Ivan Okhlobystin
Mikhail Popov/Wikimedia Commons

Russian actor/ex-Orthodox priest Ivan Okhlobystin, who's famous for playing an ill-mannered recovering alcoholic on the medical sitcom Interny (a show sometimes described as "the Russian Scrubs"), has an interesting take on gay rights. He isn't for them. In fact, he'd rather be done with the whole concept of gay people all together.

"I would put all the gays alive into an oven," Okhlobystin told cheering fans in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. "This is Sodom and Gomorrah! As a religious person, I cannot be indifferent about it because it is a real threat to my children!"

He also compared homosexuality to fascism ("queer fascism!" that is), which is strange, since shoving human bodies into ovens is something closely associated with fascist death camps and the Holocaust.

The 47-year-old actor and filmmaker attempted to form his own political party in 2012, but failed to get state registration. He also once tried to run for president of Russia, and has pledged to donate the proceeds from an upcoming book to purchase more weapons for the mass-murdering Assad regime in Syria.

To put this in context, the Russian government recently put in place anti-gay legislation, which allows for fining and detaining gay and pro-gay individuals, and bans what is deemed homosexual propaganda to minors.

The passage of the Ryan-Murray budget plan in the House sends a strong signal that the Pentagon's budget is basically untouchable. Under the deal, the military's base budget (which doesn't include supplemental funding for overseas operations and combat) will be restored to around $520 billion next year—more than it got in 2006 and 2007, when the United States was fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Read our full package on the enormous, untouchable Pentagon budget.

As Erika Eichelberger reports, the deal could spell the end of efforts to make the Pentagon budget more efficient, particularly in the realm of procurement and contracting. Exhibit A is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the stealthy, high-tech fighter jets that are supposed to do everything from landing on aircraft carriers and taking off vertically to dogfighting and dropping bombs. Faced with sequestration cuts, the Air Force had considered delaying its purchases of the fighters, which are years behind schedule, hugely over budget, and plagued with problems. If the House budget plan becomes law and sequestration is eased for two years, those plans also may be shelved. 

More on the pricey plane with a reputation as the biggest defense boondoggle in history:

  • Rolling out the F-35 originally was expected to cost $233 billion, but now it's expected to cost nearly $400 billion. The time needed to develop the plane has gone from 10 years to 18.
  • Lockheed says the final cost per plane will be about $75 million. However, according to the Government Accountability Office, the actual cost has jumped to $137 million.
  • It was initially estimated that it could cost another $1 trillion or more to keep the new F-35s flying for 30 years. Pentagon officials called this "unaffordable"—and now say it will cost only $857 million. "This is no longer the trillion-dollar [aircraft]," boasts a Lockheed Martin executive.
  • Planes started rolling off the assembly line before development and testing were finished, which could result in $8 billion worth of retrofits.
  • A 2013 report by the Pentagon inspector general identified 719 problems with the F-35 program. Some of the issues with the first batch of planes delivered to the Marines:
    • Pilots are not allowed to fly these test planes at night, within 25 miles of lightning, faster than the speed of sound, or with real or simulated weapons.
    • Pilots say cockpit visibility is worse than in existing fighters.
    • Special high-tech helmets have "frequent problems" and are "badly performing."
    • Takeoffs may be postponed when the temperature is below 60°F.
  • The F-35 program has 1,400 suppliers in 46 states. Lockheed Martin gave money to 425 members of Congress in 2012 and has spent $159 million on lobbying since 2000.
  • Remember this bumper sticker?

And those are fancy, San Francisco foodie cupcakes.

We've got much more on the Pentagon budget here.

Last month, Mother Jones reported that the Food and Drug Administration had approved a powerful new painkiller called Zohydro over the objections of its advisory board, which voted 11-2 against approving the drug. Now Attorneys General from 28 states (and the US territory of Guam) have asked the FDA to reconsider its approval of Zohydro. In a letter to the agency, the AGs raise many of the same concerns that the advisory panel did, noting that the drug lacks adequate safeguards to prevent it from being abused and could exacerbate America's epidemic of painkiller deaths. Here's an excerpt from the AGs letter, which was dated December 10:

State Attorneys General do not want a repeat of the recent past when potent prescription painkilling drugs entered the market without abuse-deterrent qualities and without clear guidance on how they were to be prescribed. This created an environment whereby our nation witnessed a vicious cycle of overzealous pharmaceutical sales, doctors over-prescribing the narcotics, and patients tampering with these drugs, ultimately resulting in a nationwide prescription drug epidemic claiming thousands of lives.

