Mojo - April 2010

Abortion, Health Insurance, and the States

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 1:25 PM EDT

There's been a bit of confusion over what, exactly, health care reform has allowed states to do in terms of regulating health insurance coverage. Over at Wonk Room, Igor Volsky notes that the law "gives states the option of banning private insurers from providing abortion coverage to women within the exchange." It's true that states have the power to ban abortion coverage, and some states are taking advantage of it—Tennessee is moving to ban abortion coverage on its exchanges—but it's nothing new.

Since 1945, the states have had the right to pass laws regulating insurance, including banning abortion. Some of them even did it: according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, and Oklahoma have bills on the books limiting health insurance coverage of abortion. Oklahoma lets insurers cover abortions in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is endangered; the other four states only allow insurers to cover abortions if the life of the mother is endangered.

When it comes to abortion and insurance regulation, the health care bill as signed by President Obama essentially restates the provisions of the 1945 McCarran-Ferguson Act. States used to have the power to ban abortion coverage, and they still do. Health care reform may have made conservative states more likely to prohibit abortion coverage by drawing attention to the issue, but it didn't enhance their powers to do so. Nothing to see here; move along, please.

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Student Loan Reform Sellout?

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 12:52 PM EDT

This past week, fellow MoJo blogger Andy Kroll and I wrote about student loan reform and how the new law's provisions correlate to Obama's support, or lack thereof, for community colleges. I argued that Obama's decision to sign the bill at a Virginia community college signaled a symbolic reaffirmation of his support for these overenrolled, underfunded, two-year colleges. Before this week, the president had scarcely mentioned community colleges since challenging them last summer to graduate five million more students by 2020. But Andy made the excellent point that the bill Obama signed is missing the $12 billion the prez proposed to help community colleges meet his challenge.

The version passed by the House last fall included $10 billion for the American Graduation Initiative, the program that was to fund Obama's graduation mandate. But when the bill got tied to health care reform to help health care meet the cost-savings requirements of reconciliation, that $10 billion got knocked down to a meager $2 billion. Giving more money to community colleges would have thrown off the overall savings needed to help health care stay afloat.

Ben Stein's Credit Report Fail

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 12:01 PM EDT

Reuters' Felix Salmon has done yeoman's work ruining what was left of the reputation of Ben Stein, the political commentator and D-list celebrity best known for his role in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," a Comedy Central game show, and Visine ads. Unfortunately, Felix's work on this hasn't received nearly enough attention, and I still have to see Stein on my television at least four or five times a week. Stein's latest gig is as a spokesman for Freescore.com, a "free credit report" site. If you know anything about Freescore's competitors, you will realize is not a good place to go get a free credit score. Felix explains:

[On April 2,] a new FTC rule came into effect (read all 22 pages of it here), forcing all such websites to have a huge notice across the top of every web page, saying that AnnualCreditReport.com is the ONLY authorized source for credit reports under federal law, and providing a prominent link to this page.

Folks who are familiar with how these sites operate will not be surprised to learn that Freescore.com and Creditreport.com have so far ignored the FTC rule. FreeCreditReport.com (which is behind the most annoying of the "free" credit report ads you see on television) has taken its noncompliance a step further with a bizarre scheme that Felix explains here. "In any case," Felix adds, "it’s pretty clear that both Freescore.com and CreditReport.com are simply in outright violation of the new laws. I look forward very much to seeing them slapped with some huge fines."

Me, too. Maybe if the fine's big enough, Freescore won't be able to afford to pay Ben Stein any more money.

The West Virginia Mine Disaster

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 11:42 AM EDT

Coal mining is a dangerous business. But it shouldn't have to be deadly. The explosion that killed at least 25 miners in Montcoal, West Virginia on Monday happened in the Upper Big Branch mine. Federal regulators have fined the mine's owner, Massey Energy, nearly $400,000 over the past year for "repeated" and "serious" safety violations relating to its plan for venting of toxic methane gas. ("The violations also cover failing to follow the plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and having improper firefighting equipment," the Associated Press reported.) A buildup of methane or coal dust—the exact problems the regulators warned about—is the suspected culprit in Monday's explosion. Meanwhile, as the Washington Independent's Aaron Weiner has noted, Massey's website is citing "another record setting year for safety."

