Mojo - May 2011

Debunking the Right's Health Waiver Conspiracy

| Tue May. 17, 2011 11:45 AM PDT

Is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi helping companies in her district get around new health care rules? Conservatives seem to think so, but their evidence is spotty at best.

Last month, the Obama administration granted a reprieve to 204 businesses and policyholders from new health coverage rules under the Affordable Care Act, bringing the total number of waivers to more than 1370. Many of the waivers are for limited benefit or so called "mini-med" plans—controversial rock-bottom plans that provide a very limited amount of coverage (sometimes as little as $2,000 a year) to beneficiaries that are used heavily in low-wage industries like the restaurant business. New federal rules require such plans to offer a minimum of $750,000 of coverage annually, and the waivers exempt the mini-med plans from such rules on a case-by-case basis.

The Daily Caller reported on Tuesday that businesses in Pelosi’s district received nearly 20 percent of the waivers in April, pointing out that many of them went to high-end restaurants and hotels. Sarah Palin piled on in a subsequent interview with the Caller, calling the discovery "unflippingbelievable!" and "corrupt."

Pelosi’s communications director, Nadeam Elshami, pushed back against the criticisms in an email to Mother Jones, denying that Pelosi’s district received any special treatment. Her office also denied that it was at all involved in the process of granting waivers for these businesses. "It is pathetic that there are those who would be cheering for Americans to lose their minimum health coverage or see their premiums increase for political purposes," Elshami wrote Tuesday afternoon, emphasizing that health-care waivers "are reviewed and granted solely by the Administration in an open and transparent process." 

In fact, the recent waiver applications from businesses in Pelosi's district were not even received by the minority leader's office. Rather, they were submitted directly to the Obama administration through a third-party company, Flex Plan Services, which provides benefit administration to companies in the Bay Area, Washington state, and elsewhere in the country, according to a statement issued by Richard Sorian, an assistant HHS secretary. On March 23, Flex Plan Services submitted applications for annual limit waivers for their clients' health plan, including 69 businesses in California, 20 in Washington state, two in Georgia, and one in Alaska, including restaurants, home health care providers, and other service-based companies. On April 4, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services approved the waiver request for all of Flex Plan Services' clients—not just the ones in Pelosi's district.

Flex Plan Services never contacted Pelosi's office about their waiver request, and her office did neither provided any information to the company about the waivers nor helped facilitate the request, according to her spokesperson.

In other words, the reason the waivers were clumped together was because Flex Plan Services—which is in charge of administrating all of these businesses' health care benefits—had issued a waiver request for the entire group of businesses. Altogether, the Obama administration has granted 1372 waivers and has denied about 100 requests. The mini-med waivers are essentially a stop-gap measure designed to keep employers from dropping health care benefits all together. The White House explains that waivers are granted if conforming to the rules "would disrupt access to existing insurance arrangements or adversely affect premiums, causing people to lose coverage," acknowledging that the low-benefits plans are sometimes the only option that some employers can offer. The Democrats' rationale is that the other changes under federal health reform will eventually allow employers to receive better, more affordable coverage under the health insurance exchange, when it begins operating in 2014.

To be sure, it’s worth closely examining which businesses and policyholders have received waivers, as well as which ones have denied them, along with the Obama administration’s rationale for making such decisions. But, as the April waivers reveal, the very fact that reprieves have been granted to businesses residing in democratic districts doesn't mean the process is unjust. And to assume that the rationale must be political or "corrupt" is to turn a real policy issue into a partisan bludgeon.

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Gingrich, Bachmann Address Wannabe Hate Group

| Tue May. 17, 2011 9:11 AM PDT

Update: Gingrich spoke at the event on Tuesday as scheduled and, it's safe to say, things didn't quite go as planned. Full update, with video, below the jump.

GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has drawn tons of bad press in the past two days for criticizing GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to end Medicare, for charging that President Obama is the "most successful food stamp president in history," and for his bulging debt ceiling at the jewelry store Tiffany's. What's gone overlooked are the former Speaker's Tuesday night plans. This evening, Gingrich and fellow presidential aspirant Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) will headline a Minneapolis fundraiser for the Minnesota Family Council (MFC), a Twin Cities-based conservative Christian organization that's bankrolling the effort to ban gay marriage in the state, and whose president has written that gay teens who commit suicide brought it upon themselves.

In a statement posted on the group's website, Gingrich writes that the group "is vigorously defending our God-given freedom in our communities, schools, at the Capitol and the ballot box. Join me and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in rediscovering God and the vital role of faith and family in our American freedoms." The $100-per-plate event will also include a screening of the ex-Speaker's documentary, Rediscovering God in America, and a book signing.

One of the group's leaders has suggested that anti-gay organizations should be proud to be labeled "hate groups." In an interview last December with Peter LaBarbera of the anti-gay group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, MFC research analyst Barb Anderson urged him to embrace the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center had designated his outfit a "hate group." "I think it's becoming perhaps a badge of honor to be called a hate group," she said. Anderson went on to describe the "radical homosexual agenda" as "the greatest threat to our freedom and to the health and well being of our children." Last fall, the SPLC added a handful of anti-gay groups to its list of hate groups, including the Family Research Council, which joined such outfits as the Church of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Council of Conservative Citizens. That prompted Republican members of Congress, including Bachmann and then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), to sign onto an open letter declaring their support for the FRC.

But MFC's most chilling comments concern the recent surge in suicides by LGBT teens.

RIP WTF 44

| Tue May. 17, 2011 8:33 AM PDT

GOP Hill staffer Scott Graves is retiring his cheeky license plate, WTF 44, following my story yesterday identifying him as the owner of the apparently Obama-bashing Texas tags. "When I realized the meaning could be misconstrued, I ordered new plates," Graves, the legislative director for Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), told Texas' San Angelo Standard Times in a statement. It seems a bit hard to imagine that Graves was not aware, at the very least, of the meaning of WTF. In fact, he used this shorthand in the appropriate context on his Twitter feed

So, if not a political jab at the president, what did the plate mean? Graves, via Conaway's press secretary, Sam Ray, did not elaborate to the Standard Times. Nor did Ray provide an alternative explanation when I contacted him for comment. Ray did speculate, weakly, that "maybe that was his number in football" after I suggested that perhaps WTF could stand for "West Texas Football." (Hey, I watch Friday Night Lights.) In any event, Ray never got back to me on what WTF 44 "really" meant.

It seems Conaway's staffers have chosen the strategy of just playing dumb on the matter. The Standard Times Washington correspondent, Trish Choate, was accidentally cc'd on some internal correspondence related to the plates issue. She reports:



In an email addressing Ray but also sent to the Standard-Times' Washington correspondent and Graves, Chief of Staff Richard Hudson referred to "KMC"—Kenneth Michael Conaway, saying: "Give KMC a 'heads-up.' When she talks to KMC next and she asks him about it, he just needs to decline to discuss his employees' personal vehicles. Or say something like, I didn't know about the plates, but I understand he's changed them."

There is one remaining question: Now that Graves is trading in his old plates, how should he personalize his new ones?

Is Palin Now Leaning Toward a 2012 Run?

| Tue May. 17, 2011 7:01 AM PDT

Sarah Palin's political action committee recently sent 400,000 new mailers bearing the message "2012 Can't Come Fast Enough," raising questions that the tea party favorite could be mulling a presidential bid after all.

As the Washington Post reported, the Sarah PAC mailers were sent out nationwide, including to potential donors in crucial GOP primary states, and were intended to drum up contributions to Palin's PAC. In the mailer, Palin writes, "Taking back control of the House last year was only the first step. Now you and I must fix our eyes on 2012. Our goal is to take back the White House and the Senate." At the end of last year, Sarah PAC had $1.3 million in bank, according to federal election filings.

Here's the Post's takeaway on the vaguely worded mailer:

Polls of late have shown Palin to be slipping somewhat in popularity among Republicans, and she has faded from the national spotlight in recent months.

