Kevin Drum

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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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.

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.

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.

Are You a Good Liberal or an Evil Progressive?

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 10:52 AM EDT

Charles Murray has decided that the real problem with the American left isn't with liberals, it's with progressives:

As a libertarian, I am reluctant to give up the word "liberal." It used to refer to laissez-faire economics and limited government. But since libertarians aren't ever going to be able to retrieve its original meaning, we should start using "liberal" to designate the good guys on the left, reserving "progressive" for those who are enthusiastic about an unrestrained regulatory state, who think it's just fine to subordinate the interests of individuals to large social projects, who cheer the president's abuse of executive power and who have no problem rationalizing the stifling of dissent.

Huh. I wonder what he thinks about those of us who believe that powerful actors in a modern world need to follow clear rules, but don't believe in "unrestrained" regulation; who believe in some large social projects like universal health care but not others; who think the president has probably overstepped his bounds a few times but that the "abuse" epithet is mostly just partisan nonsense; and who don't believe in stifling dissent?

Somehow I suspect that unless I took a just barely left of center approach to these things, Murray would conclude that I'm an evil progressive, not a good liberal. But maybe I'm wrong. I think Murray should create one of his fun little quizzes to determine which of us are liberals and which are progressives. Then we'd know for sure.

Number of Backdoor Searches of NSA Data Too High to Keep Track Of

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 9:15 PM EDT

A few days ago I mentioned that the House had voted to end "backdoor" searches. These are queries of the NSA's surveillance database that are targeted at American citizens who were "inadvertently" spied on during surveillance of foreigners, and the NSA would like you to know that these queries are totally legal; not based on any loopholes; and very definitely not "backdoor."

Be that as it may, Sen. Ron Wyden still wanted to know just how many of these queries take place. In the case of the NSA and the CIA, backdoor queries are allowed only if the goal is related to foreign intelligence gathering. The FBI, however, has no such restriction. They can query all those inadvertent US persons for pretty much any reason at all related to a suspected crime. So how many queries of the NSA database have they made?

There you have it. The FBI has no idea how many time it's queried the NSA database, though it's "substantial." In fact, those records are automatically included every single time the FBI's database is queried. Nonetheless, nobody should be alarmed because the FBI receives only a "small percentage" of the NSA's trillions of records, which means they've probably received no more than a few billion records.

Nothing to see here, folks. You may go about your business.

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Hobby Lobby Wasn't About Religious Freedom. It Was About Abortion.

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Elsewhere at Mother Jones, Dana Liebelson collects the eight best lines from Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent in the Hobby Lobby case. Here's what I consider the most telling passage from Samuel Alito's majority opinion:

Kinda reminds you of Bush v. Gore, doesn't it? Alito takes pains to make it clear that his opinion shouldn't be considered precedent for anything except the narrowly specific issue at hand: whether contraceptives that some people consider abortifacients can be excluded from health plans.

I think it's important to recognize what Alito is saying here. Basically, he's making the case that abortion is unique as a religious issue. If you object to anything else on a religious basis, you're probably out of luck. But if you object to abortion on religious grounds, you will be given every possible consideration. Even if your objection is only related to abortion in the most tenuous imaginable way—as it is here, where IUDs are considered to be abortifacients for highly idiosyncratic doctrinal reasons—it will be treated with the utmost deference.

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.

Hobby Lobby Case Adds Yet Another Log to the "War on Women" Bonfire

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 1:27 PM EDT

Steve Benen thinks the Hobby Lobby case may be an electoral problem for Republicans this November:

GOP lawmakers and their allies are clearly delighted today, basking in the glow of victory....The trouble is, the American mainstream and GOP policymakers really aren’t on the same page. The latest national polling reinforces the fact that most of the country wanted today’s ruling to go the other way.

....Watching Republican-appointed justices to limit contraception access, while Republican lawmakers cheer them on, may be just what Democratic campaign officials needed.

This is based on the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, which does indeed show a majority of Americans opposed to the prospect of employers deciding which contraceptives their health plan covers:

Unfortunately, I don't think this poll demonstrates much immediate danger for Republicans. Sure, the liberal position has majority approval, but 53-35 percent isn't a huge margin in these kinds of polls. You really need to see upwards of a 70 percent consensus before the danger lights start to flash, and in some cases (such as gun control) even that's not enough. What's more, there's also the question of intensity. The Reuters poll doesn't get at this (polls rarely do), but if I had to guess, I'd say the 53 percent who take the liberal position don't feel all that strongly about it. Their votes won't swing based on this issue, whereas many of the 35 percent who take the conservative position will indeed vote based on it.

Still, although this specific case may not really pose much of an electoral threat to Republicans, it does add another log to the "war on women" bonfire. Conservatives are desperate to argue that this is a myth; that it doesn't matter; that it's really liberals who hate women; etc. etc. But I think the evidence is pretty strong that, in fact, this really is a growing problem for Republicans. At the moment, it's more a national problem than a local one, but that could change as the bonfire grows. And the Hobby Lobby case will add some fuel to the fire.

