The first question before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the last of three days of oral argument about the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's health care law, was whether the individual mandate—the requirement that certain uncovered Americans purchase health insurance or pay a fine—was the "heart" of Obamacare. In other words, if that beating heart is ripped out by a majority of the nine black-robed justices, should the Affordable Care Act be allowed to stumble along or be put down with a double-barrel shot to the head?

Former Solicitor General Paul Clement, representing 26 states challenging the law, said that without the individual mandate the rest of the bill would not work and Zobamacare should not be allowed to rise from the remains.

"What you end up with at the end of that process is just sort of a hollow shell," Clement said. "You can't possibly think that Congress would have passed that hollow shell without the heart of the Act." Justice Antonin Scalia later asked Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler that particular question: "Can you take out the heart of the act and leave everything else in place?"

Kneedler had a tough position to defend. The Obama administration's stance is that if the individual mandate is struck down, popular provisions like the ban on insurance companies discriminating due to preexisting conditions must also go. Kneedler was telling the court that if a majority chooses to rip out the heart of the bill, they will have to tear out the entire circulatory system, too. The reason: Without the individual mandate to push healthy individuals to buy insurance, the insurance industry would go bankrupt trying to cover those with serious, expensive health problems. Yet Kneedler also argued that the Affordable Care Act created a "sharp dividing line" between those popular reforms and the rest of the law. The legal concept in play here is "severability": whether or not the law can remain if one piece is stricken.

Not only is birth control helping women not get preggers, it's also making women richer. Widespread availability of oral contraception—a.k.a. "The Pill"—has played a major role in closing the gender wage gap since the 1980s, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

During the 1980s, the gap in median annual wages between women and men closed rapidly; women working full-time earned 60 percent of what their male counterparts earned in 1979, but earned 69 percent of men's wages by 1989. There were a number of good reasons that gap narrowed so quickly—the women's movement of the '60s and '70s, the increase in the number of women getting college degrees, and the protections afforded women by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a series of legal decisions. But the researchers found that use of "The Pill" accounted for 10 percent of the narrowing of the wage gap in the 1980s:

Its diffusion to younger, unmarried women improved their ability to time births, altered their expectations about future childbearing, and reduced the cost of altering career investments to reflect their changed expectations. The timing of its diffusion during the 1960s and 1970s also fits well with the slow growth in women’s wages during the 1970s (as younger women invested more in their human capital) and the rapid convergence in the gender gap during the 1980s (when these women enjoyed the returns on their human capital investments and accumulated labor market experience).

To determine how much of a role birth control might have played, the researchers looked at states that lowered their age of consent laws for medical care from 21 to 18. In those states, women could suddenly make decisions about contraception without parental involvement at an earlier age. This new age of consent doubled use of The Pill among women 18 to 20, the researchers found. The result was "a Pill-induced revolution," as more women were planning for and opting into paid work. The NBER also found that the increased availability and use of oral contraception was responsible for 31 percent of the narrowing of the wage gap in the 1990s.

The main reason for this, the researchers conclude, is that, "as the Pill provided younger women the expectation of greater control over childbearing, women invested more in their human capital and careers."

This is all the more interesting right now, as the country has been engaged in a heated debate over a provision in the new health care law that would guarantee all women access to birth control at no cost. One has to wonder what impact even greater access to contraception might have on wages going forward.

Capt. Rudy Stevens, a chaplain with the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, reads the latest issue of the Army Times as he waits for his unit to board buses for the airport to deploy to Afghanistan March 21, 2012, at Fort Bragg, N.C. The chaplain's unit is one of two infantry battalions that belong to the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team. US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. should be grateful to the Supreme Court for refusing to allow cameras in the courtroom, because his defense of Obamacare on Tuesday may go down as one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the court. 

Stepping up to the podium, Verrilli stammered as he began his argument. He coughed, he cleared his throat, he took a drink of water. And that was before he even finished the first part of his argument. Sounding less like a world-class lawyer and more like a teenager giving an oral presentation for the first time, Verrilli delivered a rambling, apprehensive legal defense of liberalism's biggest domestic accomplishment since the 1960s—and one that may well have doubled as its eulogy. 

