Mojo - 2013...on-unstoppable?page=96

Meet the Senate Candidate Who Might Be Too Crazy for Texas

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 11:31 AM EST

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas).

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), the weirdest member of a Congress that also includes a Santa-impersonating reindeer herder and this guy, is challenging Sen. Cornyn (R-Texas) in next year's US Senate primary. In an interview with WorldNetDaily, a birther website that once reported that President Obama had perhaps hidden his gay life in order to run for president, Stockman explained that he was entering the race—just before the filing deadline—because Cornyn had "undermined (Sen.) Ted Cruz's fight against Obamacare" and was guilty of "stabbing fellow Republicans in the back."

If his very short career in Washington is any indication, Stockman will at least give us a reason to tune in. Some highlights from his second term in Congress:

undermined (Sen.) Ted Cruz’s fight to stop Obamacare
Read more at http://www.wnd.com/2013/12/tea-party-favorite-takes-on-gop-big-name/#EWwys4WrHXRiUYdf.99
  • His campaign bumper sticker: "If babies had guns, they wouldn't be aborted."
  • This tweet: "The best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas come out."
  • And this one: "Democrats are playing the knockout game with your health insurance."
  • The time he raffled off an AR-15 as a campaign fundraiser.
  • The second time he raffled off an AR-15 as a campaign fundraiser.
  • His interview with Ted Nugent, in which he wondered whether victims of gun violence who advocated for gun control were "useful idiots"?
  • His decision to bring Nugent as his plus one to last year's state of the union.
  • His (empty) threat to impeach President Obama over gun control.
  • The time he compared Obama to Saddam Hussein.
  • The time he explained he would vote against the Violence Against Women Act because it helps "men dressed up as women."
  • The $350,000 in income that's unexplained in his personal financial disclosures.

And that was just his second act. As I reported last January, Stockman has mellowed some since the days when he was caught smuggling 30 mg of valium into jail by hiding it in his underwear. Or the time he showed up at the airport to go to his sister's wedding wearing nothing but a speedo. Or the time he publicly fretted that his interest in ceramics would cause voters to "think I'm a fag." But if Stockman can't beat Cornyn, he'll have to wait a while to get back to Washington; by Texas law, he can't run for re-election and seek a Senate seat at the same time.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 10, 2013

Tue Dec. 10, 2013 10:54 AM EST

FORT STEWART, Ga. -- An M1A2SEP Abrams tank from Company D, 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment “Desert Rogues”, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, sits ready here at Red Cloud Range, Dec. 6. The Rogue company is currently conducting Gunnery Table V, the practice phase before the final qualification phase, Gunnery Table VI. Table V is very similar to Table VI and consists of numerous targets and maneuvers, where the crew attempts to qualify on the vehicle. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Richard Wrigley, 2nd ABCT, 3rd ID, Public Affairs NCO)

Report: Most Tax-Based College Aid Goes to the Least Needy Families

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 7:00 AM EST

The federal government helps to make college affordable in a number of ways, from low-interest student loans to grants for low-income students. It also offers a host of lesser known subsidies for higher education through the tax code, by way of such things as 529 tax-free college savings plans and exemptions for loan interest and college expenses—expenditures that don't show up as a budget line item the same way Pell Grants do. A new report from the Consortium of Higher Education Tax Reform suggests these tax credits aren't doing much to increase the number of low-income families who send kids to college. Instead, they're subsidies to the 20 percent of American households making more than $100,000 a year—people who would send their kids to college even without a 529 plan.

The nation spends $34 billion annually on Pell Grants, which allow lower-income kids to go to college and leave without owing major debt. Meanwhile, the US spends $35 billion on higher education tax breaks, most of which go to people who need them the least. Tax credits in general are poorly targeted at those most in need, but some are worse than others. Take the Exemption for Dependent Students, which allows families to reduce their taxable income by up to $3,900 if they have a dependent student between the ages of 19 and 23. More than half of all these exemptions go to people making over $100,000 a year. Also regressive: the deduction for tuition and fees, half of which goes every year to families making over $100,000. The median income of a family with a 529 college savings plan is $120,000.

One reason tax credits don't benefit lower-income families as much as they should is the fact that they aren't refundable, so the money generally isn't available to families when the college bills are due, only when they file their taxes. The consortium also points out that federal tax breaks are still available to colleges and universities that are doing a poor job of enrolling and graduating low-income students, noting that more than 100 institutions getting federal tax breaks have graduation rates under 20 percent—a serious problem that can leave low-income kids both saddled with college debt and without a degree that might help them earn enough to repay it.

