Mojo - July 2013

Federal Gun Agency Gets Its First Permanent Director in Seven Years

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 8:13 PM EDT
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) flew back from North Dakota to cast the deciding vote to break a filibuster of Todd Jones' nomination to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the agency tasked with enforcing federal gun laws. Jones, an attorney and former Marine, has served as the acting head of the agency since 2011. He becomes its first permanent director since 2006, the year that the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied Congress to require that ATF directors be confirmed by the Senate.

When President Obama nominated Jones to head the ATF in January, politicos expected a gun-lobby showdown. But although the NRA has opposed all ATF nominations since the 2006 rule change and for decades has prevented the agency from fully enforcing gun laws, it unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that it would not take a position on Todd's confirmation vote. The Newtown, Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association that represents gun manufacturers, announced its support for Jones the same day.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the co-chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, hailed the vote as a "critical step in the fight to reduce gun crime." Boston Mayor Tom Menino, the group's other co-chair, said, "After seven years without a permanent director at the helm, ATF will finally have the strong leadership it needs to stem the flow of illegal guns onto our streets and help keep our communities safe."

With the vote stalled at 59-40 through Wednesday afternoon, senators waited for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) to arrive at the Capitol en route from her home state to cast the deciding vote needed to overcome a filibuster. Heitkamp, whose return to Washington was delayed because of an illness, was one of only four Democrats to vote against the Senate's failed gun reform legislation in April. All four voted to break the filibuster against Jones, as did six Republicans: Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

I emailed Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University, to ask how common it is for senators to fly into Washington to cast a deciding vote:

It's not very common (at all), but neither is it unprecedented. The example that comes to mind is a (roughly) similar situation when the 2009 stimulus vote was held open to give Sherrod Brown time to get back to Washington amidst funeral services for his mother in Ohio.

But other than that recent example, nothing else expressly similar comes to mind. There are older stories of the House GOP leadership holding open the vote on Medicare expansion in 2003 for several hours, and a House Dem open vote some years earlier (involving Rep. Jim Chapman and Speaker Wright). Both of those episodes entailed holding open a vote for the winning side to squeak by (if I'm recalling correctly!).

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Democrats To Introduce Supreme Court Ethics Bill

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 4:01 PM EDT

The only federal judges not bound by an ethics code.

​Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has been in the news recently after Mother Jones revealed her involvement in Groundswell, a secret effort by a group of conservatives to organize their fight against liberals, mainstream Republicans, and Karl Rove. Her political activity has once again raised questions about whether she is creating conflicts of interest for her husband, and whether he should be forced to recuse himself from cases that involve Ginni's work.

Such calls for Thomas to recuse from cases hit a fevered pitch when the Affordable Care Act was before the high court and Ginni was actively lobbying against it. As it turned out, there's no mechanism for concerned citizens to complain about a Supreme Court justice, or even a clear set of rules that the justices must follow in making recusal decisions. Supreme Court justices are exempt from the Code of Conduct for United State Judges, the rulebook that every other federal judge in the country has to follow.

That code would have prohibited the justices from a number of controversial activities the Supreme Court has engaged in over the past few years. In 2011, for instance, Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia headlined a fundraiser for the conservative legal group, the Federalist Society. Ordinary federal judges couldn't have done that. Both also have attended hush-hush political events hosted by Koch Industries that are billed as efforts "to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it." Koch Industries is owned by the right-wing Koch family that's been dumping millions of dollars in the Republican politics, particularly after the court decided in Citizens United to allow unlimited corporate money into the electoral system. The code also requires federal judges to recuse themselves from cases in which a spouse or family member has a financial interest, a rule that might apply to the Thomases.

Several members have decided to try to do something about the appearance of impropriety by some of the justices. On Thursday, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sen. Chris Murhpy (D-CT), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), plan to introduce the Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2012 that would force the high court to adopt an ethics code much like the one that binds lower court judges. The idea has support from legal scholars, who've been urging the court to adopt such a code since last year. More than 125,000 people have signed a petition calling on Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. to apply the Code of Conduct to the court. But Roberts has been pretty adamant that he thinks the justices are perfectly capable of policing themselves without the need for silly codes (codes which most of the sitting justices once had to abide by on a lower court). 

Without buy-in from Roberts, any attempt, even by Congress, to require the justices to give themselves a written code of ethics is probably a tough sell. The new bill, if it could even pass through the full Congress (also doubtful), could set off an epic separation of powers battle between the two branches of government. A spokesman from Slaughter's office says that the bill is absolutely constitutional, as Congress has the authority to regulate the administration of the court—setting the number of justices and whatnot. Still, it's possible that the court could put up a fight—a fight that might ultimately have to be decided by....the Supreme Court.

Fox News' Neil Cavuto Doesn't Know How Inflation Works

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 11:29 AM EDT
Neil Cavuto

Fox News host Neil Cavuto has a special message for living-wage activists: Deal with it. "It's like jobs aren't enough these days," he said on Tuesday. "They better pay well, or folks just aren't applying for them at all." As proof, he cited his own teenage years serving fried fish in Connecticut:

Only in America today, can our politicians bemoan a livable wage, forgetting a lot of folks would be grateful for any wage, any chance, any job, anytime. All I know is as soon as I turned 16 and heard a fast food chain called Arthur Treacher's was opening a store in my town of Danbury, Connecticut. I stood in a line for a position—any position. I got the job, and soon rocketed to relief manager, then weekend manager, then by 16 and a half, full-time store manager! And it all started at two bucks an hour. And all the fish I could eat.

That's a good story. But the math makes the opposite point Cavuto intended—adjusted for inflation, he made a lot more money as a teenager than the fast food employees who walked off their jobs in seven US cities this week. Cavuto says he made $2 per hour when he was 16, which would have been around late 1974. That's $9.47 per hour in today's dollars—or $.28 per hour more than Washington state's minimum wage, which is the nation's highest. Cavuto made the equivalent of $1.02 per hour more than the current minimum wage in Connecticut today and $2.22 per hour more than the current federal minimum wage. His starting wage was $2.17 more than Saavedra Jantuah made at the Burger King on 34th St. in New York City before she walked off the job in protest last November because she was unable to feed her son.

Cavuto's riff also misses the larger point, which is that the living-wage fight isn't about 16-year-olds with no kids whose parents cover their basic living expenses. The median fast food worker is 28 years old, and the median female fast food worker is 32. Their wages have dropped an average of 36 cents since 2010. And they're making less than Neil Cavuto ever did.

Watch the segment:

Indiana Loses War Against Poor Women Who Use Planned Parenthood

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 10:31 AM EDT
A Planned Parenthood in East Chicago, Indiana

A judge has slammed the book shut on a two-year legal battle between Indiana and Planned Parenthood, ruling that the state cannot prohibit family planning clinics from accepting Medicaid funds. Former GOP Governor Mitch Daniels signed a law in 2011 that prevented Medicaid enrollees from using funds for routine procedures such as breast exams and STD testing at Planned Parenthood, which also performs abortions. Tuesday's ruling means that Indiana has no more legal options to appeal—the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case. But if the high court agrees to hear a challenge to a similar law in another state, Indiana's zombie law could come back to life. 

"Over and over again, courts have said that states cannot block people from getting preventive health care at Planned Parenthood, and the vast majority of the American public agrees," said Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Action Fund in a statement. "All women, no matter where they live, should be able to get quality, affordable health care from the health care provider they know and trust."

When the law was passed in 2011, it exempted hospitals and surgical facilities, making it pretty clear that the goal of the law was to shut down Planned Parenthood. Unfortunately for Indiana's Republican lawmakers, the effort only rallied pro-choice activists. The Associated Press reports that the interruption in Medicaid funds encouraged 1,600 donors from around the world to give about $500,000 to Planned Parenthood so that it could continue to provide services to Medicaid recipients in Indiana. Additionally, in May, after the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, the US federal agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid sided with Planned Parenthood. 

Indiana was the first state to attempt to shut down Planned Parenthood by denying the organization Medicaid funds. But since then, lawmakers in other states—including Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, Kansas, and North Carolina—have also tried to use this tactic. According to the AP, if the Supreme Court decides to hear one of these other laws, Indiana could submit an amicus brief to revive its legal argument​. To see what happens when a state successfully defunds family planning clinics, look no further than Texas, where the ever-enterprising Republican Governor Rick Perry is squeezing Planned Parenthood out of the state. He's doing so not just by trying to prevent family planning clinics from receiving Medicaid, but by flat-out refusing to accept $30 million a year in federal Medicaid money. As my colleague Jaeah Lee—who made these awesome charts, including the one below—notes, since Perry had denied this funding, "nearly 200,000 Texas women have lost or could lose access to contraception, cancer screenings, and basic preventive care, especially in low-income, rural parts of the state." Indiana women, be glad this isn't you: 

 

 

The Onion Predicts Real Life: Republicans Block NASA's Asteroid Plan

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 4:45 PM EDT

President Obama's plan to have NASA 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 has hit a congressional snag. The New York Times reports:

NASA wants to launch an unmanned spacecraft in 2018 that would capture a small asteroid — maybe 7 to 10 yards wide — haul it closer to Earth, then send astronauts up to examine it, in 2021 or beyond.

