Mojo - March 2010

NY's Disabled Adults Win Court Ruling

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 6:03 PM EST

As Jennifer Gonnerman detailed in "Surf Manor" in the current issue of Mother Jones, New York's poorly maintained adult homes are where the mentally ill and very poor, with no place else to go to, are warehoused by the state. The homes regulate everything for them, from what to eat to when to take medication: "You get stifled—and you regress," one adult home resident told Gonnerman. "You become dependent on these people, and I don't want that." Many residents would rather be in "supported housing," where they can do their own laundry and make their own meals and receive regular visits by a caseworker. Too bad such units are incredibly scarce: only 60 units of supported housing have been opened for New York City's 4,300 adult home residents since 2002. 

But that's going to change: a ruling issued today by Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn ordered the state to develop at least 1,500 units of supported housing a year for three years. This ruling follows a September 2009 decision in which a judge ruled that adult homes were by their nature segregation and thus a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As reported by the New York Times, the state has repeatedly fought new housing, arguing that recent improvements to existing homes were adequate: 

The order by Judge Garaufis offered a stinging rebuke of the much less sweeping proposed remedy offered by the state, which continued to dispute many of the findings of his previous rulings and which sought to cap the number of new supportive housing units at 1,000, to be made available on a more restrictive basis over five years. “The court is disappointed and, frankly, incredulous that defendants sincerely believed this proposal would suffice,” the judge wrote in his ruling Monday.

The state had argued that, particularly in current economic conditions, such a mandate would be too expensive. But the judge wrote last year that evidence showed that supported housing would cost only $40,253 a year per resident, about $7,500 less than it costs to place them in a group home.

"This is a tremendous order," said attorney Cliff Zucker, whose firm Disability Advocates Inc. filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of adult home residents. "We think that this order will end the disgraceful practice that's been allowed to go on in New York for decades: warehousing people in institutions when they can live in integrated settings in the community." Zucker said the state can appeal the ruling, which could potentially delay implementation. And even if the state does not appeal, monitors will be needed to ensure the state properly implements the ruling. "There's much work ahead of us," said Zucker, but he says the order is "bringing us some relief."

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Barney Frank to GOP: Man Up on Financial Reform

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 3:45 PM EST

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chair of the powerful House financial services committee, has issued a challenge to Senate Republicans: If GOPers want to kneecap an independent consumer protection agency, they should do it in public, not behind closed doors. "Procedurally, the Senate Republicans are killing this or watering it down," Frank told Mother Jones. "Senate Republicans should stand up publicly and oppose it. At the very least, they have to do that. And there's going to be public reaction against that."

Over the weekend, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the banking committee's chairman and leader on financial reform, circulated a plan to create a watered-down consumer-protection agency within the Treasury Department. Frank, who helped pass a financial-reform bil last year that included an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency, called Dodd's proposal "weaker than I was hoping." Frank added that the draft's stipulation that certain rule-writing by the proposed consumer agency would require approval from a separate risk-management council "is a terrible idea." He also lamented that the consumer agency wouldn't have full authority over payday lenders and debt collection and settlement companies.

If a watered-down version of a consumer-protection agency does emerge in the Senate's final financial-reform bill, Frank said he will fight to make sure a consumer agency with independence and increased authority for consumer protection makes it onto the president's desk. "I'm gonna do everything I can" to make sure the House's Consumer Financial Protection Agency survives, Frank vowed. "I want [Republicans] to take a public vote at the very least."

McCain's Reconciliation Flip-Flop

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 2:59 PM EST

This Sunday on "Meet the Press," Sen. John McCain announced that he plans to introduce an amendment that would prohibit the Democrats from using reconciliation to make changes to Medicare. Entitlement programs "should not be part of a reconciliation process," he declared to David Gregory, referring to the filibuster-proof procedure that requires only 51 votes. "It’s too important."

But just five years ago McCain himself voted to use reconciliation to make spending cuts to an entitlement program—in this case, Medicaid. McCain, along with 30 other current Republican senators, used a simple majority to pass George W. Bush's 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, which, among other things, "reduced Medicaid spending and allowed parents of disabled children to buy into Medicaid," as Greg Sargent notes. (Sargent's list of all the Republicans who have voted for reconciliation over the past 20 years is worth a look.)

