Mojo - March 2011

The Abortion Taxman Cometh

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 6:15 PM EDT

The House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill on Thursday that uses the tax code to limit access to abortions in the US. As we've reported, the language in the bill extends the ban on federal funding for abortion to the tax code, blocking tax credits from being used for insurance plans that cover abortion services and forbidding tax deductions for the costs of an abortion.

The proposed law would not apply to abortions in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is at risk. It passed on a straight party line vote on Thursday afternoon.

Republicans say they're just bringing consistency to federal policies. The bill will "make sure that the destruction of an innocent human life is not subsidized by this government," says Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas). But Democrats and abortion rights advocates argue that the bill would significantly limit the availability of abortions in this country.

The measure, HR 1232, is similar to the language on the tax code included in HR 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," and would likely be incorporated into that bill should it go to the House floor. HR 1232 does clean up some of HR 3's notoriously vague legislative language, but the bills are similar in many respects.

Like HR 3, HR 1232 blocks small businesses that provide health care to their employees or the self-employed from getting tax credits for their health insurance if they choose a plan that covers abortion. The small business tax credits, worth about $40 billion over ten years, were passed as part of the Democrats' health care reform law and took effect during the 2010 tax year.

The bill also bars the use of flexible spending arrangements (FSAs) or health savings accounts (HSAs)—which allow employees to set aside pre-tax earnings for medical uses—to pay for abortions. And if a woman does obtain an abortion using FSA or HSA money, she would have the cost of that abortion added to her taxable income.

HR 1232 would also have the impact of reducing the number of health plans that cover abortions, says Donna Crane, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America. While 87 percent of plans currently offer abortion coverage, many would likely drop it in order stay cost-competitive with other plans. "That will mean that Americans in this country will have diminished access to abortions," said Crane. It also means that women who seek an abortion would be forced to pay out of pocket—which can be a sizable cost.

The provisions could also lead to abortion audits—where the IRS is forced to evaluate whether or not an abortion was in fact permissible for tax coverage because it was the result of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. "Not only is that insensitive, to put burden on woman going through an absolute terrible time in her life, but I don't think it's workable," said Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) in Thursday's mark-up. "A criminal case wouldn't fit conveniently within the tax season."

In explaining the bill in the hearing, Thomas Barthold, the chief of staff for the Joint Committee on Taxation, acknowledged that there is a "gray area" in terms of what is considered to endanger the life of a woman. Similarly, how the IRS would handle evaluating the reason a woman obtained an abortion is also unknown. "If this were to come up in an audit, I'm not exactly sure how it would be resolved," Barthold said.

Republicans argue that HR 1232 would have "negligible revenue effect," overall. But Democrats note that the bill would increase the tax burden for individuals and small businesses that want to purchase insurance that covers abortions. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) introduced an amendment, which was voted down on a party-line vote, that would have nullified the bill should it increase the tax liability for anyone.

That it was voted down, Crowley said afterward, is evidence that Republicans in the committee are "willing to use the tax code for movement on their social agenda," even if it raises costs for some.

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Tea Party Rally Washout

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 4:04 PM EDT

Previewing a protest on the Hill targeting the GOP leadership's failure to sufficiently cut the federal budget, the Washington Times ran a front-page, above the fold story headlined "Tea party to storm capital for 'gut check.'" The storm never came—unless you are referring solely to the weather.

Given the weak turnout for the "continuing revolution" event, as the Tea Party Patriots dubbed it, it would be hard to say that any storming occurred at the rally—unless you are solely referring to the weather. Maybe 40 or 50 tea partiers turned out for the "continuing revolution" rally. Granted, it was 40 degrees and raining out, but tea partiers are a hearty bunch who are not usually deterred by bad weather. The problem may lie with the issue at hand: it's awfully hard to mobilize people around yet another "continuing resolution" to keep the government open.

Florida GOP: No Talk of Wombs on Statehouse Floor

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 2:12 PM EDT

Clearly having seen my roundup yesterday, and hoping to outdo it, the Florida GOP offered us another precious moment today. From the St. Petersburg Times:

At one point [Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando] suggested that his wife "incorporate her uterus" to stop Republicans from pushing measures that would restrict abortions. Republicans, after all, wouldn't want to further regulate a Florida business.

Apparently the GOP leadership of the House didn't like the one-liner.

They told Democrats that Randolph is not to discuss body parts on the House floor.

"The point was that Republicans are always talking about deregulation and big government," Randolph said Thursday. "And I always say their philosophy is small government for the big guy and big government for the little guy. And so, if my wife's uterus was incorporated or my friend's bedroom was incorporated, maybe they (Republicans) would be talking about deregulating.

"It's not like I used slang," said Randolph, who actually got the line from his wife.

