The US House of Representative is in chaos. John Boehner announced his intention to step down as Speaker at the end of October. There doesn’t appear to be anyone to take his place. The leading candidate, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, abruptly withdrew from the race (10/8). Another popular choice, Paul Ryan, says he’s not interested.

What happened? Judd Legum noted at ThinkProgress.org (10/9) that a document produced by the House Freedom Caucus and framed as a “questionnaire” effectively makes it impossible for any candidate to both 1) Get elected speaker, and 2) Not send the entire country (and maybe the world) over a cliff.

Legum writes that the House Freedom Caucus, a relatively new group of about 40 Republicans loosely associated with the Tea Party, has an extraordinary amount of power in this process. Any potential speaker needs the support of 218 Republicans on the floor of the House. There are currently 247 Republicans in the House. That’s a large majority but without the Freedom Caucus, no candidate can get to 218 (without support from Democrats).

The Freedom Caucus says they are just fighting for rule changes that will enhance “democracy” in the House. On CNN (10/8), David Brat, a prominent member of the Freedom Caucus after his surprise victory over Eric Cantor in 2014, outlined his criteria for a new speaker:

“Anyone that ensures a fair process for all sides. That’s what we are all looking for, right … We’ve shown principle. We are waiting for leadership candidates to put in writing moves that ensure you have a democratic process within our own conference. That is what everyone is waiting to see. And it’s got to be in writing, ahead of time for that to be credible.”

Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?

Politico (10/8) published the House Freedom Caucus “questionnaire” which it described as pushing for “House rule changes.” But the document also seeks substantive commitments from the next speaker that would effectively send the entire country into a tailspin, Legum noted.

For example, the document seeks a commitment from the next speaker to tie any increase in the debt ceiling to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The US will reach the debt limit Nov. 5. If the limit is not raised prior to that point, the US could default on its obligations. This could have disastrous effects on the economy of the US and worldwide. In 2013, a Treasury Department report found “default could result in recession comparable to or worse than 2008 financial crisis.”

Cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is extremely unpopular, even among Republicans. These programs are sacrosanct to most Democratic members of Congress. There is effectively no chance that President Obama or Senate Democrats — both of whom would need to support such legislation — would agree to “structural entitlement reforms” in the next month under these kind of conditions.

The House Freedom Caucus essentially wants to make it impossible for the next speaker to raise the debt ceiling. But that is just the beginning.

The House Freedom Caucus also wants the next speaker to commit to numerous conditions on any agreement to avoid a government shutdown:

The government will run out of money Dec. 11. Unless additional funding is approved before that date, the government will shut down.

The House Freedom Caucus wants the next speaker to commit to not funding the government at all unless President Obama (and Senate Democrats) agree to defund Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and a host of other priorities. This is essentially the Ted Cruz strategy which prompted at 16-day shutdown in 2013. This would now be enshrined as the official policy of the Speaker Of The House.

The House Freedom Caucus wants the next speaker to commit to oppose any “omnibus” bill that would keep the government running. Rather, funding for each aspect of government could only be approved by separate bills. This would allow the Republicans to attempt to finance certain favored aspects of government (the military), while shuttering ones they view as largely unnecessary (education, health).

For McCarthy, the document helps explain why he dropped out of the race. If he doesn’t agree to the demands of the House Freedom Caucus, he cannot secure enough votes to become speaker. But if he does agree to their demands, he will unable to pass legislation that is necessary to avoid disastrous consequences for the country.

McCarthy said that, even if he managed to get elected speaker, he doesn’t see how he would be able to have enough votes to extend the debt ceiling and keep the government open.

Asked by the National Review if he thought the House was governable, McCarthy said, “I don’t know. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.”

Top Republicans are calling Paul Ryan and begging him to be speaker. But thus far, he hasn’t agreed to run. None of the candidates currently running appear to have substantial support.

The agenda of the House Freedom Caucus makes a difficult job effectively impossible. Agreeing to their demands means presiding over a period of unprecedented dysfunction in the United States.

