Political MoJo

The Americans With Disabilities Act Is Turning 25. Watch the Dramatic Protest That Made It Happen.

| Sat Jul. 25, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, left, crawls up the steps of the Capitol in Washington on March 12, 1990.

Twenty-five years ago this weekend, the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law, officially outlawing discrimination against disabled people in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and government services. The law was a long time coming: Activists had fought for decades against unequal access to jobs and exclusion from public schools. But the ADA might never have gotten to President George H.W. Bush's desk were it not for a group of activists in wheelchairs who took matters into their own hands earlier that year.

On March 12, 1990, hundreds of people with disabilities gathered at the foot of the Capitol building in Washington to protest the bill's slow movement through Congress. Dozens left behind their wheelchairs, got down on their hands and knees, and began pulling themselves slowly up the 83 steps toward the building's west entrance, as if daring the politicians inside to continue ignoring all the barriers they faced. Among the climbers was Jennifer Keelan, an eight-year-old from Denver with cerebral palsy. "I'll take all night if I have to!" she yelled while dragging herself higher and higher.

Here's some footage of the protest, via PBS's Independent Lens:

The Capitol Crawl, as it became known, made national headlines and pushed lawmakers to pass the ADA into law. When Bush finally signed the landmark bill, it was seen as one of the country's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation to date. But it was not a total cure-all, according to Susan Parish, a professor of disability policy at Brandeis University. The Supreme Court later watered it down, she says, in a series of decisions that created a narrow definition of disability.

In 2008, lawmakers passed amendments to strengthen the ADA, but Parish says people with disabilities have still struggled to gain equal access to employment, in part because employers are expected to comply with the law but do not have to follow reporting requirements. "I feel that the country needs a full-scale affirmative action program for people with disabilities," she said in a recent interview.

President Obama issued an executive order in 2010 requiring the federal government to hire more people with disabilities. In a speech earlier this week, he said the West Wing receptionist, Leah Katz-Hernandez, is the first deaf American to hold her position. But despite some progress since 1990, he acknowledged, "We've still got to do more to make sure that people with disabilities are paid fairly for their labor, to make sure they are safe in their homes and their communities…I don't have to tell you this fight is not over."

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Louisiana Has Some of the Weakest Gun Laws in the Country

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 5:29 PM EDT

On Thursday night, 59-year-old John Russell Houser of Alabama walked into the Grand Theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, with a handgun and shot into a crowd, killing two and injuring nine more. At a press conference Friday, Democratic state Rep. Terry Landry Sr. called for stricter gun laws in Louisiana, saying, "It's our job as legislators to close the loopholes in these gun laws." Indeed, according to the National Rife Association, Louisiana has one of the most open gun policies around—from its unabashedly pro-gun governor to its concealed carry law. A 2014 report by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rated the state as having "the weakest gun laws in the country."

Here's what you need to know about gun law in Louisiana:

  • Gun owners don't have to obtain a permit to purchase guns. Buyers don't have to register their firearms, and they don't need a license to possess them. State law requires a concealed carry permit for handguns, but there is no permit required to carry rifles or shotguns.
  • State law only restricts two kinds of people from possessing guns: those 17 and under, or those convicted of certain violent crimes (until a decade has passed since the completion of the sentence, probation, parole, or suspension of a sentence).
  • The state has enacted "castle doctrine", meaning deadly force is considered justifiable in a court of law to defend against an intruder in a person's home. The Louisiana state legislature also passed a "Stand Your Ground" law in 2006, stating that anyone in a place "where he or she has a right," including public spaces, is not obligated "to retreat" if faced with a threat and "may stand his or her ground and meet force with force." (Check out our map of how quickly "Stand Your Ground" laws spread across the United States).
  • Firearms may be stored in locked, privately owned motor vehicles. Louisiana is one of 22 states with similar policies that allow guns to be left in the office parking lot.
  • Gun owners have the right to carry in restaurants.
  • According to a 2012 state constitutional amendment, "[t]he right of each citizen to keep and bear arms is fundamental and shall not be infringed" and "any restriction on this right" will be met with maximum skepticism from the courts. The amendment, which was heavily backed by Gov. Jindal, also removed language that would allow the legislature to "prohibit the carrying of weapons concealed on a person." In a written statement, Jindal argued: "We are adopting the strongest, most iron-clad, constitutional protection for law-abiding gun owners. It's our own Second Amendment, if you will."

Given these laws, it's no surprise that nearly half of Louisiana households own a gun. Unfortunately, the state also sees high levels of armed violence: According to a Mother Jones investigation, the state has the country's highest gun homicide rate—9.4 per 100,000 residents. And that gun violence has cost each Louisiana resident at least $1,333 a year.

Report: The Obama Administration May Release Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 5:02 PM EDT
Israelis protesting for the release of American Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel and was convicted to life in prison in 1985.

Much of the debate surrounding the nuclear deal with Iran announced last week has centered around Israel's reaction—and what the United States might offer the Israeli government to tamp down its anger over the agreement. It turns out one of those things may be the freedom of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

Pollard, once a US Navy intelligence analyst, was convicted of espionage in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison. His release became a cause célèbre for many Israelis, and the country's leaders have campaigned for years to have Pollard released. They have been unsuccessful up until now, but the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday afternoon that the US will soon allow Pollard to go free.