Wait. Uterus? What's wrong with uterus? It's a pretty common medical/anatomical term, right? A House GOP spokeswoman explained that Randolph's comment lacked "decorum" and could pervert the kiddies:

...the Speaker believes it is important for all Members to be mindful of and respectful to visitors and guests, particularly the young pages and messengers who are seated in the chamber during debates. In the past, if the debate is going to contain language that would be considered inappropriate for children and other guests, the Speaker will make an announcement in advance, asking children and others who may be uncomfortable with the subject matter to leave the floor and gallery.

You know what I say to that? Take a long fallopian walk off a short doggoned uterus, you sigmoid colonoscopes!

Sorry, that was a little over the top...Oh dear, hope I don't get fired.

House Panel Marks up Tax Portion of GOP's Abortion Bill

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 1:23 PM EDT

The House Ways and Means Committee is marking up language dealing with the tax code provisions of the GOP bill that would drastically alter the shape of US abortion law. As we've reported here, the language in the bill would extend the ban on federal funding for abortion to the tax code.

I'll be live-tweeting the markup below:

Scott Walker Agrees to Halt Controversial "Repair" Bill

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 11:48 AM EDT

After a county judge ruled for the second time that Wisconsin's controversial anti-union bill was not in fact law, Republican Governor Scott Walker and his administration agreed to suspend its implementation.

On March 18, Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary restraining order blocking the bill until a court decided if Republican legislators had violated a state open meetings law when they originally passed the measure. But the Walker administration went ahead with plans to enforce the law anyway, gearing up to start deducting more money from the paychecks of state workers mandated by the bill. The bill's most controversial provisions, of course, ban collective bargaining rights on health care and pension benefits for most public-sector unions—provisions that have sparked nearly two months of protest in Madison, the state capital.

Early this morning, Judge Sumi clarified that the bill was not law and threatened to sanction on anyone who tried to enforce it. An official with the Walker administration announced soon after that "given the most recent court action we will suspend the implementation of [WI Act 10] at this time."

Here's more from the Associated Press:

Early Thursday morning Sumi added the non-effect declaration to her restraining order clarifying that the law has not been published and is therefore not in effect. She is expected to take more testimony at a hearing on Friday.

Ozanne said Thursday that Sumi's ruling speaks for itself. Justice Department spokesman Bill Cosh had no immediate comment.

A spokesman for Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said he had nothing new to say beyond his previous statement that he didn't believe the judge had the authority to interject herself into the affairs of the Legislature given the separation of powers.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had no immediate comment.

The Legislature was scheduled to be in session Tuesday to pass other parts of Walker's plan to balance the current year's budget that faces a $137 million shortfall. There were no immediate plans to take up the collective bargaining piece again. The judge has said lawmakers could avoid the legal fight by passing it a second time, but legislative leaders have said they are confident it was done correctly the first time and it will prevail in court.

The Great Sharia Freakout

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 11:08 AM EDT

We've reported pretty extensively on recent efforts by conservative politicans to turn Islamic law into a bogeyman (see: here, here, and here). In doing so, it's become pretty clear that much, if not all, of the anti-Sharia movement is based on just plain bad information. How else can you explain the suggestion that Afghan-style tribal courts could somehow be instituted in South Dakota, for instance, or that a judge in Florida crossed any sort of line when he ordered two Muslim parties to settle their matter (per the terms of their contract) through an Islamic arbitrator?

In that vein, Wajahat Ali and Matt Duss at the Center for American Progress have a new report out today that pretty systematically dismantles the basic premise, espoused by prominent conservatives like Newt Gingrich, that Sharia poses an existential threat to the United States. It specifically takes aim at Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy, a think tank that's deeply influential in Republican circles, and more or less provides the intellectual clout (such as it is) for the anti-Sharia movement. A sample:

The "Sharia threat" argument is based on an extreme type of scripturalism where one pulls out verses from a sacred text and argues that believers will behave according to that text. But this argument ignores how believers themselves understand and interpret that text over time.

The equivalent would be saying that Jews stone disobedient sons to death (Deut. 21:18-21) or that Christians slay all non-Christians (Luke 19:27). In a more secular context it is similar to arguing that the use of printed money in America is unconstitutional—ignoring the interpretative process of the Supreme Court.

The report (which you can read here) does not address the future scourge of secular atheist Islamists that Gingrich warns could someday lord over the continent. But if Gingrich's recent record is any indication, he'll likely offer his own rebuttal sometime next week.

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Paul Ryan's $1 Trillion Plan to Slash and Burn Medicaid

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 9:35 AM EDT

Congressional Republicans have been making noises about gutting Medicaid for months, as it's become clear that—politically speaking—the health-care program for the poor is the easiest entitlement to cut. Now the shape of their plan is finally coming into view. Politico reports that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), chair of the House Budget Committee, is planning to slash $1 trillion from Medicaid in the House GOP's 2012 budget proposal. The details of the plan haven't leaked yet, but it's almost certain to include some sort of artificial spending "cap," which will reduce spending not by finding efficiencies but by slashing benefits, cutting payments to providers, and reducing access to the program.