McCain's hypocrisy blows a hole in the Republicans' contention that if Democrats use reconciliation to pass health care reform, they'll "end the Senate" as we know it. While the GOP has accused Democrats of "ramming" and "jamming" reform through the Senate, the bill in question already passed the Senate back in December. If that measure manages to clear the House, the Senate will only be passing limited tweaks to its bill via a so-called reconciliation sidecar—not pushing through a massive overhaul of the entire legislation. And although some of those fixes may apply to Medicare and Medicaid, they fall squarely within accepted reconciliation procedure, which is used for legislative tweaks that directly affect the federal budget.

Of course, Republicans themselves have long pushed for much deeper spending cuts to entitlement programs, only to turn around and accuse the Democrats of slashing benefits for vulnerable Americans. All of which makes it clear that McCain's latest flip-flop is just a political maneuver intended to derail reform, not some principled defense of the democratic process.

Budgetary SOS for 2011

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 2:52 PM EST

If there were a prize for worst headline of the week, even the month, it would surely go to a February 23rd piece in the New York Times headlined online: "Gates Calls European Mood a Danger to Peace." The bellicose "mood," so undermining of global peace that our secretary of defense had to go after it, was (according to Brian Knowlton of the Times) the "public and political opposition to the military" spreading across Europe. Who wouldn't react similarly in the face of such an unnerving phenomenon? After all, should it grow stronger, peace on Earth will surely prove a chimera.

European publics are now, it seems, so totally peaceable that, while the thousandth American died "in and around Afghanistan" in Operation Enduring Freedom last week to next to no notice here, they continued to exhibit extraordinary "weakness." After all, this was also the week in which—speak of the devil—the Dutch coalition government collapsed over a dispute about the public's desire to get Dutch troops out of Afghanistan. What an example of that anti-peace bogeyman run riot! No wonder Gates was warning that the perception of weakness could lead hostile powers (unnamed) to a "temptation to miscalculate and aggression."

Fortunately, one country is still willing to sink its money (and lives) into the armed enhancement of peace globally: the United States. As Jo Comerford of the National Priorities Project points out in her latest post at TomDispatch.com, the latest federal budget opens the American public to yet more pain, while shielding the military and the rest of the national security establishment from the same. Fortunately, that "antiwar mood" seems not to have jumped the wide Atlantic, which means, for the time being, peace is safe in America.

Richard Shelby, Financial Saboteur?

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 11:36 AM EST

Did Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the Senate banking committee's ranking member, try to sabotage the Senate's financial-reform talks last week by leaking a draft proposal on consumer protection from committee chair Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.)? A source with close knowledge of the Senate's negotiations tells Mother Jones that Shelby, who'd abandoned his role as the Republican lead negotiator and was replaced by Corker, could very well have leaked the two-page proposal to news outlets to kneecap Dodd's ongoing efforts to craft a comprehensive financial-reform bill. "Dodd gave it to Shelby and Corker, so one of them leaked it," the source says. "Shelby could've leaked it to sabotage the talks."

To be sure, the draft proposal has circulated among both Democrats and Republicans involved in financial-reform talks. Both Corker and Shelby, however, have openly opposed an independent consumer protection agency—Corker called it a "non-starter," and Shelby said it was "folly and dangerous." A stronger consumer-protection agency has support elsewhere: The House included an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency in its reform bill passed in December. And even Dodd himself has previously said that "[t]here needs to be an independent agency that looks out for people when they take out a loan, open a checking account or use a credit card." Dodd's leaked proposal—which would create a Bureau of Financial Protection within the Treasury Department to oversee large banks and some non-bank institutions—has been viewed as a political compromise to his Republican counterparts, yet unnamed sources with knowledge of the ongoing talks have been quoted as saying that the BFP is unpalatable to Corker and Shelby. Because Dodd has tried to keep a tight lid on the progress of his negotiations, it's unclear whether his BFP proposal is still being considered or not. The Senate banking committee is supposed to release a draft of its bill sometime this week.

Actually, It's 50 Votes, Not 51

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 10:44 AM EST

From Monday's Washington Post:

Increasingly, the White House appears to favor having the House pass a version of the measure that cleared the Senate with 60 votes in December. The Senate would then pass changes to the bill to satisfy some demands of House Democrats. That Senate vote would take place under a parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation, which requires 51 votes rather than 60.

