Republicans doubtless will come up with objections to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, but they’ll have trouble making those objections stick to the first Hispanic nominee*, a charismatic woman with an irresistible only-in-America personal story, growing up in public housing in the South Bronx to graduate with honors from Princeton and Yale, and impeccable credentials as a former prosecutor, corporate litigator, federal trial judge (originally nominated by George H.W. Bush) and federal appellate judge in New York. Some academics were disappointed that Obama did not pick a stronger writer, but the important thing is replacing David Souter’s moderate vote with a center-left vote and Sotomayor fills that bill. At first glance, it appears the GOP will rail against her support of affirmative action in a New Haven, Conn., firefighters case (she voted with the majority) and her supposed empathy with working people.

In one of her most-publicized decisions, Sotomayor sided with labor (the Major League Baseball Players Association) in March 1995 when she issued an injunction against Major League Baseball unilaterally imposing a new collective bargaining agreement and hiring replacement players, thus ending the 1994 baseball strike.

The right-wing attack machine sprang into action, with Rush Limbaugh calling Sotomayor a “racist” and several GOP commentators raising unsubstantiated doubts about her intellect. Karl Rove on Fox News questioned whether she was smart enough to sit on the court. John Yoo, the former Bush administration lawyer who defended the president’s right to torture terror suspects during interrogation, said Sotomayor’s record “appears undistinguished.” Some wondered if the wingers were falling into a trap set by Obama. Kevin Drum noted at MotherJones.com, “The wingnut wing of the Republican Party seems hugely energized by Sotomayor’s nomination and ready to go ballistic over it. This might be good for them in the short term (it’s a nice fundraising opportunity, brings internal factions together, etc.), but Obama, as usual, is looking a few moves ahead and understands that a shrieking meltdown from the usual suspects will mostly help the liberal cause: the American public already thinks the conservative rump running the Republican Party is crazy, after all, and this will help cast that feeling in stone. Most normal people think empathy is a good thing, not a code word for the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

[* If you don’t count Benjamin Cardozo, associate justice from 1932-38, descended from Portuguese Sephardic Jews.]

HEALTH CARE FUNDING OPTIONS. As Congress digs into health care reform, it has several options to fund universal coverage in a progressive way, according to a report from Citizens for Tax Justice (ctj.org). Options include raising the top tax rate for capital gains and dividends from the current 15% to 28%, which would net $34.7 bln annually; allow Bush tax cuts to expire, restoring the top tax rate to 39.6%, and tax capital gains and dividends like any other income, $75.2 bln; tax capital gains and dividends like any other income but keep Bush’s top tax rate of 35%, $24.1 bln; reduce tax incentives to invest offshore, $ 12.4 bln; expand the Medicare tax for the rich, $44.7 bln.

Almost all of the new revenue would be paid by taxpayers with adjusted gross income above $200,000 for singles and above $250,000 for married couples, in keeping with Obama’s approach to tax policy. “After propping up major corporations and their CEOs and shareholders, Congress might find it reasonable to make the following deal. Main Street is paying to make Wall Street healthy. Wall Street, when it is healthy, will return the favor,” CTJ stated.

Robert Reich also suggests that Congress consider taxing health benefits of wealthy employees in order to finance universal health care, Writing at robertreich.blogspot.com (5/24), Reich noted that Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) put taxing health benefits on the table and White House budget director Peter Orszag has told Congress the option should remain on the table. Obama had intended to raise money for health care by limiting tax deductions wealthy taxpayers can claim. This would have generated some $318 bln over 10 years, about half of Obama’s proposed “health care reserve fund.” But the proposal ran into opposition not only from Republicans, but also from congressional Dems from Baucus to House Ways & Means Chair Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).

According to the Congressional Budget Office, taxing all employee health benefits would yield $246 bln every year. Even limiting the tax to higher-income employees would go a long way to funding universal health care. Employer-provided health insurance covers three-fifths of the American population under 65 and 70% of the 253 mln Americans with health insurance receive at least some of it through their employers. Most middle class American families rely on it. But Reich notes, “You’re not eligible for these benefits when you and your family are likely to need them most—when you lose your job and your income plummets. And these days, as we’re witnessing, no job is safe.” It’s also an upside-down system, Reich notes. “The biggest share of the $246 bln goes to upper-income people. The lower your pay, the less coverage you’re likely to have. Workers in lowest paying jobs don’t generally get any health insurance from their employers.”

As a “sensible and politically feasible alternative,” Reich wrote that Obama could raise the $650 bln needed to provide universal health care by limiting tax-free employer-provided health benefits to workers whose incomes are under $100,000 a year, and taxing benefits of higher incomes.