Research shows that financial aid can make a huge difference in whether a low-income kid decides to go to college. It has a miniscule impact on the college attendance rate of upper class kids, who are seven times more likely than low-income students to complete a bachelor's degree by the age of 24. The consortium recommends some big cuts in higher ed tax breaks for the affluent and a shift in focus to directing aid to where it can do the most good. Among its proposals: ending taxation of Pell Grants; allowing people with drug convictions to access the American Opportunity Tax Credit, one of the few refundable higher ed tax credits; and imposing income limits on college savings plans. All of these things seem reasonable and something both parties ought to be able to get behind, but it's hard to see middle-class families giving up all this aid without a huge fight.

8 Big-Name Tech Companies Demand End to Bulk Internet Surveillance

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 12:01 PM EST

On Monday, eight major tech companies launched an unprecedented campaign asking President Obama and Congress to make sweeping reforms to the surveillance programs first revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The companies—AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo—asked for an international ban on bulk Internet data collection (like that reportedly permitted under the NSA's PRISM program), as well as more public reports and independent oversight.  

"We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide," the companies wrote in an open letter to the president and members of Congress. "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual ­­rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for change."

The companies asked governments worldwide to enact five major reforms: End bulk collection of Internet communications; Ensure that courts reviewing the decisions made by intelligence communities are independent and push back (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been criticized as a "rubber stamp"); allow tech companies to publish the number and type of government demands; establish a treaty to govern "lawful" data requests worldwide; and make it easier for companies to exchange data across borders. (My colleague Kevin Drum outlined these demands in more detail here.) 

Tech companies have been vocal about their desire to publish more information about government demands before, and they've also been independently rolling out "Perfect Forward Secrecy"—encryption that makes it much harder for the NSA to snoop. But this is the first time that these companies have joined together to explicitly ask the US government to "limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and [not] undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications." The reforms closely mirror those included in the USA FREEDOM Act, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and go much further than the reforms proposed in a competing bill backed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee. 

The Guardian notes that these companies are asking for global reforms, likely because they're concerned that "competing national responses to the Snowden revelations will not only damage their commercial interests but also lead to a balkanisation of the web as governments try to prevent internet companies from escaping overseas." Brad Smith, General Counsel and Executive Vice President of Legal and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, confirmed that there is an obvious business incentive for tech companies to stand against NSA spying: "People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 9, 2013

Mon Dec. 9, 2013 11:21 AM EST

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpls. Jeffrey Headlee, left, and Grant Gray, both aircraft rescue and firefighting specialists with Marine Wing Support Squadron 372, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Air Wing, use a hose at Forward Operating Base Shukvani, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Nov. 7, 2013. The Marines conducted a training exercise to maintain proficiency while deployed.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. James Mast/Released)

Labor Unions Are Underwriting the Republican Party's Civil War

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 11:11 AM EST

The Republican Main Street Partnership, led by former Ohio Congressman Steven LaTourette, plans to spend millions of dollars in the 2014 midterm elections supporting what it calls "the governing wing of the GOP." LaTourette's group aims to give political support and air cover to more moderate Republicans open to compromise in Congress, neutralizing the efforts of conservative stalwarts such as the Club for Growth and getting Ted Cruz-style hardliners out of Congress. The Main Street Partnership is a hybrid entity—part super-PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money but must disclose its activities, and part nonprofit, which can accept anonymous donations but can't focus primarily on campaigns and elections.

LaTourette has said his group plans to get involved in eight to 10 Republican primaries, and the Main Street Partnership has raised nearly $2 million to date. Yet according to National Journal, a good chunk of that money comes from two unlikely sources: the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Laborers' International Union of North America.

That's right: Two prominent labor unions are underwriting a group stoking the civil war that threatens to tear apart the Republican Party. Documents reviewed by National Journal show that the two unions have together given $400,000 to the Main Street Partnership, accounting for 20 percent of the group's funds.

Here's more from National Journal:

Certainly, labor's not alone in funding Main Street. The group's money is "coming from business folks, from private donors," said Main Street spokesman Chris Barron. "It has a wide range of folks who are interested in supporting the governing wing of the Republican Party."

Barron rejected critiques of Main Street's funding and positioning. "If the money came from Mother Teresa, the Club for Growth would attack where it came from," Barron said.

Both the Operating Engineers and the Laborers' union have given millions of dollars to Democratic candidates and millions more to the party's quasi-official House and Senate super PACs over the last few years. Only one other PAC gave more to Democratic candidates than the Operating Engineers' in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But both unions have also consistently invested in the campaigns of friendly Republicans, including LaTourette's (when he was in Congress). Earlier this year, LIUNA endorsed New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie for reelection and its PAC gave $300,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which ran pro-Christie advertising in the Garden State.

