Mojo - June 2011

Holder Advocates Extending Fair Drug Sentencing Laws

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 2:21 PM EDT

For drug war skeptics and civil libertarians, Wednesday was a good day. For law enforcement hawks, it was, potentially, pretty terrifying. Speaking before the US Sentencing Commission—the body charged with drawing up sentencing rules for federal courts—Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Obama administration favors retroactively applying reduced penalties for federal crack-cocaine offenders "who are not considered dangerous drug offenders," reports the Wall Street Journal.

Bridging the disparities built into the drug crime-sentencing system has been a cornerstone priority for the Obama administration. Last August, the president signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reversed 1980s-era rules mandating stricter sentences for crack-cocaine crimes than for those related to powder cocaine. Under the older, harsher rules, defendants faced a minimum five-year prison term if convicted of possessing just five grams of crack; in contrast, it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to draw the same sentence.

Those rules were broadly decried as racist (their conservative proponents notwithstanding): most people sentenced for crack charges are black, while those hit with powder-cocaine raps tend to be white or Hispanic. The new guidelines upped the amount of crack cocaine that would require a five-year mandatory minimum sentence to 28 grams, and the amount triggering a ten-year mandatory minimum to 280 grams. 

But Holder's recommendation to grant softer standards to those already convicted is sure to draw strident protest from conservatives. Consider:

If the new guidelines are applied retroactively, 12,040 offenders sentenced between Oct. 1, 1991 and Sept. 30, 2010 would be eligible to seek reduced sentences, according to Sentencing Commission research. About one-third of the group would be eligible for release, if approved, by Nov. 1, 2012, while the releases as a whole would be spread over 30 years. The average sentence would be reduced from 164 months to 127 months, Commission data showed.

Those prospects are pretty upsetting for some Republicans. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.)—who also opposed the Fair Sentencing Act—said that the administration's newly announced position "sends a dangerous message to criminals and would-be drug offenders that Congress doesn't take drug crimes seriously." And Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also thinks Holder's recommendation was a "bad idea."

For its part, the DOJ said that it wouldn't grant softer sentences to offenders who had used weapons in their crimes, or to those who boasted lengthy rap sheets. But its position could confirm the right's worst fears about fairer sentencing and prison reform, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent 5-4 ruling that overcrowding in California's prisons is so bad that it violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That decision is expected to result in the release of some 30,000 California prison inmates.

Obama obviously didn't have a hand in that. But for conservatives bent on characterizing him as a soft-on-crime liberal, that might not matter.

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Republicans Court the Fat Vote

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 12:54 PM EDT

There isn't much dispute in the public health world that Americans are too fat. A quarter of all Americans living in 39 states are clinically obese, numbers that have expanded dramatically over the past 20 years. So you'd think that when the Obama administration tries to actually do something to address the obesity epidemic, most everyone would be on board. With the current crop of Republicans in Congress, though, you'd be mistaken.

The Washington Post reports that House Republicans have decided to slash away at public health measures designed to combat obesity, especially those aimed at children. On Tuesday, a House appropriations committee decided to do away with the first new upgrade of federal nutritional standards for public school meals in 15 years. Making the meals lower in fat and sugar and adding in more fruits and veggies, they concluded, simply cost too much. And those regulations passed last year that would require fast-food outlets to post the calorie information of their fattening offerings? Well, House Republicans want to exempt 7-Elevens, grocery stores, and other businesses from those rules. Americans apparently don't need to know that the Double Gulp they're about the buy contains a whopping 600 calories. Children, who are assaulted daily with advertising for horrible, fatty, sugar-laden food will get no relief from Republicans, who have told the Department of Agriculture to back away from crafting even voluntary guidelines for companies that pitch food to kids.

