Mojo - October 2013

How Immigration Reform Could End the Budget Wars

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 10:00 AM PDT

The conversation in Congress' latest budget meeting Wednesday revolved around the standard issues you'd expect from DC politicians raising a fuss about the deficit: the Democrats argued that raising taxes should be the priority and Republicans pushed cuts in entitlement programs. But a few outliers from both parties offered an alternative route for fixing the fiscal impasse. "I would like to mention one other national priority," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, speaking directly to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), "that could both help get the economy moving, help reduce the deficit, and strengthen Social Security. And that would be to pass the comprehensive immigration bill within the House of Representatives. That would accomplish a lot of the goals of this committee, and we simply need a vote to make it happen."

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) chimed in with a similar argument later in the meeting. "As you look down the road," he said, "what drives the debt? Eighty million Baby Boomers...are going to retire in the next 30 or 40 years. Who replaces them in the workforce? That's why I think we need rational immigration reform, because our population growth is pretty much stagnant."

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The Battle of the NSA Surveillance Bills

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 8:31 AM PDT

On Thursday, the Senate intelligence committee took a step forward toward officially authorizing some of the National Security Agency's more controversial surveillance practices, which have recently come to light thanks to leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The panel passed out of committee a bill allowing broad phone surveillance to continue under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Backed by the committee chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the FISA Improvements Act leaves untouched the NSA's internet surveillance dragnet, PRISM, and does little to improve oversight of the government's surveillance powers. Feinstein's bill will face off against legislation introduced earlier this week by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would significantly curb the government's ability to sweep up the private information of Americans.

Privacy experts say that the FISA Improvements Act, which passed 11-4, codifies current surveillance practices instead of fixing the law to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans: "This was an opportunity for Congress to really recalibrate the statute, and it's very disappointing that they've used this opportunity to cement domestic spying programs instead," says Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the ACLU.

The primary focus of the bill is Section 215 of FISA. This is the part of the law that provides the legal justification for the bulk collection of the telephone metadata of Americans, including phone numbers and the date and duration of calls (but not the content of those conversations). While the bill's language amends the statute to prevent the NSA from hoovering up phone metadata en masse, it provides gaping loopholes that could allow the agency to continue with its bulk collection practices as usual, such as if there's a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that an investigation is related to international terrorism. The legislation also makes it legal for the government to collect and search records that are three "hops" from a target who is suspected of terrorism—in other words, a suspect, all of that suspect's contacts, and all of their contacts. The bill makes only surface fixes and "absolutely allows for the kind of collection that is already happening right now," according to Amie Stepanovich, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's (EPIC) Domestic Surveillance Project.

Also worrisome to privacy experts is the fact that the bill expands the NSA's powers, by allowing the agency to track cellphone's of non-Americans believed to be located abroad for 72 hours after they enter the United States. The bill additionally levies a penalty of up to 10 years in prison on anyone who accesses NSA information without authorization, like Snowden did.

"The call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security," Feinstein said in a statement. "But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place."

Feinstein's modest reforms include limiting the amount of time the government can store the information it collects to five years, with the approval of the attorney general required to search records that are older than three years. And it requires regular reporting to Congress on all FISA violations. The bill also requires the NSA to disclose to the public annually the number of times the agency searched its telephone metadata database.  

Feinstein's surveillance bill will now go head to head with Sensenbrenner and Leahy's legislation. They introduced companion bills in the House and Senate that would end the bulk collection of phone metadata and put strict limits on the section of FISA that has been used to justify PRISM (so that if the online information of an Americans is accidentally collected, it cannot be searched). The USA FREEDOM Act has been referred to committee.

Unlike the bills introduced by Sensenbrenner and Leahy, Feinstein's legislation was only made public after it was passed out of committee. EPIC's Stepanovich notes that the secrecy with the which the Feinstein bill was crafted does not bode well for real reform. "This is the problem with all of these programs," she says. "You don't find out about them until it's far too late, and you have secret collection approved by a secret court, that's now being reformed by a law that's kept secret. It is unclear to what substantive 'improvements' the title [of the bill] refers to."

Corn on "Hardball": Ted Cruz's Father "Represents the Far Right of the Tea Party"

Thu Oct. 31, 2013 5:33 PM PDT

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Chris Matthews tonight about revelations that Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) father called the United States a "Christian Nation" and told President Obama to go "back to Kenya."

