Kevin Drum - July 2013

How the Failure of Immigration Reform Might Pave the Way for Filibuster Reform

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 11:51 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore makes a point today about immigration reform and "enforcement first" that deserves more attention:

What hasn't much been discussed is the fact that when it comes to border enforcement, the Obama administration has actually been very, very hawkish, precisely because it was considered necessary to make it possible for Republicans to support comprehensive reform.

....This deportation record has gotten extensive coverage in Spanish-language media, and was hardly a secret to anyone....There's a [] lesson for the White House in this story: taking actions thought to be popular with conservatives in order to create good will among congressional Republicans is rarely a good idea. They'll either ignore the evidence or come up with some other reason to oppose the hated Obama.

Yep. Immigration from Mexico is way down from its peak, and that's partly due to the lousy economy. But it's also due to Obama's dedication to continuing—and even beefing up—the tougher immigration enforcement started under President Bush: more border patrol officers, continued building of the fence, harsh deportation policies, and continued improvement of the E-Verify program that employers use to check the legal status of new hires. All of these things have annoyed liberals (or worse) and, as Ed says, were done primarily to set up conditions that would allow Republicans to support immigration reform. But it sure looks as if it didn't do any good.

This is just another example of why Harry Reid might actually go through with filibuster reform this year: there's simply nothing that Democrats can do anymore to get even the most modest cooperation from Republicans. The GOP is now so uniformly obstructionist that, paradoxically, they have no political leverage left. Ezra Klein provides the play-by-play:

Consider the record. Republicans abandoned a budget deal in favor of the mess that is sequestration. Gun control failed. Student loan rates doubled. Republicans are promising another debt-ceiling showdown. And now immigration looks unlikely to make it through the House. What exactly is left that Democrats want to get done and Republicans are likely to work with them to finish?

Good question. Earlier this year there was lots of talk about Obama's need to reach out and do more schmoozing, or perhaps his need to make sure that Republicans actually knew what he was offering. That stuff can't hurt, but it sure doesn't look like it did any good, either. The modern Republican Party just doesn't care. Their base judges them almost solely by their opposition to whatever Obama wants, so that's what they give them. The nuclear option and its cousins are about all that Obama and the Democratic Party have left.

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Hooray! Let's Screw the Poor Even More When the Economy Is Already Keeping Them Out of Work

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 5:28 PM EDT

I see we got some more posturing from Republicans today:

House Republicans successfully passed a Farm Bill Thursday by splitting apart funding for food stamps from federal agricultural policy, a move that infuriated the White House and congressional Democrats who spent most of the day trying to delay a final vote.

....The vote made clear that Republicans intend to make significant reductions in food stamp money and handed Republican leaders a much-needed victory three weeks after conservative lawmakers and rural state Democrats revolted and blocked the original version of the bill that included food stamp money.

....The White House said late Wednesday that President Obama would veto any Farm Bill that fails to comprehensively address federal farm and food aid policy. In a statement, White House officials said they had insufficient time to review the bill.

Republicans are upset that spending on food stamps (aka SNAP) has gone up so much over the past few years. And why has it increased? Because more people qualify for SNAP these days:

Fine. But why do more people qualify? Well, the big increase starts right where you see that thick gray bar, which represents the Great Recession. That should give you a clue. CBO fills in the rest:

Almost two-thirds of the growth in spending on SNAP benefits between 2007 and 2011 stemmed from the increase in the number of participants. Labor market conditions deteriorated dramatically between 2007 and 2009 and have been slow to recover; since 2007, both the number of people eligible for the program and the share of those who are eligible and who participate in the program have risen.

About one-fifth of the growth in spending can be attributed to temporarily higher benefit amounts enacted in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The remainder stems from other factors, such as higher food prices and lower income among beneficiaries, both of which have boosted benefits.

So there you go. We had a big recession. The recovery has been anemic. That means there are more poor people, and that in turn means there are more people receiving SNAP benefits. It's really not very complicated.

Even knowing that, Republicans tried to cut $20 billion out of SNAP a few weeks ago (a figure that's over and above the phaseout of the "temporarily higher benefits" from the stimulus bill that's already scheduled for November). They even managed to get a few dozen Democrats to go along. But it wasn't enough. They just had to tack on a screw-you amendment at the last minute that lost them enough votes to prevent passage. So now, instead of ditching the amendment, they're splitting up the farm legislation in an effort to produce a separate SNAP bill that will be even more miserly than their previous effort. Because, really, what's the point of being a modern Republican if you can't cut back on food aid for the poor during a period of extended high unemployment?

Quote of the Day: "What's This? Six Thousand Words and Nobody Died?"

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 2:54 PM EDT

From Francesca Borri, explaining why freelancers in war zones are paid so miserably:

The reason for the $70 per piece isn't that there isn't any money, because there is always money for a piece on Berlusconi's girlfriends. The true reason is that you ask for $100 and somebody else is ready to do it for $70. It’s the fiercest competition. Like Beatriz, who today pointed me in the wrong direction so she would be the only one to cover the demonstration, and I found myself amid the snipers as a result of her deception. Just to cover a demonstration, like hundreds of others.