Even if a candidate was able to become speaker without formally agreeing to the Freedom Caucus’ most extreme requirements, one would still have to deal with the group — and a larger group of House Republicans sympathetic to them — in order to get anything done.

This is why Boehner wanted out and why no one really wants to take his place.

SENATE R’S MAY HOLD SOCIAL SECURITY, MEDICARE AS DEBT CEILING HOSTAGES. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell apparently is joining hardliners in the House in demanding significant changes in Social Security and Medicare in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and funding the government, Manu Raju reported at CNN.com (10/13).

“McConnell is seeking a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security recipients and new restrictions on Medicare, including limiting benefits to the rich and raising the eligibility age, several sources said. In addition, the Kentucky Republican is eager to see new policy riders enacted, including reining in the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean water regulations,” Raju reported, citing “several people familiar with the high-stakes fiscl negotiations.”

“White House officials are already rejecting such entitlement changes. But the demand by McConnell showcases the major gulf that exists between the two sides as they try to avoid a potential fiscal calamity if the United States fails to raise the national debt ceiling by Nov. 5 or stumbles into a government shutdown by mid-December.”

It’s unclear how firm of a line McConnell is willing to draw in the fiscal negotiations, Raju wrote. With 24 Republican Senate seats up next fall, including blue and purple states such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin, McConnell can’t afford to see his party take a major hit from yet another fiscal debacle.

JEB’S HEALTH PLAN: MORE DETAIL BUT WON’T ACCOMPLISH MUCH. The standard-issue conservative “replacement” for Obamacare is a familiar hodgepodge of tax credits, health savings accounts, high-risk pools, block granting of Medicaid, tort reform, and interstate purchase of health plans, Kevin Drum noted at MotherJones.com (10/13). “Today, Jeb Bush has broken the rules and offered up a plan that only includes the first four.”

“If you’re grading on a curve, that’s a promising start, and Jeb makes things even more interesting by actually offering up a fairly detailed set of alternatives to Obamacare,” Drum noted. A few highlights:

• He wants to “promote innovation” by speeding up FDA approvals, increasing funding for the NIH, establishing national standards for electronic health records (but, oddly, removing any incentive to abide by them), and conducting a “regulatory spring cleaning.” Some of this is standard conservative stuff, but not all of it.

• His plan provides a tax credit that can be used to buy private health insurance for anyone who doesn’t get health insurance through their employer. However, it sounds like the credit would be pretty small, probably on the order of a few thousand dollars.

• He wants to broaden the use of health savings accounts.

• He wants to get rid of Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax,” but he would replace it with something that sounds to me like it’s basically identical. Maybe I’m missing something here.

▪“States would be held accountable to ensure access for individuals with pre-existing conditions.” There’s a fair amount of gibberish here, and even Jeb doesn’t seem especially confident that it will work. However, it’s meaningless anyway since insurance companies wouldn’t be required to offer policies at the same rate to everyone (a.k.a. “community rating”). “States would report on access to care,” but that’s it. It appears that there’s nothing in Jeb’s plan that prevents insurance companies from simply charging sky-high prices to anyone with a pre-existing condition.

There is, of course, no mandate to buy insurance. This would be catastrophic for insurance companies, except for the fact that Jeb’s plan doesn’t require them to cover patients with pre-existing conditions in the first place.

Jeb almost fooled Drum by not mentioning block-granting of Medicaid. But of course that’s in there. He calls it “capped allotments” and pairs it up with a proposal to essentially deregulate state Medicaid plans completely but still “hold states accountable for outcomes”—though there’s not a single word about exactly what this means. Jeb’s allotment would grow at the rate of inflation, which means they’d get smaller every year since medical costs typically grow faster than inflation.