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

WATCH: C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" Visits Mother Jones' DC Bureau

Thu Oct. 31, 2013 12:47 PM PDT

This morning C-SPAN hosted a special broadcast of "Washington Journal" by speaking to Mother Jones' editors and reporters, live from our Washington, DC bureau. David Corn, Stephanie Mencimer, Andy Kroll, and Lauren Williams discussed the history of Mother Jones, as well as recent news about dark money, welfare reform, and voter ID laws. They also took some calls and messages from viewers, some of which generated contentious debate. In short, it was good TV. Check it out:

David Corn:

Stephanie Mencimer:

Andy Kroll:

Lauren Williams:

House Passes Bill Written by Citigroup Lobbyists

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 8:48 AM PDT

In May, Mother Jones reported on a Wall Street-friendly bill that was largely written by Citigroup lobbyists. On Wednesday, that bill passed the House—but with fewer yes votes than expected.

The bill, which passed 292 to 122, would gut a section of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act known as the "push-out rule." As we reported earlier:

Banks hate the push-out rule…because this provision will forbid them from trading certain derivatives (which are complicated financial instruments with values derived from underlying variables, such as crop prices or interest rates). Under this rule, banks will have to move these risky trades into separate non-bank affiliates that aren't insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and are less likely to receive government bailouts. The bill would smother the push-out rule in its crib by permitting banks to use government-insured deposits to bet on a wider range of these risky derivatives.

The New York Times reported in May that draft bill language written by Citigroup lobbyists was "reflected in more than 70 lines of the House committee’s 85-line bill." Mother Jones was the first to publish the document showing that Citigroup wrote the legislation.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 31, 2013

Thu Oct. 31, 2013 4:51 AM PDT

United States Marines with Africa Partnership Station participated in a training exercise focusing on riot control, riverine operations, ambush reaction drills and more October 18, 2013. Each exercise, led by British Marine forces, challenged the Marines through different scenarios focusing on all aspects of military tactics. APS is an international security cooperation initiative, facilitated by U.S. Naval Forces Africa, aimed at strengthening global maritime partnerships through training and collaborative activities in order to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Marco Mancha/Released.

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Democrats Won't Let Republicans Forget the Shutdown in Budget Talks

| Wed Oct. 30, 2013 12:25 PM PDT

Democrats aren't ready to let Republicans forget the crisis conservatives created when they shut down the government and threatened to breach the debt ceiling earlier this month. During the first public meeting of a new budget conference committee, created as part of the deal to reopen the government after the shutdown, held in the basement of the US Capitol Wednesday morning, Democrats took every opportunity to pummel their Republican colleagues for creating fiscal instability. "It was just two weeks ago today that we ended the shameful government shutdown and the threats to default on our nation's debt," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, said. "I hope every member of this committee—Democrat and Republicans alike—will put away threats to future shutdowns and default."

"We are still recovering from the worst recession in our lifetime and a foolhardy shutdown," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) chimed in later.

Most of the Republicans on the committee refrained from discussing the recent shutdown, though Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) broke the silence and warned that his party-mates must reach an accord, lest they repeat that failed tactic next time funding expires in January. "Let's pledge to do this: not shut the government down," he said.

That shutdown debacle left the Republican Party bruised and worried for the first time that their House majority might be at risk in 2014. Their poll numbers took a nosedive, with Gallup finding a record low approval rating of just 28 percent for the GOP during the shutdown. The lone victory they claimed was convincing the Democrats to hold a budget conference, which was not much of a concession since Democrats had spent the entire summer begging Republicans to negotiate with them.

Republicans' standing with voters might have diminished, but the majority of conservatives on the conference committee are sticking to their old ways, demanding that any sort of budget deal exclude new revenues. "I want to say this from the get-go," said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), wielding an oversized gavel in his role as chair of the conference committee. "If we look at this conference as an argument about taxes we're not going to get anywhere." He regurgitated the standard Republican line that the only acceptable way to increase government revenue is to lower the tax burden on the country's wealthiest (a.k.a. job creators, in Republican parlance).

Liberals had pinned their hopes of reaching a budget deal on Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) prior to the meeting, as the Republican had tacitly endorsed new tax revenues last week. But on Wednesday Cole slowly backtracked. "More revenue doesn't and shouldn't mean higher taxes," he said. Instead, Cole suggested a corporate tax holiday or leasing federal land and offshore sites for oil drilling as acceptable means to bring more money into federal coffers.

