Mojo - May 2013

Indiana's Effort to Defund Planned Parenthood Is Dead

| Tue May 28, 2013 12:39 PM EDT

Memorial Day heralds two things in Washington: the return of seersucker suits and Supreme Court decision season. On Tuesday, the high court announced that it would not be hearing Indiana's appeal in defense of its effort to defund Planned Parenthood.

Back in 2011, Indiana voted to block Medicaid funds from being used at Planned Parenthood clinics or any facility that provides abortions. State lawmakers exempted hospitals and surgical facilities, which made it pretty clear that they were going directly after Planned Parenthood. (Several other states have passed similar laws targeting the group.) The federal government blocked Indiana's action because it is against the law to discriminate against specific health care providers. The Obama administration and Planned Parenthood won in court last year, but Indiana had asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The Los Angeles Times reported this morning on the court's decision to decline to hear the case:

Without comment, the justices turned away Indiana’s defense of a 2011 law that would ban all Medicaid funds to an organization such as Planned Parenthood whose work includes performing abortions.
The high court let stand decisions by a federal judge in Indiana and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago that blocked the measure from taking effect. The "defunding law excludes Planned Parenthood from Medicaid for a reason unrelated to its fitness to provide medical services, violating its patients’ statutory right to obtain medical care from the qualified provider of their choice," Judge Diane Sykes said last year for the 7th Circuit.

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Obamacare Is Forcing Cuts to High-End Health Plans, and Not Just For the Rich

| Tue May 28, 2013 12:23 PM EDT

Obamacare—a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act—is forcing employers to cut back on high-end health plans. And this doesn't just affect rich people. Many middle-income workers with high-quality plans are seeing a reduction in benefits and higher costs too, according to the New York Times.

One provision of President Obama's historic healthcare law, dubbed the Cadillac Tax, penalizes companies that offer extremely generous healthcare plans to their employees. If an employer offers a plan that costs more than $10,200 for an individual or $27,500 for a family, the employer will be forced to pay a 40 percent tax on the portion of the plan cost that exceeds those thresholds. The idea, as the Times reports, is to "encourage employers to move away from plans that insulate workers from the cost of care and often lead to excessive procedures and tests, and galvanize employers to try to control ever-increasing medical costs."

In order to avoid the Cadillac tax, which goes into effect in 2018, employers are already searching for ways to scale back on costs, including cutting health benefits and increasing plan prices. (Employers are also amping up spending on preventive care services, which is a good thing.) And as Bradley Herring, a health economist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Times, these health plan changes will likely affect a lot of people, not just the well-off; up to 75 percent of plans could be affected by the tax over the next ten years. "The reality is it is going to hit more and more people over time," he says.

One of those people affected is Abbey Bruce, a nursing assistant in Washington state whose employer increased the costs of the plan that she and her husband, who has cystic fibrosis, rely on. The Times tells her story:

Starting this year, they have a combined deductible of $2,300, compared with just $500 before. And while she was eligible for a $1,400 hospital contribution to a savings account linked to the plan, the couple is now responsible for $6,600 a year in medical expenses, in contrast to a $3,000 limit on medical bills and $2,000 limit on pharmacy costs last year. She has had to drop out of school and take on additional jobs to pay for her husband's medicine.

The number of employers adjusting their plans because of the Cadillac tax has increased from 11 percent in 2011 to 17 percent this year, the Times reports. And the amount that employer plans require workers to pay as a deductible—the amount an insured person has to pay out of pocket for healthcare costs before the insurer will pay—has jumped. The number of workers in plans with deductibles of at least $2,000 doubled between 2009 and 2012 to 14 percent.

Even before Obamacare became law, health plan costs for workers had been rising for years. Some worry that the Cadillac tax will just be used as an excuse to bump up costs even more. Tom Leibfried, a legislative director for the labor federation AFL-CIO, one of the unions whose plans will be hit by the tax, says "We’re very concerned about the hollowing out of benefits in general. What the [Cadillac] tax will do is just fuel that."

Obama's Drug Czar Cites Useless Stat to Dismiss Legalizing Pot

| Fri May 24, 2013 3:05 PM EDT

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), dismissed calls for pot legalization on Thursday, citing a recent study by his agency to claim that marijuana is the drug most commonly linked to crime. During an Urban Institute panel discussion, while calling for a "21st century approach to drug policy reform," Kerlikowske rejected legalization as a "bumper-sticker approach." But the study (PDF) doesn't actually show a causal relationship between pot and crime: Marijuana is far and away the most commonly used illegal drug, so it stands to reason that it would show up most often in drug tests.