You would think that repeated warnings about major safety violations would be enough to convince Massey to fix potentially fatal problems in its mine. But the company has a lot of other things on its plate: ignoring environmental regulations, for example. My colleague Andy Kroll mentioned Massey's environmental record in an article last month:

Between 2000 and 2006, Massey violated the Clean Water Act more than 4,500 times by dumping sediment and leftover mining waste into rivers in Kentucky and West Virginia, the EPA said in 2008. (Environmental groups say the EPA's tally is a lowball figure; they estimate that the true number of violations is more than 12,000.) As a result of these breaches of the law, the company agreed to pay the EPA a $20 million settlement.

Massey's CEO, Don Blankenship, is a real piece of work. The country's highest-paid coal executive, Blankenship is on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce and loves to slam "greeniacs" for believing in things like climate change. He first earned national noteriety in 2004 when he spent some $3 million to defeat Warren McGraw, a liberal incumbent justice on West Virginia's highest court. Brent Benjamin, who beat McGraw, ruled in favor of Massey in a $50 million breach-of-contract lawsuit. The US Supreme Court later ruled Benjamin should have recused himself from the case. (The battle was so fiercely fought that it inspired a John Grisham novel, The Appeal.)

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who represents the part of West Virginia where Monday's accident occured, has said that, "Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office.... He would be twice as accountable and half as feared." Rahall's Republican challenger, Spike Maynard, also used to be on West Virginia's high court—but lost a reelection fight in 2008 after photos surfaced of him lunching with Blankenship on the French Riviera.

Here you can see Blankenship being a real class act when confronted by a Nightline camera crew:

One more item: You might think that a fatal mine accident of this magnitude would be trouble for Massey. Industry analysts at Jefferies & Company just "reiterated" their "buy" rating on the company's stock.

Is Obama Pushing Iran Toward Nuclear Weapons?

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 11:16 AM EDT

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama released the latest Nuclear Posture Review, which sets guidelines for nuclear weapons policy for the next five to ten years. Though Obama last year said he was serious about moving toward "a world without nuclear weapons," this policy statement is not so bold. It does not declare that the United States will not use nuclear weapons first in any conflict. Arms control advocates had hoped that Obama would adopt a no-first-use policy, as a confidence-building measure that would encourage other countries to get serious about nuclear non-proliferation. With this review, Obama has eschewed dramatic steps and taken what most analysts have characterized as a middle course. Here's how the Washington Post puts it:

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

This leads to an obvious question: is Obama providing Iran even more incentive to develop nuclear weapons? Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, who each have held various national security positions in the US government, including stints at the National Security Council, believe that it does. They write:

We believe that this is a bad decision with regard to U.S. nuclear weapons policy, but will leave it to others to discuss those dimensions of the matter.  We are absolutely certain that it is a horrible decision with regard to America’s Iran policy. We have said and written on many occasions that we believe Iran is establishing the foundations for what some analysts call a nuclear weapons "option," but, in our assessment, has not taken a decision to move all the way to overt weaponization.  (And, Iranian officials at the highest levels, including Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have said repeatedly that the Islamic Republic does not seek and does not want nuclear weapons.) One of the several reasons we oppose U.S. military action against Iran over the nuclear issue is because we believe such action would increase the chances that Tehran would decide to weaponize its nuclear capabilities. In the same vein, making Iran a potential U.S. nuclear target will remove at least some of Tehran’s incentives for restraint in developing its own nuclear capabilities. If Iran, as a non-nuclear-weapons state, will face the threat of nuclear "first use" by the United States, why shouldn’t Tehran proceed to the actual acquisition of nuclear weapons?

The document does signal a departure from Bush-Cheney policies by focusing on terrorists and rogue states as the main nuclear threats. It won't remove nuclear weapons from constant alert status—another step arms controllers have looked for—but it will provide the president more time to decide whether to launch nuclear weapons. It also cuts down the number of scenarios in which the US government might use nuclear weapons. It's not a radical policy shift, yet the neocons are blasting it anyway. AEI's Tom Donnelly gripes, "The release of the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is part of a larger set of policies that look to the past rather than preparing the United States for the nuclear future." But it certainly would be counter-productive if Obama's hawkish Iran loophole pushes Iran further toward embracing nuclear weapons.

