Political MoJo

The Closer Republican and Democratic Senators Sit, the More They Disagree

| Tue Feb. 10, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Over the years, various would-be reformers have called for the elimination of the tradition of congressional Republicans and Democrats sitting on opposite sides of the aisle. If partisan adversaries move closer together physically, the thinking goes, perhaps they'll find more common ground politically.

If only it were that easy. In fact, seating Republicans and Democrats closer together might make the situation worse, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Toronto. Published in the American Sociological Review, the paper examines how US senators' voting behavior is affected by the level of interaction between lawmakers. Specifically, how does voting behavior change when senators of different parties sit closer together on the chamber floor or join more committees with each other?

The study's coauthors, business profs Christopher Liu of the University of Toronto and Sameer Srivastava of UC-Berkeley, looked at voting behavior in the Senate from 1973 to 2009. Their findings: Senators from the same party tended to converge in their voting behavior when they interacted more. If they sat closer together or joined more of the same committees, they later voted similarly. But under the same conditions, senators from different parties who interacted more tended to vote differently. In other words, when Republicans and Democrats sit closer together, their votes move further apart.

When Republicans and Democrats sit closer together, their votes move further apart.

In a polarized setting like the Senate, the study explains, "conflicting identities will become more salient, and the normative pressure to move further apart in their thoughts and actions will intensify." Translation: "Sometimes keeping some distance is the better option."

Srivastava says these polarizing effects are stronger and statistically significant when pairs of senators sit less than 33 feet from each other. Beyond that distance, the effects taper off. And, he adds, on the committee level, greater interaction only exacerbated the ideological division between pairs of Republicans and Democrats who joined committees with a history of political divisiveness. Yet in committees where members regularly cosponsored bills across party lines, greater interaction did not drive them apart.

Inside the 52-by-85-foot US Senate chamber, each senator sits at an assigned desk. Seats are reassigned every two years. The desks are moved to new positions, with senators choosing their spots according to seniority. By tradition, Republicans sit on the left side of the main podium, and Democrats sit on the right. During the moving process, some senators shift closer toward the opposing side, while others shift farther away.

Srivastava stresses that the study is intended only to demonstrate a social phenomenon that might also hold true in high-stakes situations beyond Capitol Hill. For example, in a corporate setting, similar dynamics might be seen after a high-profile and contentious merger that brings opposing executives onto the same board.

The study does not lay out any quick fixes for a more cooperative Congress. There's no magic distance between adversaries that will foster greater compromise. But Srivastava does offer one suggestion: Since the polarizing effects described in the study only apply to situations with opposing and public identities, lawmakers may get along better behind closed doors. "Moving some of the interactions into more private settings could help, possibly," he explains. But in the end, he says, the main obstacle to compromise may not be where senators sit, but the personalities and beliefs they bring to the room in the first place.

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Please Keep Asking Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "How Many Women on the Supreme Court Are Enough?"

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 5:15 PM EST

When speaking to students at Georgetown University earlier this week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she is regularly asked when she believes there will be "enough" women sitting on the Supreme Court.

While most of us would respond with nothing more than a groan or an eye roll (Did you really just ask me that?), Ginsburg was equipped with the perfect answer, which you can watch below. (Bonus: Ginsburg also revealed that if God were to grant her any talent in the world, it would be to become a "great diva.")

California Bill Seeks to Get All Children Vaccinated

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 1:39 PM EST

On the heels of an ongoing measles outbreak that has ignited a national debate over childhood vaccinations, California lawmakers introduced a bill on Wednesday seeking to put an end to the use of personal belief exemptions—which allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children—in the state.

The proposed legislation would essentially require all school children to get vaccinated, unless immunization puts the child's health at risk.

"We shouldn't wait for more children to sicken or die before we act," Rep. Richard Pan (D-Santa Monica) said at a press conference on Wednesday. "Parents are letting us know our current laws are insufficient to protect their kids."

The current outbreak started in Disneyland and has since spread to 14 states, with at least 102 cases reported, according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. California is one of 20 states that allow for such waivers, which public health officials have cited as a primary cause for the recent reemergence of the highly contagious disease. Only 92.3 percent of children in California are vaccinated, and many of the state's more affluent neighborhoods report even lower rates.

While Gov. Jerry Brown previously signed bills permitting more parental choice on the matter, a spokesperson for the governor indicated he would be open to possible changes.

"The governor believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered," Evan Westrup said.

Also on Wednesday, Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein released a joint statement calling upon California officials to consider tightening the state's vaccination policies and ending the both personal belief and religious exemptions.