The Operating Engineers' PAC has given 23 percent of its donations to federal candidates to Republicans this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and it supported a super PAC called "Lunch Pail Republicans" last year. At the AFL-CIO's national convention in September, the Operating Engineers and another group offered a successful resolution urging "that the AFL-CIO take practical steps...to cultivate and nurture relationships with members of all parties" and "encourage moderate candidates" in Republican-leaning congressional districts as part of a "pragmatic, bipartisan approach" to its political giving and advocacy.

"Especially with this crazy political atmosphere, this is a place where we need to be lending support to middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans both, and this is part of that effort," Jeffrey Soth, the Operating Engineers' political director, said.

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House GOPers’ New Plan to Take Down Obama: Sue Him

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Better call Saul.

Texas attorney general Greg Abbott likes to joke that his job is simple: "I go into the office, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home." But it’s not just Republicans attorneys general who are taking the president to court these days. Forget impeachment—increasingly, House Republicans are using personal lawsuits as a way to rein in what they view as unchecked presidential power on everything from the Affordable Care Act to immigration reform to nuclear weapons.

"It appears right now that we may have to do it, that I may have to do it, or somebody may have to do it, as an individual, outside of Congress, to litigate on one of these issues," Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) told a local radio station last week. Coffman, who got in trouble last May when he suggested that Obama was foreign born and not eligible for office, didn't elaborate on which executive overreach set him off, although he discussed the nuclear agreement with Iran and the 2012 decision on welfare as possible violations. By Monday, his office had walked back Coffman's litigation threat, but the congressman is in good company.

Elizabeth Warren Fires Back at Centrist Dems on Social Security

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Last week, the president and vice-president of the centrist think-tank Third Way accused Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) of ignoring what they call Social Security's "undebatable solvency crisis." In an interview with Mother Jones, Warren fired back, countering the charge, and elaborating on how Social Security could be expanded.

"If we made no changes at all to Social Security," Warren said, "it would continue to make payments at the current level for about 20 years," meaning there is no immediate crisis facing the program, which assists some 58 million Americans. "Modest adjustments," she added, "will make certain… we could increase benefits for those who need it most."

One way to increase monthly benefits to seniors, Warren said, would be to broaden the program's funding pool. She did not elaborate on how, but one proposal that has been floated in recent years would raise the cap on the level of earnings subject to the Social Security tax. In 2013, for example, Americans paid a Social Security tax of 6.2 percent on wages up to $113,700. Earnings over that amount were not subject to the tax. Several members of Congress have introduced legislation that would lift or eliminate this cap, including Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.), and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.). Harkin's bill would increase Social Security payments by $70 a month for low- and middle-income beneficiaries.

Another way to increase the program's funding base, tax experts say, would be to close loopholes that drain money from Social Security. Each year, for instance, employers misclassify millions of workers as independent contractors instead of employees, according to the IRS. That means employers don't pay their portion of the Social Security tax, and the $2.8 trillion Social Security trust fund is juked out of billions of dollars in revenue annually.

A less obvious, but effective way of directing more money into the Social Security pot, Warren said, would be to increase the federal minimum wage. "Raising the minimum wage means we have workers paying more in to support the Social Security system," she said. Warren backs Obama's call for a minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $9 an hour.

The average monthly Social Security payment is $1,162. Americans have become more dependent on the program in recent years because a growing portion of retirees can no longer rely on pensions through their employer. Twenty years ago, 35 percent of private sector employers offered workers a traditional pension that provided monthly payments to retirees. Today, only 18 percent of employers offer such a plan. About 44 million workers get no retirement help from their employers.

In the interview, Warren emphasized that Third Way, as well as many in Congress and the media, are framing the debate over Social Security in the wrong way. "We should stop having a conversation about cutting Social Security a little bit or a lot," she said.

President Barack Obama, along with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, have proposed trimming the program to rein in the deficit. Each year, the Social Security Administration increases benefit payments to keep up with inflation. The president and lawmakers have suggested using a new, supposedly more accurate formula to calculate inflation, which would make monthly Social Security payments increase more slowly. In a speech on the Senate floor last month, Warren said this new formula is far from accurate, and that Congress should not balance the budget on the backs of the elderly. (Budget negotiators, who must reach an agreement by mid-January, have since decided against including Social Security cuts in the deal.) Warren's floor speech prompted the Third Way op-ed.

