Mojo - April 2013

Texas Woos "Persecuted" Gun Companies

| Mon Apr. 8, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Ted Nugent and US Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) Office of Rep. Stockman

Various parts of America have at different times served as refuges for the persecuted. The North was a popular destination for freed and escaped slaves. San Francisco attracted gays. The Emerald Triangle and Appalachia became havens for pot growers and bootleggers.

Now Texas wants in on the action.  

On Friday, US Rep. Steve Stockman, a Republican from Friendswood, sent the following message to "all persecuted gun owners and unwanted manufacturers":

Come to Texas!!! The state which believes the whole Bill of Rights should be followed, not just the "politically correct" parts. Your rights will not be infringed upon here, unlike many current local regimes [sic].

Texans who may want abortions or same-sex marriages will doubtless celebrate their state's newfound support for "the whole Bill of Rights." But will gun companies relocate because of it? Their executives want us to think so. After Colorado signed a gun control package last month, two makers of firearms accessories said they'd leave. The weapons makers Beretta, Colt, Mossberg, and Stag Arms have threatened to yank factories from Connecticut and Maryland if those states make good on new gun restrictions.

Of course, any Texan who actually knows guns will tell you that the complainers are all hat and no cattle. State laws requiring background checks or banning certain types of weapons won't crimp manufacturers, who sell their guns nationwide and globally. Just take the example of Beretta and Mossberg: These companies are headquartered in or source their guns from, respectively, Italy and Turkey, where highly restrictive firearms laws haven't slowed down some $150 million in yearly exports of rifles, pistols, and shotguns to the United States.

Stockman's open letter is really more about shooting off his mouth than defending the rights of shooters. It's about burnishing his reputation as "the new Michele Bachmann," a comparison that, in all fairness, is kind of like calling Madonna the new Lady Gaga.

During a scandalous and painfully brief congressional stint in the mid-1990s, Stockman earned infamy for defending the militia movement in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and suggesting that Bill Clinton raided Waco's Branch Davidian compound in order to build support for gun control. Now back in Congress after wandering the political desert for 15 years, Stockman, a bespectacled born-again Christian, has threatened to launch impeachment proceedings against President Obama if he enacts gun control measures. In February, Stockman brought has-been rocker/offhand racist/wannabe presidential assassin Ted Nugent to the State of the Union address. (We caught Nugent's performance—or was it performance art—in San Francisco not too long ago.)

None of which is to say that Stockman won't succeed in getting some gun nuts to move across the Red River. Heck, he might even make the rest of us safer.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Video: The Homeless Tent City in Google and Facebook's Backyard

Fri Apr. 5, 2013 4:17 PM EDT

As the rich have become richer and the poor even poorer, the valley's middle class has disappeared. Nowhere is inequality more obvious than Silicon Valley, where the homeless are building tent cities not far from Google and Facebook headquarters. Moyers & Company reports from the tent cities of San Jose:

Does Obama Have a Plan to Capture an Asteroid?

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 4:16 PM EDT
Not on Obama's watch, says Obama, according to Bill Nelson.

Does President Barack Obama intend to capture an asteroid and place it into lunar orbit?

This seems more like a Newtonian (as in Gingrich) idea. But on Friday afternoon, the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) blasted out a press release disclosing that Obama's forthcoming budget includes a $100 million plan to tow an asteroid into moon orbit. And this will be done for freedom—that is, for the purpose of saving the planet Earth from complete annihilation. (This is not about just serving the Democratic Party's base.)

Here's the gist of the press release:

Bill Nelson press release on NASA and Obama asteroid tow

An excerpt (emphasis mine):

Tucked inside President Barack Obama's proposed federal budget for next fiscal year is about $100 million to jump start a program scientists say is the next step towards humans establishing a permanent settlement in space. That, at least, is what U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson says we're likely to see when the White House unveils its fiscal year 2014 budget around the middle of next week. Nelson has been briefed by scientists...In a nutshell, the plan in NASA's hands calls for catching an asteroid with a robotic spacecraft and towing it back toward Earth, where it would then be placed in a stable orbit around the moon.

