Kevin Drum - February 2014

In the Republican Party, the Yahoo Wing is Winning

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 11:01 AM EST

Thanks to massive internal disarray, Republicans are unable to agree on any kind of immigration reform plan. They can't say that, though, so they're blaming it on the fact that President Obama is a rogue despot who can't be trusted to enforce the law no matter what it is. He'll implement the parts he likes and ignore the rest, just as he's been doing for years with his sun-king presidency. So no immigration reform.

Also thanks to massive internal disarray, Republicans are unable to agree on a plan to raise the debt limit. Plan A was to demand the end of risk corridors in Obamacare (aka the "insurer bailout"), but that went nowhere. Plan B was to repeal the benefit cut for veterans that was enacted last month, which might have gone somewhere since Democrats are probably willing to go along with that in any case. But that didn't make the cut either because it would have made it tough for tea partiers to vote against the bill. Plan C is to "wrap several popular, must-pass items around a provision to extend the federal government’s borrowing authority beyond the November midterm elections." But even this plan is looking shaky.

The common thread here is that the Republican Party is unable to get its act together enough to look beyond next week. Both immigration reform and a quiet debt limit increase would benefit the GOP in the long term. But both would also infuriate the yahoo wing of the party in the short term. So far, the yahoo wing is winning.

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NFL Apprehensive About Its First Openly Gay Player

| Sun Feb. 9, 2014 11:03 PM EST

Michael Sam, a defensive end who was projected to be a mid-round choice in the NFL draft this year, announced today that he's gay. So how did the league react?

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

All the NFL personnel members interviewed believed that Sam's announcement will cause him to drop in the draft. He was projected between the third and seventh rounds prior to the announcement. The question is: How far will he fall?

"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down," said a veteran NFL scout. "There's no question about it. It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'"

....The potential distraction of his presence — both in the media and the locker room — could prevent him from being selected. "That will break a tie against that player," the former general manager said. "Every time. Unless he's Superman. Why? Not that they're against gay people. It's more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'"

The former general manager said that it would take an NFL franchise with a strong owner, savvy general manager and veteran coach to make drafting Sam work. He rattled off franchises like Pittsburgh, Green Bay, San Francisco, Baltimore and Indianapolis as potential destinations. The former general manager added that a team with a rookie head coach would not be an ideal landing spot.

Moral of the story: Yes, we've made progress. But we still have a ways to go.

The Fifth Ring: How Conspiracy Theories are Born

| Sat Feb. 8, 2014 11:37 AM EST

As we all know, there was a glitch in the Olympic opening ceremonies yesterday. But not everyone saw it:

Somehow it seemed fitting when a set of floating snowflakes suddenly transformed themselves into Olympic rings — but only four of them. The fifth snowflake never changed.

Russian television viewers, however, saw all five rings, as the show's producer Konstantin Ernst recognized the malfunction shortly before it occurred and immediately ordered an image from rehearsals to be transmitted in its place. "It would be ridiculous to focus on the ring that would not open," said Ernst later. "It would be silly."

That's quick thinking! But I suspect it's going to give birth to a thousand conspiracy theories. After all, millions of Russians saw all five rings, so why are all the Americans and Europeans saying there were only four? It must be Photoshop trickery from Westerners designed to make Russia the butt of jokes. Right?

Stephen Kim Agrees to Plea Deal in North Korea Leak Case

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 6:34 PM EST

Yesterday I wondered whether the infamous "Friday afternoon news dump" was overblown. Put simply, does releasing embarrassing stuff on Friday really reduce the amount of coverage it gets? I'm skeptical.

Today, bmaz says the news dump is alive and well. Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who was fingered last year as the guy who leaked North Korean intel to a reporter, agreed to a plea deal this afternoon:

As you may recall, this is the infamous case where the Obama/Holder DOJ was caught classifying a journalist, James Rosen of Fox News, as an "aider and abettor" of espionage....The fully justifiable uproar over the Rosen treatment by DOJ eventually led to "new guidelines" being issued by the DOJ. The new guidelines are certainly a half step in the right direction, but wholly unsatisfactory for the breadth and scope of the current Administration’s attack on the American free press.

But now the case undergirding the discussion in the Stephen Kim case will be shut down, and the questions that could play out in an actual trial quashed. All nice and tidy!

You can read more about it here. But I'm not sure this says much about the Friday news dump. I don't think anyone really expected this case to go to trial, given the fact that Kim basically confessed, and I doubt that today's announcement would have gotten a lot of attention no matter when it had happened. It's the kind of thing that bmaz and I are interested in, but for most people it's just a routine follow-up to a story they barely even heard about in the first place.

Plus the news dump didn't work! This story isn't getting banner headlines or anything, but right now it's on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox News Politics, Politico, and USA Today. On the wire service side, both AP and Reuters have moved pieces about the plea deal. That's about as much attention as something like this was ever likely to get.

Friday Cat Blogging - 7 February 2014

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 2:50 PM EST

When we watch TV, Domino watches TV. And since Domino has good taste, she almost always curls up with Marian, not me. (I'll do, but only in a pinch, if Marian isn't around.) So this was us last night. We were watching the Olympic slopestyle coverage (verdict: meh), and Domino was watching us. Then she fell asleep. Eventually, we did too.

