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By Immense Coincidence, GOP Benghazi Probe Scheduled to Finish Up During Height of 2016 Hillary Campaign

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 3:16 PM EDT

From Bloomberg News:

The findings of a Republican-led committee investigating Hillary Clinton’s response to the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, likely will not be released until next year, just months before the 2016 presidential election.

I am shocked, shocked to hear this news.

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Obama Has a Plan to Expand Medicaid in Red States—by Weakening It

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 3:10 PM EDT

One of the Affordable Care Act's major provisions sought to expand the number of people covered by Medicaid by allowing people earning up to 138 percent of the poverty line to enroll.

But in many parts of the country, it hasn't worked out that way. Individual states are largely responsible for running Medicaid, and despite the act's generous terms—the federal government promised to initially cover 100 percent of the cost, then 90 percent after 2016—only 29 states have taken the deal. Of the holdouts, most are conservative states with Republican governors where Obama is unpopular.

Some red states have been coming around, lured by of the enormous infusion of federal funds they'll receive by expanding Medicaid. And without participating, states soon stand to lose billions in other payments designed to compensate hospitals for care for the uninsured. (Florida could lose more than $2 billion on account of leaving 800,000 residents uninsured who could otherwise be covered under Medicaid.)

Despite that carrot and stick, Republican-controlled states have demanded additional concessions from the Obama administration before taking part in the expansion—and in many cases, as a new paper from the National Health Law Program suggests, the administration has agreed to changes that undermine its own goal of expanding coverage.

These changes have made some states' Medicaid programs more, well, Republican—not to mention punitive. Take Arkansas, which in 2013 was allowed to use its Medicaid funds to let poor residents buy private insurance on the state health exchange—policies that may not have the same protections or coverage as traditional Medicaid. Iowa and New Hampshire have followed suit. According to the NHLP, these initial waivers emboldened states to seek even greater concessions. An example is Indiana, where, in exchange for agreeing to expand Medicaid, officials not only won the right to charge poor people premiums and co-payments, but also to lock people out of the program for at least six months if they fail to pay those premiums.

The administration has granted such waivers through its authority to authorize so-called demonstration projects to encourage policy innovation in the states. But NHLP contends that waivers like Indiana's violate the law, which "requires demonstrations to actually demonstrate something." As NHLP points out, reams of research have long showed that such premiums dramatically reduce health coverage for low-income people. After the Obama administration granted Indiana's request, Arkansas went back to ask for permission to charge premiums, too. And it prevailed.

And yet some states still want more. Florida, for instance, is considering a bill that would use billions of dollars of Medicaid money to provide vouchers to poor people to buy private insurance. But anyone getting a voucher would have to pay mandatory premiums, and also either have a job or be in school. Childless adults need not apply. (The administration hasn't signed off on this one—yet.)

NHLP suggests that the Obama administration is undercutting its very strong bargaining position by allowing states to dismantle Medicaid through waivers, at the expense of the very poor and sick. Its white paper notes that Medicaid's history proves even the most ardent opponents of government health care eventually come around: In 1965, when the program was first created, only 26 states joined in. Five years later, though, almost all had.

Scott Walker Celebrates Earth Day by Proposing To Fire 57 Environmental Agency Employees

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

Happy Earth Day! Today is a day we can all band together and share our love for this beautiful planet—or at least drown our sorrows about climate change with nerdy themed cocktails. Later today, President Barack Obama will mark the occasion with a climate-focused speech in the Florida Everglades. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, had a different idea: Fire a big chunk of the state's environmental staff.

From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

Fifty-seven employees of the state Department of Natural Resources began receiving formal notices this week that they might face layoff as part of Gov. Scott Walker's budget for the next two fiscal years…

The DNR's scientific staff conducts research on matters ranging from estimating the size of the state's deer herd to to studying the effects of aquatic invasive species. Work is paid for with state and federal funds…

All told, Walker's budget would cut 66 positions from the DNR. Of this, more than 25% would come from the science group. Cosh said a smaller number of employees received notices than the 66 positions in the budget because some positions targeted for cuts are vacant.

It's no secret that a signature tactic in Walker's controversial environmental record has been to degrade the DNR, which in addition to carrying out research is tasked with regulating the state's mining industries. Still, the timing of this particular announcement is striking. I guess no one marked Earth Day on Walker's calendar.

Neither Walker's office nor DNR immediately returned requests for comment.

As consolation for this depressing news, here's is a webcam of pandas at the San Diego Zoo.

How Californians Screwed Drought-Plagued California

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 12:25 PM EDT
The state's water hogs and Silicon Valley's tech shuttles benefit from the same tax exclusion.