STATE OF PARALYSIS. California’s unemployment rate, at 11%, is fifth-highest in the nation but it is among those least able to respond to the economic bust. After voters rejected nearly $6 bln in funding proposals (5/19), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing a deficit as high as $24 bln, is preparing to slash the state’s safety net for the poor by eliminating the state’s main welfare program, health insurance for low-income families and cash grants for college students, the Los Angeles Times reported (5/22). Republicans continued to blame the state’s economic policies on Democratic “tax and spend” philosophy and overregulation of businesses.

Paul Krugman noted in his New York Times column (5/25) that the seeds of California’s crisis were planted in 1978 when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that capped property tax rates and assessments, shielding homeowners from tax increases even as the values of their homes rose. That forced California to rely more on income taxes, but the measure also required any state tax rate to get a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the state legislature, which made it practically impossible, even as revenue fell during recessions. “As the political tide has turned against California Republicans, the party’s remaining members have become ever more extreme, ever less interested in the actual business of governing,” Krugman wrote. “And while the party’s growing extremism condemns it to seemingly permanent minority status ... the Republican rump retains enough seats in the Legislature to block any responsible action in the face of the fiscal crisis.”

Krugman wrote that California’s experience has rattled him. America’s projected deficits may sound large, but it would take only a modest tax increase to cover the expected rise in interest payments. American taxes are well below those in most other wealthy countries and Congress does not have two-thirds rule for tax increases. “The fiscal consequences of the current crisis, in other words, should be manageable. But that presumes that we’ll be able, as a political matter, to act responsibly. The example of California shows that this is by no means guaranteed. And the political problems that have plagued California for years are now increasingly apparent at a national level.”

RIGHT TALKER: WATERBOARDING ‘ABSOLUTELY TORTURE.’ While many right-wingers continue to defend the waterboarding of suspected terrorists at US military facilities as a harmless interrogation technique, “conservative libertarian” radio talk show host Eric “Mancow” Muller set out to prove that the practice was not torture by having himself waterboarded (5/22). But after enduring 6 or 7 seconds of the interrogation technique at the hands of a Marine sergeant, Mancow signalled to stop the stunt. “It is way worse than I thought it would be, and that’s no joke,” Mancow said, according to NBCChicago.com. He likened it to a time when he nearly drowned as a child. “It is such an odd feeling to have water poured down your nose with your head back … It was instantaneous … and I don’t want to say this: absolutely torture.”

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THIS ... Democrats might nominally have 60 seats in the Senate, when Al Franken’s election in Minnesota is certified, but that does not mean President Obama can count on the 60 votes generally needed to overcome Republican filibusters. Brian Beutler of TalkingPointsMemo.com noted (5/25) that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) already has voted against Obama’s budget, he is holding out against the nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel, is trying to neuter health reform efforts and is positioning himself to complicate the president’s plan to close down the Guantanamo prison. Nelson on 5/24 reserved the right to support a filibuster of Obama’s Supreme Court nomination. Ironically, in 2005 Nelson was part of the so-called Gang of 14 senators who teamed up to end Democratic filibustering of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances.

OBAMA, ND SCHOOL CATHOLIC BISHOPS. Many Catholic bishops apparently never tire of being played for chumps by the Republican National Committee. In return for GOP rhetorical commitment to the rights of the unborn at the expense of the rights of the born, Catholic prelates faithfully criticize Democratic politicians who support women’s rights to choose abortion. When Notre Dame invited President Obama to speak at its commencement 5/17, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the action brought “extreme embarrassment” to pro-life Catholics. At least 76 American bishops criticized Notre Dame’s invitation of Obama. Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., wrote that “Notre Dame ... has forgotten what it means to be Catholic.” Local Bishop John D’Arcy of South Bend chose to boycott the event.

Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University, noted at NCRonline.org (5/18) that only retired San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn broke from his peers to publicly praise Obama for his “fine example of married life and the love and devotion to [his] children” as well as his “measured, thoughtful approach to issues of public concern. ...”

Obama gave the Catholic bishops a lesson in social justice with his speech, which called for “open hearts,” “open minds,” “fair-minded words” and a search for “common ground.” But Rev. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, who stood up to the conservative fire, also schooled the bishops on what a university is about.

“President Obama has come to Notre Dame, though he knows well that we are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research,” Jenkins said, introducing the president. “Others might have avoided this venue for that reason. But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him. Mr. President: This is a principle we share.”

Jenkins quoted a pastoral constitution from the Second Vatican Council, “Gaudium et Spes,” which states, “Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.” In order to begin that process, he said, “we can start by acknowledging what is honorable in others.”