“Just about every serious health care plan that truly wants to expand coverage relies on a three-legged stool: mandates, community rating, and federal subsidies,” Drum noted. “Jeb’s plan doesn’t include the first two and offers only a stingy version of the third. It’s much more detailed than your average Republican plan, but in the end it would probably expand coverage hardly at all.”

DEMOCRATIC DEBATE DRAWS RECORD 15.3M VIEWERS. The Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas (10/13) averaged 15.3 mln viewers, easily making it the highest-rated Democratic debate ever and the sixth-biggest nonsports cable telecast in history. Another 980,000 people “live-streamed” the debate over the Internet.

For comparison’s sake, Money.CNN.com noted, the previous Democratic debate record was set in 2008, when Clinton and Barack Obama squared off in prime time on ABC. That debate had 10.7 mln viewers.

Heading into the Las Vegas debate, there was unanimous agreement that the total audience would be lower than the 25 mln who tuned in for Fox’s Republican debate (8/6). That debate — fueled by Donald Trump — shattered all previous primary debate records.

The Republican rematch on CNN (9/16) averaged more than 23 mln viewers, essentially confirming that the GOP debates are the highest-rated new “show” of the fall TV season. Another 921,000 live-streamed the GOP debate.

CLINTON HOLDS WIDE LEADS IN NEVADA, SOUTH CAROLINA. Going into the Democratic presidential debate (10/13), polls show Hillary Clinton in a tough race with Bernie Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire, but new CNN/ORC polls in Nevada and South Carolina show strong support for Clinton in those states that could prove a firewall for her.

Clinton had the support of 50% of those who say they are likely to attend the Democratic caucus scheduled for Feb 20 in Nevada — which hosted the first debate among the declared Democratic candidates and is the first state to elect delegates after Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders follows at 34%, then Vice President Joe Biden at 12%, with the rest of the field garnering less than 1% support.

Among those who say they are likely to vote in South Carolina’s primary, set for one week after Nevada’s caucuses, Clinton holds a larger edge, 49% to Biden’s 24%, with Sanders at 18% and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley at 3%.

Should Biden decide to sit out the race for the presidency, Clinton’s lead grows in both states. In South Carolina, a Biden-free race currently stands at 70% Clinton to 20% Sanders with O’Malley at 3%; and in Nevada, Clinton gains 8 points to 58%, while Sanders picks up just 2 points and would stand at 36%.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump still dominates in Nevada and South Carolina. Trump holds 38% support in Nevada, with Carson in second with 22%. In South Carolina, Trump doubles Carson’s support, 36% to 18%. No other candidate comes close to those top two in either state; the third-place candidate in each case has less than 10% support.

Trump’s backing in both states outpaced his support in most recent national polling, where he tends to draw around a quarter of Republican voters.

158 FAMILIES ACCOUNT FOR HALF OF POLITICAL SPENDING. Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 mln in the first phase of the 2016 campaign (nearly half of all money fueling the campaigns), a New York Times investigation found (10/10), and 87% of those donor families mostly back Republicans. Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago.

Charles P. Pierce noted at Esquire.com (10/12) that linking Citizens United to Watergate is both apt and destructive. “At its most fundamental core, Watergate was not merely an exercise in unaccountable criminal executive power, though it certainly was that. It also was a campaign-finance scandal. An unaccountable slush fund of millions of dollars was used to finance the break-in and all of the rest of what the late John Mitchell called, ‘the White House horrors.’ Almost all of the new legislation that emerged from the wreckage of the Nixon administration concerned campaign finance; there already being laws on the books against burglary, perjury, and obstruction of justice. All of those laws were swept away by the current Supreme Court in 2010.”

At the time that the Supreme Court legalized influence-peddling on a mass scale, Pierce noted, “we were told that all things would even out because labor unions, Hollywood, and SOROS! The Times investigation thoroughly demolishes that alibi. The decision prompted an oligarchical revolution in how we conduct the processes of democracy in this country, and that revolution has been financed almost completely by — and almost completely for the benefit of — the political right. And, no, I don’t believe a bunch of hedge-fund guys are shoveling money at their legislative sublets so that we can all have the opportunity to get rich by inventing the electric fork in our garages.  They are doing so for the same reason the oligarchs of the previous Gilded Age did so – to make sure that the messy business of representative democracy doesn’t touch their god-given right to buy the country for themselves, as the Times report goes on to explain.

The Times noted that in marshaling their financial resources chiefly behind Republican candidates, the donors also serve as a financial check on demographic forces that have been nudging the electorate toward support for the Democratic Party and its economic policies. Two-thirds of Americans support higher taxes on those earning $1 mln or more a year, according to a June New York Times/CBS News poll, while six in 10 favor more government intervention to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly seven in 10 favor preserving Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are. Republican candidates have struggled to improve their standing with Hispanic voters, women and African-Americans. But as the campaign unfolds, Republicans are far outpacing Democrats in exploiting the world of “super PACs,” which, unlike candidates’ own campaigns, can raise unlimited sums from any donor, and which have so far amassed the bulk of the money in the election.

Bernie Sanders, who has neither billionaires nor super PACs on his side, raised $15.2 mln for his insurgent campaign through June, with donations averaging about $30. He outraised Jeb Bush, who raised $11.4 mln through June, but that doesn’t include $108.5 mln raised by a super PAC supporting Bush. Hillary Clinton hauled in $47.5 mln while a super PAC supporting her reportedly has another $20.3 mln.

Sanders raised another $26 mln in the third quarter, ending 9/30, plus $1.4 mln from 44,000 individuals the night of the debate, with the average contribution $31.54, Sanders’ campaign said. Clinton reported raising $28 mln in the third quarter.

AFTER 5-YEAR PROBE, KANSAS FILES 3 VOTE-FRAUD CASES. After suspending the voting rights of 37,000 voters before the 2014 election, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach fulfilled his promise to prosecute election fraud, filing charges against three Kansas voters. His office filed two cases in Johnson County in the Kansas City area and one case in Sherman County in northwest Kansas.

Kobach told the Associated Press that each complaint deals with alleged double-voting incidents in 2010. Kobach said the Johnson County cases allege a married couple also voted in Arkansas. The Sherman County case alleges a man who voted there also voted in Colorado.

Jen Hayden noted at DailyKos.com (10/13) that Kobach is currently facing a federal lawsuit over the massive voter purge, “one that will no doubt cost the debt-ridden, cash-strapped Sunflower State even more of the precious little income trickling into the state. That's good ol' Republican fiscal conservatism for you!”

DEMS GAIN IN FLA. REDISTRICTING SUIT. Democrats may be able to gain a couple seats from the Florida congressional delegation after a state circuit judge overseeing the state’s redistricting challenges picked the plaintiffs’ proposed congressional maps over competing plans from the Republican-controlled legislature. Judge Terry Lewis’ recommendation (10/9) goes to the state Supreme Court for review, but Stephen Wolf noted at DailyKos.com (10/12) that the high court previously ruled against Republicans, so there’s reason to believe the R’s won’t have much luck getting anything changed in their favor.

The two sides were mainly squabbling over a handful of districts in South Florida. If the the trial court’s ruling survives an appeal, Wolf wrote, vulnerable freshman Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s 26th District will not become redder as the legislature intended. Instead, this district will see Obama’s margin of victory expand from 6 points to 11.5%. While Republicans in Miami-Dade County have a tendency to outperform Mitt Romney’s numbers, thanks in part to Cuban-American voters, that’s still a tough hill for any Republican to climb these days, which means Curbelo will be very vulnerable next year.

Elsewhere in the state, first-term Democratic Rep. Gwen Graham’s 2nd District loses much of its Democratic base in Tallahassee and, with Romney carrying the revised version by over 30 points, it would be extremely difficult for her to win re-election there. (Graham hasn’t announced her plans yet but could run for Senate instead, or wait until 2018 to run for governor.)