NASA: We've Made Progress on Obama's Asteroid-Lasso Initiative

| Fri May 24, 2013 1:35 PM EDT

In April, the Obama administration unveiled its 2014 budget proposal, which included $145.8 billion for agriculture, $520 million for the International Trade Administration, and a bunch of other stuff. It also included a $105-million initiative to lasso an asteroid, tow it toward Earth, place it into the moon's orbit, and claim the space rock for the United States of America. The idea is to eventually have astronauts travel to the asteroid to conduct mining operations, test technology for missions to Mars, and research strategies for deflecting future world-ending asteroids.

On Thursday, NASA chief Charles Bolden got a good look at the progress being made. The Associated Press reports (emphasis mine):

Bolden checked on...the mission, which may eventually cost more than $2.6 billion. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and Glenn Research Center in Ohio are developing a thruster that relies on ion propulsion instead of conventional chemical fuel...NASA is under White House orders to fly humans to an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars. Instead of sending astronauts to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, as originally planned, the space agency came up with a quicker, cheaper idea: Haul the asteroid close to the moon and visit it there..."If you can't get to the asteroid, bring the asteroid to you," Bolden said.

President Obama had previously established a goal of landing astronauts on a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. This plan bumps the date up to 2021. Last month, an administration official with knowledge of the mission filled in some of the details. For one thing, the ambitious lasso-the-asteroid proposal would not increase NASA's budget; the agency would simply redirect existing funds to the project. And if the audacious-sounding mission goes through, NASA would make a point to only drag small asteroids toward Earth and into lunar orbit. That way, if something does go horribly wrong, the relatively small size of the target asteroid would ensure that the rock is harmless to our planet. Lest there be any confusion: Barack Obama is not going to accidentally throw a killer asteroid at mankind.

Asteroids have enjoyed some time in the political spotlight lately. In March, a Senate panel grilled scientists about the consequences of an asteroid striking earth and the best ways to fight back against ruinous asteroid aggression. That was in response to two high-profile events—an asteroid the size of a city block coming sorta, kinda, maybe close to smashing into Earth, and a truck-sized meteor exploding over Russia's Chelyabinsk region and injuring roughly 1,500 people.

On a related note, here's the trailer for Asteroid, a 1997 NBC miniseries about the president of the United States and a FEMA director scrambling to stop asteroids from destroying America:

Expert: Congress Shouldn't Listen to Apple's Tax Plan

| Fri May 24, 2013 10:54 AM EDT

The revelation that Apple used a web of baroque tax strategies to legally pay little to no taxes on tens of billions of dollars it earned overseas has re-ignited the debate over reforming the US tax code. But the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) warned this week against proposals pushed by Apple and other large multinational corporations that would reduce taxes on offshore profits in order to encourage companies to bring that money back home.

Offshore profits are currently taxed at the same rate as onshore profits: 35 percent. Big US corporations have lobbied aggressively for the United States to shift to what is called a territorial tax system, in which foreign profits would be subject to low or no US taxes. The idea was a cornerstone of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s economic platform last year. Now, Apple CEO Tim Cook is calling for a single-digit tax rate on overseas profits, as well as a reduction of the overall US corporate tax rate to the mid-20s.

Chuck Marr, the director of federal tax policy at the CBPP, explains that such a system would only make overseas profit-making more attractive—and that would weaken the US economy:

Multinational companies like Apple currently have a strong incentive to defer US corporate taxes by shifting and keeping profits overseas… [A] territorial system would create greater incentives for those companies to invest and book profits overseas rather than at home—and that, in turn, risks reducing wages at home by encouraging investment to flow overseas, increasing budget deficits by draining revenues from the corporate income tax, or raising taxes on smaller companies and domestic businesses to offset the revenue loss.

Democrats and trade unions agree, arguing that the United States should move in the other direction and tax foreign profits in the years they are made. They contend this would stem the corporate practice of deferring tax payments until the cash is brought back to the United States.

"We are dismantling vital government services because we don’t have revenue to support them," Damon Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO told the Financial Times earlier this week. "And we have one of the most profitable corporations in the world [Apple] stashing $100 billion in [low-tax] jurisdictions."

Other high-tech companies are increasingly shifting profit-making overseas. The revelations about Apple's shenanigans—which apparently are legal—have drawn attention to similar behavior by many high-tech firms, including Google, HP, and Microsoft. "These [tax] incentives are creating unfair advantages for multinationals and draining much-needed tax revenue," says Marr. "The president and Congress should resist the lobbying campaign and instead focus on reducing the incentive to shift profits and operations overseas."

Elizabeth Warren Attacks House GOP on Student Loan Bill

| Fri May 24, 2013 10:52 AM EDT

On Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) slammed a Republican student loan bill the House just approved that would allow interest rates on student debt to skyrocket.

"The student loan bill passed by House Republicans takes a bad situation and makes it worse," she said in a statement.

