Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 25, 2014

Tue Mar. 25, 2014 8:56 AM PDT

A soldier with the 829th Engineer Company, 1st squad, fires off a magazine of blank rounds from his M249 Machince gun during their annual training at Fort McCoy, Wis., March 22. The company's annual training was conducted as preparation for their mobilization to Afghanistan this year. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Christopher Enderle)

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How Big Banks Rake in Millions on the Backs of California's Poorest Families

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 7:44 AM PDT

It's expensive to be poor. A new report out from the California Reinvestment Coalition concludes that the big banks are charging some of California's poorest families hefty ATM fees to access monthly benefits from the state welfare program known as CalWORKs, skimming at least $19 million a year, the group estimates, from this taxpayer-funded program.

Banks with a history of sticking the poor with overdraft fees are now gouging them with ATM fees.

The average CalWORKs family is an adult with two children who gets $510 a month worth of benefits, or about $6,120 a year. That's not enough to live on, not even close, and the benefits are 8 percent lower now than they were in 2011. On top of that, accessing the funds costs them as much as $4 per ATM transaction, fees they really don't have any alternative but to pay. That's because California doesn't ask its vendors to do much by way of accommodating the recipients. A $69 million contract with Xerox to administer an electronic benefit transfer card system has helped make these EBT cards the default way to deliver public assistance, and there's no state requirement that banks waive ATM fees for people who use them.

In a press release, Andrea Luquetta, author of the report, explained:

For families trying to escape poverty, these fees siphon away money that could be used for school supplies, transportation or medicine.  The current system leads too many people to pay fees just to access the very benefits they need to survive. It is a diversion of taxpayer dollars away from their intended use of supporting families. That's why we're calling on the state, banks, county offices, and nonprofit partners to work together to address this pressing issue.

The average EBT user pays about $5 a month in fees, but Luquetta says that figure masks the real story, as some people successfully avoid paying the fees while others pay a lot more. "It is typical for someone to pay the fee at least twice in a month in order to withdraw all of the cash in as few transactions as possible. At a Bank of America ATM that will cost $6. And then, of course, there is the challenge of what to do with that cash—load it onto a prepaid [credit] card? Buy money orders? All of that costs fees as well that we don't capture. I even know a few people who pay the fee at a Bank of America or Wells Fargo ATM and then turn around and deposit the cash into their account at the same bank," she said in an email.

In theory, someone receiving CalWORKs benefits could have the money deposited directly into a checking account for free. In fact, most of the beneficiaries don't have checking accounts, largely because they can't afford them. More than 96 percent of beneficiaries use the EBT cards. Many welfare recipients are leery of bank accounts, having previously suffered high overdraft fees and other fees charged by banks.

Some of the banks benefiting from the EBT fees have helped play a role in stoking those fears of traditional banking. The largest beneficiary by far of EBT-related ATM fees in California is Bank of America, which hosted 12 percent of the transactions in 2012, earning $3.6 million, according to the coalition. Back in 2004, a California jury hit the bank with a verdict that would have potentially exposed it to $1.2 billion in damages in a class action lawsuit filed by Social Security recipients who'd had their federal retirement or disability benefits seized directly from their accounts to pay excessive overdraft fees—a practice that left many low-income seniors and disabled people in dire straits. Plaintiffs showed that, like many banks at the time, BofA processed checks in a way that often made more of them bounce, thus increasing the fees it could automatically deduct. (A BofA spokeswoman says the bank no longer processes checks that way.)

The Obama administration came to BofA's defense in the case, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court; the verdict was overturned on appeal. But publicity around the case went a long way in exposing the sorts of problems low-income people encounter when they do business with big banks. Given this history, it's hard to blame families for not wanting to entrust these institutions with their meager benefit checks. But the banks have figured a way to make them pay anyway.

GOP Senate Candidate Cory Gardner Disavows His Support for Fetal Personhood—After Sponsoring a Bill Last Year

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 9:51 AM PDT

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Col.) has Democrats spooked. Less than three weeks after his late-in-the-game announcement that he would challenge Sen. Mark Udall (D-Col.), a poll from the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found Gardner trailing Udall by just two points.

But Gardner, a two-term congressman, brings plenty of baggage to the race, including his background as a fierce culture warrior. Among other attempts to limit abortion access, he co-sponsored a 2011 bill that would have changed the definition of rape under federal law, limiting abortions that could be covered under Medicaid to instances of "forcible rape." So on Friday, Gardner took a step toward softening his image as a social conservative crusader by recanting his vocal support for fetal personhood laws, which would confer constitutional rights on fetuses and ban abortion from the moment of conception.