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservative Romano noted (5/21) that Obama sought common ground on the divisive issue of abortion and confirmed that pushing for a more liberal abortion law would not be a priority of his administration. The newspaper noted that Obama had called for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, facilitating adoption and supporting women who want to carry their babies to term, and that he had also spoken of drafting a “conscience clause” for medical personnel who are morally opposed to participating in abortions.

Douglas Gibson, who writes the “Pontifications” blog at Beliefnet.com, commented, “I guess the pope’s newspaper has ‘forgotten what it means to be Catholic.’”

‘MODEST PLANŐ TO PAY FOR COLLEGE. Commencement season got Robert Reich thinking about the rising cost of college as California has announced a 9% increase in fees for next year, the third such increase in three years. He noted (5/22) that the average college graduate has to repay almost $22,000 in student loans. Costs continue to rise as states cut support for public universities and other sources of college funding have taken big hits. “Even when they do find jobs, college grads have no choice but to take the job that pays the most,” Reich wrote. “They can’t afford to do what they might really want to do—become, say, a social worker or writer or legal services attorney.” His proposal: “Any college student can get full funding from the government, with only one string attached. Once they’ve graduated and are in the work force, they pay 10% of their incomes for the first 10 years of full-time work into the same government fund they drew on to finance their college education.

“Now maybe that formula will need to be adjusted up or down to cover all the costs. And surely some people will game the system as they do every other one. But the essential idea is that linking the costs of college to subsequent wages makes college affordable to everyone. And linking repayment to a fixed percent of subsequent wages for a limited number of years enables all graduates to follow their dreams into whatever work they want, without worrying about earning enough to repay a loan. Those who end up in relatively high-paying jobs subsidize those who end up in relatively low-paying ones. It’s fair, it’s simple, and good for society as well as the individual.”

OBAMA BACKS OFF PANAMA TRADE DEAL. A US trade deal with Panama, which labor unions and “fair trade” advocates oppose, won’t be submitted to Congress for approval until President Obama offers a new “framework” for trade, Assistant Trade Rep. Everett Eissenstat told the Senate Finance Committee (5/21), according to Bloomberg News. The announcement came as 55 House Dems, including 17 members of the House Populist Caucus, told Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reject the Panama accord unless it is renegotiated. It came two days after John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said unions would oppose a rush to ratify the deal, which was negotiated by the Bush Administration. Sweeney said he saw no reason to advance a “free trade” agreement with Panama and vowed to defeat a separate accord with Colombia.

US JOBLESS RATE PASSES EUROPE’S. For many years, unemployment in the US was lower than in Western Europe, a fact often cited by people who argued that the flexibility in the American system, which makes it much easier to hire and fire workers, produced in more jobs, Floyd Norris noted in the New York Times (5/22). That is no longer the case, as unemployment in the US has risen to European averages and seems likely to pass them when international data for April is calculated. In March, the US unemployment rate was 8.5%, the same as the average rate for the first 15 members of the European Union, as figured by Eurostat, which calculates rates to make them comparable to the US. In April the US rate rose to 8.9%. “When the European figures are compiled, it seems likely that the American rate will be higher for the first time since Eurostat began compiling the numbers in 1993,” Norris wrote. It appears that safety nets in many Western European economies made it easier for people to keep their jobs as the economy declined, he noted. “In Germany, programs allow companies to get government help in paying workers, for example, keeping them employed.”

LIBERTY’ U BANS COLLEGE DEMS. Liberty University, founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va., has moved to ban College Democrats from organizing on campus while allowing College Republicans to continue to operate. Officials say the national Democratic Party platform goes against the conservative Christian school’s moral principles. Brian Diaz, 18, the club’s president, was informed in a 5/15 email from Student Affairs Vice President Mark Hine that the club, which has about 30 members, will no longer be able to use Liberty’s name or be eligible for funding because of the party’s stand on abortion rights and gay rights issues.

LOW MILK PRICES THREATEN DAIRIES. The drastic drop in milk prices paid to farmers over the past year has led to an unprecedented crisis for dairy farmers who are being paid less than half the cost of production. Low prices and high production costs threaten to push nearly one-third of dairy farmers off their land over the next couple of months, strengthening corporate control of the dairy industry and severely impacting the health of local and regional economies nationwide, Farm Aid reported (farmaid.org). The group has organized a petition to call on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to set a floor price for milk that reflects the cost of production, protecting the livelihoods of dairy farmers and consumer access to fresh, local dairy products. “Setting a fair price for milk won’t fix all the problems that led to the current crisis, but it may be the only way to keep thousands of dairy farmers on their farms this year,” said Farm Aid board member Willie Nelson. “Unless Secretary Vilsack takes immediate action, huge areas of the United States may be left without any local dairy farms at all.”

Dairy farmers have been hit with a catastrophic combination of factors beyond their control. Farmers are struggling to pay bills from record high feed and fuel costs; credit is increasingly impossible to come by; and the price of milk paid to farmers by processors collapsed a record 30% in January alone, and is currently down 50% since July 2008. In the meantime, the top dairy processors have recently announced 2009 first quarter earnings that are up from the same period last year. The top processor, Dean Foods, reported their first quarter earnings are more than double that of last year thanks in part to the plunging price Dean pays to its milk producers.

CHENEY FEARS PROSECUTION. Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, said on CNN (5/21) that fear of prosecution was a motivating factor in his media campaign to justify the Bush administration’s torture program. “I think, as it became clear that President Obama was not only going to be stopping some of these policies, that he was going to be doing things like releasing the — the techniques themselves, so that the terrorists could now train to them, that he was suggesting that perhaps we would even be prosecuting former members of the Bush administration.”

SIDES DRAWN IN CLIMATE BILL DEBATE. While the latest MIT study of global warming, published in the Journal of Climate, concludes that global warming is accelerating to dangerous levels (ClimateProgress.org, 5/20), the House Energy and Commerce Committee (5/21) approved the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill (HR 2454) by a vote of 33-25. The bill would cut greenhouse emissions about 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, and about 80% by 2050, while promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The committee vote was largely along partisan lines as only one R voted for the bill and four Dems voted no. Some Dems are wary of the bill’s effects on coal and oil production, domestic industry and agriculture while most Republicans made it clear that their opposition was nonnegotiable, Kate Sheppard noted at Grist.org (5/21). At least six other House committees have jurisdiction over some portion of the bill, which is expected to go to the full House before the August recess.

Lisa Hymas reported at Grist.org (5/22) that the bill also is polarizing the environmental community. Former Vice President Al Gore, a longtime climate crusader, says the bill is a good starting point, and that efforts to reach compromise on it have boosted its chances of passing both the House and the Senate. “The key role of the legislation is to begin that shift [to lower emissions],” he said. “Once it begins, it will be unstoppable.” Climate scientist James Hansen says the bill is “too watered down to qualify as a positive step for avoiding catastrophic climate disruption.” He proposes instead a “tax and dividend” approach that would tax fossil fuels at the point of extraction and distribute the revenue from that tax to citizens.

Gore’s team includes the AFL-CIO, Audubon Society, Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Ceres, Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, US Climate Action Partnership and World Resources Institute. Hansen’s team includes Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, Rainforest Action Network and a number of local and regional environmental groups allied as the CLEAN campaign.

Some environmentalists criticized the allocation of free permits to polluting utilities instead of auctioning them off, but an analysis by Peter S. Fox-Penner and Marc Chupka at ClimateProgress.org concludes that the House bill does a pretty good job of ensuring that no one is going to get a windfall profit from free emission permits, by ensuring that the overwhelming majority of free utility allowances go to electric or gas retail distribution companies that are regulated by states, cities or coop management boards. “With these provisions, it will be awfully hard for any utility to harvest a windfall from the free allocations—especially a shareholder-owned utility. Yes, the free allowances given to the distribution utility will be worth a lot. But the law is pretty clear that the benefits of receiving the free allowance go to the utility’s customers, not their shareholders.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME. The Republican National Committee threatened to re-dub the Democratic Party as the “Democrat Socialist Party.” Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive welcomed the move. “Democrats have been running from the label “liberal” since the days of Michael Dukakis, and that hasn’t helped them,” he wrote (5/21). “And for those who, like me, are actually Democratic Socialists, it’s time to come out and say so.

“Democratic socialism has brought a much better quality of life to the people in Scandinavia and France and Germany and Britain, and it has not erased one iota of the political freedoms we cherish in this country. We need to move this country in the direction of democratic socialism.”

But the Democratic Socialists of America, a group that is affiliated with the Socialist International (and not the Democratic Party), objected to the RNC resolution, which DSA National Director Frank Llewellyn said “demonstrates the extremist views that now dominate the RNC. This is a continuation of the silly and surreal socialist baiting that Republicans engaged in during the 2008 Campaign (when they equated progressive tax reform with socialism!) and which the voters soundly rejected,” the Christian Science Monitor reported (5/20).

Ultimately, the RNC decided not to rename its opponent, but passed a resolution “that we the members of the Republican National Committee recognize that the Democratic Party is dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals.”

The RNC also took out of context a quote from Barack Obama when it “tweeted” a recording of Obama referring to a flaw in the Constitution. As MediaMatters.org noted, the link contained out-of-context audio from a 9/6/01 Chicago radio program called “Slavery and the Constitution” in which Obama explained that the “fundamental flaw” was “Africans at the time were not considered as part of the polity that was of concern to the framers.”

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2009

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