If this is President Barack Obama's path to health care reform—and it seems like his only option at this point (though I'm told some in the White House have not given up on the idea of a bipartisan deal)—he won't need 51 votes in the Senate. He will need 50. On a 50-50 tie, Vice President Joe Biden will get to be the decider. That would, no doubt, prompt futher howls from Republicans who already are trying to denigrate reconciliation as the absolute antithesis of constitutional democracy. But a close win is a win, whether it's with 51 or 50 votes. And given that the vote count in the Senate seems unclear but rather close, it's important for anyone following the debate to realize that the magic number is 50, not 50-plus-one.

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Obama and American Exceptionalism

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 9:45 AM EST

The New Republic's Damon Linker has already written the definitive takedown of Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Lowry's exceptionally silly National Review cover story about Barack Obama and American exceptionalism. It turns out that if you think "believing in American exceptionalism" is the same as subscribing to all of the tenets of a certain kind of National Review-style political conservatism, it's pretty easy to prove that Barack Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. So please read Linker's piece. But when you're done, I'd like to point you to Robert Lane Greene's demolition of a single sentence in the Lowry/Ponnuru essay:

This sentence tripped me up:

[America] is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.

... But the statement that America is "freer" or "more democratic" than literally every other society on earth, is argued largely through the quotations of founding fathers and Lincoln, as if saying something made it so.

Greene goes on to explain how even Freedom House, a US-based organization widely seen as center-right, ranks America far below first in terms of freedom and democracy. In fact, the US finishes in a multi-way tie for 30th.

Greene isn't using the Freedom House rankings as an excuse for America-bashing. Instead, he's simply pointing out that "the blanket statement that America is the 'most free, most democratic' country on earth strikes the serious comparativist as what it is: not an empirical fact but as an article of faith." And there's the rub: many American right-wingers, including (apparently) Lowry and Ponnuru, are far from "serious comparitivists."

Lots of conservatives base their belief in America's total, overwhelming awesomeness in every facet of everything on faith, not reason. That's one reason why so many conservatives seem comfortable making fact-free claims about American superiority—like when they say the US has "the best health care system in the world," as House minority leader John Boehner did last week. Any serious comparitivist knows that's ridiculous. But for too many conservatives, serious comparitivism is out of the question.

No Wall St. Reform Better than Dodd?

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 9:37 AM EST

If you're Paul Krugman, then the answer to that question is, Yes. In his column today, the liberal economist essentially calls the Senate's financial-reform talks a fakery and a sham, adding that the only thing weak financial reform would do "is create a false sense of security and a fig leaf for politicians opposed to any serious action—then fail in the clinch."

The impetus for Krugman's remarks is Sen. Chris Dodd's plan (PDF) to create not an independent consumer protection agency—the kind the House passed and the Obama administration purportedly supports—but a Bureau of Financial Protection housed within the Treasury Department much like the Food and Drug Administration is housed within the Health and Human Services Department. Consumer advocates and experts say Dodd's watered-down version of consumer protection raises numerous questions about the independence and efficacy of a Treasury-housed bureau, especially given the subpar records before the crisis of two other regulators within the Treasury—the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. And there's also the problem of no apparent Republican support for Dodd's compromise plan, too.

When it comes to consumer protection, Krugman argues, no reform would be better than what Dodd is proposing:

Some have argued that the job of protecting consumers can and should be done either by the Fed—or as in one compromise that at this point seems unlikely—by a unit within the Treasury Department. But remember, not that long ago Mr. Greenspan was Fed chairman and John Snow was Treasury secretary. Case closed. The only way consumers will be protected under future antiregulation administrations—and believe me, given the power of the financial lobby, there will be such administrations—is if there’s an agency whose whole reason for being is to police bank abuses.

In summary, then, it’s time to draw a line in the sand. No reform, coupled with a campaign to name and shame the people responsible, is better than a cosmetic reform that just covers up failure to act.

Now, while consumer protection is arguably the centerpiece of financial reform, there's still the issue of regulating over-the-counter derivatives, monitoring and reining in banks that become too big and too interconnected to fail, and creating some kind of authority to unwind or "euthanize" institutions when they pose that kind of systemic threat. Which is to say, a watered-down consumer protection agency won't kill the entire bill. But don't be surprised to hear many more reform advocates joining Krugman's line-in-the-sand camp.

Who Misses George W. Bush?

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 8:50 AM EST

Last month, a photo of a billboard in Minnesota started circulating on conservative blogs. The billboard bears an image of George W. Bush next to the words "Miss Me Yet?" Oliver Willis ("Like Kryptonite to Stupid") has already given the official lefty response to the billboard's question. And  Minnesota Public Radio's Bob Collins first reported the billboard's origins:

Mary Teske, the general manager of Schubert & Hoey Outdoor Advertising reports, "The Bush Miss Me Yet? billboard was paid for by a group of small business owners who feel like Washington is against them. They wish to remain anonymous. They thought it was a fun way of getting out their message."

Various people have stepped forward around the country to claim credit—the latest was a gentleman in upstate New York from what I can tell in his e-mail. But, it's all local, folks.

Now one of my favorite conservative email lists, the Patriot Update, is trying to get in on the "Miss Me Yet?" action. Like its sister organization, the Patriot Depot, Patriot Update uses its email list to hawk conservative-themed books and memorabilia. Now the two groups have launched a petition campaign. Their goal is to get one million people to sign each of two letters—one saying that people "miss" former President George W. Bush, and another demanding that President Barack Obama stop "blaming Bush" for the country's problems. They've even reserved a primo domain name—missmeyet.com. I'm reluctant to promote the effort, which will get a lot more people on the Patriot Update's email list and probably make its owners a boatload of money on t-shirt and bumper sticker sales, but it's funny in a sad sort of way, so whatever:

Should he stay or should he go? | US Military photo.Should he stay or should he go? | US Military photo.The Patriot Depot & The Patriot Update are launching a national "Miss Me Yet?" campaign! There's no doubt that President Bush was born in America and that he loves his country. During his presidency, Americans felt safe. Evil men feared his resolve. On the other hand, Barack Obama has been circling the globe and apologizing for the very nation that elected a minority to President. Plus, he's going to let Bush's tax cuts expire and raise even new taxes on the middle class to pay for his bankrupt social programs.

Americans who voted for "hope and change" are feeling buyer's remorse. In honor of President George W. Bush and the conservative cause, we're pleased to introduce the new "Miss Me Yet?" Bumper Sticker and T-shirt! We're also asking you to sign a "We Miss You" Letter to President Bush and a "Stop Blaming Bush" Letter to Barack Obama. Click below to see the letters and sign your name at the bottom. Our goal is to deliver 1 million signatures to each man.

In the two-plus days since the petition launched, 7,500+ folks have decided they miss George W. Bush. Even if the petition organizers get to a million, that will still only represent a tiny portion of the population. But don't count Bush nostalgia out. Because sadly, we already know how badly America misses W.: In December, 44 percent of voters polled by PPP said they'd prefer Bush to his successor. If those poll numbers are even close to right, there are a lot more than a million people who might be willing to sign the Patriot Update's petition.

What Makes A Quote?

| Mon Mar. 1, 2010 7:52 AM EST

I received an interesting email from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), a liberal pressure group, in the wake of last week's "bipartisan health care summit":

"President Obama gave Republicans one final chance, and the verdict is in: Bipartisanship is dead. It's clear that no Republicans will vote for health care reform. So Senate Democrats should pass the highly popular public option through reconciliation. Starting tomorrow, we will ramp up our pressure on Senate Democrats to do the will of the people—and do what's best for America's health care system—by passing the public option into law."

[Note: The link above is a substantive part of the quote, alleviating the need to spell out the poll numbers. If doing web reporting, we respectfully ask that you consider it part of the quote.]

I added the emphasis. A reporter who uses that quote should probably let her readers know that it's making a legitimate claim—the public option is highly popular. But I'm not sure readers are used to assuming that links contained within quotes are "part of the quote." I can't remember encountering a similar situation before. At the very least, journalists who use the link as suggested should figure out a way to convey to readers that the link is part of the quote, and not an editorial addition on the part of the journalist.