Next, astronauts aboard America's Orion capsule, powered into space by a new monster rocket, would travel to the asteroid where there could be mining activities, research into ways of deflecting an asteroid from striking Earth, and testing to develop technology for a trip to deep space and Mars.

"This is part of what will be a much broader program," Nelson said today, during a visit in Orlando. "The plan combines the science of mining an asteroid, along with developing ways to deflect one, along with providing a place to develop ways we can go to Mars."

The president already has established the goal of landing astronauts on a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. This new plan would bump up the date to 2021. As in, not a moment to waste.

Nelson, a former astronaut, has an affinity for asteroids and United States asteroid policy; last month, he was on a Senate panel that grilled scientists about the consequences of an asteroid striking earth. He was keen to know if there is any way for humankind to fight back against asteroid aggression.

Obama has often been slammed for supposedly not being bold, for not being tough enough with foes. But if Nelson is right, Obama is ready to do what's necessary to take on the asteroid threat and make the United States the first nation to claim a giant space rock. Forget Spock or Luke Skywalker; he's going the full Bruce Willis:

Missouri Lawmaker: No Welfare If Your Kid Gets Mono or Depression

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 2:02 PM EDT

Missouri Rep. Steve Cookson, a Republican, caused a stir last year when he offered a bill to ban any discussion of sexual orientation in public schools outside of traditional sex ed and science instruction. That meant teachers couldn't talk about gay and lesbian issues during class, and gay-straight alliances couldn't meet during the school day. Critics called it the "don't say gay" bill. It died in committee.

Now, Cookson is back in the news for introducing another controversial bill. Children of welfare recipients can't miss more than 10 percent of their classes—roughly three weeks of school—or their family loses welfare benefits. The bill, which would amend the state's welfare statute, is a single sentence long:

School age children of welfare recipients must attend public school, unless physically disabled, at least ninety percent of the time in order to receive benefits.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks it's OK to skip three weeks' worth class during the school year. But what about an unexpected illness like mono or clinical depression? Cookson has yet to clarify what exactly qualifies for the "physically disabled" exemption in his bill. And so unless mono qualifies as a physical disability, the critics who deride Cookson's bill the "don't get sick" bill make a fair point. A entire family could lose its state assistance if their kid got mono from a classmate.

As the Kansas City Star notes, state Republicans, which control the Missouri General Assembly, recently named Cookson the chair of the House education committee. That means his "don't get sick" bill could get a full airing on the House floor.

The Big GAO Report on Political Intel is Kind of Meh

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 12:02 PM EDT
President Barack Obama signs the STOCK Act into law in April, 2012.

On Thursday, the Government Accountability Office released its much-anticipated report on political intelligence, a booming but mostly anonymous industry that harvests information on congressional and regulatory activities and passes it on to hedge funds. The industry has exploded over the last decade; in 2009, the most recent year for which an estimate is available, the industry was valued at $402 million. And the industry's growth shows no signs of letting up.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pushed hard to inset an amendment into the STOCK Act (which prohibited insider trading by members of Congress) mandating that people who collect and sell political intelligence, many of whom are former Hill aides themselves, formally register as operatives. That was defeated after an intense lobbying effort from hedge funds, who wanted to preserve their anonymity. Slaughter and Grassley had to settle for a GAO study:

 

 

The report is mostly about what we don't know about political intelligence. "The prevalence of the sale of political intelligence is not known and therefore difficult to quantify." "The extent to which investment decisions are based on a single piece of political intelligence would be extremely difficult to measure." "It is also difficult to determine the extent to which nonpublic government information is being sold as political intelligence." "[I]t is not always clear whether such information could be definitively categorized as material...and whether such information stemmed from public or nonpublic sources at the time of the information exchange." "Congress would need to address the lack of consensus on the meaning of the terms 'direct communication' and 'investment decision.'"

There are none of the bombshell statistics or anecdotes that the GAO is known for, and the report's one Capitol Hill case study, in which Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) leaked the contents of a speech that would influence stocks of asbestos manufacturers, produced no evidence of actual wrongdoing. The STOCK Act sat dormant for five years until a 60 Minutes report compelled Congress to act. Reformers, aware of the adage that nothing ever gets fixed in Washington without a scandal, have been waiting for a similar catalyst for political intelligence.