UPDATE: I asked Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear nonproliferation expert, for his take on the Nuclear Posture Review. His review emphasizes what's in the glass, rather than what's not. He emailed me this note:

This is a big, positive step forward. It could go further, faster, but it is the best we can hope for under the circumstances. It is a solid, pragmatic document that strives to be transformational. It is transformation in two aspects: It re-orients the US nuclear forces away from massive retaliations and towards today's threats of nuclear terrorism and new nuclear states. It orients US policy towards dramatically fewer weapons and greatly reduced roles. It is a transitional document, from 1940s weapons and Cold War strategies, towards the elimination of the one weapon that can destroy our nation.

Here in more analytical terms is what I think:

The Nuclear Posture Review will move this country down a rational, common sense path to reduce and eventually eliminate the threat from nuclear weapons. It calls for the further reduction of global nuclear stockpiles by putting all types of nuclear warheads--deployed and nondeployed, strategic and tactical--on the negotiating table in the months and years ahead.

First, Obama and his Administration have narrowed the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons to reflect the post 9-11 security environment by prioritizing the prevention of nuclear terrorism, a first in the NPR.

The NPR also reflects the general wisdom of the foreign policy establishment that the U.S. does not need to maintain an inordinate stockpile of nuclear weapons. It can safely reduce numbers, while still protecting the United States and its allies.

One of the major changes is the declaratory policy that states that the fundamental purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is deterrence of nuclear use by others. This is a vast improvement over the last NPR and a logical decision. No nation wields a conventional, chemical or biological force that the United States cannot counter with its overwhelmingly superior conventional forces.

The NPR also clarifies and updates U.S. pledges of non-use toward nonnuclear weapon states in good standing with their nonproliferation obligations.

In a major victory for all those opposed to expanding nuclear arsenals, the NPR also rules out the pursuit of new nuclear weapons, which independent scientists have deemed unnecessary to maintain the effectiveness of the remaining arsenal, or new nuclear weapons capabilities.

While I believe that the NPR could have gone further in declaring that the sole use of nuclear weapons should be to deter the use of other nuclear weapons, this NPR moves us in that direction and is a vast improvement over the Bush Administration's NPR.

GOP Discovers Big Problem With Anti-Census Crusade

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 10:33 AM EDT

Right-wing activists have long railed against the census as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, urging their followers not to complete the once-a-decade survey. "I dare them to try and come throw me in jail...Pull out my wife's shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door," crowed RedState blogger and CNN commentator Erick Erickson last week. But now top Republicans are realizing that this anti-census crusade could backfire badly—by threatening the existence of GOP congressional and legislature seats if conservative voters are under-counted. 

Census results are used to draw the maps of congressional seats and state offices, based on population. They're also used to allocate federal funds. Census returns from red states like Texas and Alabama are already below the national average, causing the GOP some anxiety. Though there are other factors that contribute to under-reporting—including immigration status, education, and income level—a right-wing revolt against the census could eliminate seats in conservative corners of the country. As my colleague David Corn has observed, even Michele Bachmann toned down her fervent anti-census rhetoric after she discovered her own seat could be at risk.

It's not clear that a mass census boycott is actually occurring: Greg Sargent examined a sample of conservative districts and discovered higher-than-average reporting rates. But GOP party leaders are worried enough that they have launched campaigns urging conservatives to participate. Karl Rove has recorded a public service announcement urging Americans to fill out the form, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. And GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry has also sought to tamp down anti-census hysteria, telling conservatives that it's their "constitutional duty" to complete the questionnaire, the Journal noted in another story. "It's often difficult for conservatives to separate overall government intervention from a question as simple as the census," McHenry added.

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Reid, Struggling, Jabs Sarah Palin

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 10:05 AM EDT

A week after Sarah Palin stood in his hometown and called for his ouster, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) let one fly at the former Miss Wasilla in a recent campaign speech. "I was going to give a few remarks on the people who were over here a week ago Saturday," said Reid in a clip posted by Fox News, "but I couldn't find it written all over my hands." (A reference, of course, to Palin's choice to write interview notes on her hand.) The veteran Nevada senator, appearing at what looks like an old-timey diner of sorts with cushy leather booths and kitschy Western wall art, also dropped a "You betcha" into his remarks by way of poking fun at Palin, the 2008 vice presidential candidate for the GOP.