Still, if she were to get in the presidential race, it would shake up a field that has just started to settle down. That's especially true in the wake of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run in 2012, a move that will almost certainly free up a considerable number of social conservative voters.

[...]

Even if Palin doesn’t ultimately run, her continued fundraising for the PAC suggests she is planning to play an active role in the 2012 election.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 17, 2011

Tue May. 17, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Officers of 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, "Ready First" 1st Armored Division, participate in an urban combat exercise at a training facility on Fort Bliss, Texas, May 11-12. Photo via US Army.

Ron Paul's 15 Most Extreme Positions

| Mon May. 16, 2011 12:30 PM PDT

Could Rep. Ron Paul of Texas ever be a true contender for the White House?

To be sure, the conservative political landscape has shifted dramatically since Paul's quixotic bid for the 2008 GOP nomination was met by jeers from the party establishment, and the Ron Paul Revolution has minted a new generation of libertarian activists who've helped lay some of the organizational and ideological groundwork for the tea party movement. "Time has come around to where people are agreeing with much of what I've been saying for 30 years," the Texas congressman said on Friday, as he launched his third White House attempt. "The time is right."

Yet despite Paul's growing cult following, many of his views are just a tad extreme for voters from either major party. To name just a few of these politically dicey positions, President Ron Paul would like to...

1. Eviscerate Entitlements: Believes that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are unconstitutional, and has compared the failure of federal courts to strike them down to the courts' failure to abolish slavery in the 19th century.

2. Lay Off Half His Cabinet: Wants to abolish half of all federal agencies, including the departments of Energy, Education, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Labor.

3. Enable State Extremism: Would let states set their own policies on abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school, and most other issues.

4. Protect Sexual Predators' Privacy: Voted against requiring operators of wi-fi networks who discover the transmission of child porn and other forms online sex predation to report it to the government.

5. Rescind the Bin Laden Raid: Instead of authorizing the Navy Seals to take him out, President Paul would have sought Pakistan's cooperation to arrest him.

6. Simplify the Census: The questions posed by the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey, which collects demographics data such as age, race, and income, are "both ludicrous and insulting," Paul says.

7. Let the Oldest Profession Be: Paul wants to legalize prostitution at the federal level.

8. Legalize All Drugs: Including cocaine and heroin.

9. Keep Monopolies Intact: Opposes federal antitrust legislation, calling it "much more harmful than helpful." Thinks that monopolies can be controlled by protecting "the concept of the voluntary contract."

10. Lay Off Ben Bernanke: Would abolish the Federal Reserve and revert to use of currencies that are backed by hard assets such as gold.

11. Stop Policing the Environment: Believes that climate change is no big deal and the Environmental Protection Agency is unnecessary. Most environmental problems can be addressed by enforcing private-property rights. Paul also thinks that interstate issues such as air pollution are best dealt with through compacts between states.

12. Not Do Anything, but Still...: Would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it was a "massive violation of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of a free society."

13. Let Markets Care for the Disabled: "The ADA should have never been passed," Paul says. The treatment of the handicapped should be determined by the free market.

14. First, Do Harm: Wants to end birthright citizenship. Believes that emergency rooms should have the right to turn away illegal immigrants.

15. Diss Mother Teresa: Voted against giving her the Congressional Gold Medal. Has argued that the medal, which costs $30,000, is too expensive.

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Is Newt Calling for a Literacy Test?

| Mon May. 16, 2011 8:22 AM PDT

Last Friday, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suggested to the Georgia state Republican convention that Barack Obama is our "most successful food stamp president in history," sparking the inevitable to-do over whether Gingrich was or was not playing to his base's basest racial fears. Newt says he wasn't, and that's plausible, for the simple reason that he has always hated food stamps, blaming pretty much all of society's ailments on the "corrupt welfare state." But this part of the speech, via Matt Yglesias, is also pretty controvesial:

You know, folks often talk about immigration. I always say that to become an American citizen, immigrants ought to have to learn American history [applause]. But maybe we should also have a voting standard that says to vote, as a native born American, you should have to learn American history [applause]. You realize how many of our high school graduates because of the decay of the educational system, couldn't pass a citizenship test.