"This was a bad idea driven by good intentions," Gardner told the Denver Post. "I was not right. I can't support personhood now. I can't support personhood going forward. To do it again would be a mistake… The fact that it restricts contraception, it was not the right position."

What changed? Gardner says he "learned to listen" to critics of fetal personhood measures—something it couldn't have hurt to have done before he co-sponsored a House bill that established a "right to life [for] every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization." That bill, which Gardner signed last July, was named the "Life at Conception Act." During his first run for Congress, in 2010, Gardner boasted of circulating a petition for a personhood ballot measure at his church. Coloradoans voted against that ballot measure—and a nearly identical measure in 2008—by a margin of 3-to-1 that year.

But their opposition didn't register with Gardner until he faced an electorate that voted for Obama in the 2012 presidential race. Now, his eyes are open. "The voters of Colorado have spoken on this issue," Gardner told the Post. "To me, that's the end of it." What a difference a tight Senate election makes.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 24, 2014

Mon Mar. 24, 2014 7:22 AM PDT

Marines with tank platoon, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (BLT 2/1), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fire the M256 smoothbore gun of an M1A1 Abrams tanks on static targets during Realistic Urban Training Marine Expeditionary Unit Exercise 14-1 (RUTMEUEX) at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., March 20, 2014. RUTMEUEX will prepare the 11th MEU Marines for their upcoming deployment, enhancing Marines' combat skills in environments similar to those they may find in future missions. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Rome M. Lazarus/Released)

The Westboro Baptist Church Went to Protest a Lorde Concert. This Is the Counterprotest They Encountered.

| Sat Mar. 22, 2014 9:56 AM PDT

Fred Phelps is dead, but his hateful flock remains. On Friday, members of the Westboro Baptist Church steeded up and went to protest a Lorde concert in Kansas City, Missouri. Since they announced their plans in advance, KC residents had time to organize a pretty perfect counterprotest.

Screenshot/KSHB

Lorde truly does take all kinds.

America's Worst Prison Closed 51 Years Ago. Except It Didn't.

| Fri Mar. 21, 2014 2:32 PM PDT

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was conceived as a place to put the worst of the worst. The prisoners that kept starting problems at the other prisons. Put them all together, the thinking went. It wasn't a place for rehabilitation. It was a place to isolate the infection. Over the 29 years it operated, starting in  1934, “Hellcatraz” earned a reputation so fearsome, it has a powerful hold on the American imagination to this day.

Alcatraz was finally shuttered, 51 years ago today, not because it was brutal, though it was, or because living conditions were inhumane, though they were. It simply cost too much.

This isn’t a secret. But it’s easy to forget. Because people tend to know three things about Alcatraz: 1) It was brutal 2) No one escaped and lived to tell about it, and 3) It’s closed. Lost along the way was “very inefficient from a budgetary standpoint.”

You could be forgiven for assuming that one morning in the spring of 1963, everyone woke up and said, “hey, wait a minute, let’s treat our prisoners better!” Maybe JFK was there and the wind was blowing in his hair and he smiled, and Bobby was there too, and he looked very serious and maybe one of them quoted Dostoyevsky’s line that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” and then they shut the prison and went sailing and Jackie was there and everyone was happy. But that didn’t happen. Everyone was fine with the prisoners being treated the way they were.

And 51 years later, so are we, really. The United States operate 1,800 prisons and 3,000 jails. Like Alcatraz, they aren't about rehabilitation. They're about punishment. 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement every year. As many as half of all sexual assaults in prisons are carried out by prison guards. One fourth of the people incarcerated on Earth are incarcerated in the United States. We have 2.3 million Americans behind bars. They aren’t held on an island off San Francisco, they’re held at ADX Florence, Pelican Bay, and Rikers Island, where an inmate recently baked to death in his cell.

Baked to death.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary—the one that Clint Eastwood broke out of and Nicolas Cage broke into—may be dead. But what we mean when we talk about Alcatraz is very much alive.

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"This Is The Era of The Empowered 'One Percenter'"

Fri Mar. 21, 2014 11:06 AM PDT

The Koch brothers. Citizens United. "Dark money." Billionaire sugardaddies. A Republican takeover of Congress.