But the space agency has encountered a stubborn technical problem: Congressional Republicans...[T]he science committee in the Republican-controlled House voted to bar NASA from pursuing that faraway rock. In a straight party vote — 22 Republicans for, 17 Democrats against — the committee laid out a road map for NASA for the next three years that brushed aside the asteroid capture plan, the centerpiece of the Obama administration's agenda for space exploration. The plan, instead, included new marching orders, telling NASA to send astronauts back to the Moon, set up a base there and then aim for Mars (and to do so with less money than requested).

Not only would the asteroid-lasso initiative have astronauts travel to the space rock to conduct mining operations and test technology for missions to Mars—it would allow NASA to research strategies for deflecting future, potentially world-ending asteroids.

In a way, the Times got scooped on this story. By the Onion. More than two years ago:

The Onion asteroid obama
The Onion

The Onion, one of America's leading satirical news outlets, has predicted the future before. Al Qaeda squabbling with 9/11 truthers, for instance. Or the Onion's piece on George W. Bush ushering in an era of war and economic recession...published in January 2001.

JPMorgan Chase Accused of Manipulating Electricity Prices, Pays Record-Breaking Penalties

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 4:15 PM EDT

Just one day after US regulators formally accused it of manipulating energy prices, America’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase, has agreed to pay a record $410 million in penalties.

Specifically, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) accused Chase traders in Houston of devising elaborate schemes that essentially forced electricity grid operators—organizations that manage the flow of electricity—in California and the Midwest to pay for plants to sit idle, causing them to pay more than 80 times the cost of prevailing electricity prices for ten months between 2010 and 2011. Chase's alleged price-gouging echoes the infamous 2001 Enron scheme, in which the company constricted electricity supply in California in order to jack up prices.

The FERC action comes at a time of increasing scrutiny of banks' ownership of commodities. Last week, for example, the New York Times questioned whether Goldman Sachs was manipulating the aluminum market through the metal warehouses it controls.

Even though the penalty for Chase's bad behavior is the largest the FERC has ever slapped on a company, the fine still falls in line with trifling punishments leveled against the bank—and other financial behemoths—for similar egregious behavior. Chase’s $410 million settlement, which was reached on Tuesday and will be divided between ratepayers and the Treasury Department, represents less than two percent of Chase’s record $21.3 billion 2012 profits—or about what it earns in a single week. (FERC has also barred the bank from trading in US energy securities for the next six months.)

Investigators for the agency initially considered holding one Chase executive and a few specific traders individually liable for the allegedly abusive pricing schemes, but ultimately dropped that idea, according to the Times. The bank has denied wrongdoing, and, as Reuters has pointed out, the settlement will put an end to a troublesome "distraction" for Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.

The bank has had other distractions in recent years. In May 2012, Chase lost $6 billion on risky trades out of its London office. So far, the banks has escaped penalty for those actions—US banking regulators merely ordered it to fix the risk-management failures that led to the massive loss.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has repeatedly highlighted the discrepancy between the punishments meted out to ordinary Americans for criminal behavior and those big banks receive for wrongdoing—whether it be tricking consumers into paying higher power prices, causing massive trading losses, or laundering drug money: "If you're caught with an ounce of cocaine, you're going to go to jail," she said at a Senate Banking Committee hearing earlier this year, referring to the giant international bank HSBC. "But if you launder nearly a billion dollars for international cartels and violate sanctions you pay a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed a night."

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House Republicans Defund the Nonexistent ACORN, Yet Again

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 11:49 AM EDT

Unkillable?

In the Friday the 13th film series, psycho killer Jason Voorhees lumbers around destroying lives with his machete. He is seemingly indestructible, reanimating even though he dies at the end of almost every movie in which he appears. The sexy teens (the flawed protagonists of this horror-flick franchise) are thus charged with brutally killing Jason again and again, time after time, no matter what.

That's how House Republicans view ACORN, the defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (a longtime boogeyman for the right). It's Jason, and John Boehner is a sexy teen. For years, conservatives accused the defunct organization of a fictional large-scale voter fraud plot. In actuality, ACORN was a New Orleans-based nonprofit that advocated for low-income families on issues such as predatory lending and public education.

The Huffington Post reports:

The House GOP quietly blocked funding for ACORN last week, even though the anti-poverty organization has long since been both defunded and disbanded.