In Rare Break With Tradition, Congress Might Actually Do Something Constructive Soon

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 2:05 PM EST

In 1997, in an effort to rein in rising Medicare spending, Congress created a formula for paying doctors called the "sustainable growth rate" (SGR). Unfortunately, a few years later, this formula started calling not for sustainable growth, but for actual pay cuts. Doctors went ballistic, and Congress hastily passed a "doc fix" that deferred the scheduled cuts. Then they did the same thing the next year, and the year after that—and then in every year since then. At this point, the SGR is obviously deader than the proverbial doornail, but officially killing it would also officially count as a spending increase, which would officially increase the deficit by a lot. Nobody wants to face up to that, so every year Congress just passes a temporary extension to the doc fix and calls it a day.

But wait! In a rare display of constructive bipartisanship, Congress might actually do something about this. Sarah Kliff explains:

The problem with the sustainable growth rate is it isn't sustainable at all....But because the doc-fix could cost as much as $300 billion to fix, legislators have stuck with [] short-term patches, which cost significantly less and are a whole lot easier to find offsets to pay for. The math changed this year, however, as health care cost growth has slowed, and the Congressional Budget Office has essentially cut in half the amount it thinks fixing the doc-fix would cost. Now, the CBO says it will cost $153 billion to repeal the sustainable growth rate, and legislators see that lower price tag as making it easier — although by no means certain — to pass legislation.

The proposal released Thursday is a thorough outline of the policies that would replace the doc-fix. What Congress wants to do differently this time around is, by 2021, put as much as nine percent of doctors' reimbursements at stake if providers can't hit certain quality standards. It would also include a bonus pool of $500 million for the doctors who do provide really great care.

This is no slam dunk. Congress still has to find $153 billion in offsets, after all. And it's certainly possible to put a cynical spin on this: there's no money available for the long-term unemployed, but for doctors? No problem! But I'd be less cynical. After all, it's not as if doctors won't get their current pay rates one way or another. This is just a matter of facing up to reality and admitting that SGR didn't work and never will. That's basic good governance, and we can use all of that we can get.

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Big Brother Turns Out to Be a Little Less Big Than We Thought

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 1:02 PM EST

Here's the latest on the NSA's phone record collection program:

The National Security Agency is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ call records because of an inability to keep pace with the explosion in cellphone use, according to current and former U.S. officials.

....In 2006, the officials said, the NSA was collecting nearly all records about Americans’ phone calls from a number of U.S. companies under a then-classified program, but as of last summer that share had plummeted to less than 30 percent.

....The bulk collection began largely as a land-line program, focusing on carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Business Network Services. At least two large wireless companies are not covered — Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile U.S., which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Wait a second. If you're a terrorist planning, say, the destruction of electric power west of the Rockies, all you have to do is make sure everyone on your team has a Verizon cell phone? Huh.

Rick Santorum is Still the Same Creepy Guy He Was in 2012

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 12:43 PM EST

A quick note on the Republican presidential field. In the course of making the case for Paul Ryan as the front runner a few days ago, I failed to mention Rick Santorum as a possible challenger. That was a mistake. He's going to run, and he belongs on the list.

That said, come on. Is anyone taking him seriously? Yes, he won a few primaries in 2012, but only as the last man standing in the Anyone But Romney marathon. That doesn't demonstrate an ability to win, it just demonstrates an unusual level of pigheadedness. Santorum was willing to stay in the race for months even though he never polled more than a few percent and was obviously widely disliked. Only when everyone else was gone did conservative voters reluctantly turn to him as their final, forlorn hope of stopping the Romney juggernaut.

So sure, Santorum is going to run. He might do better this time around because his name recognition is higher. But he's still the same creepy dude he was last time and he still has the charisma of a sea slug. Even the Christian Right obviously finds him a little too self-righteous and a little too shudder inducing. I wouldn't put him even in the top five of possible 2016 contenders.

Chart of the Day #2: The Madness of Austerity

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 11:59 AM EST

January's job numbers were fairly dismal, but the bad cheer wasn't equally spread. Private sector employment, as usual, increased—by 142,000 jobs last month. At the same time, public sector employment declined. Government employment at all levels was down 29,000 in January.

Aside from the brief census blip in early 2010, this has been the usual state of affairs for the past four years, ever since the recession officially ended. The chart below shows public and private sector employment indexed to 100 at the end of the recession. Private sector employment is up 6.8 percent. Public sector employment is down 3.4 percent. And that's during a period when population grew 2.3 percent. On a per capita basis, government employment has declined more than 5 percent since 2009, and it's still declining.

This is the price of austerity. If public sector employment had been growing normally during this period, we'd have about a million more jobs than we do now and the unemployment rate would probably be below 6 percent. We are our own worst enemies.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs for January

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 11:07 AM EST

The American economy added 113,000 new jobs in January, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 23,000. That's two consecutive months of dismal job growth numbers.

On the bright side, the headline unemployment rate declined from 6.7 percent to 6.6 percent, and this wasn't just a matter of people dropping out of the labor force. The number of employed persons was up over 600,000 and the labor force participation ratio ticked up a couple of tenths.

As always, though, the unemployment numbers come from the household survey, while the job growth number comes from the payroll survey, which is much larger and thus more reliable. The employment numbers hint that things might be better than we think, but it's only a hint. Overall, this is a very weak jobs report, and coming on the heels of a weak December report, they suggest that the American economy is still pretty fragile.