These are a few of the 2014-themed issues that Mother Jones senior reporter Andy Kroll and ProPublica's Kim Barker discuss on the latest episode of Moyers and Company, the popular weekly show hosted by the acclaimed journalist Bill Moyers. They talk about the 2014 midterms, which could be the most expensive off-year election cycle in history; the influence of big-money politics on Congress and the White House; and the upcoming Supreme Court decision that could obliterate yet another campaign law and send even more money rushing into our elections.

As Kroll says in the interview, this is a great time to be a fired-up millionaire or billionaire. Today, these individuals have the ability to pump unlimited sums of cash into our elections through super-PACs and anonymously funded nonprofit groups. As they do, the center of gravity in our political system shifts from the political parties to these mega-donors spending big on the Democratic and Republican side. "This is the era of the empowered 'one percenter,'" Kroll notes. "They're taking action and they're becoming the new, headline players in this political system."

What's the effect of all that money on our democracy? Watch the entire episode above or over at BillMoyers.com to find out. Throughout the weekend, you can catch the interview on your local PBS affiliate.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 21, 2014

Fri Mar. 21, 2014 7:16 AM PDT

An U.S. Soldier of Easy Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, prepares to conduct a low-cost, low-altitude airdrop during a mission rehearsal exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, March 16, 2014. The MRE was conducted at the 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Commands Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels Training Areas in order to prepare subordinate battalions of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade to deploy to Afghanistan to provide medical evacuation and combat support to the NATO International Security Assistance Force mission. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tyler Kingsbury/Released)

US Lawmakers Fight Russia on Twitter: "I Guess This Means My Spring Break in Siberia Is Off"

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 12:09 PM PDT

On Thursday, shortly after President Obama expanded sanctions against Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry released its own list of nine US officials and lawmakers who will be targeted by sanctions. The list includes three White House aides—deputy national security advisors Ben Rhodes and Caroline Atkinson, and senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer—as well as six US lawmakers: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)​, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)​, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)​, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)​, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)​, and Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.)​.

Many of the Sanctioned 9, none of whom will be allowed to visit the Russian Federation or attend Valdimir Putin's birthday party (assuming it is held in the Russian Federation), took to Twitter to win the morning show their strength and solidarity.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)​

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)​

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.)

Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to senior White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer

"What did you do during the war, daddy?"

"Twitter, mostly."

Progressive Groups Take Obama to Task for Violating Voting Rights Law

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 9:45 AM PDT

After months of quiet lobbying, civil rights groups and progressive organizations are now coming out publicly against the Obama administration for failing to enforce a voting rights law that applies to the Obamacare health insurance exchanges. 

The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), commonly known as the "Motor Voter" law, requires DMVs and other state agencies that provide public assistance to also help voters register. The Obama administration has acknowledged that Obamacare exchanges are covered by the law. But the federally-run exchange, which serves residents of states whose Republican governors refused to establish their own insurance marketplaces, isn't doing much to fulfill its Motor Voter obligations, beyond embedding a link to the federal voter registration site in the online insurance application.

The law requires covered agencies to go much further and treat voter registration the same as the application process for other services. In the case of Obamacare, this means the navigators hired by HHS to walk uninsured Americans through the insurance sign-up process should also offer to guide applicants through the voter registration process. But Republicans have decried plans to apply the Motor Voter law to exchanges, saying it would create a "permanent, undefeatable, always-funded Democrat majority," since the uninsured are disproportionately low-income people and minorities—groups that tend to vote Democratic. Following the outcry by the GOP, the Obama administration decided last year to hold off on full implementation of the Motor Voter provision. But now 32 progressive organizations and unions—including the NAACP, United Auto Workers, and the National Council of La Raza—are calling on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to start requiring navigators to help register voters immediately.

"There is no question that the ACA [the Affordable Care Act] must meet the requirements of the NVRA, as your administration has acknowledged," the groups said in a letter to the HHS last week. "As staunch supporters of voting rights, we believe that it is critical for the ACA to meet these legal requirements now and offer voter registration to the millions of Americans who will be shopping for insurance on the exchanges in the coming months and years."

The letter comes on the heels of a public campaign in January led by the voting rights organizations Demos and Project Vote to get HHS to fall in line with Motor Voter.

The 24 million mostly low-income and minority Americans who are expected to buy insurance through the exchanges by 2017 are far less likely than other citizens to be registered to vote, although Motor Voter has helped lessen the disparity. Some 140 million people have registered to vote through the program since it was enacted. Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, told Mother Jones in January that the reason HHS "has really dropped the ball" on the Motor Voter issue is likely quite simple. "This looks like [the administration is] running from a political fight," he says.