Mojo - March 2013

No Joke: North Dakota Named Freest State in the Country

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 9:18 AM EDT

On Tuesday, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) signed into law three of the nation's strictest anti-abortion laws, banning all procedures after six weeks, prohibiting abortions due to genetic abnormalities, and adding more hoops for doctors working at the state's one abortion clinic. On Wednesday, the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center at George Mason University unveiled its annual "Freedom in the 50 States" report, ranking each state's fiscal, regulatory, and personal "freedom."

Guess who's number one?

spirit of america/Shutterstock

The Center's rankings are quite thorough—you can see where each stands based on dozens of variables, including taxation, tort reform, fireworks laws, same-sex partnerships, happy hour regulations, the legality of raw milk, and whether or not the state bans salvia. But one thing is pointedly happy from the methodology, despite its seemingly obvious consequences for individual and economic liberty: reproductive rights.

Congratulations, North Dakota. This award will look nice up on the mantle next to the anti-choice March Madness championship trophy.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 28, 2013

Thu Mar. 28, 2013 9:11 AM EDT

Machine gunners with Echo company, 2nd Battalion 9th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7, walk to a training site on Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe.

 

Big Government or Marriage Equality? DOMA Puts Conservative Justices in a Bind

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 5:00 PM EDT
Marriage equality activist Ryan Toney, 18, of Washington, DC, stands in front of the Supreme Court.

Once upon a time, there was an overreaching and intrusive federal government that stuck a woman who lost her spouse with a $300,000 tax bill. Then a group of black-robed heroes who believe in constraining excessive government power saved the day and told the nasty feds they couldn't do that. 

That may sound like a conservative fairy tale. But in this particular story, the widow, Edith Windsor, who lost her partner of more than 40 years in 2009, is a lesbian; thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing her marriage, when her wife died she could not claim a tax benefit afforded married people and was hit with a $363,053 estate tax bill. So when the Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday concerning a challenge to DOMA, this was truly a test for the conservative justices, who have been handed an opportunity to demonstrate whether they truly possess a principled opposition to overreaching big government. Yet during oral arguments—which came a day after arguments on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban—it was the Democratic appointees on the court who seemed more eager to ride to Windsor's rescue and uphold the conservative notion that the federal government cannot infringe on a state's definition of marriage.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summed it up this way: DOMA diminishes "what the states say is marriage" by treating same-sex and opposite-sex marriages differently, denying federal benefits and recognition to same-sex marriages performed or recognized in a state. Under DOMA, Ginsburg commented, heterosexual couples were receiving "full marriage" while same-sex couples were getting "skim-milk marriage."

Ashley Judd: I'm Not Running

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 4:49 PM EDT

So much for that.

On Wednesday, actress and public health activist Ashley Judd ended months of public speculation about her political future and announced she would not challenge Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) next fall. Judd, who lives outside Nashville and would have had to establish residency in the Commonwealth, cited family commitments in an announcement on Twitter:

The case for Judd, on its surface, was pretty straightforward. She is young; capable of raising vast sums of money; and sufficiently beloved in the Bluegrass that Steve Beshear, the state's Democratic governor, calls her "Kentucky’s first daughter." McConnell, a fifth-term Republican, is the least popular senator in a chamber that currently includes Robert Menendez. His approach to legislating often seems like a manifestation of his own tortoise-like features—a plodding process that reached its apotheosis last December when he filibustered his own bill.

After hinting in January that she was seriously considering entering the race, Judd quickly became a conservative target. Karl Rove's American Crossroads launched a web ad mocking her Tennessee residency and liberal views, and Republican organizations touted her previous statements on mountain-top removal coal mining and the human rights abuses associated with Apple products. Judd, a three-time rape survivor whose international work deals with victims of sexual abuse, also became a subject of conservative mockery for her frequent discussion of rape—a cautious reminder that, a year after Todd Akin, Republicans still have trouble keeping their feet out of their mouths when they talk about the issue.

With Judd out of the picture, Democrats' best hope may be Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes, a 34-year-old first-term officeholder with close ties to the Clintons. (The former president has reportedly encouraged Lundergan Grimes to consider running.)

Congress Saves Busted $380 Million Missile Program the Pentagon Won't Buy

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 11:37 AM EDT

Conservatives are throwing a hissy fit about a few hundred thousand dollars spent on a scientific study about duck sex, but over at the Pentagon, Congress is spending $380 million on a missile program that has no funding authorization, doesn't work, and the Department of Defense doesn't plan on buying. So why are we still paying for it? Because Germany and Italy are making the US feel awkward, and when you back out of a defense contract, you have to sell your first-born child. Also, jobs. 

The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), contracted to Lockheed Martin, is a joint project with Italy and Germany intended to produce a weapon that will intercept ballistic missiles. If you read Lockheed Martin's website, MEADS sounds really cool. This "hit-to-kill" missile will "defeat tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft, [and provide] full 360-degree engagement." Woah! (Shhh, forget about the fact that Lockheed Martin's program is basically a duplicate of the "Patriot" missile program that the US is already paying for. This one sounds cooler, okay?) 