The legislative assault on ACORN, which shut down in 2010, was included in a Department of Defense appropriations bill that cleared the House on Thursday...Section 8097 of the bill reads, "None of the funds made available under this Act may be distributed to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) or its subsidiaries."

[...]

[T]he House GOP votes to defund ACORN all the time. Nearly every bill that clears the House Appropriations Committee includes a section barring the use of funds for ACORN, although the specific language varies among different bills.

ACORN, which was dissolved in 2010, could not be reached for comment.

After the 2012 presidential election, Public Policy Polling found that 49 percent of Republicans believed that ACORN had stolen the election for Barack Obama, a drop from 52 percent who believed ACORN had stolen the 2008 election for Obama. "This is a modest decline, but perhaps smaller than might have been expected given that ACORN doesn't exist anymore," PPP determined. Nearly eight months after that poll was released, ACORN still does not exist.

Groundswell: A Secret Tape Reveals How It Lobbied Boehner and Issa on Benghazi

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 11:48 AM EDT

As Mother Jones revealed last week, Groundswell, the hush-hush right-wing strategy group partly led by Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, wanted to hype the Benghazi tragedy into a full-fledged scandal for the Obama administration, as part of its "30 front war" on the president and progressives. A secret audio tape of one of Groundswell's weekly meetings shows that prominent members of the group pressed House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chair of the House oversight committee, to expand the Benghazi investigation and make this supposed scandal a top-priority for congressional Republicans. This recording indicates Groundswell's mission extends beyond message coordination to scandal-stoking.

The tape has been posted at Crooks and Liars, a progressive web site, and it captured the first 20 minutes of Groundswell's May 8 meeting. (The site does not say how the recording was obtained.) The meeting opened with a prayer ("Father, we thank you for the opportunity to gather here as free Americans"), and a roll call was taken. Among those present were former GOP Rep. Allen West, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council, Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News, and Ginni Thomas. Catherine Engelbrecht, a founder of True the Vote, led the meeting, and the first order of business was a report on the Benghazi controversy from Boykin and Gaffney.

The pair reported on meetings they had held the previous night with Boehner and Issa. The two Groundswellers had encouraged the lawmakers to set up a special committee to investigate the attacks on the US facilities in Benghazi. Boykin, according to the recording, noted that Boehner had said he wanted the process "to play out" first, apparently meaning that he wasn't yet ready to step up the GOP Benghazi campaign. Boehner, Boykin recounted, had expressed the concern that were he to create such a committee, the media would cover it as a political stunt designed to bring down Obama.

Boykin, a retired general and Christian fundamentalist who caused a dust-up in 2003 when he gave a speech (while still on active duty) saying that his god was "a real god" and Allah was an "idol," told the Groundswellers that he expected the Benghazi matter to blossom into a full-blown scandal: "We've got an ugly baby here and it's going to get uglier." He maintained that "we're going to find...a huge deception."

Gaffney, a birther who has been booted out of several conservative outfits for his fiercely anti-Islam views and who has accused Obama of "submission to Islam," added, "I'm somewhat encouraged that they're taking this thing very much to heart and we really impressed upon [Boehner] that there's a lot of restiveness on the part of folks like us, and some of their donors as a matter of fact, about what's happening here." In other words, Boykin and Gaffney were issuing something of a warning to Boehner and Issa: Go hard on Benghazi or risk losing financial and grassroots support.

After the two were done, Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, counseled fellow Groundswellers on how they should handle the Benghazi controversy. Don't mention impeachment of Hillary Clinton, he cautioned, for that would only politicize the issue and "hurt the goal" of establishing a special congressional committee. Then Engelbrecht added, "I think they have all the notes on Benghazi. Let's move ahead."

As of yet, Boykin, Gaffney, and the other Groundswellers have not gotten the special Benghazi committee they wanted. But the recording shows that Groundswell has access to the top leaders of the GOP, and its reps are not reluctant to pressure those pols.

Bobby Jindal Stays Silent on Louisiana Sodomy Arrests

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 10:47 AM EDT

On Sunday the Baton Rouge Advocate reported on a disturbing trend: A full decade after the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws as unconstitutional violations of a right to privacy, the East Baton Rouge sheriff's department was continuing to enforce the state's version of the statute. Not only that, but it was going out of its way to do so, setting up stings to find and arrest gay men for the crime of having sex—even though the district attorney had pointedly refuse to prosecute those cases. "Whether the law is valid is something for the courts to determine, but the sheriff will enforce the laws that are enacted," a sheriff's department spokesman told the paper, apparently oblivious to the fact that a court had already made such a determination.

