Political MoJo

Obama: Netanyahu's Speech Fails to Offer "Viable Alternatives" on Iran

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 5:27 PM EST

President Barack Obama weighed in on Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial address to Congress on Tuesday, saying the Israeli prime minister's remarks did not provide any "viable alternatives" to preventing Iran from securing a nuclear weapon.

The Associated Press reported that after reading a transcript of the speech, Obama noted that Netanyahu used essentially the same language as when the United States brokered an interim deal with Iran, a deal the president said Iran followed through on by scaling back its nuclear program. White House officials also slammed the address:

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu characterized the negotiations—which would ease sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on the country's nuclear program—as a "bad deal" that would inevitably strengthen Iran's nuclear capabilities, rather than stopping them.

"I don't believe that Iran's radical regime will change for the better after this deal," Netanyahu said. "This regime has been in power for 36 years and its voracious appetite for aggression grows with each passing year. This deal would whet their appetite—would only whet Iran's appetite for more."

In January, House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak before Congress without consulting the White House—a move that received widespread condemnation from Republicans and Democrats as a clear attempt to undermine the president's authority. As many as 60 Democrats boycotted Tuesday's speech.

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DOJ Finds Pervasive Racial Bias at Ferguson Police Department

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 4:10 PM EST

The Department of Justice has concluded that the Ferguson Police Department engaged in racially biased practices, including disproportionately arresting African-Americans during routine traffic stops. The findings are the result of an investigation launched back in September, which found that systematic biased behavior, including "racist jokes about blacks" on police email accounts, have resulted in fractured race relations in the Missouri community and a deep mistrust of police officials. From the Times:

In compiling the report, federal investigators conducted hundreds of interviews, reviewed 35,000 pages of police records and analyzed race data compiled for every police stop. They concluded that, over the past two years, African-Americans made up about two-thirds of the city’s population but accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests and 88 percent of cases in which the police used force.

The full report is expected to be released on Wednesday.

The findings are separate from an FBI investigation focused on Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last August. According to previous reports, the Justice Department is planning to clear Wilson of civil rights charges.

Brown's shooting death and a Ferguson grand jury's decision not to indict Wilson sparked a national debate on police brutality and racist police practices.

Hero Mom Has the Perfect Response to Son Begging to Join ISIS

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 3:48 PM EST

Everyone of us can relate to having once been a stupid teenager, irrationally whining to our parents about needing to hang out with that group, wear this outfit, etc.

Such is the case of 19-year-old Akhror Saidakhmetov of Brooklyn who had a burning desire to join club ISIS, like all the cool kids seem to be doing these days. But despite having all the gear to prove he was ready to commit to the band, Saidakhmetov's dreams were ultimately crushed by a very adolescent roadblock—his mom. From the Times:

Mr. Juraboev and Mr. Saidakhmetov bought tickets, planning to travel to Turkey and then sneak into Syria, court papers say, and as the date of their departure neared, they seemed eager.

But Mr. Saidakhmetov still needed his passport, and on Feb. 19 he called his mother. In a conversation recorded by federal agents, he asked for it. She asked him where he was going. He said to join the Islamic State.

"If a person has a chance to join the Islamic State and does not go there, on Judgment Day he will be asked why, and it is a sin to live in the land of infidels," he told her, court documents say.

She hung up the phone. It is unclear if he managed to get his passport back. But the government’s informer helped Mr. Saidakhmetov secure travel documents. In the days before he left, he told the informer that he felt that his soul was already on its way to paradise.

Trust us, young Saidakhmetov, you'll thank your mom one day. We already do.

Sean Hannity Said Some Something Really Creepy at CPAC Today

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 2:20 PM EST

In his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this morning, Fox News' Sean Hannity had some downright creepy things to say about the "young, good-looking crowd:"

I can look out in the crowd, I kinda have Fox X-ray vision, and I can see that some of you women, you don't even know it yet, but you're pregnant. It's not your fault. It's not his fault.

The joke—if that's what it was—bombed, drawing nervous laughter and groans from the crowd. The Twitter reaction was swift and perplexed:

Other CPAC attendees were apparently unfazed by Hannity's claim that he could seen into women's uteruses.

California's 3-Strike Prison Reform Is Working

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 1:19 PM EST

California's three-strikes law used to mean that all third-time felons had to spend at least 25 years behind bars—pretty harsh, considering that the third strike could be the result of stealing a $2.50 pair of tube socks. Last year, voters decided to scale back the policy, and passed two initiatives to give judges more sentencing discretion and retroactively reduce the penalties for low-level drug and theft crimes. Law enforcement leaders warned that the reform would set free "thousands of dangerous inmates," and called it "a radical package of ill-conceived policies" that "will endanger Californians."

Of roughly 2,000 former life prisoners freed as a result of the three-strikes reform, only 4.7 percent have returned to prison.

But almost five months after the second initiative passed, that warning sounds increasingly overblown. About 45 percent of inmates released from California prisons normally re-offend within 18 months. Of roughly 2,000 former life prisoners freed as a result of the three-strikes reform, only 4.7 percent have returned to prison, according to the New York Times. These ex-convicts had been out for an average of 18 months.

Experts say that intense exit counseling helped contribute to the low recidivism rate. "There's a lot of emotional work," Mark Faucette, director of community relations for the Amity Foundation, told the Times. "They're moving from a number to a name."

Crime rates did fall—but a 2012 study from UC-Riverside later found that it had nothing to do with three strikes.

Two decades ago, fear of crime was at a nationwide peak. The murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a career criminal helped push Californians to pass the three-strikes law, the country's strictest, in 1994. Crime rates did fall—but a 2012 study from UC-Riverside later found that it had nothing to do with three strikes. The law also added an estimated $19 billion to the state prison budget. As federal courts started pressuring California to shrink its prison population in 2009 due to inhumane treatment and overcrowding, the three-strikes legislation made even less sense.

The tides may be shifting for the rest of the country, too. As my colleague Shane Bauer writes, a 2013 poll found that even among Texas Republicans, 81 percent favor treatment over incarceration for drug offenders. Other states—more than 20 of which also passed three-strikes laws in the 1990s—may also soon be questioning prison time as a blanket solution for low-level crimes.

Elizabeth Warren Launches New Battle Against the Fed

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 7:02 PM EST

While speaking before the Senate's Banking Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) hit Fed Chair Janet Yellen with a string of harsh questions over the performance of Scott Alvarez, the Fed's general counsel, who is at the helm of an investigation of a Fed leak from September 2012.

Warren has expressed frustrations over the investigation's lack of public information. 

"Wall Street banks could profit handsomely if they knew about the Fed’s plans before the rest of the market found out, and that’s why any leak of confidential information from the Fed results in serious penalties for the people who are responsible," Warren said on Tuesday. "But apparently there have been no consequences for the most recent leak."

The Massachusetts senator specifically pointed to Alvarez's Wall Street-friendly reputation, mainly referring to his past criticisms of Dodd-Frank, when she asked Yellen whether the Fed's views aligned with those of its top lawyer.

Pressed for a strict yes or no response, Yellen eventually said she is "not seeking to alter Dodd-Frank in any way at this time."

"Do you think that it is appropriate that Mr. Alvarez took public positions that do not evidently reflect the public position of the Fed’s board, especially before an audience that has a direct financial interest in how the Fed enforces its rules?" Warren responded.

Yellen appeared slightly irritated:

 

 

 

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The FCC Just Approved Net Neutrality

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 2:40 PM EST

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to categorize the internet as a public utility and thereby uphold strong net neutrality regulations.

Advocates applauded the passage as a victory for internet consumers, blocking what had been described as the creation of internet "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay more for high-speed service.

The vote came down to a 3-2 margin, with dissents from Republicans Michael O'Reilly and Ajut Pai. 

"The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free open access to the internet," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said prior to the vote.

"The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules," he added.

In recent months, net neutrality has emerged as a divisive political issue, with fierce opposition against regulations coming from Republicans and broadband providers alike. President Obama's announcement back in November fully supporting net neutrality's preservation prompted members of the GOP to denounce the potential move.

 

Obama Just Vetoed the GOP's Keystone Bill, and This Democratic Presidential Hopeful Is Pissed

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 6:12 PM EST

Jim Webb is sounding increasingly serious about running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Last week, National Journal's Bob Moser wrote a cover story wondering whether the former Virginia senator could "spark an anti-Hillary uprising," in which Webb explained that his absence from the campaign trail this winter was, in part, the result of major knee surgery to fix problems leftover from his days in the Vietnam War.

Webb struck his first blow against his fellow Democrats on Wednesday. But rather than targeting Clinton, his likely presidential opposition, he struck out against the party's incumbent, President Barack Obama. In a series of tweets, Webb lashed out at the president for vetoing a bill that would have approved construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Webb's tweetstorm doesn't tell the whole story. A letter from the EPA released earlier this month argued that, thanks to recent drops in oil prices, Keystone XL could prove disastrous for carbon emissions.