Zohydro, which is made by a company called Zogenix, is five to ten times stronger than Vicodin, making it very similar in potency to OxyContin, a widely abused prescription drug that has contributed to the tens of thousands of painkiller-related deaths in the United States. OxyContin, however, now includes a gel that prevents the drug from being crushed and snorted. Zohydro was approved without that measure. Zogenix has entered into a $750,000 agreement with a Montreal-based company, Altus Formulation Inc, to help make the drug abuse-deterrent, but it's unclear whether the formula will be ready by the time Zohydro hits the market in a few months.

The Attorneys General don't think that's sufficient. "We hope that the FDA either reconsiders its approval of Zohydro ER, or sets a rigorous timeline for Zohydro ER to be reformulated to be abuse-deterrent while working with other federal agencies to impose restrictions on how Zohydro ER can be marketed and prescribed," they wrote in their letter.

Last week, prosecutors in Tallahassee announced they would not press charges against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, over allegations he had raped a former FSU student in December of 2012. Investigators had sat on the case for almost a year, and an attorney for the accuser (who withdrew from school after coming forward) alleged that Tallahassee police had told her to tread carefully, because she was in a "big football town." The press conference announcing that no charges would be filed was interrupted frequently by laughter from the (mostly male) attendees.

On Friday, the Tampa Bay Times broke down just how lax the Tallahassee Police Department's investigation really was. After interviewing the accuser in January of 2013, police were presented with a number of obvious sources to follow up with: they knew the bar where she'd been drinking; they knew she'd taken a taxi; and they knew that a football player named "Chris" had walked in on the alleged rape. Among the details:

  • "More than 200 pages of documents showed no signs that police ever questioned anyone at the bar or requested surveillance footage. The bar had more than 30 cameras that could have shown how much the woman drank, if she interacted with Winston and whom she left with."
  • "Police also seemed to quickly give up on finding the cab or its driver, though a specific company (Yellow Cab) was known to offer student discounts."
  • "Back then, police also didn't look for the freshman football player named Chris. A simple review of the Seminoles' 2012 roster shows Chris Casher was the only true freshman on the team with that first name. Investigators later learned that Casher was Winston's roommate and had walked in on the sexual activity—in part to record it on his cellphone. By the time investigators interviewed Casher in November, the recording had been deleted and the phone discarded."

That last item may be the most damning—there was literally a video of the alleged crime and police never tried to find it.

That's not to say Winston would have been found guilty. Maybe the leads investigators never followed might have led them to the same conclusion they ultimately drew. But the nature of the investigation made it clear that the odds were stacked against the accuser from the start. It would hardly be the first time.

A provision buried in the Pentagon spending bill soon to be adopted by Congress could open the door to anti-gay bullying, hate speech, and aggressive proselytizing inside the US military.

Earlier this week, the Senate and House Armed Services committees reached an agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act, allotting $625 billion in military spending for fiscal year 2014. And on Thursday, the House passed it by a 350-69 margin. While the measure enjoys broad congressional support, gay-rights advocates are concerned about the revamped "conscience clause," a variation of which appeared in the version of the bill that the House passed in June. Below is the text:

Except in cases of military necessity, the Armed Forces shall accommodate the beliefs, actions, and speech of a service member and chaplain reflecting the service member's or chaplain's conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, and in so far as practicable, would prohibit use of such beliefs, actions, or speech as the basis for any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment.

