch, talked about their plans to reimagine the character. But David missed a step when he was asked about what he’s excited to touch on in Wonder Woman's character with the new book:

I think she's a beautiful, strong character. Really, from where I come from, and we've talked about this a lot, we want to make sure it's a book that treats her as a human being first and foremost, but is also respectful of the fact that she represents something more. We want her to be a strong—I don't want to say feminist, but a strong character. Beautiful, but strong.

[…]

I'm pretty visual and I'm really interested in that. She's got a great costume and she's got a lot of history—I'm really very visually attracted to "Wonder Woman." She just looks great on the page.

"That's pretty funny," Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, who created the film Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, said when I told her about Finch's comments. "She's an obvious feminist role model for many people for many reasons…It's like getting rid of her kryptonite to say that about her."

Feminist comics fans shouldn't panic quite yet, though. As Wonder Woman's writer, Meredith Finch is likely to have more control over the plot of the series, and she demonstrated a deeper grasp of the character's history than her husband:

She’s really a female icon from way back in the '70s when females were stepping up and taking such powerful roles. Being able to take on that quintessential female superhero who represents so much for myself and for millions of people out there—especially at a time where comics are coming more into the mainstream—I feel like it's really special, and that's really where I'm coming from when I'm writing this. I want to always keep who she is and what I believe her core is central to what I'm doing.

Meredith Finch isn't the first woman to write Wonder Woman. In 2007, Gail Simone became Wonder Woman's first female "ongoing writer,"  stepping into a role previously only occupied by male writers and designers.

Update: On Monday evening, David Finch responded via Twitter to criticism he received for his comment after Mother Jones highlighted it.

Finch's apology seems sincere, and he seems to understand that feminism is about equality. But his words suggest that being "human" and "real" means you can't be a feminist. Wonder Woman would probably disagree.

Belgium Might Not Be a Country by the Next World Cup

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 2:42 PM EDT
The Belgian team before its match against South Korea

When the Belgian soccer team takes the field today against the United States, it could be for the last time—and not just for this World Cup. By the time the next Cup kicks off in 2018, Belgium may not exist at all.

Belgium was an invention of the 19th century: culturally and linguistically, it's divided cleanly between the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Brussels, the capital of both Belgium and the European Union, is right in the middle. Recently, politicians in Flanders—which became wealthier than industrial, coal-mining Wallonia in postwar Europe—have pushed for independence, leading to serious strife between the country's two largest political parties.

Those parties, the Dutch-speaking New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) and the French-speaking Christian Democrats, failed to form a government last week when Flemish leaders walked away from coalition talks. The last time Belgium couldn't form a government was in 2010; it took the parties 18 months to finally do it. The N-VA is a separatist party whose support has skyrocketed in Flanders; in Wallonia, right-wing politicians are asserting ties to France, and French National Front leader Marine Le Pen—who has compared Muslim immigration to Nazi occupation—said her country would welcome the Walloons "with pleasure."

The crisis happens to fall during one of the Belgian soccer team's best World Cup showings. The Red Devils won all of their group stage games and are favored to knock out the United States for a spot in the quarterfinals. The team's success is providing a rallying point for the country, if only for a short time. The team is made up of players from both Flanders and Wallonia; as a Belgian journalist told Yahoo, "When the national team plays everyone gets behind them, everyone supports them…No one is thinking about politics when the team is playing. Everyone is together and united."

Right now, there's no scheduled vote on separation in Belgium—like the one happening in Scotland later this year—but the situation could escalate. So while Belgian fans will cheer on their Red Devils in Dutch and French today, when it's time to fly home, those cheers just might turn into arguments.