As I detailed in December, Jim Webb had an atrocious record on climate change and environmental issues while he served in the Senate. Standing up for Virginia's roots as a coal state, Webb tried to thwart Obama's efforts to regulate greenhouse gasses through EPA regulation, and he helped block Democratic attempts to pass a cap-and-trade law.

Clinton, for her part, has regularly sidestepped addressing whether she wants to see the pipeline constructed, though she has generally been supportive of other environmental efforts made by the Obama administration.

While Webb objected to Obama's decision to veto this specific bill, it's still unclear whether the two Democrats disagree on the underlying issue. Obama has strenuously rejected attempts by congressional Republicans to force immediate approval of the pipeline, but his administration has not yet said definitely if it intends to let the project go forward eventually.

We Have Some Good News For You About Marijuana

| Tue Feb. 24, 2015 5:26 PM EST

When comparing seven commonly used recreational drugs, marijuana clocks in as by far the least dangerous, nearly 114 times safer than the most dangerous drug concluded in a new study—alcohol.

This is according to research recently published in Scientific Reports, which examined the exposure risks of heroin, meth, alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy,  tobacco, and marijuana, by individuals. While previous studies have long suggested marijuana use poses a lesser mortality risk than alcohol—a point commonly cited in calls to increase legalization in more states—such a wide margin was not previously known.

In the new study, researchers also concluded that the deadly risks of alcohol have most likely been severely underestimated. Alcohol and tobacco (the fourth deadliest drug) are the only two substances in the study that are generally legal for adult use in the United States.

The findings come as more states appear to be coming around to the idea of marijuana legalization. Earlier this week, Alaska became the first red state to legalize pot, and Washington D.C. is preparing to do the same in just a few days. The recent passage of the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill marked a huge step towards ending the war on medical marijuana with the inclusion of an amendment preventing the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries.

Researchers behind the study said their results should encourage lawmakers to move away from the "current prohibition approach" under federal law, and opt for a more "strict regulatory approach" instead. The study also suggested a "risk management prioritization" that emphasizes a focus on alcohol and tobacco, rather than illicit drugs.

Walmart Is Finally Raising Its Minimum Wage

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 4:19 PM EST

On Thursday, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon announced the company would be raising its baseline pay to at least $9 an hour beginning this spring and then up to $10 an hour by February 2016, a move that will affect an estimated 500,000 employees.

The decision, announced in both a press release and during a quarterly earnings call Thursday morning, follows years of mounting public pressure from both outside and within Walmart to boost its notoriously low wages and improve labor practices. The company has repeatedly responded to such criticism by pointing out that it pays more than the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour; of course, 29 states require a higher minimum wage. (An estimated 6,000 Walmart employees currently make the federal minimum.)

While McMillon described the move as a moral decision to do "the right thing," Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder said the move is more an indication of an improving economy than anything else. 

"While the economy isn't exactly booming right now, it is doing very well, with labor markets tightening and the unemployment rate continuing to fall," Vedder said. "That means it's becoming increasingly difficult for Walmart to attract good, dependable workers than it was two to three years ago. Right now, they are thinking the economy will continue to boom, and they need to stay competitive."

"Could they afford to go further and still remain hugely profitable? Probably, but would that be good policy is another question," Vedder added, referring to the reaction by Walmart stockholders today:

The nation's largest private retailer, Walmart recently admitted that 825,000 of its 1.4 million employees earn only $25,000 annually, with 600,000 part-time workers on Medicaid and other food assistance programs. Walmart employees have staged strikes protesting their low wages, with advocacy groups demanding the retailer raise its minimum wage to $15. The company says that with the new increase, the average hourly wage will rise to $13 from $12.85.

While welcoming the move on Thursday, some say it is still not enough. "When compared to the $16 billion in profit that the company rakes in annually, Walmart's promise of $10 an hour, which even for a full-time worker is not enough to keep a family of four out of poverty, is meager," Christine Owens, director of the National Employment Law Project, told the New York Times.

A more substantial change could come from McMillon's announcement, also on Thursday, pledging to bring scheduling enhancements for part-time workers currently struggling under unpredictable work hours. Last August, Starbucks announced the company would be improving scheduling policies to address such concerns.

"Walmart has been attacked over the years as being uncaring and tactless," Vedder said. "This is a chance to win some points with the American public. By waging their raises they can appear more compassionate than previously viewed, especially when they aren't put under the gun by federal law to do so."