If you're an open-government advocate, the most disconcerting thing about political intel may just be how normal it's become. Consider this: While deflecting arguments that its operatives should register, political intel professional also told the GAO auditors that any regulation of their colleagues should apply to that other brand of Capitol Hill gossip-hound—reporters. Per the report: "Other interviewees questioned the need for a media exemption. For example, three political intelligence firms, and one attorney from a law firm said that there should not be an exemption for media organizations because they engage in the same activists as political intelligence firms, and ask the same type of questions about the same issues that their subscribers and clients are interested in."

That sounds cynical—and it is—but it's also a reflection of the extent to which Washington media companies are increasing tailoring their services toward an elite clientele. A 2008 internal memo from Politico famously asked its reporters to ask themselves regularly, "Might an investor buy or sell a stock based on this story?"

Judge Rules That Emergency Contraception Should Be Available to Everyone

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 11:58 AM EDT

A federal judge has ruled that the emergency contraception drug Plan B One-Step, a.k.a. the "morning-after pill," must be made available over the counter to everyone. The decision, issued Friday, overturns a rule that required anyone 16 years old and younger to have a prescription in order to get the pill.

In 2011, despite the Food and Drug Administration's determination that Plan B is safe for all ages, the Department of Health and Human Services decided to block teenagers from buying the drug without a prescription. President Barack Obama endorsed HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' decision, arguing that the government "could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore should be able—alongside bubble gum or batteries—be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect."

But Judge Edward R. Korman of Federal District Court ruled Friday that this was not an acceptable reason to deny access, and that Sebelius' decision "was politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent." He wrote:

This case is not about the potential misuse of Plan B by 11-year-olds. These emergency contraceptives would be among the safest drugs sold over-the-counter, the number of 11-year-olds using these drugs is likely to be miniscule, the FDA permits drugs that it has found to be unsafe for the pediatric population to be sold over-the-counter subject only to labeling restrictions, and its point-of-sale restriction on this safe drug is likewise inconsistent with its policy and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as it has been construed. Instead, the invocation of the adverse effect of Plan B on 11-year-olds is an excuse to deprive the overwhelming majority of women of their right to obtain contraceptives without unjustified and burdensome restrictions.

Reproductive rights groups cheered the court ruling, which came after more than a decade of legal wrangling over the issue. "Science has finally prevailed over politics, to the benefit of millions of women across the United States," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, the group that filed suit against the FDA over the decision.

Northup and other reproductive rights group argued that the age limits harmed teenagers who required timely access to the drug, which is supposed to be used within 72 hours of unprotected sex. But the age limit also harmed older women, too, because it meant that they had to have a government-issued ID confirming their age in order to access the pill, and its availability was restricted to the hours that pharmacies are open. The use of emergency contraception has become much more common in recent years, with 11 percent of fertile, sexually active women reporting that they have used EC. Now that Plan B will be easier to access, you can expect that number to increase.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 5, 2013

Fri Apr. 5, 2013 10:31 AM EDT

Marine Corps instructors with 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, light fires in a compound during counter improvised explosive device training at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 3, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline.

 

Donor Advisory Group Flags Berman Nonprofits

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 9:59 AM EDT

Charity Navigator, a nonprofit that aims to provide donors with information about the accountability and transparency of other nonprofits, has issued "donor advisory" notices for five different groups run by the notorious DC-based PR firm Berman and Company.

The company, run by Richard Berman, runs a number of non-profits backed by business interests. Here's how our own Daniel Schulman described Berman's work in a 2009 piece:

Nicknamed Dr. Evil—a moniker he embraces—he's the force behind several industry-backed nonprofits that share staff and office space with his very for-profit communications and advertising firm, Berman and Company. The firm promises clients it will not "just change the debate" but "start" one, and a range of companies, from Anheuser-Busch to Philip Morris to the casino chain Harrah's, have signed up for Berman's "aggressive" and "hard-hitting" advocacy. Some clients pay Berman and Co. directly, while others donate to his nonprofits—but much of the cash winds up in the same place, via hefty management fees the front groups pay to Berman's company.