 

A California Lawmaker Is Trying (Again) to Force Washington's NFL Team to Change Its Racist Name

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 10:23 AM EST

Washington's pro football team faces yet another challenge over its name and logo, this time from Congress. 

On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would revoke existing and future trademarks on the team's offensive name. The legislation would also declare the word "redskins" a disparaging term when used in reference to Native Americans, making it impossible to trademark under the Lanham Act, which prohibits trademarks that brings people into "contempt, or disrepute."   

"It is unbelievable to me that, in the 21st century, a prominent NFL franchise is calling itself by a racial slur," Honda said in a statement. "Allowing trademark protection of this word is akin to the government approving its use. Removing that trademark will send a clear message that this name is not acceptable."

Honda, who cosponsored a similar bill in 2013, is part of a group of lawmakers who have put pressure on the NFL and the team's owner, Dan Snyder, to change the team's name. Last September, for example, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) raised bills in the House and Senate that would revoke the NFL's tax-exempt status if it were to "promote" the use of the R-word. Both bills failed to make it to a vote. 

Meanwhile, the team is in the middle of a lawsuit over its trademark registration, after the US Patent and Trademark Office's appeal board ruled that its name and logo violated the Lanham Act and determined the team should lose its trademark protections. While the team has argued the law is "unconstitutionally vague," the Washington Post reported that the US Justice Department will defend its constitutionality. 

Of course, Snyder has promised to never change his team's name, insisting that the moniker is a term of respect rather than a racial slur. So far, calls from prominent Native American groups, as well as the grim history of racist team names in other professional sports, haven't yet persuaded him that he's wrong. It's unlikely Congress will, either.

These Badass Russian Lesbians Just Took the Best Selfie Ever—Because It Actually Matters

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 3:24 PM EST

When Kseniya, the head of a lesbian night club in St. Petersburg, Russia, and her partner boarded their flight home from Moscow this week, they weren't expecting to run into one of their local politicians—much less the lawmaker who's been trying to make their lives hell. The women realized that Vitaly Milonov, a key architect of Russia's infamous "gay propaganda" bill, was sitting one row behind them on their Aeroflot flight, and decided this would be the perfect moment for a kissing selfie (Milonov is the redhead with the glasses):

 

Кто там на заднем фоне??? МИЛОНОВ! а нам похер! Мы летим в любимый клуб "Инфинити"

A photo posted by моябесконечность (@infinitykseniya) on

 

The caption says: "Who's that behind us??? MILONOV! And we don't give a shit! We're flying to our favorite nightclub, 'Infinity'"

In a statement to AFP yesterday, Milonov said the couple's selfie "shows that all LGBT people are mentally ill." (Yes, solid reasoning.) Kseniya later posted more information about the encounter, along with more photos, on her Vkontakte page:

"Lots of people are asking me about my last post: Did we really go and kiss in front of Milonov? Was it really Milonov? Maybe it was just somebody who looked like him? What was the flight like? And so on. Here are my answers: Yes it was really Milonov! As fate would have it, he was sitting in the row right behind us. The whole flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Milonov said nothing to us. We staged the photo shoot in front of him, and he hid behind his tablet when he realized. We're all super happy. Him—probably not so much."

The Surgeon General Is Finally Coming Around on Pot

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 2:36 PM EST

Despite the legalization of medical marijuana in 30 states, the federal government still lists cannabis under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which means that it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." But today, the nation's new top doctor appeared to challenge that designation.

"We have some preliminary data showing that for some medical conditions and symptoms that marijuana can be helpful," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CBS This Morning. "So I think we have to use that data to drive policymaking, and I'm very interested to see where that data takes us."

Here's the full interview (Murthy's comments on medical marijuana start at 3:48):

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Chris Christie: Parents Should Have "Choice" on Vaccines

| Mon Feb. 2, 2015 9:36 AM EST

Update, February 2, 2015, 12:20 p.m.: In 2009, Christie wrote a letter in which he appeared to support the theory that autism may be linked to vaccinations. An excerpt from the letter, provided to MSNBC, below: 

"I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage. Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children."

Update, February 2, 2015, 10:30 a.m.: Gov. Christie's office released a statement amending his previous comments to reporters, saying there is "no question kids should be vaccinated." 

 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for a "balanced" approach to childhood vaccinations, telling reporters on Monday that it's important to provide parents a "measure of choice" in their decisions.

"Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated and we think that it’s an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health," Christie said during a press conference in Cambridge, England, where he is traveling on a trade mission. "I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide."