Critics argued that extending the protections to "actions, or speech" would allow service members to lash out at those whose faith, sexual preference, or lifestyle they opposed on religious ground, and to aggressively proselytize. (Some military institutions, particularly the Air Force Academy, have come under fire for allegedly forcing evangelical Christianity on recruits.) They also maintained that the provision would bar commanders from stepping in to prevent discrimination. In June, the White House issued a statement opposing the amendment on these grounds:

By limiting the discretion of commanders to address potentially problematic speech and actions within their units, this provision would have a significant adverse effect on good order, discipline, morale, and mission accomplishment... If the bill is presented to the President for approval in its current form, the President’s senior advisers would recommend that the President veto the bill.

The version of the defense authorization bill that the House and Senate agreed on this week has a somewhat milder conscience clause:

Unless it could have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, the Armed Forces shall accommodate individual expressions of belief of a service member and chaplain reflecting the service member's or chaplain's conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, and in so far as practicable, would prohibit use of such expressions of belief as the basis for any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment.

While the new language gives commanders more latitude, it still limits their ability to intervene. And the provision still protects "expressions of belief," which naturally includes action and speech--meaning it could still be a license to discriminate.

Paratroopers assigned to A Battery 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, part of U.S. Army Alaska, fire a 105mm Howitzer on Malemute drop zone at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Dec. 3, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher/Released)

Last month, I collected reports from voters across the United States who had trouble casting a ballot because of the growing number of strict voter identification laws. When Ben Granger, an Air Force captain who was deployed during the 2012 presidential election read the piece, he came forward with his own story—about the time he was turned away from voting for the US president by a conservative county in Texas, after mailing his ballot from a war zone. 

Texas has come under fire for its new law requiring poll workers to apply extra scrutiny to voters' state identification, in a way that potentially discriminates against married women. Although voter ID laws garner the most attention for turning voters away from the polls—longstanding laws in Texas and other states still require election boards to use a voter's signature to verify absentee ballots.

Granger, who was deployed for seven months in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in 2012, says he's voted in every presidential election since he turned 18. But after he sent his absentee ballot to Tom Green County, Texas, to vote in the 2012 general election, he received a rejection notice claiming that his vote was discarded because his signature on the ballot application and the signature on the ballot's envelope were signed by different people:

"I was surprised and aggravated," says Granger, who, having spent four and a half years on active duty, now lives in Belleville, Illinois, supporting U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command on active reserve. "As the guy that requested the ballot, carefully looked over the candidates, carefully signed the envelope and the ballot with a good pen, and then walked across my base to the post office to mail it personally, the rejection was insulting."

Under Texas law, in order to vote by absentee ballot, a voter must sign a ballot application, and then after receiving the ballot some weeks later, must sign the sealed ballot's carrier envelope. In Tom Green County—where 73 percent of residents cast a vote for Mitt Romney last November—the law allows a county to appoint a five-person board tasked with deciding, by majority vote, whether the two signatures match (they can even request to see the voter's registration signature). In Granger's case, they claimed that the application and the ballot envelope were signed by different people. He adds that while he doesn't specifically remember signing the application before successfully receiving his ballot about six weeks later, "I was pretty busy at the time...I [always] sign my name the same way."

This law is much older—more than a decade—than the one requiring that poll workers make sure a voter's driver's license "substantially" matches the name on the voter registration. Marian Schneider​, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a voting rights group, says that "every state has a process where they compare a voter's signature with another signature on file"—even if you vote in person—and she doesn't necessarily consider that a barrier to voting, in the way that voter ID laws are. But she notes that incidents of people committing fraud and forging signatures are nonetheless, "exceedingly rare."

Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for True the Vote, which argues that voter fraud is common, says that checking signatures is a good way to stop a criminal from "purchasing a ballot in a military installation and sending it on someone else's behalf." (There were only 13 credible cases of in-person voter impersonation between 2000 and 2010.) Churchwell doubts Granger's claim of voter suppression.

But Doug Chapin, the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota, says that barring people from voting because their signatures don't match "is a growing problem in the field" and "an issue that’s increasingly on the radar.​" While every state has a different process for verifying signatures, "This example is definitely at the stricter end," he says. Rick Hasen, a voting expert and law professor at the University of California, Irvine, agrees that, "signature matching has been studied and it is not a perfect system." (Kansas has​ done away with it entirely, allowing voters to enter a verification number, such as a driver's license or social security number, instead.) 