How on earth can there be so many people who are eager—eager!—to spend years living in the middle of a brutal civil war for no more than a tiny pittance? It's not a surprise that there are people willing to do this. But so many?

The Education of Mitch McConnell

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 1:39 PM EDT

Would you like to know more about what makes Mitch McConnell tick? Zach Carter and Jason Cherkis have you covered with a Brobdingnagian profile of the Senate minority leader in the Huffington Post today. Here's a taste:

After 30 years in Washington spent fighting Democrats on nearly every front, McConnell has embraced his persona as the dark lord of Capitol Hill. John Yarmuth, the Democratic Kentucky congressman who as a young Republican had traveled with McConnell organizing college campuses for [Marlow Cook's Senate campaign in 1968], says the two are no longer on speaking terms. "He won't talk to me now," Yarmuth says of McConnell. "I've known him for 45 years."

Recently, Yarmuth says, he ran into the Senate minority leader at a largely empty airport VIP room. McConnell was sitting alone with a newspaper. "I looked straight at him," Yarmuth says. "I said, 'Hi, Mitch.' There wasn't a muscle in his face that moved. ... He just buried his head in the paper."

McConnell's life has become an endless campaign.

Marlow Cook is disappointed in his former staffer. "When you go to Washington, you make your record," says the retired former senator. "Nobody else makes it for you. And the record that he has made, he has to be comfortable with or he wouldn't be there. ... A man makes the reputation he gets. Mitch has to be satisfied. If I were there and I were in that position, I would not be satisfied."

As it happens, I suspect that this piece exaggerates McConnell's influence. Does he deliver plenty of pork for Kentucky? Yes, but that's what senators do. Did he help turn Kentucky into a Republican stronghold? Yes again, but that was happening all over the South in the 70s and 80s. McConnell was part of that movement, but I'm not sure he played a uniquely transformative role.

Nonetheless, if you want to understand the forces that made McConnell McConnell, this isn't a bad place to start. Put aside a half hour one of these days and dive in.

Climate Change Will Make It Harder For Us to Adapt to.....Climate Change

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 1:07 PM EDT

Via Brad Plumer, a new report from the Department of Energy says that climate change is likely to have a severe impact on our ability to produce and distribute electricity:

Increasing temperatures, decreasing water availability, more intense storm events, and sea level rise will each independently, and in some cases in combination, affect the ability of the United States to produce and transmit electricity from fossil, nuclear, and existing and emerging renewable energy sources. These changes are also projected to affect the nation’s demand for energy and its ability to access, produce, and distribute oil and natural gas.

Why? Because power plants need cooling water that's actually cool. Coastal plants are vulnerable to flooding. Droughts cut off the massive water supplies needed for natural gas fracking. Hydropower dwindles when reservoir levels drop. Electric grids are less efficient when temperatures are higher. Fuel transport can be halted by floods and droughts. And all this, of course, comes against the backdrop of increasing demand for electricity to power air conditioners thanks to....climate change.

A few examples from the report about the effects of drought are below. Other chapters cover the consequences of increasing temperatures and sea level rise.

28th in the World, Baby!

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 11:54 AM EDT

Aaron Carroll draws our attention today to a new study in JAMA that compares American health outcomes with those in other rich countries. Overall, we're now in 28th place, sandwiched in between Chile and Poland. The massive chart below shows how we do on treating specific diseases. We're 31st on diabetes, 16th on breast cancer, 32nd on COPD, and (in our best showing) 8th on colon cancer.

The usual lazy response to studies like this is to claim that Americans are just less healthy than residents of other countries because we're fat and we lead crappy lifestyles. Maybe so. But that doesn't explain why we're not just bad, we're getting worse:

Between 1990 and 2010, among the 34 countries in the OECD, the US dropped from 18th to 27th in age-standardized death rate. The US dropped from 23rd to 28th for age-standardized years of life lost. It dropped from 20th to 27th in life expectancy at birth. It dropped from 14th to 26th for healthy life expectancy. The only bit of good news was that the US only dropped from 5th to 6th in years lived with disability.

We don't have the best healthcare in the world. We just don't. We have the most expensive healthcare in the world and the best-paid doctors in the world, but that's it. On pretty much every other measure, we suck.

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Getting Rid of the Filibuster is Easy, and Everyone Already Knows It

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 10:50 AM EDT

Today, Democrats will discuss whether they should try to change filibuster rules to make it easier to confirm executive branch nominees. Niels Lesniewski reports on how this is going:

While what may be debated behind closed doors at a Thursday Democratic caucus lunch seems pretty narrow, it may be tough to unring the bell if a “nuclear option” is in fact deployed on the floor. Under such a procedural move, a simple majority would assert the ability to change rules and procedures without the two-thirds vote needed to overcome a filibuster of a formal rules changes.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan has been the most vocal opponent of the nuclear option on the Democratic side. He conceded it may be technically possible to make a narrow change in the rules applying to disputed executive branch nominees but said that, eventually, the dam would break to kill all filibusters.