There's Some Serious Weirdness Up In the State of Maine

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 2:21 PM EDT

You wouldn't normally expect Maine to be an epicenter of crackpottery, but ever since they elected tea party darling Paul LePage as their governor, things have been a little weird up north. Actually, more than a little. Over at TPM, they're running an excerpt from Mike Tipping's new book about LePage's tenure, and it turns out that LePage has been surprisingly fascinated by the claims of a local "sovereign citizen" group called the Aroostook Watchmen, which claims that pretty much everything that both Maine and the United States are doing is blatantly illegal. To make their point, they submitted a set of "remonstrances" to a variety of Maine officials, including LePage:

The remonstrances the group submitted to LePage and the legislature accused Maine’s government of being unlawful, of having illegally accepted and used unconstitutional currency (anything other than gold and silver), and of coordinating with UNESCO, UNICEF, NATO, and the UN to deprive Americans of their property rights. An e-mail sent to the governor’s office by Constitutional Coalition spokesperson Phil Merletti, along with the remonstrance document, declared that legislators who had violated their oaths in this way were committing treason and domestic terrorism.

....LePage’s staff, including executive assistant Micki Muller, who reviews the governor’s e-mails, had previously shunted aside requests from Merletti to meet with LePage....This time, however, word of the remonstrances and the press conference made it past the executive office gatekeepers and to the attention of Governor LePage himself. Rather than ignoring the submission and its radical claims, LePage called Merletti at home at 9 a.m. the next morning in order to set up a meeting for that Saturday with members of the Constitutional Coalition. According to a note that Merletti sent to his e-mail list later that day and that was forwarded to LePage and members of his staff, the governor was angry that he hadn’t heard about the remonstrances earlier, and during the call he pledged to fire any staffers found to have been keeping the information from him.

....The Watchmen describe—and e-mails and documents obtained from LePage’s staff through Maine’s Freedom of Access laws confirm—at least eight meetings over a period of nine months in 2013, almost all more than an hour in duration and some lasting almost three hours.

During these regular meetings, according to the participants, the governor was “educated” by a series of “experts” brought in by the Constitutional Coalition on a number of their conspiracy theories. LePage also made a series of promises to the Watchmen that he would assist them in pressing their cases of treason against Eves and Alfond and in pursuing their wider antigovernment aims.

There's much, much more at the link. If you want to read a case study of how someone can apparently go completely off the rails when he's stuck inside a tea party bubble, this is for you.

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This Judge Just Destroyed the Stupidest Argument Against Gay Marriage Ever

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 1:54 PM EDT

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional and issued a withering take-down of marriage equality opponents.

Kentucky had argued that legalizing gay marriage would harm the state's birth rate. "These arguments are not those of serious people," wrote US district judge John Heyburn. "Though it seems almost unnecessary to explain, here are the reasons why.

"Even assuming the state has a legitimate interest in promoting procreation, the Court fails to see, and Defendant never explains, how the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage has any effect whatsoever on procreation among heterosexual spouses. Excluding same-sex couples from marriage does not change the number of heterosexual couples who choose to get married, the number who choose to have children, or the number of children they have.

"The state’s attempts to connect the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage to its interest in economic stability and in 'ensuring humanity’s continued existence' are at best illogical and even bewildering…The Court can think of no other conceivable legitimate reason for Kentucky’s laws excluding same-sex couples from marriage."

Heyburn stayed his ruling while Kentucky appeals, meaning no same-sex marriages are taking place just yet.

Read the full ruling:

 

Here Are 4 Lawsuits That Could Inflict More Damage on Unions After Harris v. Quinn

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 12:05 PM EDT

On Monday, the Supreme Court's conservative justices on Monday defied some expectations by not decimating public-employee labor unions via their ruling in Harris v. Quinn. Given the opportunity to issue a sprawling decision that would overturn decades of precedent, and in the process kneecap the basic model of public-employee unionism, the five justices, led by Samuel Alito, instead issued a narrower decision. They ruled that home health care workers in Illinois are not full-fledged public workers and thus cannot be required to pay so-called fair-share fees to unions—money that goes toward the cost of union representation for all workers in a particular workplace.

But we may be back in this same situation a year from now, with the Supreme Court holding the fate of public-employee unions in its hands. That's because there are a handful of ongoing lawsuits in courts around the country that pose similar challenges to unions as Harris did and that could end up before the Supreme Court. It's possible that one of these cases could do further damage to the labor movement—with the potential to wipe out the precedent set in 1977's Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision. (In Abood, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of public-employee unions collecting fair-share fees from nonmembers to pay the costs of collective bargaining.)