Unfortunately, according to the Office of Secretary of Defense, MEADS has had serious technical, management, schedule, and cost problems since it was introduced in the mid-1990's" and has been unable to "meet schedule and cost targets." The Department of Defense decided in 2011 it didn't want the system because it couldn't afford to pay for two missile programs, and it was not helping US national security. For once, Congress actually agrees: Last week, an amendment proposed by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) that stripped funding from this "missile to nowhere" passed 94-5 with blinding bipartisan support. 

That didn't last long: Congress then passed a "stop-gap spending measure" that said that the $380 million needed to be used to complete the project, not pay termination fees. (According to Politico Pro, Sen. Ayotte has placed a hold on a top Pentagon acquisitions nominee until the Pentagon explains why it isn't scrapping the program.) 

As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, argued on March 19, "The cost to finish the development of this program is almost exactly the same as the cost to unilaterally terminate it." According to DoD Buzz, last year, those fees were at least $800 million, although no official number has been released. Sean Kennedy of Citizens Against Government Waste argues that the best way to get out of this sticky scenario is for the "US to negotiate an agreement with its allies to collectively withdraw from the MEADS contract."

But Germany and Italy seem dead-set on the program, and have been guilt-tripping the US big-time, sending letters that say things like: "A final decision by the US Government to prohibit further funding for MEADS at this advanced stage would lead to a significant loss of technology for which we have commonly worked so hard. It would also be perceived as a serious setback for transatlantic cooperation in general." 

But even if Europe wasn't a factor, as Michael Hoffman of DoD Buzz notes, the program was probably saved because it provides jobs in Sen. Chuck Schumer's district in New York. Schumer lobbied Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to keep funding the program.​

Lockheed Martin certainly isn't upset about the US paying to complete the program. According to Reuters, "Lockheed and the MEADS consortium [are planning] a fourth quarter 2013 flight test to prove the MEADS missile defense system can intercept a ballistic missile."

Ben Freeman, Ph.D, an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight, where I used to work, tells Mother Jones that "my understanding is that we'll save money by terminating now... The program has had years to do "proof of concept," and nothing has been proven. It's time to cut our losses." 

Rick Perry Needs a Refresher on How Texas Feels About Marriage

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 10:29 AM EDT

Marriage equality is ascendant, you may have heard. But Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), for one, believes the question of who can and cannot marry is a settled issue in his state. "In Texas, it is fairly clear about where this state stands on that issue," Perry told the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday. "As recently as a constitutional amendment that passed—I believe, with 76 percent of the vote. The people of the state of Texas, myself included, believe marriage is between one man and one woman."

But Perry is, like many opponents of same-sex marriage, relying on some fairly dusty data sets. The constitutional amendment he's referring to passed in 2005 (it's 2013 now) and it banned same-sex civil unions in addition to same-sex marriages. Texans were really opposed to marriage equality then. James Henson and Joshua Blank of the Texas Politics Project have been paying a bit more attention to the numbers recently, though, and noticed a trend:

When we went back to examine the trend lines in the polls that included the gay marriage item, it became evident that overall opposition to same sex-marriage has been on a slow and steady decline, with some internal patterns of change among particular age, gender and partisan subgroups, including young people and suburbanites.

Perry would do well to consult this handy chart, from the TPP:

Texas Politics Project

Gay marriage is trending up, opposition to any legal recognition has trended down. Texas probably isn't going to go the way of Maryland and Washington anytime soon, but legal recognition of same-sex unions—which is prohibited under the 2005 constitutional amendment—is now the preference of six in ten Texans. And a majority of young Republicans now support full marriage equality, suggesting that this trend is only going to continue, even if Texas doesn't start turning purple. Oops.

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Obama's Organizing for Action Chases Big Money While Fighting Big Money in New York

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 10:10 AM EDT
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Organizing for Action (OFA), the pro-Obama nonprofit spun off from the president's reelection campaign, announced Tuesday it will join the "fair elections" fight in New York State, pushing for a statewide system of publicly financed campaigns. This is big news: OFA commands a massive grassroots network and some of the most advanced technology in politics, and for the reformers, New York State's "fair elections" effort is the front line in the fight against big-money politics. The timing of OFA's announcement, though, wasn't great: On the same day, news leaked that OFA is aggressively seeking six- and seven-figure donations as it tries to meet its $50 million fundraising target.

In an email to supporters in New York, OFA director Jon Carson wrote that "in New York elections, the voice of the public is being drowned out. Contributions from special interests, lobbyists, and corporations are far too influential, disclosure is inadequate, and enforcement of the laws currently on the books is too lax." Carson added, "That's not how democracy should work. So right now, OFA supporters are joining the fight to reduce the influence of special interests in state elections, and put the power back into the hands of New Yorkers."

OFA joins a deep bench of reformers lobbying Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York state politicians to pass a public financing bill for all statewide elections, a move cheered by at least of OFA's erstwhile critics. The idea for this kind of legislation was inspired by New York City's public financing program, which matches each dollar a city resident donates, up to $175, with six dollars in public funds. The hope is that candidates will opt to raise lots of small donations from many donors, instead of asking for big-dollar checks from a wealthy few.

Cuomo says he favors a statewide public financing bill, telling activists earlier this month that "fair elections" legislation is "one of the most important issues to complete" in this year's legislative session. But it's unclear if he is willing to expend serious political capital to push a public financing bill through the tangled, noxious mess that is the New York State legislature.

Meanwhile, OFA is aggressively hunting for as many big donations as it can find. The New York Times reported that OFA will give people who raise a million or more for two years in a row a spot on the group's board of directors. Ten slots on OFA's 30-person board, according to an internal memo, will be filled by "leaders in industry." And there could also be an OFA task force on policy; its leaders will be asked to raise $250,000 or more.

This arrangement gives more ammunition to OFA's critics, who accuse the group of selling access to President Obama and administration officials in exchange for raising or donating $500,000. OFA chairman Jim Messina fired back by saying "Whether you're a volunteer or a donor, we can't and we won't guarantee access to any government officials." Reformers have also criticized OFA for choosing to operate as a nonprofit, which can raise and spend unlimited funds and isn't required to disclose its donors. (OFA has said it will disclose donors who give more than $250.)

By joining the New York State fight, OFA is buying into a bigger, somewhat controversial strategy: That it takes big money to get big money out of politics. Jonathan Soros' Friends of Democracy super-PAC, for instance, spent $2.7 million during the 2012 election cycle to help elect seven pro-reform US House candidates and one New York State senator, Cecilia Tkaczyk, a proponent of public financing. Time will tell whether OFA's money and manpower gives New York reformers the boost they need.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 27, 2013

Wed Mar. 27, 2013 9:31 AM EDT

U.S. Army Spc. Jake Ballinger with Iron Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, occupies a security position atop a small hill during a training exercise March 16, 2013, at Hohenfels, Germany. A regiment is conducting an exercise to prepare troops for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Joshua Edwards.

 

"I Can't Even Imagine What Else They Could Think Of. Just Putting Women Behind Bars?"

| Tue Mar. 26, 2013 3:29 PM EDT

North Dakota won our Anti-Choice March Madness tourney last week, and for good reason. On Tuesday, Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the country's most restrictive abortion ban into law, making it the clear leader in what Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards recently called a "state-by-state race to the bottom on women's health."

The state now outlaws abortions at as early as six weeks gestation, but it doesn't stop there. Dalrymple also signed measures banning abortions sought because of genetic abnormalities in the fetus, like Down Syndrome, and another measure requiring that doctors who perform abortions at the state's one clinic have admitting privileges at a local hospital. (The admitting privileges rule has been used in other states, like Mississippi, to make it impossible for providers to meet the standard.) And if that wasn't enough, the legislature also approved a bill to include a "personhood" measure on the 2014 ballot, asking voters to decide whether all fertilized eggs should have the same rights as adults.

The state has only one Planned Parenthood office, which focuses on education and outreach and doesn't provide health care at all. But even that has drawn ire from legislators, who have tried to block Planned Parenthood from providing sex education to at-risk teens. It's gotten so bad there that even some Republican women in the legislature have come out and said that the state has gone too far.

I talked to Planned Parenthood's Richards on Monday about what's happening in North Dakota and other the states across the country:

Mother Jones: So, North Dakota. It can't really get any more restrictive than that, can it?

Richards: I can't even imagine what else they could think of. Just putting women behind bars? I don't know. I'm assuming part of the reason they keep doing bills on bills on bills is to leave no stone unturned here. But I have been encouraged to see the numbers of Republicans and members of the medical community who are at least speaking out publicly, which is really an important thing, like this rally by Republicans in the state. So at least there is bipartisan opposition to this, unfortunately just not in the legislature.

At Supreme Court, Marriage Equality Foes' Best Argument Is That They're Losing

| Tue Mar. 26, 2013 2:20 PM EDT
Protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments on California's gay marriage ban.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the first of two marriage equality cases, and the best argument the chief defender of California's ban on same-sex marriage could muster was that his side would ultimately lose.

Americans' understanding of marriage is "changing and changing rapidly in this country, as people throughout the country engage in an earnest debate over whether the age-old definition of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples," argued Charles Cooper, who represented Californians supporting Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage. He was trying to convince the justices that Prop. 8 does not violate the constitutional rights of same-sex couples. In doing so, though, he acknowledged that acceptance of same-sex marriage rights is galloping forward, and he argued that the Supreme Court should allow that process to continue without interference from the Supreme Court. In other words, Californians whose marriage rights were taken from them at the ballot box should wait patiently for the country to evolve as quickly as ambitious Democratic politicians. (On Wednesday, the court will hear a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, which bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states when they are legal.)

It's never a good idea to predict the results of a Supreme Court case based on oral arguments, and the strongest presentation at the Court isn't always the one that wins. But from his first, hoarse remarks, it was clear that Cooper had walked into the heat of battle lightly armed. An experienced litigator who served in the Reagan-era Justice Department, Cooper took up the defense of Prop. 8 after California officials declined to back the law in court. He was supposed to argue that the state had a legitimate interest (other than simple bigotry) in banning same-sex couples from getting married, but he had difficulty finding one.