So how does Louisiana's arch-conservative Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, feel about the parish's continued enforcement of the invalidated sodomy law? He's been silent. His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Monday, nor has he previously commented on the sodomy statute.

The sheriff's department does have a point. The anti-sodomy statute is still on the books in Louisiana, and in 12 other states across the country. And in many of those cases, it remains on the books for a very particular reason: Republican lawmakers want it to. Lawmakers in Texas have quietly killed every legislative effort to erase its anti-sodomy statute (the one that was actually stricken down by the Supreme Court), which makes sense when you consider Gov. Rick Perry is on the record defending it, and the state GOP recently made a sodomy ban part of its official platform. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback left his state's sodomy statute out of a 2012 push to purge outdated laws. The last serious repeal push in Louisiana came in 2003, shortly before the Supreme Court decision, with opponents warning that legalized sodomy would lead to disease and child abuse—two things that, thanks to the sodomy ban, Louisiana had been mercifully free of for the last 207 years.

Keeping anti-sodomy statutes on the books serves no real function, since the crimes are impossible to prosecute. Mostly, the laws' supporters just don't want their states to legally acknowledge that there's something OK about homosexuality. So-called crimes against nature, like other 19th-century relics such as mutton chops, DIY canning, and income inequality, are kind of "in" right now. In July, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, who is running for governor as a Republican, launched a new website to defend his state's anti-sodomy law.

Inadequate Diaper Supply Linked To Child Abuse, Depression

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 10:12 AM EDT
Babies without lots of clean diapers are at risk of child abuse

Being poor and trying to raise children is stressful on a host of levels, but it's especially tough for people who can't afford diapers. New research from Yale University's school of medicine finds that depressed, low-income mothers might need Pampers far more than they need Prozac. The study found that women who lack an adequate supply of diapers for their babies are more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety than other low-income mothers. Maternal depression and mental health problems, the researchers say, can have longterm and debilitating effects on children's well-being and their performance in school.

The researchers, who have been studying mothers in a Connecticut low-income housing project, found that the lack of an adequate supply of diapers was a better predictor of a mother's mental health need than even food insecurity. The average baby needs between eight and 10 diapers a day, at a cost of around $120 a month, according to the DC Diaper Bank, a nonprofit that provides free diapers to poor families in DC. But Yale researchers found women who were trying to stretch a single diaper for an entire day, thanks in part to their lack of cash and the high price of the products in their neighborhoods. Not only does a diaper shortage lead to mental health problems in the mother, it's also been directly linked to child abuse. After all, a wet, smelly baby is a very unhappy baby, and one likely to have a raging case of diaper rash to boot.

In a way, the study seems like a no-brainer: Of course not being able to buy diapers is stressful! But the study has special relevance for American poverty policy. Since 1994, when the nation ended welfare as we know it, the safety net has become increasingly organized around food stamps, not cash grants, for poor mothers. You can't buy diapers with food stamps.

Very few low-income families are able to get cold hard cash from government safety net programs, as they did before welfare was "reformed." Today, only about 4 million Americans receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), compared with 14 million in 1996, even though the poverty rate is higher today than it was back then. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, of every 100 families with children in poverty today, only 27 receive any form of TANF benefits, compared with 68 in 1996. Those who do get some cash are getting far less of it, as the monthly benefits—never large to begin with—have fallen as much as 30 percent since welfare reform began. In 14 states, a family of three receives less than $300 a month.

Not surprisingly, the program no longer lifts many kids out of deep poverty (defined as living at below 50 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $9700 per year for a family of three). In 1995, the program kept 2.2 million kids out of deep poverty, about 62 percent of the kids at risk of those dire circumstances. By 2005, that number had fallen to about 650,000—just 21 percent of the children at risk for deep poverty.

All those figures mean that far fewer poor moms can afford diapers, and that one factor is now linked to a significant and also avoidable problem with long-term implications for the nation's poor children. The irony, too, is that by changing federal policy to make it impossible for poor women to buy the critical things they need to care for their babies, policymakers have also inadvertently made it difficult for poor women to go to work or receive work training, one of the key goals of the '94 welfare overhaul. That's because child care providers won't take poor women's children if they can't provide an adequate supply of diapers.

In the wake of welfare reform, nonprofits like the DC Diaper Bank have sprung up to try to distribute free diapers through neighborhood service organizations and other programs that serve low-income moms. It's not nearly as effective as having a better national poverty policy, but a good idea nonetheless. You can find a local one and ways to donate here.