“Maybe they could figure out a way that this time, this is what we’re doing, but that doesn’t mean that the same approach couldn’t be used for something else at a later time,” Levin said.

I don't really understand Levin's point. Everyone already knows how to do this. All it takes is a ruling from the Senate's presiding officer—Joe Biden at the moment—and previous vice presidents from Richard Nixon forward have all agreed that this is legitimate. In other words, it's been done in the past, and there are no real disputes about precedent. In fact, less than a decade ago Republicans were threatening to do exactly the same thing with Dick Cheney wielding the gavel.

So sure, this same approach could be used for something else at a later time. That's true regardless of whether Democrats do anything right now, and everyone knows it. So what's the problem?

Was the Egyptian Military Planning a Coup From the Very Start?

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 1:58 AM EDT

This is a pretty fascinating report about Egypt from the New York Times:

The streets seethe with protests and government ministers are on the run or in jail, but since the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, life has somehow gotten better for many people across Egypt: Gas lines have disappeared, power cuts have stopped and the police have returned to the street.

....As the interim government struggles to unite a divided nation, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi’s supporters say the sudden turnaround proves that their opponents conspired to make Mr. Morsi fail. Not only did police officers seem to disappear, but the state agencies responsible for providing electricity and ensuring gas supplies failed so fundamentally that gas lines and rolling blackouts fed widespread anger and frustration.

....It is the police returning to the streets that offers the most blatant sign that the institutions once loyal to Mr. Mubarak held back while Mr. Morsi was in power. Throughout his one-year tenure, Mr. Morsi struggled to appease the police, even alienating his own supporters rather than trying to overhaul the Interior Ministry. But as crime increased and traffic clogged roads — undermining not only the quality of life, but the economy — the police refused to deploy fully.

....Despite coming to power through the freest elections in Egyptian history, Mr. Morsi was unable to extend his authority over the sprawling state apparatus, and his allies complained that what they called the “deep state” was undermining their efforts at governing.

If this is true, it certainly puts the military coup in a different light, doesn't it?

Yeah, Incandescent Light Bulbs Have Pretty Much Been Banned

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 1:44 AM EDT

In non-immigration news today, House Republicans voted yet again to repeal a Bush-era law that mandates more efficient light bulbs. This has been a tea party hobbyhorse for years now, symbolizing their resistance to nanny state socialism and overbearing tyrannical government. Or something. In any case, they hold this vote every few months or so, but like all of these symbolic votes, it will go nowhere in the Senate. So it's meaningless.

But it got me curious: did the federal government really ban incandescent light bulbs, as conservatives keep saying? In the past, I've been a little confused about this. The law clearly doesn't explicitly outlaw incandescent bulbs, but it's surprisingly hard to find a straight answer about whether, in practice, the new standards will force incandescent bulbs off the market. I went looking again tonight, and it's still surprisingly hard to get a straight answer about this.

So I decided to perform some empirical research: I went to the store to see if I could buy an incandescent bulb. Both 75-watt and 100-watt bulbs are currently required to meet the new efficiency standards, so that's what I looked for (60-watt bulbs, ominously, aren't required to meet the new standards until Black Wednesday, the day Obamacare goes into effect). Did I find any?

No, I did not. Not at my local Ace hardware, not at my local Rite-Aid drug store, and not at my local Lowe's. What's more, the light bulb section at Lowe's featured a big sign that said "DID YOU KNOW: Incandescent bulbs are being phased out." You basically have a choice of LED, CFL, or halogen bulbs. 100-watt incandescents are a thing of the past.

Now, the halogens are pretty affordable. They go for a buck or two apiece depending on how many you buy. The others are more expensive but save a lot of money in the long run. So consumers are in fine shape and energy is being saved. It's all good. Nonetheless, on the question of whether incandescent bulbs have been banned, I have to award this decision to the tea partiers on points. The law doesn't say that incandescents are banned, but its practical effect has indeed been to make them unavailable. Colloquially speaking, it's not a stretch to say they've been banned.

It's Not Just Kevin Who Rarely Gets "Très Bien"

| Wed Jul. 10, 2013 2:58 PM EDT

Erik Voeten caught my eye today with a blog post titled "Kevin Rarely Gets 'Très Bien.'" Well. Apparently students named Kevin are among the worst scorers on the baccalaureat, an exam French students take at the end of high school to qualify for university studies. Voeten uses this to make a point about the naming preferences of various social classes, but something else about the scatterplot below attracted my attention:

The names to the right of the red line are the highest scorers. Notice anything that's almost entirely missing?