On July 1, rates for federal student loans called Stafford loans are set to double from the current rate of 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The GOP bill, which passed the House on a mostly party-line vote of 221 to 198, would allow interest rates on those loans to rise or fall from year to year with the government's cost of borrowing, ending the system in which rates are fixed by law. Because market rates are low right now, the initial rate for those loans would be about 4.4 percent, but in coming years it could increase up to a cap of 8.5 percent.

Warren, who has proposed her own student loan plan which would cut student loan rates to near zero, accused Republican lawmakers of making students into cash cows:

Our students should not be a profit center for the government, and the July 1 deadline should not be turned into an opportunity to make more money at the expense of young Americans who are working hard to get an education. This is about our values. We should be investing in higher education to strengthen our economy and grow the middle class.

The student loan bill proposed by Warren, a version of which was introduced in the House by Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), is called the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act. Under Warren and Tierney's plan, student loan interest would be cut to the low .75 percent interest rate that banks pay to the Federal Reserve for short-term loans. After a year, a longer-term student loan solution would be drawn up.

"If we can invest in big banks by giving them low interest rates on government loans," Warren said in the statement, "we certainly can do the same to help students get an education."

The Republican bill faces opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and President Obama has threatened to veto it.

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Progressive Dems Spar Over Who Will Succeed Markey

| Fri May 24, 2013 9:42 AM EDT

If Rep. Ed Markey wins the special election to become Massachusetts' junior US senator next month, it'll have at least one unintended consequence: A potentially ugly fight between two progressive Democrats for Markey's seat as the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. After Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio launched his candidacy by getting 20 prominent congressmen—including Georgia Rep. John Lewis and two former chairs of the committee—to sign onto a letter on his behalf, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is pushing back, winning the endorsement, on Thursday, of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The battle-lines are familiar, if not not entirely related to the actual responsibilities of the Natural Resources Committee: immigration reform and the Keystone XL pipeline. "DeFazio actually has a very anti-Democratic record on immigration," argues Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana. As proof, his office is sending around a fact-sheet highlighting a vote DeFazio cast in 2012 that would have authorized the Keystone XL pipeline as part of a larger transportation package—in contrast to DeFazio's otherwise outspoken criticism of the project. Sarvana is also touting support DeFazio received from the anti-reform outfit Numbers USA. (The group does not endorse candidates but has praised DeFazio's backing of universal electronic citizenship checks as a condition of employment.)

In a statement provided to Mother Jones, DeFazio, who is still considered the front-runner for the job, dismissed the Keystone vote as a procedural oddity: "I just helped lead the fight in two committees and on the floor against the Keystone Pipeline. In 2012, I voted for a transportation bill designed to bypass Tea Party obstructionist and get a much needed transportation bill to conference. As a conferee, I had assurances from Senator Barbara Boxer the Keystone provision would be stripped out of the final bill."

Markey's job isn't open just yet—the special election isn't until June and recent polls have shown a tight race. But the Democrat has never trailed, and his possible successors aren't waiting around for clarity.

Here's the CHC letter backing Grijalva:

 

Corn on MSNBC: Obama Speech Grapples with Security and Civil Liberties Issues

Thu May 23, 2013 7:22 PM EDT

Wednesday, US attorney general Eric Holder acknowledged that four Americans have been killed in drone strikes, though only one was targeted. Today, the president spoke on the future of counterterrorism in the US. DC bureau chief David Corn discusses the speech with John Podesta, president of Center for American Progress, and host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball:

Corn also analyzed the speech with The Grio's Joy Reid on MSNBC's Martin Bashir:

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Boy Scouts: You Can Be Gay Until You Turn 18

| Thu May 23, 2013 6:49 PM EDT
Boy Scouts and their families deliver signatures protesting the ban. GLAAD

Today, on a muggy afternoon in Grapevine, Texas, members of the Boy Scouts of America's National Council voted 61-38 percent to stop discriminating against kids in the program on the basis of sexual orientation, overturning a national ban on gay Scouts that the organization has enforced for decades. The BSA will continue barring gay adults from serving as scoutmasters and volunteers, meaning that teenagers who come out during their time with the program could be booted after they turn 18. The decision is seen as a compromise between church groups that partner with the Scouts and those eager to see the program fully end its discrimination against gays.

"No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone," states the new resolution, acknowledging that "[y]outh are still developing, learning about themselves and who they are, developing their sense of right and wrong, and understanding their duty to God to live a moral life."

"It's an incomplete step, but still a step in the right direction," Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout raised by two lesbian mothers, and founder of Scouts for Equality, tells Mother Jones. His organization, along with Scouts, parents, and volunteers who support overturning the ban, have been rallying in Texas for days, across from the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, where more than 1,400 BSA voting members from across the United States cast their votes this afternoon. Scouts in uniform faced off against about two dozen protesters supporting than ban—and "a couple local guys driving by in trucks, saying anti-gay stuff," Wahls says.