Every Democrat on the panel warned of the ills that would result from continuing sequestration, the Draconian cuts imposed after the 2011 debt ceiling conflict, and emphasized that replacing those cuts must be the committee's main priority. "I agree with those who say the very least this conference should be able to do—the absolute minimum—is find a way to come together around replacing sequestration and setting a budget level for at least the short-term," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Many Republicans shared that negative assessment of the sequester's impact and most voiced a willingness to tinker with the spending cuts dictated by the Budget Control Act (BCA), the legislation that imposed sequestration. But it was crystal-clear that Republicans won't budge from the overall cap imposed by that act, dashing any hopes that, with the economy still fragile, they might be convinced to ditch their deficit obsession. "I think it's vitally important that we preserve the savings that are embodied in the BCA," Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) said, summing up the Republicans' position. "Let's remember, this was a promise made to the American people."

Democrats have vowed to stand by their refusal to fund the government long-term unless sequestration is fixed, but, if those deficit caps are set in stone, one side or the other is going to have to give. Either Republicans will need to become more amenable to raising tax revenues or Democrats will have to concede that the sequester is here to stay. Otherwise, we'll be staring down another looming government shutdown come January.

Dems Who Once Supported Gutting Investor Protections Bail on Wall Street

| Wed Oct. 30, 2013 12:11 PM PDT

In August, Mother Jones broke the news that a letter signed by 32 progressive House Democrats that pushed to weaken protections for millions of Americans' retirement accounts had been written by a financial industry lobbyist.

Since then, those Dems must have had a change of heart. On Tuesday, nearly all of them flip-flopped, and voted against a House bill that would have undermined the same safeguards the letter opposed.

Here's some background, which was covered in our August report: The Department of Labor, which oversees the law that sets minimum standards for many retirement plans, is considering a rule that would simply require retirement investment advisers to act in the best interest of their customers. The letter, which was signed by 28 out of the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—a group of lawmakers that advocates for low-income people and minorities—and four other Democratic lawmakers, sought to delay and weaken the rule. Consumer advocates and government officials argued the rule could provide much need protection for small investors:

The current law doesn't do enough to prevent unscrupulous investment brokers from parking Americans' hard-earned cash in high-fee investments that benefit themselves, even if it's not in their customers' best interests, argues Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America...

"This rule is about protecting people from conflicts of interest," says Phyllis Borzi, the Department of Labor's assistant secretary for employee benefits security, who is spearheading the push for a stronger investment adviser rule. "Those conflicts harm everyone who is doing the right thing and trying to save."

The bill that passed the House on Tuesday by a largely party-line vote would, just as the letter urged, also have delayed and weakened the rule. But negative attention to the lobbyist's letter (our scoop was noted by MSNBC's Chris Hayes, among others) may have helped change some of the Democrats' minds.

Only two of the letter-signers voted with Wall Street: Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.). A short time ago, the letter and other sources suggested at least 60 Democrats would support the bill; in the final tally, only 30 supported it. This was a "shockingly bad vote for Wall Street," one House staffer said.

Even though the vast majority of its signatories voted against the bill, the lobbyist-written letter was still being used to win over Democrats in the last hours. According to an email reviewed by Mother Jones, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Florida), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), circulated it to Democratic staffers just before the vote Tuesday, as evidence of Democratic support for the bill.

Despite the House bill's passage, the investment industry's chances of delaying the rule through legislative action are slim: the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass the measure, and the White House is also opposed. And on Tuesday, Wall Street found out that its influence among House Democrats wasn't as strong as they'd once thought.

Economists to Congress: It's Time for a "Robin Hood Tax" on the Rich

| Wed Oct. 30, 2013 11:07 AM PDT

Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Congress resolved the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis (for now) by agreeing to hash out a budget agreement by mid-December. Already, hopes are dim. Budget experts say that if any deal at all is worked out to replace the deep budget cuts that went into effect in March, the most likely outcome will be a short-term plan involving slightly less severe spending cuts—but with no new revenue, a big Democratic priority. Now, several prominent economists, along with a coalition of labor, health, and community groups are pushing progressive lawmakers to aim higher, calling for what they term a "Robin Hood tax" on the rich.

On Wednesday, economist Jeffrey Sachs briefed members of Congress on the Robin Hood tax, also known as a financial transaction tax, which would charge Wall Street investors a fraction of a penny on the dollar value of each trade they make. Given the mind-boggling number of trades that occur each day, the tax could rake in as much as $700 billion a year. That would increase federal revenues by about 24 percent.

"We are calling on Congress and the White House to refocus on a human needs budget, not just an endless cycle of more austerity and more cuts," says Karen Higgins, RN, co-president of National Nurses United, one of the groups backing the tax. "We need the Robin Hood tax."