Reid, to be fair, owed it to himself to fire back at Palin and the Tea Partiers who'd descended on dusty Searchlight, Nev., last weekend for, among other things, a Harry Reid Bash Fest 2010. As our own Tim Murphy, on the scene in Searchlight, wrote, "Nearly every single one of Harry Reid's potential GOP challengers were given five minutes to make they case for why they disliked Searchlight's native son the most." Hitting back at Palin was the least Reid could do. (To watch the video clip, click here.)

In all seriousness, though, Reid had better be ready to remove the kid gloves on the campaign trail. A Rasmussen poll released Monday shows that Reid trails by 15 percentage points in a potential Senate match-up with Sue Lowden, the former chair of the Nevada GOP. In the poll, Lowden claimed 54 percent of support (a 3 percent increase from early March), while Reid had a mere 39 percent (a 1 percent increase).

Of course, the midterm elections are eight months away; an entire race can be won, lost, then won again between now and November. But the last thing Harry Reid wants is to find himself in a hole against Lowden when Congress shifts from policymaking to full-blown campaigning mode later this summer.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 6, 2010

Tue Apr. 6, 2010 9:31 AM EDT

091209-A-3108M-008

1st Lt. Pat Barone, foreground, a platoon leader, and Sgt. Daryl Appling, both with Company D, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist), explain to Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement soldiers how to conduct tactical patrols at night along the Iraqi-Syrian border, on Dec. 9, 2009. Photo via the US Army.

Poll: (Some) Tea Partiers Actually Like Obama

| Mon Apr. 5, 2010 8:00 PM EDT

Earlier Nick Baumann highlighted the Winston Group's new survey about the Tea Party, which revealed that Tea Partiers are largely old, white, male, andget this!conservative. No kidding. But taking a closer look at the Winston Group studyand a similar set of numbers released today by GallupI noticed something kind of funny: Considering the movement purports to counter the perceived "socialism" of his policies, President Obama is actually quite popular among the Tea Partiers. According to the Winston Group, 17 percent of Tea Partiers approve of the job Obama has been doing. Another 15 percent approve of the job Congressional Democrats have been doing, which, while not exactly a ringing endorsement, makes Democrats considerably more popular among Tea Partiers than Republicans. There's a similar quirk in the Gallup poll: A whopping 12 percent of Tea Partiers believe the Affordable Care Act was a "good thing." Merlin's pants!

What could Tea Partiers possibly like about Obama? That's the obvious mystery here, but I'm willing to speculate a little bit. Since much of the movement's messaging is built on a steady flow of misinformation, it's only natural that a lot of Tea Partiers are going to have difficulty sorting out the heroes and villains. For example: When I attended a Tea Party Express rally in Nevada last month, I spoke with a man who had come "to send a message to Harry Reid." His grievance? He blamed Reid for shortchanging a proposal for a high-speed rail line from Las Vegas to Anaheim (instead, trains will stop in Victorville, California, 100 miles from LA, which admittedly is kind of lame). The Vegas-Anaheim line would have been great for Nevadans, he explained to me. And he was probably right. But that very idea was also lampooned by Republicans at the time as a "magnetic levitation line" from "Sin City" to "Disneyland."

Fear and Loathing in Mississippi

| Mon Apr. 5, 2010 5:31 PM EDT

By now, you may have heard of Constance McMillen. She's the 18-year-old senior and out lesbian who scandalized Itawamba County Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, by opting to attend the school's senior prom with her girlfriend, another Itawamba student—a prospect that seems to have terrified school administrators. (Also scary to the locals, apparently, was the fact that McMillen wanted to wear a "men's" tuxedo.)

The case has become a worldwide cause celebre. But for all the media attention directed at McMillen, the story's not really about her. It's about a homogenized school district trying to preserve a down-South culture so exclusive and mean-spirited, it seems like a caricature ripped from a child's book report on To Kill a Mockingbird. And McMillen's not the only victim.

The school tried to bar McMillen and her girlfriend from the dance. The ACLU sued on the students' behalf. Rather than relent, the school district chose to shut down the prom. According to the local news, anti-gay protesters even hung up signs at the school reading, "What happened to the Bible belt?" and "Gomorrah."

As it turned out, the Itawamba school district was preparing to act very Old Testament.