A coalition of liberal advocacy groups, including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, have also lashed out against Third Way. The organizations called on their members to ask congressional Democrats affiliated with the think tank to disavow the op-ed.

Warren has said time and again that she will not run for president in 2016, but this conflict between the progressive wing and the centrist wing of the Democratic party could serve as a warning for the next Democratic presidential nominee not to stray too far towards the center.

Oops: Republican Obamacare Amendment Expanded Abortion Access for GOP Staffers

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 7:00 AM EST

"Crap."

Nearly 9 in 10 health care plans that members of Congress and their staff must choose from include abortion coverage, a fact that has Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and right-wing media outlets raising hell.

But the only reason that congressional staffers have to choose from these plans at all is because a Republican amendment to Obamacare requires it. Thanks to this amendment, congressional staffers, who once had to pay for abortions out of pocket, can now buy insurance that covers abortions.

The bizarre story of how a conservative, anti-abortion Republican ended up expanding abortion access for congressional staff dates back to the initial fight over the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Here's how it happened: The Obamacare exchanges were expressly designed to provide insurance to the uninsured, so congressional staffers—who, like most Americans, already had insurance—were initially excluded. Republicans claimed that this amounted to Democrats "exempting" themselves and their staff from Obamacare, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced an amendment that would force members of Congress and their staff to use the exchanges. Grassley's proposal was intended to embarrass Democrats. But Democrats called Grassley's bluff, and the law passed with his amendment.

But Grassley's measure forced congressional staff out of the Federal Health Benefits Program, which federal law prohibited from offering any abortion coverage. Under the the federal plan, any congressional employee who wanted an abortion had to pay for it out of pocket. Now that they're on the Obamacare exchanges, though, congressional employees will only pay out of pocket for abortion insurance. They'll be able to choose any of the 112 plans available via Washington, DC's health care exchange, only 9 of which do not cover abortion.

NRA: Our Elephant Gun Owned by a Guy Who Shot a Baby With an Elephant Gun Is a "Treasure"

| Fri Dec. 6, 2013 5:05 PM EST

In addition to fighting furiously to keep guns in our warm, live hands, the National Rifle Association celebrates guns pried from cold, dead hands in its National Firearms Museum, "one of the world's finest museum collections dedicated to firearms." The museum's Treasure Collection includes everything from Annie Oakley's guns to Dirty Harry's Smith & Wesson. Another item in the trove, which the NRA tweeted about yesterday, is an elephant rifle that belonged to Henry Morton Stanley, the 19th-century British American journalist and "explorer" who marauded through east, southern, and central Africa.

The 22-pound rifle, which fired a quarter-pound of lead with each shot "was considered heavy artillery," explains NRA museum senior curator Doug Wicklund in the clip above. With it, Stanley shot 16 elephants during his 1871 trek in search of the missionary and doctor David Livingstone. Yet the NRA doesn't mention that when he wasn't shooting charismatic megafauna with his elephant guns, Stanley was shooting people with them.

As Stanley related in his own accounts, he repeatedly used his big guns to intimidate and kill people he encountered on his African travels. Here's how he dealt with some of the "savages" who got in the way of his trans-continental journey in 1875:

I discharged my elephant rifle, with its two large conical balls, into their midst…My double-barreled shotgun, loaded with buckshot, was next discharged with terrible effect, for, without drawing a single bow or launching a single spear, they retreated up the slope of the hill…

Twice in succession I succeed in dropping men determined on launching the canoes, and seeing the sub-chief who had commanded the party that took the drum, I took deliberate aim with my elephant rifle at him. That bullet, as I have since been told, killed the chief and his wife and infant, who happened to be standing a few paces behind him, and the extraordinary result had more effect on the superstitious minds of the natives than all previous or subsequent shots.  

On getting out of the cove we saw two canoes loaded with men coming out in pursuit from another small cove. I permitted them to come within one hundred yards of us, and this time I used the elephant rifle with explosive balls. Four shots killed five men and sank the canoes.

The final body count of this incident, Stanley claimed, was 14 dead and 8 wounded, presumably including the baby and its mother. Due to tales such as this, Stanley gained a reputation for indiscriminate slaughter. George Bernard Shaw described him as a "wild-beast man, with his elephant gun, and his atmosphere of dread and murder." Fellow expeditionist Richard Burton observed, "Stanley shoots negroes [sic] as if they were monkeys." Though the elephant gun in the NRA's collection is likely not the one fired in the passage above, it's not surprising that the gun lobby isn't volunteering the larger story behind the trigger-happy owner of this "special treasure."