If you're looking for a common thread between these challenges, it's the National Right-to-Work Legal Foundation, the driving force behind many anti-union suits around the country. The foundation represented the plaintiffs in Harris v. Quinn, and it has provided legal help in two of the following cases. 

Here's a snapshot of four cases that could be the next Harris:

  • D'Agostino v. Patrick: A group of home child care workers in Massachusetts filed suit after the state passed a law designating the SEIU as the exclusive union for those workers. Similar to the Illinois home care workers who brought the Harris suit, the Massachusetts workers claim their rights are being infringed on by being represented by SEIU, meaning union members and nonmembers pay dues in exchange for the benefits that come with union representation. This case is in the Federal District Court of Massachusetts.
  • Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association: A group of public school teachers in California claim that the requirement that they pay fair-share dues to the California Teachers Association infringes on their First Amendment rights. Their suit also seeks to ban the "opt-out" model of automatic dues deductions, in which teachers who pay dues must opt out to keep their money from funding union political activity. Instead, the plaintiffs want teachers to opt in to fund that political work. This case is with the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Parrish v. Dayton: After Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill in May 2013 allowing the state's child care providers to vote to unionize, opponents filed a suit similar to Harris to halt the new law. The suit was on hold pending the outcome of the Harris case. The plaintiffs hailed the Supreme Court's decision in Harris, and their lawyers now expect movement in Parrish.
  • Hamidi v. SEIU Local 1000: This suit targets the part of California law that allows public-employee unions to use the opt-out model for dues paying, as described above. If Hamidi, who works for the state's Franchise Tax Board, succeeds, his suit could take a bite out of Abood, which in part upheld the practice of opt-out clauses. Hamidi's case is currently in California district court.

China Study Another Link in the Lead-Crime Hypothesis

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 11:48 AM EDT

Chad Orzel thinks I need a new motto: "I'm not saying it was childhood lead exposure, but it was childhood lead exposure." Guilty as charged! And in today's installment of lead-related news, we have a new study from China—a bad region for being a child because they still have a lot of lead around, but a useful region for lead research for the exact same reason.

Thanks to this unfortunate circumstance, a team led by Jianghong Liu was able to set up a prospective study of more than a thousand preschool-age children in the Jiangsu province. "Prospective" means that they chose the children first, measured their blood lead levels, and then began charting their progress. This is generally considered a more reliable methodology than retrospective studies (which look at adults but try to figure out their childhood exposure via, say, tooth analysis) or ecological studies (which look for past correlations between lead and crime in an entire population). Here are the results of the first round of testing, done at age six (error ranges omitted for ease of reading):

General linear modeling showed significant associations between blood lead concentrations and increased scores for teacher-reported behavioral problems. A 1-µg/dL increase in the blood lead concentration resulted in a 0.322, 0.253, and 0.303 increase of teacher-reported behavior scores on emotional reactivity, anxiety problems, and pervasive developmental problems, respectively.

....Blood lead concentrations, even at a mean concentration of 6.4 µg/dL, were associated with increased risk of behavioral problems in Chinese preschool children, including internalizing and pervasive developmental problems. This association showed different patterns depending on age and sex.

It's worth noting that a blood lead level of 6.4 is considered fairly moderate. If childhood lead exposure at this level causes noticeable behavioral problems, it's a sign that even low levels of lead exposure can be quite dangerous. (Behavioral problems were assessed using questionnaires filled out by teachers and parents. That's not an ideal way of doing this, but presumably follow-up studies will include a wider range of techniques for assessing behavior.)

In any case, this single study doesn't prove anything on its own, and obviously six-year-olds are too young to be committing crimes anyway. But it's another data point, and one that will probably produce better evidence either for or against the lead-crime hypothesis over the next decade or so. It's worth keeping an eye on.

Justice Ginsburg's Epic Hobby Lobby Dissent Was Just Turned Into the Best Song You'll Hear All Day

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 11:19 AM EDT

Jonathan Mann writes a song every day. Yesterday, he turned Justice Ginsburg's epic, blistering Hobby Lobby dissent into a pretty good one!

Why can't he be on the Supreme Court?