"What is left?" Justice Antonin Scalia demanded of Verrilli, "if the government can do this, what can it not do?" Verrilli's response to this basic and most predictable of questions was to rattle off a few legal precedents.

Justice Samuel Alito asked the same question later. "Could you just—before you move on, could you express your limiting principle as succinctly as you possibly can?" Verrilli turned to precedent again. "It's very much like Wickard in that respect, it's very much like Raich in that respect," Verrilli said, pointing to two previous Supreme Court opinions liberals have held up to defend the individual mandate. Where the lawyers challenging the mandate invoked the Federalist Papers and the framers of the Constitution, Verrilli offered jargon and political talking points. If the law is upheld, it will be in spite of Verrilli's performance, not because of it.

The months leading up to the arguments made it clear that the government would face this obvious question. The law's defenders knew that they had to find a simple way of answering it so that its argument didn't leave the federal government with unlimited power. That is, Obamacare defenders would have to explain to the justices why allowing the government to compel individuals to buy insurance did not mean that the government could make individuals buy anything—(say, broccoli or health club memberships, both of which Scalia mentioned). Verrilli was unable to do so concisely, leaving the Democratic appointees on the court to throw him lifelines, all of which a flailing Verrilli failed to grasp. 

"I thought what was unique about this is it's not my choice whether I want to buy a product to keep me healthy, but the cost that I am forcing on other people if I don't buy the product sooner rather than later," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Verrilli responded gratefully: "That is—and that is definitely a difference that distinguishes this market and justifies this as a regulation."

President Barack Obama talks with senior advisors in the Oval Office, Feb. 29, 2012.

In the late 1990s, Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee faced blistering criticism for wooing wealthy donors with White House sleepovers, coffee breaks with the president, and rides on Air Force One. A decade later, as a candidate, Barack Obama bashed the cash-drenched culture of Washington politics. And as president, Obama has rejected lobbyist donations and pledged to keep lobbyists out of the White House and donors at a healthy distance.

Yet according to a new analysis, big-time donors are finding the Obama administration's doors flung open to them. An analysis by the Associated Press found that since mid-2009, more than half of Obama's top donors, as well as givers to a super-PAC backing his re-election bid, scored invites to the White House. Out of some 470 Obama donors, the AP found that at least 250 of them had attended White House parties or sat down for intimate meetings with Obama advisers.

At a recent state dinner, 30 Obama donors received invitations from the White House, where "they mingled with celebrities and dined with foreign leaders on the South Lawn of the White House," the AP reported.

Donors gaining access to the president, of course, is a bipartisan tradition in Washington. But the AP's analysis comes at a tricky point for Obama when it comes to campaign finance:

Obama's campaign has said it would begin encouraging supporters to donate to a "super" political action committee supporting him, Priorities USA Action, to counterbalance the cash flowing to GOP groups. The decision drew rebukes from campaign-finance watchdogs and Republicans who said Obama flip-flopped on his prior stance assailing super PAC money. The group supporting Obama has raised $6.3 million so far.

Visitor-log details of some of Obama's donors have surfaced in news reports since he took office. But the financial weight of super PACs and their influence on this year's election have prompted renewed scrutiny of the big-money financiers behind presidential candidates—and what those supporters might want in return.

Many of the White House visits by donors came before the president embraced the big-money, fundraising groups he once assailed as a "threat to democracy" on grounds they corrode elections by permitting unlimited and effectively anonymous donations from billionaires and corporations. Obama was once so vocal about super PACs that, during his 2010 State of the Union speech, he accused the Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in the Citizens United case of reversing a century of law that would "open the floodgates for special interests." But the success of Republicans raising money changed the stakes.

Obama's re-election campaign has raked in $120 million in donations to date. Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super-PAC started by two former Obama aides, has raised $6.3 million to date.

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, the rhetoric.

Just in case, the government in Tehran is pursuing a number of avenues to prep for possible military confrontation with Israel and the United States: Airbone war games. Puffed-up rhetoric. Possibly raising some hell in the Strait of Hormuz.

Also, they're hoarding wheat—lots of wheat. Here's why this matters, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

Iran is ramping up imports of wheat, including rare purchases from the U.S., in a sign Tehran is building a strategic stockpile of grain in anticipation of harsher sanctions or even military conflict...Such a maneuver could bolster the Islamic regime at a time when the West is increasing pressure over Iran's disputed nuclear program, including curbing purchases of Iran's oil and freezing its government banks out of international networks.