Kansas Disproves Supply-Side Magic Yet Again

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 12:41 PM EDT

Paul Krugman writes today about what's the matter with Kansas:

Two years ago Kansas embarked on a remarkable fiscal experiment: It sharply slashed income taxes without any clear idea of what would replace the lost revenue. Sam Brownback, the governor, proposed the legislation — in percentage terms, the largest tax cut in one year any state has ever enacted — in close consultation with the economist Arthur Laffer. And Mr. Brownback predicted that the cuts would jump-start an economic boom — “Look out, Texas,” he proclaimed.

But Kansas isn’t booming — in fact, its economy is lagging both neighboring states and America as a whole. Meanwhile, the state’s budget has plunged deep into deficit, provoking a Moody’s downgrade of its debt.

There’s an important lesson here — but it’s not what you think.

As Krugman goes on to say, the lesson is not that supply-side tax cuts don't supercharge the economy. We already knew that. The lesson is that this was never really about supply-side theories in the first place: "Faith in tax-cut magic isn’t about evidence; it’s about finding reasons to give powerful interests what they want."

This is true. Corporations and rich people want low taxes, but even in post-Reagan America they're a bit reluctant to just come out and say that the reason they want lower taxes is because they want to keep more of their money. As near as I can tell, they aren't reticent about this because it embarrasses them, they're reticent because they understand that it's wildly unpersuasive to anyone who's not rich. So they need some plausibly altruistic excuse for supporting tax cuts on themselves. Enter supply-side economics.

Still, we're all capable of astonishing feats of convincing ourselves of things that we want to believe. So here's what I wonder: do today's rich really believe this stuff anymore? The fact is that it really was a plausible theory in the early 80s, when it was being applied to income tax rates of 70 percent. Today, when it's being applied to federal rates of under 40 percent and state rates of well under 10 percent, there's not even the slightest hint of plausibility. It's as close to a completely bankrupt theory as it's possible to have in a field like economics.

And yet, most of them must still believe it, right? The alternative is that we have a large class of people who are consciously lying about all this and don't feel a twinge of remorse. It's nice to think about your ideological opponents that way, but aside from the occasional sociopath here and there, that's really not the way most people operate. That want lower taxes, and they also want to believe that they themselves are good people. So they continue to believe in a theory that's been about as conclusively disproven as phlogiston.

But how? It's easy: you just cherry pick your evidence. Look at Texas! Low taxes and great growth. Look at California! High taxes and lousy growth. (And pay no attention when those trends reverse course.) As for Kansas, eventually they'll slash spending on the poor enough to balance their budget, and eventually their economy will recover. Economies always do. And then, it will be: See? We told you that tax cuts would supercharge the economy!

The Good Guys Are 0-2 in Supreme Court Today

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 10:57 AM EDT

The Supreme Court could have obliterated public sector unions today by ruling that workers can't be required to pay representation fees if they disagree with the union's political stands. It's been longstanding practice that such workers don't have to pay full union dues—which include money used for political activity—but do have to pay fees that are used to support collective bargaining activities that benefit everyone.

But the court stepped back from the brink today, ruling in favor of workers who objected to the fees, but then saying their ruling was limited solely to home health care workers:

The ruling was limited to this particular segment of workers — not private sector unions — and it stopped short of overturning decades of practice that has generally allowed public sector unions to pass through their representation costs to nonmembers.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said home care workers are different from other types of government employees because they work primarily for their disabled or elderly customers and do not have most of the rights and benefits of state employees.

....The workers had urged the justices to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision which held that public employees who choose not to join a union can still be required to pay representation fees, as long as those fees don’t go toward political purposes. They say the union is not merely seeking higher wages, but making a political push for expansion of Medicaid payments.

Alito said the court was not overturning that case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That case, he said, is confined “to full-fledged state employees.”

So public sector unions live to fight another day. At this point, the question is whether a majority on the court is truly unwilling to overturn Abood, or whether they want to do it slowly and today's case is just an opening volley.

In other news, the good guys lost in the Hobby Lobby case:

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a setback to President Obama's healthcare law Monday and ruled that Christian business owners with religious objections to certain forms of birth control may refuse to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives.

In a major 5-4 ruling on religious freedom, the justices decided the religious rights of these company owners trump the rights of female employees to receive the full contraceptive coverage promised by the law.

Alito wrote the Hobby Lobby opinion too, and he was careful to say that this case doesn't apply to much of anything else that a religious employer might object to. Only things related to abortion, apparently. Because....um, that's plainly more important than any other religious objection on the planet. Or something.

In the end, I suppose that's good news. A narrow ruling is better than a broad one. Today's holding applies only to closely-held corporations (those in which a small number of people have majority control of the company), and Kennedy's concurrence apparently says the government can pay directly for contraception coverage if it want to. It could have been worse.