The Senate approved groundbreaking hate crimes legislation that includes violent crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation in addition to race, color, religion and national origin. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after two men who were brutally killed in 1998 for their sexual orientation and race, respectively, was attached to a defense spending bill that allocates $680 billion for the Pentagon’s 2010 budget.

"Too many in our community have been devastated by hate violence," said Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese in a press release. "We now can begin the important steps to erasing hate in our country."

But the issue was much more complex for senators. Though "supporting the troops" generally takes precedence for Republicans, 28 voted against the DOD budget, which includes a 3.4 percent military pay raise and funding to promote a second engine for the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

"It's a shame that this piece of legislation was added to a bill that’s supposed to be about supporting our troops," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who opposed the measure.

In another surprising move, liberal Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) was the lone Democrat to vote against the bill. In a statement, Feingold said that despite the bill's "important provisions," which include the hate crimes legislation, "it does nothing to bring our open-ended and disproportionate military commitment in Afghanistan to an end or to ensure that our troops are safely and expeditiously redeployed from Iraq."

To sum up: a measure protecting gay people from violent crime was enough to cause Republicans to pull their typically solid support for the troops and cause most Democrats to approve the bloated war funding they opposed vociferously during the Bush years.

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Cpl. Daniel P. Collins, a squad leader with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan, watches over the Marines from 1st platoon as they clear a field. Collins and his Marines conduct patrols in Lakari village in an effort to disrupt insurgent resupply routes. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Michael Curvin.)

Need To Read: October 23, 2009

Today's must-reads:

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In a decision that could reverberate throughout New York's sprawling rental market, a judge ruled today that the owner of NYC's enormous Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village apartment complexes will have to pay back some $200 million to tenants.

In our July/August issue, Adam Matthews reported on a trend known as "predatory equity," wherein private equity partnerships would buy undervalued housing developments, take out big loans against their value—including a good chunk of change for themselves—and then fix and flip the properties. In doing so, the partnerships would bleed the equity out of affordable developments and put them at risk of foreclosure.

In that case, a partnership led by businessman Larry Gluck had purchased and then refinanced Harlem's Riverton Houses, intending to remodel units with pretty kitchen and bath fixtures and then jack up rents on rent-stabilized tenants. But when the market tanked, Riverton ended up mired in debt. Dina Levy, a tenant organizer with New York City's Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, told Matthews that such deals had left roughly 70,000 affordable units overleveraged.

The case reported by the Times this week involved a partnership comprised of BlackRock and Tishman Speyer Properties, which purchased the property in 2006. Metropolitan Life, the former owner, was also named. The new owners took a big hit in the downturn; more than half of their development's $5.4 million sticker price has evaporated into thin air. And now it appears they'll have to pay back rent to boot.

Rent control in New York is a tricky thing; according to the Times:

Under state law, landlords can deregulate an apartment when the rent for a vacant unit reaches $2,000 or more per month, or the rent is above $2,000 and a tenant’s household income is above $175,000 for two consecutive years.

Still, it's estimated that the decision could affect some 80,000 apartments in New York City. 


In a story today in E&E News, a respected environmental news service that is often reprinted in the New York Times, the US Chamber of Commerce remained on the defensive about its claim to represent "3 million" members. E&E reported (sub req'd) the Chamber's recent assertion that it has always used two membership numbers: its 300,000 direct members and its 3 million "federation members" (a number that includes members of local chambers who have no direct ties to the national group). "This often does get reported in the press as 3 million members without qualification," Chamber blogger Brad Peck told E&E. "That is hardly our fault."

But Peck's statement appears to be contradicted by a recent quote from the Chamber's spokesman. "We have over 3 million members, and we don't comment on the comings and goings of our membership," spokesman Eric Wholschlegel told the New York Times last month in a story about the utility PG&E's departure from the Chamber over its climate policy. The Chamber also does not cite the smaller membership number on its website or many (if not all) of its press releases. And its written materials typically do not explain the meaning of the "3 million" number, failing to use the term "federation members," let alone clarify what it means.

In the E&E piece, the Chamber also lashed out at my reporting of the issue, saying that it "has crossed into advocacy and should be treated as such." E&E published its piece a day after I sent an open letter to one of its reporters questioning his continued citation of the Chamber's "3 million members." If advocacy is the same thing as requesting that other media outlets report the facts,  then I am guilty as charged. Or maybe Peck considers the choice of which number to use an ideological issue. If that's the case, then E&E and the Associated Press are to the right of the Wall Street Journal, which reports the Chamber's membership as 300,000.

UPDATE: Today, James Surowiecki of the New Yorker strongly sided with my assertion that the correct membership number is around 300,000.