Charity Navigator has posted advisories for five Berman projects: the Center for Consumer Freedom, which opposes regulation of the food and beverage industry; the American Beverage Institute, another beverage industry group; the Center for Union Facts, which targets unions; the Employment Policies Institute Foundation, which campaigns against minimum wage increases; and the Enterprise Freedom Action Committee, a political action committee targeting Democratic candidates.

In its advisories, Charity Navigator cites the fact that the majority of the expenses for these groups are in fact payments to Berman and Company. For the Center for Consumer Freedom, it notes that their 2010 tax forms indicate that $1.7 million of the $2.4 million in total program expenses went directly to Berman and Company. On the American Beverage Institute advisory, it notes that $1.3 million of the total $1.7 million spent in 2011 went to Berman's for-profit company.

Some of the other non-profit groups that Berman and Company has attacked have asked the IRS to review the tax-exempt status of the 501(c)3s, claiming that they should not qualify as charitable organizations. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which runs the website Berman Exposed, has also filed a complaint with the IRS raising questions about the tax status of the Center for Consumer Freedom specifically. The IRS has declined to say whether it is pursuing an investigation.

The irony of this is that the Center for Consumer Freedom previously crowed when Charity Navigator downgraded the rating of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the main organizations its efforts have targeted. (The HSUS rating has gone back up to four stars since then, however.)

Top Dem on Gun Control Says She's Working With GOPers—But Won't Give Names or Numbers

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In January, with the horror of the Newtown massacre still fresh, House Democrats assembled a task force to begin discussing gun controls. With negotiations now about to culminate in the Senate, the task force is focused on a bipartisan effort to assure a vote on that potential legislation in the House, according to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who is playing a key role behind the scenes.

McCarthy, who came to Congress in 1997 on a campaign to reduce gun violence after her husband was murdered and her son severely injured in the Long Island Rail Road massacre of 1993, serves as vice chair of the task force. Given the steep political climb for any new gun control measures (with expanded background checks perhaps being the most possible, though still far from certain), McCarthy is remaining tight-lipped about who might be cooperating on the Republican side. "We're not releasing any names," she said, declining to comment even on the number of Republicans involved.

McCarthy did reveal in an interview that the task force is focused on persuading 27 Democrats in the House who typically would not vote for gun reforms. Among those, she said that there may be seven of them "who truly would be in [electoral] trouble" if they backed the bill. (The House currently has 232 Republicans, 200 Democrats, and three vacant seats.) It's a struggle in which she has been facing an all-too-familiar response from some of her colleagues, she said: "'Carolyn, I'd love to vote for you,' they say, but they're waiting to see what comes up [in the Senate]."

It's Official: A Majority of Americans Wants Pot Legalized

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 4:44 PM EDT

For the first time in more than four decades of surveying national attitudes towards marijuana, the Pew Research Center announced today that a majority of Americans believe that pot should be legal. Pew's latest phone survey, conducted over the course of five days last month, found that 52 percent of Americans support pot legalization and 45 percent oppose it.

The most surprising support for tokers' rights came from some of the most socially conservative parts of America. Among residents of the 26 states that have not decriminalized pot or enacted medical marijuana legislation, a whopping 50 percent backed legalization in the poll, compared to only 47 percent who opposed it.

Shifting views on cannabis have a lot to do with changing demographics. The gigantic Millennial generation supports legalization at a rate of nearly 3 to 1. Yet Boomers' views have also shifted, or, you might say, boomeranged: In 1978, 47 percent of Boomers favored legalization, but their support plummeted to 17 percent by 1990 before slowly inching back up, finally hitting the 50 percent mark just this year.

As memories of Reefer Madness and the '60s culture wars continue to fade, more Americans are divorcing pot smoking from notions of morality:

Instead of a crusade against the devil, Americans increasingly view the war on weed in economic terms—and they don't like what they see. A full 72 percent of poll respondents agreed that "government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more then they are worth."