Granger says that if the Election Board truly thought someone had stolen his ballot envelope or application, "isn't that cause for the launch of a criminal investigation?" Vona McKerley, the election administer in Tom Green County, tells Mother Jones that "several" ballots were turned away in last year's election because of non-matching signatures. "The ballot board was following the law as prescribed in processing the ballots. No, there was no investigation."​

Granger is, nonetheless, concerned that this is just another way to disenfranchise voters: "I am a young educated military officer and I know how to sign my own name for God's sake. And even if I didn't, is poor penmanship good cause for disenfranchisement? What about the elderly whose hands may shake?"​

The House just passed the Ryan-Murray budget deal, signaling an unexpected end to the cycle of budget crises and fiscal hostage-taking. A few weeks ago, such an agreement seemed distant. Sequestration had few friends on the Hill, but the parties could not agree on how to ditch the automatic budget cuts to defense and domestic spending. Republicans had proposed increasing defense spending while taking more money from Obamacare and other social programs, while Democrats said they'd scale back the defense cuts in exchange for additional tax revenue. Those ideas were nonstarters: Following the government shutdown in October, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) called the idea of trading Social Security cuts for bigger defense budgets "stupid."

Which explains why Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray's deal craftily dodged taxes and entitlements while focusing on the one thing most Republicans and Democrats could agree upon: saving the Pentagon budget. Ryan's budget committee previously declared the sequester "devastating to America's defense capabilities." Murray had warned of layoffs for defense workers in her state of Washington as well as cuts to combat training if sequestration stayed in place.

The chart above shows why military spending is the glue holding the budget deal together. It also shows how any remaining opposition to the bill in the Senate may bring together even stranger bedfellows than Ryan and Murray: progressive dove Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and sequestration fan Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

We've got much more coming on military spending and how the Pentagon just dodged a budgetary bullet. Stay tuned.

"A Festivus for the rest of us!"

A fake holiday popularized by Seinfeld has become the symbol of secular pushback against religious dominion over American public life. Or something like that.

The Wisconsin and Florida state capitols currently have Festivus poles on display. To the uninitiated, the Festivus pole is a key component in the celebration of Festivus, a bizarre and agonizing December 23 holiday made famous by "The Strike," a 1997 episode of the beloved NBC sitcom Seinfeld. Since the episode aired, the holiday has taken on a life of its own. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has thrown Festivus fundraisers, for example. And at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday, self-proclaimed "militant atheist" activist Chaz Stevens erected a 6-foot Festivus pole made out of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans in the state house rotunda in protest of the privately funded nativity scene at the capitol.

Harry Mihet, of the "religious liberty" law firm Liberty Counsel, called Stevens' views "extreme" and his display offensive. "Is this how PC we've gotten in our society, really?" Fox News host Gretchen Carlson said on Tuesday. "I am so outraged by this. Why do I have to drive around with my kids to look for nativity scenes and be like, 'Oh, yeah, kids, look. There's Baby Jesus behind the Festivus pole made out of beer cans!"

So what does the man responsible for the world's long love affair with Festivus think about all of this?

"Am I to understand that some humanoid expressed outrage that the baby Jesus was behind a pole made of beer cans?" Dan O'Keefe, who co-wrote the Seinfeld episode, tells Mother Jones. O'Keefe (whose other credits include The League, The Drew Carey Show, and Mike Judge's upcoming Silicon Valley comedy on HBO) claims he hadn't even heard the Festivus-pole protest news until Mother Jones reached out to him. But having Googled around a bit, he's rendered a verdict.

Sailors lay to rest 19 individuals during a burial at sea ceremony aboard the Multipurpose Amphibious Assault Ship USS Bataan off the East Coast Dec. 7, 2013. The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and Bataan Amphibious Ready Group are currently taking part in the Composite Training Unit Exercise in preparation for their scheduled 2014 deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility to serve as a sea-based, expeditionary crisis response force capable of conducting amphibious missions across the full range of military operations.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Manuel A. Estrada/Released)