Solving California's water crisis got a lot harder on Monday when a state appeals court struck down steeply tiered water rates in the city of San Juan Capistrano. Like many other California cities, this affluent Orange County town encourages conservation by charging customers who use small amounts of water a lower rate per gallon than customers who use larger amounts. The court ruled that the practice conflicts with Proposition 218, a ballot measure that, among other things, bars governments from charging more for a service than it costs to provide it.

In the process of thwarting taxation without voter approval, Prop. 218 stops state and local governments from addressing urgent problems, such as drought.

The drought isn't the only way Prop. 218 is hamstringing California cities. Early last year, San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency announced a controversial pilot program that would allow Google buses and other tech shuttles to use public bus stops for $1 a stop. Activists, who saw the shuttles as symbols of inequality and out-of-control gentrification, wanted the agency to charge Google much more than that and use the profits to subsidize the city's chronically underfunded public transit system. But MTA officials argued that their hands were tied: Prop. 218 prevented them from charging more than the estimated $1.5 million cost of administering the program.

Prop. 218, the "Right to Vote on Taxes Act," was a constitutional amendment drafted in 1996 by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the group that led the tax revolt that swept California in the 1970s and eventually helped elect President Ronald Reagan. After 1978, when the group's signature initiative, Prop. 13, began severely limiting property tax increases, cities and counties moved to plug their budgetary holes with other types of taxes and fees. Prop 218 was designed to constrain those workarounds by requiring that any new tax be approved by voters or affected property owners. For the purposes of the act, taxes included any fees from which a government derived a profit.

Prop. 218 has been widely criticized for making it harder for cities to raise revenues, but the recent cases with water rates and tech shuttles point to another issue: the way the initiative prevents state and local governments from addressing urgent social and environmental problems. It's worth remembering that withdrawing water from California's dwindling reservoirs to feed verdant lawns is in itself a tax of sorts, and Mother Nature may not wait until the next election to revoke our ability to levy it.

Ted Cruz's Princeton Years Included Jokes About a Woman's Hymen

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 11:39 AM EDT

During his days as a member of Princeton University's debate team, Ted Cruz earned a reputation as a spirited orator. But when an opponent would try to poke fun at him, Cruz's rhetorical skills couldn't compensate for his complete lack of a sense of humor. According to a story in the Times today, the situation would get even worse when he actually tried to be funny himself:

Mr. Cruz’s own attempts at humor sometimes missed the mark. In one debate, he proposed a method to detect infidelity, in which God should "give women a hymen that grows back every time she has intercourse with a different guy, because that will be a 'visible sign' of the breach of trust," according to a recollection by David Kennedy published in a Harvard debate team reunion booklet in 2001.

Mr. Kennedy’s debate partner mocked Mr. Cruz’s knowledge of the subject matter by contorting herself to see how the anatomy in question could be "visible," according to the booklet.

Other than demonstrating Cruz had an odd understanding of how a woman's body operates, the "joke" clearly did not resonate with anyone. But that didn't mean Cruz lacked a lighter side. His fellow debate team members remember his love for musicals, which he'd frequently blast in car rides to competitions. "He was an extreme fan of the 'Les Misérables' soundtrack," one member recalled to the Times.

Washington State Is So Screwed

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 9:50 AM EDT
Drought areas in Washington State, apple kingdom of the US.

California's been getting all the attention, but it isn't the only agriculture-centric western state dealing with brutal drought. Washington, a major producer of wheat and wine grapes and the source of nearly 70 percent of US apples grown for fresh consumption, also endured an usually warm and snow-bereft winter.

The state's Department of Ecology has declared "drought emergencies" in 24 of the state's 62 watersheds, an area comprising 44 percent of the state. Here's more from the agency's advisory:

Snowpack statewide has declined to 24 percent of normal, worse than when the last statewide drought was declared in 2005. Snowpack is like a frozen reservoir for river basins, in a typical year accumulating over the winter and slowly melting through the spring and summer providing a water supply for rivers and streams. This year run-off from snowmelt for the period April through September is projected to be the lowest on record in the past 64 years.

The drought regions include apple-heavy areas like Yakima Valley and the Okanogan region. Given that warmer winters—and thus less snow—are consistent with the predictions of climate change models, the Washington drought delivers yet more reason to consider expanding fruit and vegetable production somewhere far from the west coast. That's an idea I've called de-Californication (see here and here). But we'll need a new term to encompass the northwest. De-westernization? Doesn't have quite the same ring.