The Stunning Political Punchline Behind that US Personality Map You've Been Sharing

| Wed Oct. 30, 2013 7:59 AM PDT
The "friendly and conventional"—in other words, conservative—region of the United States. On political maps, you're used to seeing many of these states colored red, not blue.

Chances are you saw it. In fact, you may well have shared it. The Time.com version has been liked on Facebook 873,000 times as of this writing, with no signs of stopping.

I'm referring to a personality map of the United States, based on a just-published paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Peter J. Rentfrow and his colleagues. After administering a battery of personality tests to more than a million and a half Americans across the country, the study divides us up into three psychological regions: The "friendly and conventional" South and Great Plains; the "relaxed and creative" mountain states and West Coast; and the "temperamental and uninhibited" East Coast and New England states. Here's the full image from the study, one that you've probably seen already:

The three personality regions of the U.S.
The three personality regions of the US American Psychological Association

But here's the thing: Many people sharing these maps probably didn't realize the full implications of what they were looking at. These images, after all, provide more than just stereotype-reaffirming evidence that New Englanders are aloof and Southerners are friendly; and more than just a fun game that lets you figure out what part of the country you should be living in based on your personality (Time.com's version). They also provide more evidence that political ideology, which varies regionally in the US in a way that is closely related to these temperamental regions, is, in substantial part, a psychological phenomenon. In other words: Politics is personality.

The key personality test used to construct the maps above, after all, was a study of the "Big Five" personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. This is a widely accepted model of studying personality (and no, it is not the same thing as Myers-Briggs). For many years, scientists have known that some of the Big Five dimensions are highly political. In particular, liberals tend to score much higher on Openness (interest in novel experiences and ideas), while conservatives score much higher on Conscientiousness (preference for order, stability, and structure in your life).

The study, and the resulting maps, put an exclamation point on this finding. After all, the "friendly and conventional" part of the US scores quite low on Openness in the study—much lower than either of the other two regions—even as it outscores both of the other two regions in Conscientiousness. The "friendly and conventional" region was also the only Republican-voting region of the three, and the most Protestant.

Granted, not every state with a "friendly and conventional" personality voted Republican in the last election, and there are some oddballs and outliers in other regions, too. But the overall trend is clear. The residents of more liberal and more conservative states differ in personality: In how open their residents are to new experiences, and in how much they prize order and stability in their lives.

How do these personality dimensions drive ideology? Well, put simply, people who are Open embrace change. Fixing healthcare with a big new system and way of doing things? Bring it on. By contrast, people who are low on Openness and high on Conscientiousness are interested in stability and just not messing with it. Yes, that's right: The core of the left-right divide, which turns on one's relative embrace of change versus the status quo, is rooted in an individual's psychological makeup. And personality traits, in turn, are substantially heritable and run in families.

So how did we end up so divided? On the individual level, psychological differences between people have always been present, but geography seems to be becoming ever more important as a factor. In particular, the study by Rentfrow and colleagues suggest that people who are high on Openness are naturally more daring and experimental, and often all too eager to leave traditional parts of the country, where they know they just don't belong, and relocate. Indeed, the Time.com version of the map, which lets you take a personality test and then figure out what state you belong in, in effect encourages precisely this sort of psychological mobility.

In other words, there's a huge ideological sort going on, probably much of it driven by Open people leaving to be closer to other Open people—so they can all hang out at coffeehouses and complain about the Tea Party—and more traditional people staying behind where they prize family and community. And this, in turn, likely explains a substantial part of the US's growing political polarization. Or as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt just put it on our newly launched Inquiring Minds podcast, "For the first time in our history, the parties are not agglomerations of financial or material interest groups, they're agglomerations of personality styles and lifestyles. And this is really dangerous....If it's now that 'You people on the other side, you're really different from me, you live in a different way, you pray in a different way, you eat different foods than I do,' it's much easier to hate those people. And that's where we are."

Finally, it's important to note that the psychological news here is not all good for liberals. Yeah, they're open-minded. But as the study shows, a lot of them are also neurotic and not particularly agreeable. Describing people in the "Temperamental and Uninhibited" region, Rentfrow and colleagues use adjectives like "reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive." Meanwhile, the emphasis on community, warmth, and social capital in the "friendly and conventional" region is hard not to admire.

The benefit of a psychological and personality-based approach to political differences is thus twofold. Not only does it help us understand why we're so polarized and divided; it also teaches us what you can learn about how to live from the other side.