Currently, the federal government reimburses states for a set percentage of their Medicaid costs. A spending cap-type plan would change that. There are already two such options on the table, both of which would fundamentally change the nature of the program. The first, which Ryan himself outlined last year, would turn Medicaid into a voucher program to "give Medicaid recipients $11,000 with which to purchase health insurance." Obviously, a program that gives people a set amount of money to pay for health insurance is a very different program from one that reimburses states for a percentage of the costs of insuring those people.

Ryan's voucher proposal hasn't won very many supporters. But Republicans in both houses of Congress are already united behind a push to convert Medicaid into a "block-grant" system that would give states the power to gut the program. Instead of giving individuals a set amount of money to buy insurance, like Ryan's voucher program, this plan would give states a set amount of money to provide insurance for poor people. Like the voucher program, this would represent a dramatic shift from the current percentage-based arrangement.

The House GOP's 2012 budget won't likely pass in its full form. But by putting draconian spending cuts on the table, House Republicans know they'll be able to move the policy goalposts further and further to the right—as they're already succeeding in doing.

When pressed, Hill Republicans will admit that Medicare, not Medicaid, is a bigger debt driver. But politically speaking, it's far easier to extract savings from the poor than from seniors. And when their opponents have supported Medicare spending reductions—as Democrats have successfully done through federal health reform—the supposedly fiscally conscious GOP turns around to accuse the Democratic Party of "an immediate 15 percent cut in [Medicare] benefits," as the National Republican Campaign Committee wrote in a press release on Wednesday. When it comes to entitlement cuts, the GOP rolls out its deficit hawkishness very selectively. 

Texas Bill Would Ban TSA From Touching Your Junk

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 5:35 AM EDT

Texas state Rep. David Simpson, a Republican from Longview, has introduced a bill that would make it a Class A misdemeanor for TSA agents to touch your junk. The bill applies to anyone in Texas who, "as part of a search performed to grant access to a publicly accessible building or form of transportation, intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly:

(A) searches another person without probable cause to believe the person committed an offense; and

(B) touches the anus, sexual organ, or breasts of the other person, including touching through clothing, or touches the other person in a manner that would be offensive to a reasonable person.

The Don't Touch My Junk Act of 2011, as it really should be called, does not mince words. The terms "penetration," "anus," and "sexual organ" appear four, eight, and nine times, respectively. Of course, this hasn't stopped the bill from attracting dozens of cosponsors. The governing philosophy (and anti-littering campaign) known as "Don't Mess With Texas" easily finds its analogue in "Don't Touch My Junk."

And what's wrong with banning airport junk touching? Submitting to blatant penile groping surely isn't an indispensable part of getting from Houston to Amarillo. And yet. One libertarian tells the Texas Tribune that messing with the TSA might not be worth it:

Federal employees currently hold immunity for acts they carry out while on duty, he said, and state officials are likely to face criminal charges from impeding TSA agents from doing their job. "And then who pays?" he asked. "Ultimately taxpayers pay."

 In other words, don't touch my wallet.

Another Phony Planned Parenthood Sting

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

In February, Lila Rose, a 22-year-old anti-abortion activist, made headlines with a series of undercover videos that purportedly showed Planned Parenthood employees assisting pimps with getting abortions and contraception for their underage sex slaves. It came out that PP had reported Rose's phony sex traffickers to the feds, but no matter. The hoax gave new fodder to the family-planning organization's congressional opponents, and Rose still cites it as evidence that PP has "conceal[ed] statutory rape and help[ed] child sex traffickers."

Yesterday, Rose, a protegé of video-sting provocateur James O'Keefe, released a new video that she claims catches the president of PP in a major lie. Here's what she says she uncovered: In an appearance on the Joy Behar Show, PP president Cecile Richards lied when she said the following about a proposal to cut federal funding to her group:

If this bill ever becomes law, millions of women in this country are gonna lose their health care access–not to abortion services–to basic family planning, you know, mammograms.

That statement, Rose asserts, is "blatantly false" because PP does not offer mammograms. To prove this, her "investigative team" called 30 PP clinics across the country and couldn't find one that provided breast cancer screenings. Based on those surreptitiously recorded calls, Rose concludes, "This is only the latest in Planned Parenthood's abusive and deceptive activity." Andrew Breitbart, who publishes posts by Rose on his Big Government site, has dubbed PP's allegedly false claims a "mammosham."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 31, 2011

Thu Mar. 31, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

Capt. Christopher Bulson and Capt. Zachariah Gummert from Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul step off a CH-47 Chinook in Daychopan, Afghanistan Mar. 29. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson.