Last March, Time published a massive special report, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” detailing just about everything that is wrong with the nation’s health care system, Joan McCarter noted at DailyKos.com (1/20). Central to that story were Stephanie and Sean Recchi, an Ohio couple with two kids who had just started up a new business, and who had just been struck by Sean’s aggressive and expensive cancer. The author of that story, Steven Brill, has an update to their story in the 1/27 issue of Time. Sean Recchi’s now in remission, but only after the underinsured family (their $469/month policy was worthless at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston) borrowed from family and maxed out their credit cards. Here’s Stephanie Ricci last October:
“I don’t think Obamacare will help us. I don’t want anything to do with it,” Stephanie Recchi told [Brill] a week after the launch of HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1. “I hear a lot of bad things about it—that it doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions and it’s too expensive,” she added, referring to what she said were “television ads and some politicians talking on the news. Just a lot of talk that this is a bad law.”
Nonetheless, she tried and tried again to navigate HealthCare.gov, to no avail. That made her hate the whole idea of Obamacare even more, but she needed health insurance, and so she went to her insurance agent.
“When they came to my office, Stephanie told me right up front, ‘I don’t want any part of Obamacare,’” recalled health-insurance agent Barry Cohen to Brill. “These were clearly people who don’t like the President. So I kind of let that slide and just asked them for basic information and told them we would go on the Ohio exchange” — which is actually the Ohio section of the federal Obamacare exchange — “and show them what’s available.”
The upshot? Because they’re still in basically start-up mode in their business, their income for the family of four qualifies them for expanded Medicaid. If a big contract they are anticipating comes through for them this year, they’ll be bumped off Medicaid, but will still qualify for a subsidy that will put their monthly premiums at $566.
What Stephanie soon discovered, she told Brill in mid-November, “was a godsend.” ...
“Here I get full protection for $566, compared to no protection for almost $500,” Stephanie says, referring to her old plan that had cost $469 monthly and that M.D. Anderson had scoffed at. “This is wonderful. ... No, we don’t get M.D. Anderson, but we do get the Cleveland Clinic and lots of other good care,” Stephanie says. “We understand that.” Amid the likely attacks from his opponents that he’s taking away patients’ favorite doctors and hospitals, Obama has to hope that others come to share her attitude.
As Brill points out, if the Recchis had been living in Texas, where Sean got cancer treatment, or in any of the other states that refused Medicaid expansion, they’d still be screwed. They’d be in the Medicaid gap that millions of Americans, many with health issues as critical as Sean Recchi’s, have fallen into. That’s the kind of situation that the Affordable Care Act was supposed to end for everyone.Thanks to the Supreme Court and an intractable Republican party that has invested more into fighting Obama than into fighting for their constituents, being able to access and afford health care is still a matter of luck. (Joan McCarter, DailyKos.com)
MEDICAID ENROLLMENT SOARS UNDER A.C.A. Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act has been a huge success in West Virginia, the New York Times reported (1/21): “Enrollment in private insurance plans has been sluggish, but sign-ups for Medicaid, the federal insurance program for the poor, have surged in many states. Here in West Virginia, which has some of the shortest life spans and highest poverty rates in the country, the strength of the demand has surprised officials, with more than 75,000 people enrolling in Medicaid. ... In West Virginia, where the Democratic governor agreed to expand Medicaid eligibility, the number of uninsured people in the state has been reduced by about a third.”
It’s not just West Virginia, either. Charles Gaba, who tracks enrollments for the Affordable Care Act at acasignups.net, wrote (1/21) that the total number of enrollments in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) since 10/1/13 is likely 6.2 mln, though Gaba noted that many of those are existing Medicaid/CHIP enrollees who have renewed their registrations in the programs. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported (1/22) that 6.3 mln had enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP.
When those 6.3 mln enrollees are tallied with the 2.1 mln who have signed up for private insurance on the state and federal and the 3.1 mln who gained coverage through the law’s requirements that private plans allow parents to cover their children up to age 26, that means 11.5 million Americans are insured through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Sabrina Tavernise reported in the Times, “Waitresses, fast food workers, security guards and cleaners described feeling intense relief that they are now protected from the punishing medical bills that have punched holes in their family budgets. They spoke in interviews of reclaiming the dignity they had lost over years of being turned away from doctors’ offices because they did not have insurance.
“‘You see it in their faces,’ said Janie Hovatter, a patient advocate at Cabin Creek Health Systems, a health clinic in southern West Virginia. ‘They just kind of relax.’”
Kevin Drum noted at MotherJones.com (1/21), “We’re the richest country in the world. We can afford this.”