Current U.S. sanctions allow companies to sell food to Iran. Access to wheat is crucial for the country, enabling it to prevent spikes in the cost of bread, a key staple among its 78 million citizens. Such spikes have in the past led to social unrest in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Iranians have also purchased wheat shipments from Brazil, Australia, Russia, Germany, and others over the past few months, and is in negotiations for what might be a three-million-ton buy from India, with imports on track to rise even more. The US Department of Agriculture estimates Iran will import 2 million metric tons of wheat through June 2012, which constitutes a tenfold jump from a February estimate, and enough to cover roughly 13 percent of Iran's annual consumption, according to data compiled by the USDA.

"With any number of unknowns out there—a potential attack on its nuclear facilities, the possibility that a different administration takes office in the United States—the regime is prudently laying aside [food] stocks in the event things go very wrong," said J. Peter Pham, a director with the Atlantic Council told Reuters.

But even in times that weren't marked by such bellicose rhetoric, the Iranian regime has been known to indulge in ramping up American imports. During the Bush years, US exports to Iran grew more than tenfold, including over $158 million worth in cigarettes. Other hot items include fur, perfume, military apparel, bras, and bull semen.

Montana state Rep. Krayton Kerns.

Montana GOP state Rep. Krayton Kerns is taking criticism for comments he made earlier this month comparing Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke to a studding English bulldog named "John-Boy." Yes, really.

In mid-March, Kerns, a veterinarian from the ranching town of Laurel, posted an entry to his personal blog, "Ramblings of a Conservative Cow Doctor," in which he mused about the irony of freedom-loving Americans being "screwed" by the debate over access to birth control. Why, Kerns wondered, are we spending so much time talking about "contraception for coeds"? On Monday, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Stacey Anderson told the Missoulian Kerns' post was "degrading, sexist and inexcusable."

Anderson was referring to this passage:

Before a mock congressional hearing she testified $1000 per year for contraception is cost prohibitive for students and this expense should be borne by people who actually have jobs. (This makes sense to her because she is still in college.) When I finished banging my head on the table, I pulled out my imaginary photo albums and reminisced about the free-love college days in the '70s and '80s. Things were different then. I remember John earning $1000 per month for sex at Colorado State University, so contraceptive costs were meaningless to him. Let me tell you about John.

John was a swinger, but not your typical a sex symbol. He was hairy, had short legs, fat belly and he slobbered a lot, but the vet school rumor mill said he was earning nearly $300 per week practicing his trade. John's registered name was John-Boy and he was a grand champion English bulldog owned by a pharmacology instructor at Colorado State. Lamenting John-Boy's stud service popularity, Steve, a classmate of mine whined, "That dang dog makes $1000 per month in stud fees and I can't even give it away." Enough said about the good old days and this brings me to my point: How in the world did the political debate descend to the level of contraception for coeds?

This is of course a misunderstanding of the concept of health insurance, which is not charity, but rather something that you pay into in exchange for coverage. It's also not an accurate depiction of Sandra Fluke, who is a thirty-year-old third-year law student, not an undergraduate "coed." Nor does it appear that Kerns actually read Fluke's testimony, which focused not on her sex life, but on one of her lesbian classmates who has a medical condition that made birth control a necessity. Also: What does a studding bulldog have to do with anything?

But at least Kerns understands that the cost of birth control doesn't hinge on how much sex you have—which is more than you can say for Rush Limbaugh.

US Army Sgt. Paul Jordan, a medic assigned to the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, provides security as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter arrives to extract his team and members of 2nd Afghan National Civil Order Patrol Special Weapons and Tactics Team in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on March 16, 2012. DoD photo by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder, US Army.

Since the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments this week on the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), it's worth pointing out what the law would actually do. Here's one example, from the Washington State-based progressive group Fuse, on the difference between health insurance prices for women and men pre- and post-ACA:


David Corn and Eugene Robinson joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Rick Santorum's recent explosion at New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, the Santorum campaign's "Obamaville" ad, and whether Santorum has started to unravel.

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