Israel has been the leading international critic of the Iran deal—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "stunning historic mistake" within hours of its completion—and the timing of the report gives the impression that Pollard's release would be an olive branch to the Jewish state. But, as the Journal reports, "[s]ome U.S. officials strongly denied Friday there was any link between the Iran deal and Mr. Pollard's prospective release, saying that any release decision would be made by the U.S. Parole Commission." Pollard has also been a bargaining chip in previous US-Israeli diplomatic spats, most recently last year as the Obama administration sought concessions from Israel in order to salvage peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Pollard is approaching the 30-year mark of his life sentence, and is eligible for parole for the first time on November 21, 2015.

Silicon Valley Made a Bunch of Dudes Billionaires, But It’s Making You Poorer

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 5:25 PM EDT

First the tech industry made your life easier with iPhones, tablets, and smart-everything. But is it also making it harder for you to get ahead?

A recent study on global income inequality by the International Monetary Fund identifies technological change as a top factor driving the split between rich and poor worldwide. Specifically, the study's authors found that the growth of technology accounts for nearly one-third of the widening gap between the top 10 percent and bottom 90 percent over the past quarter century. Other factors include the globalization of trade and finance.

Here's how tech has contributed to widening the gap: It's eliminated jobs by automating tasks, and it's driven up the "skill premium," meaning jobs that require skills like coding pay more lucratively than traditional blue-collar jobs. But even tech workers aren't safe, because their industry's needs evolve so quickly that they may be made obsolete by the very advancements they're working toward. In the end, the jobs that pay the most are only for those who can keep up with the changing times, and those who can afford the required education to get a position in the first place.   

The study notes that technological change has contributed most to rising income inequality in the 39 OECD countries that make up 80 percent of global trade and investment. It finds that inequality has grown the most in the United States and the United Kingdom, even as poverty in emerging economies has decreased.

Education hasn't alleviated income inequality as much as it could, according to the study. Despite a notable rise in highly-educated workers, the wage gap between high- and low-skilled workers remains. The researchers suggest that education is a viable solution only if governments invest it and make it affordable. "What we find really is that raising income shares of the rich doesn't trickle down," says Era Dabla-Norris, the study's lead author and a researcher at the International Monetary Fund. "And raising the income shares of the poor and middle class is actually good for growth."

And while other studies have found links between housing costs and venture capital investment, high levels of innovation, high concentrations of high-tech industry and venture capital startups (looking at you, San Francisco), the issue of inequality is a complex one. "There are some common drivers across the world, but the drivers vary," Dabla-Norris says. "Policies to alleviate inequality have to be country-specific; there is no one-size-fits-all."

Jeb Bush Wants America to "Phase Out" Medicare

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 4:40 PM EDT

On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush told a crowd in New Hampshire that Americans need to consider ways to "phase out" Medicare.

The former Florida governor, who was speaking at an event hosted by the Koch-brothers supported group Americans for Prosperity, also suggested "people understand" and agree with him on the issue.

"They know, and I think a lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits," Bush said. "But that we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something—because they're not going to have anything."

Bush's comments echo the views of former president and brother George W. Bush, who pushed to severely slash Social Security with a controversial reform plan back in 2005. That effort proved overwhelmingly unpopular and failed.

A day before Bush's Medicare comments, a new report showing the program's costs to be significantly under what had been previously projected nearly ten years ago, as our own Kevin Drum noted:

Beyond that, it's always foolish to assume that costs will rise forever just because they have in the past. Medicare is a political program, and at some point the public will decide that it's not willing to fund it at higher levels. It's not as if it's on autopilot, after all. We live in a democracy, and after lots of yelling and fighting, we'll eventually do something about rising medical costs if we simply don't think the additional spending is worth it.

Despite the resulting failure of his brother's plan to do away with Social Security, Bush said he believes that his plan to gradually eliminate Medicare will prove to be a "winning argument if we take it directly to people."

Waller County Officials: Sandra Bland Autopsy Consistent With Suicide

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 4:04 PM EDT

In a press conference on Thursday afternoon, the Waller County District Attorney revealed preliminary autopsy results in the death of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who was found dead in her jail cell days after being arrested for a traffic stop, saying that examiners discovered no apparent injuries consistent with a violent homicide or struggle.

Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam told reporters that he was presenting physical rather than criminal findings, but said there was no evidence found in the autopsy of injuries to Bland's hands or internal organs to suggest a violent struggle had taken place in the jail. Previously, a medical examiner called her death a suicide by hanging. Bland's family disputes the finding.

There was no evidence the first autopsy performed on Bland was defective as was previously alleged by an attorney representing Bland's family, Diepraam added.

According to the new autopsy findings, Bland's injuries were consistent with having "a force against her back."

A portion of the press conference focused on the presence of marijuana found in Bland's system—confirmed by preliminary autopsy results. Many took to social media to question the relevance of the finding.

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Ted Cruz Wants to Be Able to Oust Supreme Court Justices

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

Ted Cruz is plowing ahead with an effort to subject Supreme Court justices to elections, tapping into conservative anger toward the court after last month's rulings preserving the Affordable Care Act and making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

After calling publicly for retention elections for the justices, the senator from Texas and Republican presidential candidate convened a Senate hearing on Wednesday to discuss "possible solutions" to the Supreme Court's "activism."

"This past term, the court crossed a line, continued its long descent into lawlessness to a level that I believe demands action," a dour Cruz said in his opening statement at the hearing of a Senate Judiciary Committee subpanel. "Five unelected lawyers have declared themselves the rulers of 320 million Americans."

Two of the three witnesses agreed that the court had overstepped its bounds. Ed Whelan, a former Justice Department official and legal blogger at the conservative National Review, said the gay marriage opinion, Obergefell v. Hodges, "is rivaled in Supreme Court history only by Dred Scott v. Sandford," the decision that helped catalyze the Civil War, and Roe v. Wade, which recognized a woman's right to an abortion.

In response, Cruz said he supported proposals for term limits for Supreme Court justices, in addition to his own proposal to subject Supreme Court justices to retention elections.

Cruz's retention election proposal received praise from one of the witnesses, John Eastman, a conservative scholar at Chapman University School of Law in California and board chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that has fought bitterly to keep same-sex marriage illegal. (Eastman once equated homosexuality with "barbarism.") Eastman suggested two additional constitutional amendments to limit, as he put it, "judicial tyranny": Give a majority of states the power to override "an erroneous decision" of the court, and allow Congress to veto Supreme Court rulings by a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

Although liberals fared well in the Supreme Court's recent rulings, they often find themselves in agreement with Cruz's position on term limits. The one liberal witness at the hearing, Neil Siegel, a constitutional expert at Duke Law School and former Senate Judiciary Committee counsel to then-Sen. Joe Biden, said he supported term limits. (He's not the only prominent liberal legal scholar to do so.) Eastman, by contrast, said term limits wouldn't save the court from a parade of activist judges, while Whelan didn't take a position.

"I've become persuaded as a matter of constitutional design I think [term limits are] a good idea," Siegel said Wednesday. "People are appointed in their forties. They can stay there till their nineties. I think nomination and confirmation is a way that over time we ensure democratic accountability. … I think regular changeover on the court, like an 18-year term, might be a very good idea and worth serious consideration."

This is not the first time that politicians or scholars have proposed reigning in the lifetime appointment of Supreme Court justices. A recent poll found that two-thirds of Americans would support term limits for the court. But any such changes would likely require a politically difficult constitutional amendment, given that the Constitution says justices "shall hold their offices during good behavior"—generally interpreted to mean as long as they like, unless they're impeached and removed from office.

Donald Trump Says He May Run As a Third-Party Candidate

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 1:45 PM EDT

Donald Trump, displeased with the Republican National Committee, is threatening to launch a third-party White House run.

In an interview with The Hill, Trump said that while the RNC had been happy in the past to accept his money, the party has "not been supportive" of his candidacy. Consequently, he is mulling a third-party presidential run, and says the chances of him launching one would increase if he feels the committee treats him unfairly during the primaries.

"I'm not in the gang. I'm not in the group where the group does whatever it's supposed to do," Trump told The Hill, explaining why he believes he's unpopular with the GOP establishment.

A third-party Trump campaign would be cause for celebration among Democrats, since he would potentially siphon off Republican support and clear the way for a Democratic victory.

Mike Huckabee Is Blowing Up Disney Characters for Attention

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 11:19 AM EDT

Donald Trump's antics have caused his fellow Republican presidential candidates to take crazy—and, in some instances, pyrotechnical—steps to get attention. Rand Paul took a chainsaw to the tax code. Lindsey Graham torched his cell phone. And here is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's official response to President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran:

What a wonderful phrase.

New York Fast-Food Workers Just Scored a Big Win In Their Fight For a Living Wage

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 4:20 PM EDT

In a widely expected move, a panel appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommended today that the state's minimum wage for employees of fast-food chain restaurants be raised to $15 an hour.

The recommendation comes three years after strikes by New York City fast-food workers set off a national labor movement that has led to the passage of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But unlike those cities, New York doesn't have the power to set its own minimum wage—it's up to legislators in Albany.

When New York lawmakers balked at raising the minimum wage last year, Gov. Cuomo convened a board to examine wages in the fast food industry, which employs 180,000 people in the state. The state's labor commissioner, a Cuomo appointee, has the power to issue an order putting the proposal into effect. If he approves the wage hike, fast-food workers currently earning the state's minimum wage of $8.75 will get a 70 percent raise, effective by 2018 in New York City and 2021 in the rest of the state.

"It's hard to explain to my children why they can't do things other kids do," Barbara Kelley, a Buffalo mother who works at Dunkin' Donuts and takes home an average of $150 a week, said in a statement released by labor organizers. "With $15 an hour, I will be able to get by and maybe reward my kids in little ways, like ice cream after a long day, and in big ways like being able to save for the future." Labor organizers are optimistic that the $15 wage will be adopted and will spur raises in other industries.