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Obama Is Poised to Give GMO and Meat Companies Something They've Always Wanted

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

President Obama and his Senate GOP critics are locked in a long-simmering feud, but there's one topic that has them clasping hands and singing kumbaya: global free-trade deals. The erstwhile foes are joining forces to push two massive ones: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would knock down trade barriers for a group of nations including the United States, Canada, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam; and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would do the same between the US and the European Union.

"We're not trying to force anybody anywhere to eat anything, but we do think the decisions about what is safe should be made by science and not by politics," said US Trade Representative Michael Froman.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators rolled out legislation, vigorously promoted by the White House, that would give the president broad authority to negotiate and push such trade deals through Congress, a process known as "fast track." Since it facilitates corporate-friendly trade rules, the fast-track bill is expected to enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers. But progressive Democratic senators are lining up to oppose it, setting up a battle royal pitting President Obama and his own congressional caucus—one the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman calls "sure to be one of the toughest fights of Mr. Obama's last 19 months in office."

In a post last year, I laid out why the US meat industry loves the TPP: namely, that it would open the floodgates to lucrative markets in Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia, all of which limit imports of US meat to protect domestic farmers

Another massive agribusiness sector, the GMO seed pesticide industry, potentially stands to gain from the TTIP, because the European Union has much more restrictive regulations on rolling out novel crops than does the United States. Some member states, including France, maintain moratoriums on planting certain GM crops. Attempting to drum up support for the fast-track bill on Capitol Hill, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and US Trade Representative Michael Froman have been been promising to use the proposed treaty has a hammer to force broader acceptance in the EU. 

"Vilsack said the administration would 'continue to negotiate very hard' to prevent individual EU countries from blocking use of approved biotech products," reports Agri-Pulse's Philip Brasher, in an account of a hearing last week held by the Senate Finance Committee. As for Froman, he told the committee that "we're not trying to force anybody anywhere to eat anything, but we do think the decisions about what is safe should be made by science and not by politics."

Vilsack has also rallied the agribusiness industry to lobby Congress in favor of the fast-track bill, calling on "farmers, ranchers, agribusiness owners, and other industry groups to urge Congress to pass trade promotion authority for President Obama and to support the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement," reports the North American Meat Institute.

But what's good for the meat and biotech industries industry isn't necessarily good for the country. As the Intercept's Lee Fang reports, Obama's Office of the United States Trade Representative, which is negotiating the trade deals, is shot through with former biotech-industry flacks. The fast track bill would further curtail public debate on a treaty process that's already been notoriously secretive. I hope Democratic senators defy the president on this one.

Does Walmart Have Plumbing Problems?

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 1:40 AM EDT

No, really. Did five Walmart stores have to shut down and abruptly lay off all their workers within hours because they suddenly discovered massive plumbing problems? Michael Hiltzik is skeptical.

Tales From City of Hope #3: The Stop Sign For Dwarves

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 10:14 PM EDT

This is the stop sign at the end of the road that runs outside my apartment in Parsons Village. It is about three feet high.

There are no other stop signs on the corner. As far as I can tell, there are (currently) no obstructions that prevent building a normal height sign. All the other traffic signs in the vicinity are normal height.

So what's the deal? Did it replace a normal height sign that trams and maintenance carts that kept ignoring? Is it some kind of "fun" sign for the kiddies? Did someone write the specs in metric, and 3 meters became 3 feet somehow? Any other ideas?

New Document Cache Shows the Real Roots of ISIS Are as Much Secular as Religious

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 4:28 PM EDT

Spiegel has quite a fascinating report this week about the origins and growth of ISIS. It's a great counterpoint to Graeme Wood's Atlantic piece from February that focused on the Islamic and theological roots of ISIS and the territorial ambitions of its self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But it turns out that this is far from the whole story. According to Christopher Reuter, a recently discovered cache of documents shows that the founding architect of ISIS was actually Haji Bakr, the pseudonym of Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein's air defense force. Bakr, who lost his job and his power in 2003 when Paul Bremer made the decision to disband the Iraqi army, was the real mastermind behind ISIS. In dozens of detailed pages written in 2012, he laid out an organizational plan for the kind of pervasive, brutally efficient spy state he knew best:

It seemed as if George Orwell had been the model for this spawn of paranoid surveillance. But it was much simpler than that. Bakr was merely modifying what he had learned in the past: Saddam Hussein's omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren't being spied on.

....There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr's writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited. In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later "caliph," the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.

So the roots of ISIS are purely pragmatic: Bakr wanted to build an organization that could retake Iraq, and he calculated that this could best be done by combining the secular mechanisms of Saddam Hussein with the religious fanaticism of an Al Qaeda. The whole piece is well worth a read.