"Not every vaccine is created equal and not every type of disease is as great a public health threat as others," he added.

Christie's comments come a day after President Obama urged parents to vaccinate their children in the midst of a widening measles outbreak that started in Disneyland. The highly contagious disease has since spread to 14 states with at least 102 cases reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I understand that there are families that, in some cases, are concerned about the effect of vaccinations," Obama said in an interview with NBC Sunday. "The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not."

The rise in parents who choose not to have their children fully immunized has been cited as one reason for a growing number of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks in recent years.

Mitt Romney Won't Run for President in 2016

| Fri Jan. 30, 2015 11:09 AM EST

It's official: Mitt Romney will not seek the presidency for a third time. After some news outlets reported he would announce a run on a call with donors this morning, a statement leaked in which Romney said, "I've decided it is best to give other leaders in the Party the opportunity to become our next nominee." Here's a look back at what Mitt 3.0 could have been, as well as some highlights from 2012.

He was going to run as a liberal.

He had plans to be a born-again climate hawk.

He was going to face some resistance from the Kochs.

He had a new private equity conflict-of-interest problem.

We were deprived the chance to revisit the controversy over Romney's lengthy history of outsourcing.

Also, this little problem:

Thanks for the memories, Mitt:

England Just Established "Yes Means Yes" Guidelines for Police Investigating Rape

| Fri Jan. 30, 2015 6:15 AM EST

Police departments in both England and Wales have been provided an unprecedented new set of recommendations when it comes to investigating rape allegations. The guidelines, launched by the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders and Martin Hewitt of the Metropolitan Police, now require officers to establish sexual consent, rather than prove when a victim says "no." 

"This is really about making sure investigators and prosecutors look at the whole context, so we're able to put strong cases before the court and we don't just focus on what a victim did or said," Saunders told the BBC. "We know there are too many myths and stereotypes around rape and consent  and this is about making sure we really examine cases." 

The shift to a more "yes means yes" context comes as a welcome move for sexual assault advocates, who have long blamed the "no" standard for discouraging victims to report assaults. The new guidelines also strongly emphasize the need to stop blaming rape victims "for confusing the idea of consent, by drinking or dressing provocatively" as Saunders states, and clearly outline what sexual consent is.

While many in England and Wales are applauding the change, some have been more cautious, waiting to see if police forces actually adhere to the new guidelines.

"The CPS's new rape toolkit might make welcome headlines, but I won't be celebrating until police officers and prosecutors are made to put existing policies and guidelines in practice or face appropriate sanction for failing to do so," Harriet Wistrich wrote in a Guardian column on Thursday. 

This Massive New Project Is Great News for Homeless Vets in Los Angeles

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 5:19 PM EST

After a three-year legal battle, the US Department of Veterans Affairs announced on Wednesday that it will rededicate its giant West Los Angeles Medical Center campus to provide much-needed housing and services for the city's homeless veterans.

The announcement stems from a settlement in a 2011 lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of disabled veterans. The Los Angeles property, nearly 400 acres, was deeded to the federal government in 1888 to house veterans with disabilities. Instead, the campus, which is located in an affluent area, has been used for commercial rental agreements with, among others, entertainment companies, UCLA, and hotel laundry services. According to NPR, Veterans Affairs had accepted between $28 million and $40 million in leasing agreements that a federal judge ruled illegal.

The settlement includes a plan, set for completion by October, to build long-term housing combined with support services designed to help ensure that the formerly homeless, especially veterans who are physically and mentally disabled, remain housed.

The effort is part of a larger Obama administration initiative to house all homeless vets by the end of 2015. Los Angeles has the nation's highest number of homeless vets—more than 3,700—and the newly announced plan could go a long way toward solving the problem.

"This agreement offers VA a historic opportunity to build new community relationships in Los Angeles and continue the work needed to end veteran homelessness here," Veteran's Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement. "VA is proud of the progress we've made in ending veteran homelessness—down 33 percent since 2010—but we won't be satisfied until every veteran has a home."

According to a report released last January by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, close to 50,000 vets were homeless on any given night. States are now gearing up for their annual "Point-In-Time" count, a HUD-led event that deploys volunteers to conduct a census of the homeless in their communities. The results will indicate how much work remains to meet Obama's 2015 deadline. McDonald said he plans to participate in the Los Angeles count: 

"There is no question that the goal to end veteran homelessness is within reach, and we remain laser-focused on it," he said. "It's about helping communities put a system in place that can house every veteran."