The good news for Newt is that we already have laws that say that, if you're a child of school-going age, you have to go to school. And we also have curriculum standards that say that, if you attend public schools, you have to learn American history. So what Gingrich is really suggesting is some sort of system of literacy tests focusing on American history—which, per American history, are illegal.

But putting aside the racial element to all of this, what's the next step? What elements of American history does Gingrich believe are so essential that an improper understanding should automatically disqualify you from being able to exercise your constitutional right to vote? The Civil War was a pretty important event in American history, but if you asked Americans to name the primary cause, a good portion of otherwise civic-minded Republican primary voters would probably fail. Meanwhile, in his book Real Change, Gingrich writes that President Obama is "the most radical President in American history," and has elsewhere suggested that Obama will undo 400 years of American progress. That was all news to me, but it sounds pretty important. Should that be on the test too?

GOP Presidential Candidates Stump for...The Individual Mandate?

| Mon May. 16, 2011 7:34 AM PDT

For the past year, Republicans, egged on by tea partiers, have bashed President Obama's health care reform plan as a huge and unprecedented federal intrusion into people's lives. They've argued in court and in the press that requiring all Americans to buy health insurance—a provision in the law known as the individual mandate—is unconstitutional. If the government can make you buy health insurance, they argue, it's only a matter of time before it forces you to eat broccoli because it's good for you. But lately, the individual mandate has won some support from the unlikeliest of people: Republican presidential contenders.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich stumped for the individual mandate in his first major TV appearance after officially declaring his candidacy for 2012. While Gingrich took issue with Obama's health-care plan, criticizing it as being top-down federal model, he gave a full-throated endorsement of the individual mandate:

"I am for people, individuals—exactly like automobile insurance—individuals having having health insurance and being required to have health insurance. And I am prepared to vote for a voucher system which will give individuals, on a sliding scale, a government subsidy so we insure that everyone as individuals have health insurance."

Later, asked if he agreed with another GOP presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, on the core idea of an individual mandate, Gingrich replied:

"Well, I agree that all of us have a responsibility to pay—help pay for healthy care. And, I think that there are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy. I've said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond or in some way you indicate you're going to be held accountable."

That position appears at odds with Gingrich's support of the various lawsuits at the state level challenging the constitutionality of Obama's health-care mandate. Gingrich's ringing endorsement of the individual mandate also comes days after Mitt Romney stumped the mandate as well, in a speech defending the universal health-care reform he instituted during his tenure as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007. Here's what he told a small crowd in Ann Arbor, Mich.:

I recognize that a lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake...and walk away. I presume that a lot of folks think that if I did that it would be good for me politically. There's only one problem with that: it wouldn’t be honest."

The reactions, on the right and the left, to Romney's speech were telling. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote that Romney's speech was "as thoroughgoing a defense of the individual mandate as I’ve heard in months."  "Mitt Romney just gave a more articulate defense of Obamacare than President Obama ever has," wrote Avik Roy in the National Review. And Reason magazine associate editor Peter Suderman said Romney offered "a much better case for ObamaCare than against it."

What'll be even more telling is how Gingrich and Romney defend themselves in the GOP presidential debates, where they're sure to get grilled on their support for the mandate. That, of course, won't compare to the harsh judgment they'll receive from the red-hot social conservatives of Iowa, who play kingmaker every four years in their crucial curtain-raising caucuses and who believe the individual mandate represents the tyranny of federal government at its very worst.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 16, 2011

Mon May. 16, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Sgt. Johnny Hoyos pulls security above the prisoner courtyard as members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul and 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division visit the Zabul Provincial Prison, May 11. Hoyos is assigned to PRT Zabul's security force. Photo via US Army.

Corn on "Hardball": John Ensign's Web of Deceit

Fri May. 13, 2011 5:03 PM PDT

David Corn and Karoun Demirjian of the Las Vegas Sun joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the latest details in the ongoing ethics investigation of former Senator John Ensign.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.