McAULIFFE SEEKS TO EXPAND MEDICAID IN VIRGINIA. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced (1/20) that he will seek authority to expand Medicaid through a proposed budget amendment if the legislative Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission does not agree to enroll 400,000 more Virginians into the health-care program with the federal government paying the entire cost of the expansion for the first three years and 90% after that. Republicans flatly opposed his proposal, turning down $14.6 bln in federal Medicaid funds between now and 2022.
Republicans control the House but Democrats appeared to regain narrow control of the Virginia Senate (1/21) as Jennifer Wexton (D) won a special election with 52.7% of the vote in a three-way race to replace Mark Herring (D), the state’s new attorney general. The district, based in suburban Loudon and Fairfax counties, leans Democratic. President Obama won 59.3% of the vote in 2012, and Herring won re-election in 2011 with just 54% of the vote, so Republicans hoped a low turnout in a snowstorm would give them a chance at an upset.
If the results stand, the Senate will be tied 20-20, with new Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) casting tie-breaking votes. Lynwood Lewis (D) held onto Northam’s seat by just 9 votes out of more than 20,000 cast. Republicans have requested a recount in that election.
GOP PANIC OVER CHRISTIE TROUBLES. Republicans are in a near-panic over the possibility of losing Gov. Chris Christie (R) as a “moderate” presidential candidate in 2016, Michael Tomasky wrote at TheDailyBeast.com (1/21).
“They know deep down that there isn’t a single other figure in their party who can come within yodeling distance of 270 electoral votes,” Tomasky wrote. “Certainly not against Hillary Clinton. Against her, the rest of them max out at around 180, which would constitute the biggest wipeout since Bill Clinton thumped Bob Dole in 1996 (379-159) ...
“The fact that the GOP establishment needs to come face-to-face with is that they have no one to blame for this but themselves. They’ve reached the point where they almost have to have a Northeasterner like Christie to run for president, just as they had to settle for Romney last time. They’ve let their party go so far off the deep end that practically no Republican officeholder from any other region of the country could appeal to enough moderates in enough purple and blue states to win back the territory the party ceded to the Democrats in the last two elections.”
“Remember: the Republicans come into the next presidential election with 206 reliable electoral votes from states their nominees have won at least four of the last six elections. The Democrats’ corresponding number is 257 (just 13 shy of the victory threshold). These tallies leave five states on the table: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. And I’m not even sure if, with Clinton in the race, if the last three could even be called purple anymore. The Republicans have a lot of territory to reclaim.”
HEALTHCARE.GOV PASSES SECURITY TEST. Congressional Republicans have invested considerable energy of late in raising security fears over healthcare.gov, so Steve Benen at RachelMaddow.com wrote (1/20) it’s a shame the news didn’t generate more attention, that nearly three months after its launch, HealthCare.gov underwent end-to-end security testing and passed with flying colors, the top cybersecurity official overseeing the website told Congress (1/16).
Teresa Fryer, the chief information security officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the House Oversight Committee that results from the tests have alleviated her earlier concerns about risks of cyberattacks and theft of consumers’ personal information.
“The protections that we have put in place have successfully prevented attacks,” Fryer told lawmakers. “There have been no successful security attacks on the FFM [federal marketplace], and no person or group has maliciously accessed personally identifiable information.”
Looking ahead, Joan McCarter emphasized a key issue: “Still in question, though, is whether Darrell Issa [R-Calif.] will pass a security test.”
“Given his habit of leaking bits of sensitive information that come into his hands as Oversight chairman, and then national media organizations running with the incomplete ‘scandalous’ information they have, the administration has been worried about letting more information about the website’s construction and its security protocols into his hands. If that kind of information were to be leaked, the security threat would be very real.
“That’s why Rep. Elijah Cummings [D-Md.], ranking member of the Oversight Committee, has demanded that the committee put a series of protections of sensitive information. Cummings has a number of concerns, including the fact that committee staff has left sensitive information in unsecured rooms, that Issa is sharing sensitive information with outside consultants who haven’t been authorized by the committee, and that the committee as a whole hasn’t adopted security protocols for dealing with this kind of information.”
SCHWEITZER AS ‘ANTI-OBAMA.’ Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) appears to be setting himself up not only as a potential challenger to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign, but also as the populist, anti-Obama candidate. MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin interviewed Schweitzer (1/15), who passed up a run for the seat Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is giving up. But asked if there was a single thing President Obama has done that he considered a positive achievement, Schweitzer paused and finally spoke:
“My mother, God rest her soul, told me ‘Brian, if you can’t think of something nice to say about something change the subject,’” he said.
“But he couldn’t help himself, slamming Obama’s record on civil liberties (the NSA revelations were ‘un-effing-believable’), his competency (‘They just haven’t been very good at running things’), and above all, Obamacare (‘It will collapse on its own weight’).
“Eventually, he paused to acknowledge Obama’s historic role as the first black president. But by that standard, Obama’s usefulness ended the day he took the oath of office.”
Ed Kilgore noted at WashingtonMonthly.com, “Schweitzer’s sure taking an unorthodox route to a Democratic presidential candidacy. Yes, his complaints about Obama’s record are shared by quite a few progressive folk. But generally trashing Obama — or for that matter, trashing HRC — is not the way to build a base for a presidential campaign. According to the latest Gallup numbers, Obama’s job approval rating among self-identified liberal Democrats stands at 84%. That is rather high. Among African-Americans, who play a huge role in many Democratic presidential primaries, it’s at 86% (it’s only 58% among Hispanics, but that includes a decent number of Republicans).
“As I’ve observed on more than one occasion, left-bent Democratic presidential nominating candidacies have failed again and again because of poor support from minority voters. There’s virtually nothing about Brian Schweitzer that gives him a natural connection to these voters ... Making common cause with Republicans in Obama-bashing isn’t going to help.”
Schweitzer is passionate about single-payer health care, civil liberties and pulling troops out of Afghanistan, Sarlin noted. But he skews right on issues like expanding domestic oil and coal production and protecting gun rights, where Obama has held relatively strong with his base — though Schweitzer supports closing loopholes on background checks for gun buyers.
On the environment, Sarlin noted, while Schweitzer, who is now a mining executive, is far from a climate change denier (he favors a carbon tax to cut emissions), his support for the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to alienate environmentalists.
DEVOS CLAN PLANS TO DEFUND LEFT THROUGH LABOR. Andy Kroll, in the January/February issue of Mother Jones, reports that the DeVos family, heirs to the Amway fortune, are lining up as the New Kochs as they proceed with plans to defund the Left by promoting “right-to-work” legislation to strip labor unions of their organizing power. Dick DeVos Jr. and his allies prepared a fusillade of TV, radio, and Internet ads in the works and crafted 15 pages of talking points that were ready to circulate to Republican lawmakers during the lame duck session after the 2012 election, while the GOP still had a big enough majority to ram through the controversial labor-busting bill. They had even reserved the lawn around the state capitol for a month to keep protesters at bay.
Within a week, it was all over, Kroll wrote. “With a stroke of his pen on Dec. 11, Gov. Rick Snyder — who’d previously said right-to-work was not a priority of his — now made Michigan the 24th state to enact it.” Passing right-to-work in Michigan was a major score for Republicans who have long sought to weaken the Democratic Party by attacking its sources of funding and organizing muscle. “Michigan big labor literally controls one of the major political parties,” Dick DeVos said last January. “I’m not suggesting they have influence; I’m saying they hold total dominance, command, and control.” So DeVos and his allies hit labor — and the Democratic Party — where it hurt: their bank accounts. By attacking their opponents’ revenue stream, they could help put Michigan into play for the GOP heading into the 2016 presidential race — as it was more than three decades earlier, when the state’s Reagan Democrats were key to winning the White House.
More broadly, the Michigan fight has given hope — and a road map — to conservatives across the country working to cripple organized labor and defund the left. DeVos and his allies have emboldened conservatives around the country to go on the offensive. DeVos has opened his playbook to lawmakers, activists, and donors nationwide who are interested in following Michigan’s lead. “As is often the case in politics generally, timing is critical,” DeVos told Kroll. “So the lesson to others is: Be prepared. Invest in the infrastructure necessary to leverage an opportunity when it presents itself.” He says other conservatives “are hoping for an opportunity to bring freedom-to-work to their home states” and “have voiced their appreciation for the example Michigan provided.” As he told an audience at the annual conference of the conservative State Policy Network in September, “If we can do it in Michigan, you can do it anywhere.”
REPUBLICANS SEE SENATE OPPORTUNITIES. President Obama's "sagging approval ratings and the rocky health-law rollout are expanding the map of competitive Senate races this year, giving Republicans new hope of capturing seats in states that the president carried in 2012," the Wall Street Journal reported (1/21).
"The GOP already had a strong opportunity to pick up a net six seats to win a Senate majority. Democrats have to defend many more seats than Republicans, including in seven states that Mr. Obama lost in 2012. Now, polls show tighter-than-expected races for Democratic-held seats in Colorado, Iowa and Michigan, while a formidable Republican is challenging the Democratic incumbent in Virginia and another is weighing a bid in New Hampshire. In 2012, Mr. Obama won all five of those states."
SUPREME COURT MAY DEAL ANOTHER BLOW TO WORKERS. When the Supreme Court announced it would hear a major case concerning the rights of public-sector unions, union-side attorneys reacted with understandable fear for the future.
Ian Millhiser noted at ThinkProgress.org (1/21) that Harris v. Quinn, which was argued before the Supreme Court (1/21), presents the question of whether public sector unions may charge what are known as “agency fees” to non-union members who benefit from the fact that the union bargains on their behalf. By one estimate, unionization raises worker wages by about 12%, so the benefits that non-union members receive from having a union bargain on their behalf are significant.
For decades, public sector unions have operated under a simple bargain. Unions are subject to two restrictions — they may not require non-members to fund the union’s political activity, and they must bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop, regardless of whether each individual worker belongs to the union. In other words, the union cannot encourage non-members to join by bargaining for higher wages or other benefits that only apply to union members. When a union secures a wage increase, the non-members benefit from the higher wages as well, so unions are permitted to charge agency fees to non-members in order to cover those non-members’ share of the bargaining costs.
In June of 2012, the five conservative justices indicated that they are ready to blow up this arrangement, at least with respect to public sector unions. Writing for himself and his fellow conservatives in Knox v. SEIU, Justice Samuel Alito labeled the agency fees “a ‘significant impingement on First Amendment rights.’” Though the conservative justices decided not to revise the Court’s past decisions permitting agency fees in Knox, it is not hard to guess how they will decide *Harris* now that this issue is directly before them.
“A major purpose of agency fees is to prevent non-members from free-riding off of a union. Because non-members typically receive wage increases from the collective bargaining process regardless of whether they join the union or not, past Supreme Court decisions have recognized that it is fundamentally unfair to require a union to pay for benefits provided to non-members who don’t pay a dime into the system. Worse, blowing up the agency fees arrangement could potentially set off a death spiral, where unions are forced to charge higher fees to members to make up for lost agency fees, which in turn leads more members to quit the union, which in turn leads to higher membership fees,” Millhiser wrote. “And yet, when the Supreme Court is done with Harris, it is overwhelmingly likely that there will be five votes to authorize non-union members to become free-riders.”
CHEMICAL COMPANY DUCKS REGS & RESPONSIBILITY. More than a week after a chemical spill contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people, including the state capital, Charleston, there was little solid information about the danger to human health — and little outrage from officials in Washington, who seem to expect West Virginians to take the whole thing in stride.
Paul M. Barrett of Bloomberg BusinessWeek noted that Freedom Industries filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law on Jan. 17. The filing reported that just a few weeks before the spill, J. Clifford Forrest, a Pennsylvania coal magnate, acquired Freedom. “Talk about buyer’s remorse!”
Barrett had to do some detective work to identify Forrest as the buyer. Freedom’s Chapter 11 documents identify its sole owner as Chemstream Holdings, a Pennsylvania company headquartered in Kittanning, near Pittsburgh, at the same street address as Clifford’s Rosebud Mining. Rosebud claims to be the third-largest coal producer in Pennsylvania and the 21st-largest in the US. Freedom’s filings also show that entities called VF Funding and Mountaineer Funding are seeking to lend as much as $5 million to keep Freedom Industries operating during its reorganization. Mountaineer Funding was incorporated Jan. 17 in West Virginia; its sole “member” is Forrest. “In other words, he’s seeking bankruptcy-court permission to lend millions to his besieged new acquisition,” Barrett noted.
Separate West Virginia corporate filings identify Forrest as the manager of two other companies that were merged into Freedom Industries as of Dec. 31. “The corporate rearrangement might have seemed smart on New Year’s Eve; today, not so much.”
Michael Hiltzig of the Los Angeles Times noted (1/20) that the filing stated that more than 20 lawsuits had been filed as of the day before.
The filing indicates that Freedom itself doesn’t have enough to satisfy claims; the firm’s gross revenues in 2013 came to $30.7 mln. The court will have to sort out who should stand in line, and where. But the filing also places Freedom’s assets out of the reach of the people and businesses of Charleston, at least for now, Hiltzig noted.
In the bankruptcy filing, Freedom also previewed its finger-pointing defense strategy, suggesting that the cause of the leak was inadequate upkeep of a water company line that ran under the breached chemical tank. “The hunt for the deepest pocket thus begins,” Hiltzig noted.
Four days after the bankruptcy filing, Freedom Industries officials told state and federal investigators that the crude MCHM that spilled also contained a product called PPH, which stands for polyglycol ethers, Ken Ward Jr. reported in the Charleston Gazette (1/21).
THINGS FALL DOWN, THINGS BLOW UP. While most of us weren’t looking, four people were killed and 18 others were injured, at least four of them critically, in two separate explosions at industrial plants in Nebraska and Oklahoma (1/21).
Two died when the three-story International Nutrition Inc. animal feed plant collapsed and burst into flames about 10 a.m. in Omaha, Neb., officials said. Four of the 17 other people injured there were critically wounded, authorities said.
Six hours later, two more people died and a third suffered head burns when a furnace exploded at the Mid-America Steel and Wire facility in rural Madill, Okla.
The Omaha company has been fined at least twice before for safety violations, according the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which will be in charge of the investigation, NBC News reported. The first citation came in August 2002, after a rotating part killed an employee who fell in a mixing tank. The second came in November 2011 after a safety inspection identified six “serious” violations.
Charles Pierce at Esquire.com asked us (1/21) to imagine if there were three terrorist events in two weeks. “First, terrorists poison a state’s water supply. Then, they rig a building to collapse and rig another one hundreds of miles away to explode. Nervous politicians would be blue-pencilling the Bill of Rights by daybreak. The NSA would throw a parade for itself. Edward Snowden would be hung in effigy, if we couldn’t do it in person. Somebody’s ass would get droned in Waziristan. But these were not the acts of terrorists. These involve Job Creators. The only similarity is that people were killed whom they never knew.
“It’s been a bad couple of weeks in deregulated America,” Pierce continued. “These two events come hard on the heels of the (with luck) temporary ruination of West Virginia’s water supply. It is not remotely jumping to conclusions to say that all of these episodes are directly caused by reckless neglect. As a nation, we have neglected to rein in the excesses of our corporations. As a nation, we have neglected to fund fully the agencies tasked with worker safety and health, As a nation, we have neglected the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively on the issues of their own safety. As a nation, we have neglected to temper the excesses in our economy with the strongest tools we have — the institutions of our self-government. As a nation, we have neglected our profound obligation to treat the captains of our industry with the same skepticism — and, when necessary, the same contempt — that we treat our politicians. As a nation, we have neglected the lessons of our own past, which tell us quite clearly that unregulated capitalism kills people, and that it does so with the same lack of regard, and the same cold-eyed calculation, of any other passing sociopath. These events are based in reckless neglect and will continue to be.
“They will continue to be until we commit, once again, to a program of regulating our industries for our own safety. They will continue to be until we reject the notion that ‘free trade’ requires secret deals in which we voluntarily surrender our rights to keep our workers safe here because the corporate elite in, say, Bangla Desh doesn’t care about theirs. They will continue to be until, at the state level, we stop allowing our governors and our legislators to whore after corporations, ripping each others guts out in a race to the bottom that only a very few people ever win, and then things fall down and things blow up.”
In other environmental justice news, a former Halliburton manager who destroyed evidence in the aftermath of BP’s massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was given one year of probation by a federal judge who said “you’re a very honorable man,” ABC News reported (1/21).
Anthony Badalamenti, of Katy, Texas, had faced a maximum of one year in prison at his sentencing by US District Judge Jay Zainey. Badalamenti pleaded guilty in October to one misdemeanor count of destruction of evidence.
The 62-year-old also has to perform 100 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine.
Badalamenti was the cementing technology director for Halliburton Energy Services Inc., BP’s cement contractor on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Prosecutors said he instructed two Halliburton employees to delete data during a post-spill review of the cement job on BP’s blown-out Macondo well.
“Have the wrists stopped stinging yet?” Charles Pierce wondered.
NEBRASKA DEMS GET SENATE CANDIDATE. Democrats got a high-profile candidate for the US Senate when David Domina, an Omaha lawyer who has represented landowners trying to stop the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, told the Omaha World-Herald (1/19) he has decided to enter the race. Domina, 62, joins a field that includes at least four Republicans and one independent for the seat that Sen. Mike Johanns (R) is giving up.
Domina told HuffingtonPost.com (1/21) the country needs to be “stabilized” and the country needs to “come to grips with the fact that we have to pay the bills, we have to keep the government open, we have to make intelligent decisions about the military so we don’t face in the future funding problems with older military personnel.” Domina also said he supports raising the minimum wage to at least $10.10 an hour — which has been a focus of Democrats and the White House — and perhaps even higher.
‘BLUE SLIP’ IS NEW BARRICADE IN GOP JUDICIAL OBSTRUCTION. In 2009, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) wrote a letter to President Obama recommending that he nominate Jennifer May-Parker, a federal prosecutor from his state, to a judicial vacancy on a federal trial court. Last June, the president agreed with Burr’s recommendation, and nominated Ms. May-Parker to be a federal district judge.
Now Burr is blocking May-Parker’s nomination, invoking an arcane Senate tradition that allows senators to unilaterally veto judicial nominees from their own state. In an interview with the Huffington Post’s Jennifer Bendery (1/14), Burr refused to explain why the woman he once said has “the requisite qualifications to serve with distinction” as a federal district judge is suddenly unfit to be a federal district judge.
Ian Millhiser noted at ThinkProgress.org (1/15) the tactic Burr is now using to block his own candidate for the federal bench is known as failing to return a “blue slip.” The blue slip is a relic of an old patronage system that used to allow home-state senators to hand pick the federal judges in their own state. Although that patronage system was largely dismantled in the Carter and Reagan administrations, Senate Judiciary Chair Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has permitted senators like Burr to veto nominees through the blue slip process, even though Leahy could eliminate their ability to do so whenever he chooses.
On the other hand, the Senate has confirmed three new judges for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals after Democrats did away with the filibuster of judges and bureaucratic nominees. The Senate (1/13) confirmed Robert L. Wilkins, 55-43. He joined Patricia Millett and Cornelia “Nina” Pillard as judges Republicans had blocked until the rules change. Another Obama nominee, Sri Srinivasan, ws confirmed in May under the old rules. With those four picks now seated, Democratic appointees will hold a 7 to 4 majority on the court, which is considered the second-most influential federal court because it handles most cases regarding White House activities and federal rules and regulations and often is a stepping stone for future Supreme Court justices, Steve Benen noted at Maddowblog.com (1/14).
FOUR YEARS AFTER ‘CITIZENS UNITED,’ MOVE TO TAKE BIG MONEY OUT OF POLITICS. Four years after an activist majority on the US Supreme Court struck down barriers to multinational corporations spending unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns—with the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that signaled an intention to dismantle remaining restraints on money in politics—a broad-based movement has emerged to undo the damage done by the Court, John Nichols noted at TheNation.com (1/21).
Among the organizations supporting the movement to amend the Constitution to address the judicial activism on behalf of “corporate personhood” are Public Citizen, People for the American Way, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and Move to Amend.
Sixteen states have formally demanded that Congress recognize that the Constitution must be amended in order to re-establish the basic American premise that “money is property and not speech, and [that] the Congress of the United States, state legislatures and local legislative bodies should have the authority to regulate political contributions and expenditures …”
Six states made the call for corporate accountability in a three-month period last year, making 2013 a banner year for a movement that began with little attention and little in the way of institutional support following the US Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling, Nichols noted.
Support for an amendment now stretches from coast to coast, with backing (in the form of legislative resolutions or statewide referendum results) from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. The District of Columbia is also supportive of the move to amend, as are roughly 500 municipalities, from Liberty, Maine, to Los Angeles, Calif.—where 77% of voters backed a May 2013 referendum instructing elected representatives to seek an amendment establishing that “there should be limits on political campaign spending and that corporations should not have the constitutional rights of human beings.”
Public Citizen’s Robert Weissman, who is working with a burgeoning Corporate Reform Coalition of more than 70 groups nationwide, noted that ultimately an amendment will have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. “But before that, an amendment must be passed by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the US Congress. And one of the most effective ways to show a state’s representatives and senators in Washington, D.C., that there is popular demand for an amendment is to pass a resolution back home.”
The issue has resonance on both sides of the aisle. Nichols noted that US Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), who maintains one of the most conservative voting records in the House, has signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposed amendments, joining roughly 150 other members of Congress in calling for constitutional change. “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” said the congressman. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
VOTER RIGHTS COMPROMISE HAS GOOD & BAD. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) plan to introduce bipartisan legislation that will undo much of the damage done by the Roberts Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to neuter a key prong of the Voting Rights Act, Ian Millhiser noted at ThinkProgress.org (1/16). Since its enactment in 1965, the Voting Rights Act required states with a record of racial voter suppression to “preclear” any new voting laws with the Department of Justice or a federal court in D.C. The Supreme Court’s decision last June struck down the formula that determined which states are subject to this preclearance regime, effectively halting federal supervision of many states that were actively engaged in voter suppression.
Prior to the Roberts Court’s decision, nine states were subject in their entirety to the preclearance requirement, and parts of six others were also covered. Notably, much of the state of North Carolina, which recently enacted the most aggressive voter suppression law in the nation, was covered under the old formula.
The bipartisan fix to the Roberts Court’s decision creates a new formula that would initially lead to far fewer states being covered by preclearance. As the Nation’s Ari Berman explains, the new formula requires preclearance in states “with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past 15 years,” and to localities “if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and ‘persistent, extremely low minority turnout’ over the past 15 years.” The upshot of this new formula is that only four states, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, will immediately be subject to preclearance in their entirety. Notably, none of these four states are North Carolina, with its comprehensive voter suppression law.
The other piece of bad news is that the bipartisan bill creates a special carve-out for voter ID laws. Voter ID, which requires voters to show a photo ID before they can cast a ballot, are one of the most common voter suppression tactics in the country. Though their proponents claim that they are necessary to prevent voter fraud at the polls, such fraud is virt
What voter ID does accomplish that it removes many low-income, student and minority voters from the electorate, all of which are groups that tend to favor Democrats over Republicans. Yet, despite their impact on racial minorities, the bipartisan voting bill will not count voter ID laws as a violation of federal voting rights that that can be used to subject a state to preclearance. Berman reports that this special carve out for these racially discriminatory laws was necessary to secure the support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and some other Republicans.
It should be noted, however, that while voter ID laws cannot be used to bring a state under the preclearance requirement, the bipartisan bill will allow them to be blocked in states that are already subject to preclearance — either under the new formula or under another provision that will be discussed shortly. In this sense, the bipartisan bill appears to be a compromise between a radical proposal hinted at by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — that voter ID be exempt from the Voting Rights Act entirely — and the pre-Roberts Court status quo. Nevertheless, there is a risk that the bipartisan voting bill will allow voter ID laws in some states to be grandfathered in if they are enacted during a period when the state is not subject to preclearance.
So that’s the bad news for supporters of voting rights. The biggest piece of good news is that the law does not just create a new formula that will immediately subject a handful of states to preclearance, it also strengthens the ability of courts to bring states and localities engaged in voter discrimination under the preclearance umbrella. Currently, the Justice Department is suing Texas and North Carolina under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, a provision which allows a state to be made subject to preclearance if a court finds “violations of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment justifying equitable relief have occurred within the territory of such State or political subdivision.”
The problem with Section 3, however, is that it is widely understood to require the Justice Department to prove that Texas and North Carolina enacted voter suppression laws with the intent of disenfranchising voters because of their race. Proving intent is a challenge in any context — neither judges nor attorneys are mind readers — so DOJ faces a difficult road ahead under current law. The bipartisan bill will strengthen Section 3 so that “any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law – whether intentional or not – can be grounds for a bail-in.” This is a really big deal. Big enough that it probably justifies paying the high price Cantor and others have demanded in order to revive the Voting Rights Act.
So on balance, this is a good bill for voting rights. It will improve the baseline significantly from the post-Roberts Court status quo, and will make it much, much easier to hold states like North Carolina accountable for voter suppression. Nevertheless, two caveats are in order.
The first is that anyone who remembers what happened after the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill knows that it is always dangerous to bet on progressive legislation surviving contact with the GOP-controlled House. Majority Leader Cantor’s apparent support for the bill is a good sign that it may pass, but it remains to be seen whether that support can be relied upon or whether he can deliver the votes necessary to pass the bill into law.
The second is that there is always some risk that the very conservative Roberts Court will object to this bill as well. The Court’s June decision gutting the Voting Rights Act includes some language suggesting that any preclearance formula is unconstitutional unless it is limited to states engaged in the kind of “‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that faced Congress in 1965.” If the Roberts Court applies such a standard in future cases, not even North Carolina is likely to be susceptible to preclearance — though it remains to be seen whether the five conservative justices would actually go this far.
In other words, the biggest challenge facing voting rights advocates is that they must overcome two lawmaking bodies controlled by very conservative officials — the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court of the United States. Should they clear these hurdles, however, this bipartisan proposal would go a long way towards fixing the damage caused by the Roberts Court last June, and its amendments to Section 3 would actually make American voting rights law more robust in some ways than it was before Chief Justice Roberts got his hands on it. (Ian Millhiser, ThinkProgress.org)
BIPARTISAN COMMISSION: EARLY VOTING PREVENTS CHAOS. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration released a series of recommendations (1/22) to avert the hours-long lines and chaos at the polls that has characterized the past several presidential elections. The suggested reforms, from expanded early voting to online registration, fly in the face of the voting restrictions passed and promoted by Republican lawmakers and activists.
The Commission, formed by an executive order after the chaotic 2012 election, found several issues at the root of long voting lines, including mismanagement, limited resources, long ballots, unreliable accommodations for non-English speakers and disabled voters, and the absence of a national voter registration list. Because of all these variables, a voter’s experience can vary dramatically depending on which polling place they are assigned. To fix these issues, the report calls for online voter registration in every state, as well as an interstate exchange of voting lists to make sure voter rolls are up to date. More technical reforms, such as updating voting machines and centralizing data collection, are also crucial for future elections, the report states.