Clearly, Republicans are pandering to their big-ag and corporate food processing donors here. But by doing so, it sure looks like they are giving new meaning to the party's "big tent." They aren't setting a particularly good example, at least, when it comes to taking obesity seriously. But perhaps they don't care that much. One of the party's leading lights, the heavyset New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, once told Don Imus, "I am setting an example Don. We have to spur our economy. Dunkin Donuts, International House of Pancakes, those people need to work too.”  Christie this week took a state helicopter to his kid's baseball game, got in a black sedan that drove him 100 yards to the baseball diamond and then back to the helicopter. Apparently walking was just out of the question. Republicans are trying desperately to get Christie to run for president.

Feds Block Indiana Funding Cut to Planned Parenthood

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 11:01 AM EDT

Last month, after the GOP's push to defund Planned Parenthood fizzled in Congress, Indiana became the first state to go after the organization on its own. The Republican-run legislature in the Hoosier State passed a bill barring Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds, and social conservatives cheered when GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, who once spoke of the need for a social issues "truce," signed the bill into law.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration fired back, and said no dice. Donald Berwick, the controversial head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, sent a letter to Indiana officials informing them that their new law illegally discriminates among health care providers. That's bad news for Indiana. States that don't follow the federal government's rules for distributing Medicaid money—including those that apply to family planning dollars—can in theory be stripped of all federal Medicaid funding. If that happened, slashing a few million dollars of family planning money for Planned Parenthood would end up costing Indiana billions.

Planned Parenthood is already challenging the defunding law in court, but the Obama administration move ups the ante by getting the executive branch directly involved. The letter also serves as a warning to any states that are considering following Indiana's lead: killing off Planned Parenthood won't be quite as easy as Daniels and state GOP leaders may have hoped. Berwick, who was given his job via a recess appointment, won't become any more popular with conservatives, who have dubbed him "Dr. Death" thanks to fears that he will impose health care rationing and death panels. But at least Democrats and pro-choice activists should be happy to see the Obama administration making a strong move to protect abortion services.

Meanwhile, since Indiana passed the new Medicaid law, private donors have filled Planned Parenthood's coffers with more than $100,000 in a strong show of support for the group. The donations aren't nearly enough to make up for the $2 million in Medicaid funds that Planned Parenthood's Indiana operation will lose if the defunding law survives, but they will keep services in the state up and running at least for another two weeks.

Unhappy With Candidates, GOPers Turn to...Unpopular Governor?

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 10:48 AM EDT

It's a matter of public record that, at least at this point in the campaign, Republican primary voters really don't like their 2012 options. Hence the constant pining for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (not running), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (not running)—even former Supreme Allied Commander and two-term President Dwight D. Eisenhower (deceased). Now, the new hope for discontented GOPers is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a brash former US Attorney who's become a minor deity on the right on account of his contentious exchanges with (usually) public school teachers. Christie has said he's not running, but continues to hold the kind of meetings you'd hold if you were actually thinking of running. On Tuesday, he met with a delegation of influential Iowa Republicans in Princeton. Per the Des Moines Register:

It's too early to say the Iowa GOP mission to draft in-your-face New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run for president was unsuccessful, two team members said Wednesday.

Although Christie didn't promise to enter the race during the dinner with the seven Iowa Republicans on Tuesday night, he never flatly declared he wouldn't, said Gary Kirke, a business entrepreneur and an organizer of the recruitment trip.

Consider this: Christie had 13 of his people at the table, all trusted advisers, said Michael Richards, a West Des Moines Republican who also went on the 9½-hour trip.

Of course, as my colleague Andy Kroll has noted, Iowa Republicans are pretty much the only folks who actually seem to like Chris Christie, whose approval ratings in New Jersey have plummeted in the last 12 months. Hey, there's always Rick Perry.

GE, Exxon, 10 Other Major Corporations Paid Negative Tax Rate

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 10:07 AM EDT

As billionaire investor Warren Buffett likes to point out, he pays a lower annual tax rate on the tens of millions of dollars he earns than does his secretary, who makes $60,000 a year. It's an illustration, he says, of how the backward and loophole-ridden the US tax system is.

Here's another: Between 2008 and 2010, a dozen major US corporations—including General Electric, ExxonMobil, and Verizon—paid a negative tax rate, despite collectively recording $171 billion in pretax US profits, according to an analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice. Taken together, these companies' tax burden was -$2.5 billion, and ten of the companies recorded at least one no-tax year between 2008 and 2010.