Controversy over the ban picked up last fall, when major backers like the Intel Foundation and UPS stopped funding the program because of its discriminatory policy. In January, the BSA said it would vote on the issue. The following month, President Obama said he supported overturning the ban, and celebrities like Carly Rae Jespen and Dr. Phil followed suit. There have been over 1.8 million signatures submitted through Change.org in favor of overturning the ban, according to Rich Ferraro, vice president of communications at GLAAD, a gay right group, in contrast to 19,000 signatures in favor of it, delivered by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian organization.

The Boy Scouts, which was founded in 1910 with an oath promising that Scouts would be "morally straight," have a long history of discriminating against gay members. In 1980, an Eagle Scout and aspiring Scout leader was kicked out for attending his prom with a male date. In June 2000, the US Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-4 decision that the Boy Scouts could continue barring gay Scout leaders. And as recently as April, 2012, an Ohio mom and den leader named Jennifer Tyrrell was forced out of the organization for being gay.

The new policy, which kicks in January 1, makes it so that member troops can no longer discriminate against gay youth. But anyone who is gay and over 18 years old still won't be allowed to be a Scout leader or volunteer. (The Boy Scouts' coed Venturing program, aimed at young adults, will allow gay members until they are 21.) This means that gay Scouts like 16-year-old Pascal Tessier can continue to participate in the program without fear of being kicked out, and will have the opportunity to earn the prestigious rank of Eagle Scout like his older brother has. But under the new policy, he would still be banned from the program when he turns 18.

When Mother Jones asked BSA whether or not it would eventually consider voting on the ban on gay adult members, a spokesperson said: "This is not about a step or progression…It is the option that did not, in some way, prevent kids who sincerely want to be a part of Scouting from experiencing this life-changing program and to remain true to the long-standing virtues of Scouting."

Tyrrell, the mom ousted for being gay and still unwelcome under the new policy, said in a press release, "I'm so proud of how far we've come, but until there's a place for everyone in Scouting, my work will continue."

Virginia Lt. Gov. Candidate E.W. Jackson: Gays Are "Ikky"

| Thu May 23, 2013 1:18 PM EDT

"Yuk!"

That's an actual tweet from the Rev. E.W. Jackson, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Jackson, a social-conservative activist with no record of electoral success, was nominated on the first ballot at the state GOP's convention on Saturday and almost immediately triggered an acute case of heartburn among the party's establishment due to his far-right views on gay rights and abortion. (Among other things, he favors the reinstatement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and said the Democratic party's platform was in line with the Antichrist.) Jackson is, as Daily Kos Elections' David Nir puts it, "an oppo researcher's mescaline-fueled fantasy bender riding on pegasus-back."

And we're only starting to scratch the surface. A quick survey of Jackson's now dormant Twitter feed, @ewjsr (he now tweets at @Jackson4VA) shows that he is been remarkably consistent in his attacks on the gays, Muslims, and communists he believes are destroying the country from within.

"The 'homosexual religion' is the most virulent anti-Christian bigotry & hatred I've ever seen," he tweeted in October of 2009. "They have threatened me, but not vice versa."

That was around the same time he concluded that "[t]he homosexual movement is a cancer attacking vital organs of faith, family & military - repositories of traditional values." After President Obama addressed the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group, Jackson groveled that the organization wanted to "homosexualize the country." After Family Research Council president Tony Perkins was disinvited from an event at Andrews Air Force Base, Jackson called the Obama administration "the Gestapo." When Rush Limbaugh invited Elton John to perform at his wedding, Jackson called it "utterly disappointing." He referred to Democrats as "Demoncrats."

Elsewhere, Jackson describes President Obama as the "first homosexual President," and endorses an argument by Frank Gaffney that Obama is also the "First Muslim President."

Jackson, a Harvard Law School graduate and former student at Harvard Divinity School, recognized the contradiction in these statements, and openly struggled with it: "It will be interesting to see how Obama reconciles Islamicizing America with homosexualizing America," he tweeted. "Babylon v Sodom & Gomorrah." (The Baylonians weren't Muslim, but that's hardly the point.) Jackson considered it "tragic" that American foreign policy was, in his view, now "pro-Islam."

He was also bothered by the presence of practicing Muslims in the administration:

Jackson's fear of Muslims was such that after an Air France flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and a gunman opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, in 2009, he immediately alleged—citing absolutely nothing—that both events had been acts of Islamic terrorism. (The Holocaust Museum gunman was a white supremacist, and the Air France crash was ruled an accident). Responding to a report that Obama was hoping to use his space agency as a way of reaching out to to the Muslim world, he was indignant: "Obama's new mission for Nasa, not to explore space, but expand Islam! Huh?"

Given the last few days, this last tweet seems somewhat fitting. It's from 2010, and it's a stirring defense of another conservative activist whose unlikely nomination cost Republicans a once winnable race: