Last week, US defense secretary Chuck Hagel announced something superficially alarming: Due to the recent tough talk coming out of Pyongyang, the Pentagon has announced a nearly $1 billion project to improve America's defenses against a potential nuclear attack launched by North Korea. The boost in mainland missile defense will increase the number of ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska to 44 from 30 over the next four years. Part of this plan will involve resurrecting a missile field at Fort Greely, Alaska. "We will be able to add protection against missiles from Iran sooner while also proving protection against the threat from North Korea," Hagel said during Friday's Pentagon briefing.
The move comes on the heels of the North Korean government amping up its threats against the US: Along with conducting a third (suspected) nuclear test in seven years and declaring an end to the armistice with South Korea, the regime threatened to nuke American soil amid new UN sanctions. "The White House has been captured in the view of our long-range missile, and the capital of war is within the range of our atomic bomb," or so goes the narration in a propaganda video post to the North Korean government's YouTube page on Monday. The video includes a poorly produced animated sequence of the White House and Capitol dome exploding.
Here's what's crazy about all this: The Pentagon is spending $1 billion on a gesture. Virtually no one in the US government actually believes that North Korea (or Iran, for that matter) is close to having the ability to hit any part of the United States with nuclear missiles. It is also unclear how close North Korea is to being able to convert their tested nuclear devices to function as warheads. (Click here to get an idea of the state of the supposed North Korean missile threat just last year.)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) endorsed a path to legalization—but not citizenship*—for unauthorized immigrants in the United States at a speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, another step on Paul's short, steep journey to moderation on immigration reform.
"If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you," Paul said Tuesday. "Somewhere along the line Republicans have failed to understand and articulate that immigrants are an asset to America, not a liability."
"Would I hope that when they become citizens, these new immigrants will remember Republicans who made this happen? Yes," wrote Paul in February, while later referred to "normalizing" or "legalizing" undocumented immigrants rather than granting them citizenship. "But my support for immigration reform comes not from political expediency but because it's the right thing to do." Paul also wrote that undocumented immigrants eligible for the DREAM Act—those brought to the US as children who are poised to go to college or join the military—should be legalized first. "I would start with Dream Act kids, children brought here illegally as minors."
Paul has come a long way on immigration. In 2008, he was a believer in the "Amero" conspiracy—the secret plan to merge Canada, the United States, and Mexico and create a "borderless mass continent" under a single currency called the "Amero." During his 2010 Senate run, when he campaigned as a tea party insurgent, he struck a hard line on immigration. "We shouldn't provide an easy route to citizenship," Paul said in 2010 during an interview with Russia Today. In the same interview, Paul rejected the guarantee of birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment: "We're the only country that I know that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen. And I think that should stop also." Another reason Paul opposed immigration reform and birthright citizenship? "A lot of this is about demographics," Paul said during the RT interview. "If you look at new immigrants from Mexico, they register 3-to-1 Democrat, so the Democrat Party is for easy citizenship and for allowing them to vote."
Still, legalization without citizenship is a nonstarter for comprehensive immigration reform supporters, who say it would create a large permanent group of second-class citizens.
Paul has yet to join the GOP's big stars in supporting path to citizenship a group that includes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Jeb Bush (R-Fla.). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who joined Paul during his drone filibuster, still opposes a path to citizenship.
Passage of an immigration reform bill that guarantees a path to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States depends on how many GOPers in the House and Senate decide to follow the path of Marco Rubio, rather than that of Cruz. Although he's come along way from his original hardline positions, Paul remains somewhere between the two.
Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that Paul now supports a path to citizenship; he does not.
As lawmakers passed Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) assault weapons ban bill through the judiciary committee on a party-line vote last Thursday, they were under no illusions about its slim chance of approval in the full Senate. Politico reports the bill's death knell may have sounded Monday night as Feinstein learned in a meeting that her legislation won't even be part of the gun-control bill Democrats plan to introduce for a vote next month:
After a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday, a frustrated Feinstein said she learned that the bill she sponsored — which bans 157 different models of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines — wouldn’t be part of a Democratic gun bill to be offered on the Senate floor. Instead, it can be offered as an amendment. But its exclusion from the package makes what was already an uphill battle an almost certain defeat.
Reid’s decision highlights the tightrope walked by the majority leader in governing the gun control issue. Trapped between the White House and rank-and-file Democrats who support broad gun control legislation following the shootings last December in Newtown, Conn., Reid must also be mindful of red-state Democrats up for reelection in 2014 who favor gun rights.
And the decision to drop the assault weapons ban from the package illustrates the fact that any big changes to gun control legislation will still be challenging.
As Politico notes, the assault weapons ban could still reach the Senate floor as an amendment to Democrats' gun-control package, which may be finalized as soon as this week. The pre-amendment legislation may include increased penalties for straw purchases of trafficked guns and provisions intended to improve school safety. It's less likely to include the ban on high-capacity magazines that's also a part of Feinstein's bill, or universal background checks, which also passed the judiciary committee on a party-line vote.
Senate Republicans have been reluctant to support any gun-control measures beyond increased penalties for gun traffickers, and would be expected to filibuster a bill that lacks bipartisan support.
Sen. Carl Levin, right, in the Detroit Red Wings jersey.
In his Tuesday column, the New York Times' Joe Nocera hails Democrat Carl Levin, the tough, irascible senior senator from Michigan who will retire at the end of his sixth term in December 2014. Nocera calls Levin "the Senate's muckraker," and he's right: As the top Democrat on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Levin has probed shady mortgage dealings, the dark world of derivatives, feckless ratings agencies, and more. He famously said "shitty deal" a dozen times during a hearing with Goldman Sachs executives on, well, Goldman's shitty mortgage deals.
At the end of his column, Nocera drops in this juicy detail:
Toward the end of my interview with Levin, he let slip a tantalizing tidbit. Sometime in the next few months, the permanent subcommittee plans to call the Internal Revenue Service to task for allowing the political super PACs to be classified as tax-exempt 501(c)(4)s. "Tax-exempt 501(c)(4)s are not supposed to be engaged in politics," he said. "It is against the law to do so." Then he added, with a certain undeniable relish, "We're going to go after them."
Oh, boy, indeed! Finally, someone in power plans to grill the IRS on why it is allowing hundreds of millions of dollars in secret money to flow through supposedly nonpartisan "social welfare organizations" and into our elections. Levin's comments aren't a complete surprise. In his retirement announcement, Levin said his investigative subcommittee will "look into the failure of the IRS to enforce our tax laws and stem the flood of hundreds of millions of secret dollars flowing into our elections, eroding public confidence in our democracy."
We're keenly interested in dark money here at Mother Jones, and as Mother Jones' own dark money reporter—yep, it's there in my bio—I can't wait to see what Levin digs up. Levin and his staff declined multiple interview requests, so you'll just have to keep an eye on this space as the story develops.
He has played two of the most iconic roles in cinematic history. His global box office grosses amount to a sum equal to the GDP of three Sierra Leones. And in his spare time the 70-year-old Harrison Ford goes before Congress to talk about airplanes:
The "Indiana Jones" star – who is also a pilot – will join members of the House General Aviation Caucus [on Tuesday] to discuss "issues of importance to the general aviation community," Missouri Rep. Sam Graves's office announced in a press release on Monday.
"I'm pleased to welcome Harrison Ford to tomorrow's discussion, and look forward to hearing his thoughts on the timely issues of importance to America's pilots," Graves, a co-chair of the caucus, said in the release.
This is hardly the first time Harrison Ford has gone to Congress to talk about planes: In October 2011, Ford stopped by the Senate General Aviation Caucus during discussions about jet fuel and tax burden on pilots. Ford's background in aviation includes piloting a Bell 407 helicopter to rescue a dehydrated hiker in Idaho in 2000 on behalf of a sheriff's department ("I can't believe I barfed in Harrison Ford's helicopter," remarked the grateful 20-year-old hiker Sarah George). "Bikes and planes aren't about going fast or having fun; they're toys, but serious ones," is probably Ford's most Harrison Ford-y comment on planes. There's also this ingeniously terse statement on planes, which doubles as an edict on muscular foreign policy:
Basically, Harrison Ford spends most of his time talking about planes and helicopters, rescuing strangers with helicopters, and going to Congress to talk about planes.
As for his other political activities, Ford is a staunch Democrat who's been critical of hawkish neoconservatism and America's lax gun laws.
Ten years later, the Bush administration's projected price tag for the war in Iraq seems downright cute. According to the first-ever comprehensive count of the true toll of the combined wars, the estimate the administration used to sell the invasion in 2003 was about 100 times too low.
So what did that $6 trillion get us, exactly? Since we borrowed to pay for much of the war, we're facing nearing $4 trillion in cumulative interest between now and 2053, according to the 30 researchers who worked on the "Costs of War" report for Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.
To date, according to the report, medical and disability claims of US war veterans of Iraq have reached $84 billion; ongoing care for wounded Iraq war vets and their families is expected to require nearly $500 billion more over the next several decades. Homeland Security got $245 billion in additional funding thanks to increased threats of terror—real, imagined, and staged—over the last 10 years. On-the-ground operations alone ended up being 16 times more expensive than the Bush Cabinet's original estimate for the entire enterprise.
Apparently the Office of Management and Budget was really, really bad at math for a while there in 2003.
And of course, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, damaged, and tragically altered in the meantime. The "Costs of War" report estimates 134,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, cautioning that the real number could be four times higher. As Reuters put it, "the report concluded the United States gained little from the war, while Iraq was traumatized by it."
The war reinvigorated radical Islamist militants in the region, set back women's rights, and weakened an already precarious healthcare system, the report said. Meanwhile, the $212 billion reconstruction effort was largely a failure with most of that money spent on security or lost to waste and fraud, it said.
The United Nations kicked off the first of nine days of final debate today in New York on the Arms Trade Treaty, an international pact seeking to regulate the $70 billion market in conventional weapons. Due to the unsupported belief that its largely unenforceable regulations would violate Americans' Second Amendment rights, the treaty has once again found itself in the sights of gun-rights groups, including the National Rifle Association.
In reality, the Arms Trade Treaty, first discussed in 2006 and rejected by the Bush administration, is aimed at halting the cross-border flow of weapons into the hands of terrorists and soldiers in war-torn nations. That market is mostly unregulated now, and weapons advertised at international arms bazaars like the one in Abu Dhabi in February commonly find their way to conflict zones abroad. The treaty would take aim at weapons including tanks and missile launchers but also "small arms," which the NRA claims could lead to a domestic crackdown on civilian-model AK-47s and other assault weapons.
In 2011 and 2012, the NRA joined Larry Pratt's conspiratorial Gun Owners of America in lobbying for a House resolution that would "express the sense of the Congress that the United States should not adopt any treaty that poses a threat to national sovereignty or abridges any rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution, such as the right to keep and bear arms." The bill died in committee. But pressure from the gun lobby led the Obama administration to abandon talks last July on a draft of the Arms Trade Treaty. Major players in the global arms trade including China and Russia also objected to the draft's language.
In February, the American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights concluded that the Arms Trade Treaty "would not require new domestic regulations of firearms" nor compromise the Second Amendment (PDF). In a statement last Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the administration "will not support any treaty that would be inconsistent with U.S. law and the rights of American citizens under our Constitution."
Here's Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), critiquing the Violence Against Women Act to National Review's Betsy Woodruff:
"This is a truly bad bill," he says of the Senate version, which includes provisions regarding homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual victims of domestic violence. "This is helping the liberals, this is horrible. Unbelievable. What really bothers — it's called a women's act, but then they have men dressed up as women, they count that. Change-gender, or whatever. How is that — how is that a woman?"
Stockman, who I profiled in January, was elected to his second term in the House last year with 71 percent of the vote.
On Friday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took a turn on the main stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the groupthinky annual confab for the young and old of the conservative movement. Dressed in a red tie and white-collared blue dress shirt, McConnell attempted to debunk one of the more pernicious myths about the Republican Party. "Don't tell me Republicans are the party of millionaires and billionaires," he said, "when Obama's campaign arm is charging a half-million dollars for a meeting over near the White House." The GOP, he later added, is "not beholden to any special interests."
We're not the party of the rich, McConnell insisted; we're you.
But let's go back to McConnell's claim that the GOP is not the party of millionaires or billionaires. For a thorough debunking, I defer to none other than Mitch McConnell.
Next week, McConnell and his wife, former Labor secretary Elaine Chao, will fly to Palm Beach, Florida, for a fundraiser at the home of millionaire John Castle, according to the Palm Beach Daily News. Then, after the Castles' fundraiser, Wilbur Ross (net worth $2.6 billion) and his wife, Hilary, will wine and dine McConnell at their house, which is so extravagant that it has its own name, Windsong. (So does the guest house: Windsong Too.) Tickets range from $1,000 to $5,000 for the night's events; to co-chair the event, you've got to pony up $15,000 to $30,000.
McConnell, of course, is in full campaign mode—even though Election Day 2014 is 18 months away and Kentucky Democrats have yet to settle on a challenger. (More on that here.) Indeed, McConnell's fundraising blitz began the very day the 2012 campaign season ended, with a $2,500-a-head dinner hosted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Since then, he's raised money at the home of another billionaire—New York City mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis, in January—raised money at lobbying firms, and raised money at an event sponsored by the political action committees for Koch Industries, Home Depot, Capitol One, Amgen, and Delta Airlines—all multibillion-dollar corporations.
Fundraising is McConnell's specialty. As former Sen. Alan Simpson once observed, "When he asked for money, his eyes would shine like diamonds. He obviously loved it." Don't think for a moment McConnell will let his defense of the GOP get in the way of his chase for millionaires' and billionaires' money.