Here's more from CTJ:

Not a single one of the companies paid anything close to the 35 percent statutory tax rate. In fact, the "highest tax" company on our list, Exxon Mobil, paid an effective three-year tax rate of only 14.2 percent. That’s 60 percent below the 35 percent rate that companies are supposed to pay. And over the past two years, Exxon Mobil’s net tax on its $9.9 billion in U.S. pretax profits was a minuscule $39 million, an effective tax rate of only 0.4 percent.

Had these 12 companies paid the full 35 percent corporate tax, their federal income taxes over the three years would have totaled $59.9 billion. Instead, they enjoyed so many tax subsidies that they paid $62.4 billion less than that.

If just these 12 companies had paid at a 35 percent tax rate over the past three years, total federal revenues from corporate taxes would have been 12 percent higher than they actually were.

Here's the data from the CTJ analysis:

CTJ's report comes as President Obama and Congress eye changes to the nation's corporate tax code. The president says he wants to eliminate the many loopholes American companies use to reduce their tax liabilities, but offset those changes by lowering the overall corporate tax rate—what are called "revenue neutral" reforms. For their part, Republicans simply want to lower taxes across the board, for individuals and corporations alike; they say American companies already pay too much when compared with competitors in the rest of the world.

Not so, according to CTJ. "These 12 companies are just the tip of an iceberg of widespread corporate tax avoidance," Bob McIntyre, CTJ's director, said in a statement. "Our elected officials have a duty to the American public to make reducing or eliminating the vast array of corporate tax subsidies the centerpiece of any deficit-reduction strategy."

What Good are Polls on RyanCare?

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 9:00 AM EDT

Another day, another poll on Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare. The latest one comes from two liberal groups, Herndon Alliance and Know Your Care, which found that voters rejected RyanCare by a 16-point margin, with 54 percent of voters opposing the plan and 38 percent supporting it.

Via Greg Sargent, here's the way the plan was described to voters: "Instead of the government paying doctors and hospitals directly for treating seniors as Medicare does now, the government would provide vouchers to help seniors buy their own private health insurance policy." Among two key voting blocs, opposition was even more adamant, with nearly 58 percent of seniors and 60 percent of independents rejecting the plan.

But as Jonathan Chait points out, it's important to take all these one-off polls with a grain of salt, particularly those commissioned by groups with an agenda. "Advocacy groups for every cause under the sun like to commission polls that show that the public agrees with them, and it can almost always be done if the wording is just right. If that somehow fails, the pollster-for-hire can present the respondents with arguments that are designed to push them toward the desired result," Chait writes.

What's more, the problem with this type of poll is that they often pose the question outside of a broader political discussion or debate—the context in which voters are far more likely to encounter them, as opposed to a succinct, one-message description. To that end, Nate Silver highlights a poll recently conducted by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation that presented voters with the broader arguments that the supporters and opponents of RyanCare have been making:

To the 50 percent who were opposed to the plan originally, Kaiser recited a series of arguments that resemble those that Mr. Ryan himself is making: That the plan would reduce the deficit, that the plan would increase choice and that it would save Medicare from fiscal insolvency. Some respondents, 17 percent of those who were originally opposed to the plan, changed their mind after hearing these arguments.

Meanwhile, to the voters who originally supported the plan, Kaiser read another set of arguments, those which resemble the ones that Democrats are making. They said that the plan would increase health care costs and reduce benefits, would do too much to empower private insurance companies, and would "eliminate traditional Medicare." Upon hearing these arguments, 42 percent of voters who originally supported the plans changed their minds and said they were no longer in favor of it.

Democrats, in other words, seem to have the more persuasive side of the argument — their case was more than twice as likely to change a voter’s mind.

So while both the Herndon Alliance/Know Your Care and Kaiser polls are likely to cheer Democrats who are betting that RyanCare is widely unpopular, the results of the latter may be a better indicator of how voters will really react to Democratic entreaties to reject the GOP plan.