It also focuses on expanding opportunities to vote. To prevent long lines and make voting as convenient as possible, early voting and mail-in ballots should become the norm in every state, according to the report.
Republican-controlled legislatures have enacted exactly the opposite election law changes in recent years. Cutting back early voting hours and lengthening ballots led to marathon lines in Ohio and Florida, where some would-be voters were still waiting in line at 1 am, long after the election had been determined. Prominent Florida Republicans later admitted that these voting restrictions were specifically intended to make it harder for Democrats to vote. Though the state ultimately went to Obama, the voter suppression tactics worked; an estimated 201,000 Floridians were discouraged from voting because of the long lines.
Florida is hardly alone in its voter suppression efforts; a recent study found that voting restrictions are more likely to be introduced in states where more people of color turn out to vote. Some of these states are already gearing up for the next election by cutting the number of absentee ballot drop-off sites, restricting voter registration, and purging the voter rolls of legitimate voters. (Aviva Shen, ThinkProgress.org)
JAMES LANKFORD: WRONG ON EVERYTHING. US Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) announced that he will retire at the end of 2014. Coburn 65, a physician who last fall was diagnosed with prostate cancer, is endorsing Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) to succeed him in a special election, which under state law will be held within 30 days of the vacancy. Martin Longman wrote at WashingtonMonthly.com (1/18) “that is just a frightening prospect. I took at a look at Lankford’s Wikipedia page and he is wrong on literally everything. I mean everything. I am going to condense it down for you:
“Lankford supports simple budget austerity through lowering taxes and reducing government spending. He took the taxpayer protection pledge promising to support no new taxes. He supports the repeal of the income and estate taxes and supports a sales tax to tax consumption and not savings or earnings. Lankford supports prioritizing spending (if the debt limit is reached) and the Cut-Cap-and-Balance Pledge. He supports a balanced budget amendment. He supports compensatory time-off for overtime workers. Lankford wants to loosen restrictions on interstate gun purchases. He opposes Firearm microstamping, a controversial method of imprinting casings with a unique marking to match it with a specific firearm, and would allow veterans to register unlicensed firearms. He supports extending the Patriot Act and expanding roving wiretaps occurring in the US. Lankford supports the prioritization of security, starting with military bases. He supports expanding exploration of gas and oil both domestically and on the outer continental shelf. He opposes the EPA regulating emission standards as he believes it hinders economic growth. In addition to barring the EPA from regulating emission standards, Lankford believes manure and other fertilizers should not be classified as pollutants or hazardous. Lankford has stated his belief that federally funded healthcare is unconstitutional and has made a statement that he will oppose in and all moves for a federal healthcare system. He supported an initiative to allow Medicare choice and also institute budget cuts. Lankford opposes abortion rights. He supports banning all federally funded abortions and believes Congress should recognize life at the moment of fertilization. He opposes any federally funded healthcare or coverage programs that allow for abortion, as well as Planned Parenthood and other similar groups.”
On a personal level, Longman noted, Rep. Lankford is rather impressive. For much of his childhood, he was raised by his mother alone in modest conditions, and got an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He followed that up with a master’s degree in Divinity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. From there he became the program director of the largest Christian camp in the US. And, of course, he was elected to Congress. He’s not quite 46 years old, and he’s been very successful.
“He could be with us for a very long time.”
SUPREME COURT DENIES ORGANIC FARMERS DEFENSE AGAINST GMO SUITS. The US Supreme Court (1/13) denied a hearing for organic farmers who sought protection from lawsuits by the agrichemical and genetic engineering giant Monsanto if their fields were found inadvertently to have plants containing the company’s patented genetically modified traits. Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al v. Monsanto. Farmers were. Additionally, the high court decision dashes the hopes of family farmers who sought the opportunity to prove in court Monsanto’s genetically engineered seed patents are invalid.
“While the Supreme Court’s decision to not give organic and other non-GMO farmers the right to seek preemptive protection from Monsanto’s patents at this time is disappointing, it should not be misinterpreted as meaning that Monsanto has the right to bring such suits,” said Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and lead counsel to the plaintiffs in OSGATA et al v. Monsanto.
“Indeed, in light of the Court of Appeals decision, Monsanto may not sue any contaminated farmer for patent infringement if the level of contamination is less than one percent,” Ravicher explained. “For farmers contaminated by more than 1%, perhaps a day will come to address whether Monsanto’s patents may be asserted against them. We are confident that if the courts ever hear such a case, they will rule for the non-GMO farmers,” Ravicher stated.
A company lawyer told Reuters Monsanto had not sued for inadvertent use of its biotech seeds and did not plan to, but that it would not make a blanket promise to that effect. Lower courts held that none of those who sued had been injured.
From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2014
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