When President Obama nominated Joseph Pizarchik to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, critics blasted the choice, charging that Pizarchik has a history of favoring coal industry interests over the well-being of local residents. Still, it appeared Pizarchik would sail to confirmation this week—until an unknown senator placed a hold on his appointment. Here's why the mystery senator might be worried that Pizarchik is the wrong man for the job.

Pizarchik has served as the director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Mining and Reclamation since 2002. The office, a division of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, oversees mining permits and the enforcement of environmental rules related to mining and waste disposal. And residents of Pennsylvania mining areas are so unhappy with his performance that they're organizing to oppose the nomination. Under Pizarchik's watch, the bureau developed new policies for the "beneficial use" of coal ash, including allowing it to be dumped in old surface mining sites—meaning, essentially, that power plant waste could be left in unlined pits around the state.


Anyone trying to follow the latest battles in the health care debate will by now find their heads swimming with claims and counter claims, unintelligble lingo, political doubletalk, and mind boggling statistics. It all serves to distract us from the simplest way to assess various potential health care systems, which is by looking at  countries that already have them.

But here, too, politics enters the equation. Conservatives like to produce dire warnings based on the British NHS, which does have a fair amount of rationing. (They don’t mention that 73 percent of Brits nonetheless said they had confidence in their health care system, as compared with 56 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll last year.) These same conservatives avoid looking at the very best national health systems, which manage to deliver superior care at dramatically lower cost.

Here’s a very simple run down on the French health care system, often thought to be the best of them all. Much of this information comes from an interview published recently in the New York Times with Victor G. Rodwin, a professor of health policy and management at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and an expert on international health care systems.

1. There is no explicit health care rationing in the French system, and access to care is generally excellent. The quality of health care provided in France was ranked first by the World Health Organization and in other recent studies.

2.  The model is something very close to a Medicare-for-All system–only better. As Rodwin describes it: “It’s not government run but government financed. Like Medicare and Social Security, it is funded by compulsory payroll taxes with some income tax contributions. But doctors work predominantly in private, office-based, fee-for-service practices, and there is a mix of public and private hospitals. The main difference from Medicare is that the entire resident population is covered and the benefit package is more generous.”

3. France  has preserved a role for insurance, although it is nonprofit and heavily regulated. The French buy supplemental insurance, like the Medigap policies bought by many Medicare enrollees, to cover copays and additional services–though they don’t need it for much.

4. The French drive a hard bargain with drug companies, so they pay a lot less for their drugs than we do. As summarized in a report prepared for Democrats on the House Oversight Committee in 2001: “The French pricing system allows pharmaceutical companies to sell their products at any price. However, if these companies want the national health care system to reimburse patients for the cost of the drug, the companies must agree to a lower, negotiated price. These negotiated prices and reimbursement rates paid by the healthcare system are based on the therapeutic value of the drug and the price of the drug in other countries. The French pricing system results in brand name drug prices that are an average of 45% lower than prices inhe United States.” A more recent study put the figure at 48 percent lower.

5. The French system is one of the more expensive in Europe and, as the Wall Street Journal takes pleasure in reporting, there is controversy about rising costs. Yet according to OECD data from 2007, the per capita cost is still half that of the U.S. system, and the percent of GDP spent on health care is about 30 percent lower--11 percent as compared with our 16 percent. This cost difference makes the various cost-cutting schemes proposed by Congressional Democrats look like chump change.

If you’re not convinced yet, think about this: Doctors in France still make house calls.

   Last week, America was riveted by the story of balloon boy. But what about the story of Goldman Sachs, the balloon bank, and the mysteriously missing real economy?

   Watch satirist Mark Fiore take on the high-flying exploits of the megabank below:

Barack Obama will give a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, intended to push the Senate closer to passing a climate bill this year. But the path forward is still fraught with obstacles.

The Environment and Public Works Committee will begin hearings on the Kerry-Boxer proposal next Tuesday, featuring a full-court press of top officials: EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff. The bill's authors hope to have the bill passed out of committee by the Thanksgiving break, which is feasible: the committee includes a majority of Democrats who are enthusisastic supporters of climate legislation. Passing it out of the full Senate, however, is the real challenge.

My best estimate has 35 senators likely to vote for the Kerry-Boxer bill column, 36 maybes and 29 firm "no" votes. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham's willingness to work with the authors doesn't indicate that he'll necessarily vote for a bill, or that he'll help bring along other Republicans. Nor does it necessarily make the vote any easier for moderate Democrats; I would list at least 25 Democrats as still undecided. (Grist and Climate Wire are also tallying the fence-sitters.)

The unease among the fence-sitters was evident at Wednesday's hearing before the Energy and Public Works Committee, and the dominant concern was how to allocate carbon credits, a matter that Kerry and Boxer's draft bill leaves open to negotiation in the hope of enticing more senators on board.