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Is Herman Cain Really Like Most Tea Partiers?

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 6:07 AM EDT

This week, Mark Meckler, one of the national coordinators of the Tea Party Patriots, told the Washington Post that recently declared presidential candidate Herman Cain “is a lot more like us than anyone who has run for president in our lifetimes.”

His comment got me thinking: Is Herman Cain really more like the average tea partier than anyone who’s run for president in the past 60 years? More than Ron Paul? More than Ronald Reagan?? On the surface, Cain and the tea partiers have some pretty striking differences. The most obvious one is that Cain is black and 94 percent of tea partiers are white. Cain grew up in the segregated South drinking from the “colored” water fountains. Many tea partiers would have been on the white side. But putting those big glaring differences aside, are there other things that Cain and the tea partiers genuinely have in common? I came up with a few.

Goofy hats: Tea partiers are famous for wearing tricorne hats. Cain doesn’t wear one of those, but he does have a thing for black cowboy hats.

Fanatic (but often wrong) about the Constitution: Both Cain and the tea partiers share this particular trait. They revere the Constitution but don’t seem to know exactly what’s in it. (Remember when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said she wouldn’t fill out her US Census forms fully because the Constitution said she didn’t have to?) When Cain announced last month that he would be officially running for president, he included in his speech a big lecture about how Americans need to reread the Constitution. He said:

We don’t need to rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America, we need to reread the Constitution and enforce the Constitution. … And I know that there are some people that are not going to do that, so for the benefit of those who are not going to read it because they don’t want us to go by the Constitution, there’s a little section in there that talks about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You know, those ideals that we live by, we believe in, your parents believed in, they instilled in you. When you get to the part about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” don’t stop there, keep reading. Cause that’s when it says “when any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” We’ve got some altering and some abolishing to do!

The Constitution does not actually say this. That was the Declaration of Independence.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 2, 2011

Thu Jun. 2, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Sgt. Richard Toon, with Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, provides security atop a mountain during Operation Oqab Behar VI in Paktika province, Afghanistan, May 20, 2011. The mission provided security along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. George N. Hunt/Released)

Corn on "Hardball": the Palin Problem

Wed Jun. 1, 2011 9:51 PM EDT

David Corn and former chairman of the RNC Michael Steele joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Sarah Palin's controversial bus tour and how she has stolen the limelight from the other GOP presidential hopefuls.

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

Bachmann in 2006: "We are in the Last Days"

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 1:16 PM EDT

I have a story up today on how Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's millenial theology shapes her political positions (on Israel, monetary policy, and education, most notably). The likely GOP presidential contender, who cut her teeth in politics as a grassroots Christian activist, has been a frequent guest on "Understanding the Times," a radio program devoted to interpreting current events through the lens of End Times prophecy. Bachmann's no novice when it comes to faith; when she raises the spectre of "One World currency" in an interview with a host who believes the arrival of the Antichrist is being expedited by President Obama's policies, she understands full well the connotation of her words.

Now, via the folks at Dump Bachmann, comes an even clearer explication of Bachmann's views...from Bachmann herself. Here she is in 2006 stating that "we are in the Last Days" (picks up at the 1:20):

The idea that we are living in the "Last Days" is not, at least theologically speaking, particularly radical. Last Days is not meant to be taken literally (i.e. "Thursday"), but rather as an indefinite period, and means that we're in the last "dispensation" before the Rapture. But when taken in conjunction with her associations and Left Behind rhetoric, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

It's also worth noting the context: Bachmann's "Last Days" remark came in a prayer for You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, a heavy-metal ministry that travels to public schools to encourage students to find Christ (on the taxpayers' tab). It's also anti-gay. Very, very anti-gay. As I explained last month, its founder, Bradlee Deen, has suggested that gays caused the Holocaust, and called for gays to be thrown in jail. Until 2009, he was also a member of the Embassy of Heaven, a sovereign citizen organization that's classified as an "anti-government" group by the Department of Justice. (Bachmann has raised money for YCRBYCHI.)