On the other hand, the Republican-held 13th District would have voted for Obama by 10.6 points now that the entire city of St. Petersburg is included within its borders. That makes it a very strong pickup shot for Democrats, especially if former Gov. Charlie Crist runs, as he’s suggested he will.

Another big prize for Democrats is Republican Rep. Dan Webster’s 10th District in Orlando, which flips from a Romney seat to one that Obama carried by 22%. Webster himself has acknowledged this seat would be unwinnable, so he’s been pursuing a bizarre campaign for House Speaker. The neighboring 9th District, which is being vacated by Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson (who’s running for the Senate), drops down to just a 12.7% Obama margin of victory, but with the Democratic trend in Central Florida along with presidential turnout, Democrats should be favored to retain it.

No other districts change by a significant enough margin to affect the likely 2016 partisan outcome. Overall, Democrats should net two seats as a result of redistricting: There’s a good chance they’ll pick up FL-10, FL-13, and FL-26 while losing FL-02. If Democrats can hold on to the open 18th District (which is basically unaffected by this map), Florida’s delegation would wind up with 15 Republican seats and 12 Democratic seats. That’s still a big advantage for the GOP, considering Obama carried the state twice, but it’s definitely an improvement.

FORMER BENGHAZI PROBER: PANEL IS ANTI-CLINTON. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) committed a classic D.C. gaffe when he admitted (9/29) that the panel was a taxpayer-financed political exercise intended to undermine Hillary Clinton. No one was especially surprised, though it raised questions about the committee’s continued existence.

The story took an even more dramatic turn when the New York Times reported (10/11) that Bradley F. Podliska, a major in the Air Force Reserve and a former investigator for Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi, plans to file a complaint in federal court that he was fired unlawfully in part because his superiors opposed his efforts to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in the Libyan city. Instead, they focused primarily on the role of the State Department and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, he said.

Committee Republicans said in a statement that they “vigorously” deny the allegations, and they stand ready “to prove his termination was legal, justified and warranted – on multiple levels.”

What they will not be able to do, however, is accuse Podliska of partisan motivations – the active-duty serviceman describes himself as a lifelong conservative Republican. And according to his account, the GOP’s Benghazi Committee fired him for focusing on Benghazi, instead of targeting the Democratic presidential candidate, Steve Benen noted at maddowblog.com (10/12).

AFTER 5-YEAR PROBE, KANSAS FILES 3 VOTE-FRAUD CASES. After suspending the voting rights of 37,000 voters before the 2014 election, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach fulfilled his promise to prosecute election fraud, filing charges against three Kansas voters. His office filed two cases in Johnson County in the Kansas City area and one case in Sherman County in northwest Kansas.

Kobach told the Associated Press that each complaint deals with alleged double-voting incidents in 2010. Kobach said the Johnson County cases allege a married couple also voted in Arkansas. The Sherman County case alleges a man who voted there also voted in Colorado.

Jen Hayden noted at DailyKos.com (10/13) that Kobach is currently facing a federal lawsuit over the massive voter purge, “one that will no doubt cost the debt-ridden, cash-strapped Sunflower State even more of the precious little income trickling into the state. That’s good ol’ Republican fiscal conservatism for you!”

CONSUMER ADVOCATE OPPOSES CHARTER TAKEOVER OF TIME WARNER CABLE. Free Press filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to deny” Charter Communications’ proposed $78.7 bln merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. If the transaction were approved, New Charter and Comcast together would form a national broadband duopoly controlling nearly two-thirds of existing customers and the telecommunications wires connected to nearly 8 out of every 10 US homes.

Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said the deal would create a national broadband duopoly of immense reach and power. “New Charter would emerge from this transaction with a whopping $66 bln in debt, a 70% increase above the total debt currently saddling the three companies involved in this deal. Charter can justify this price tag to investors in only one way: by promising to use its expanded market power to raise rates substantially and crush online video competitors.

“Leveraging monopoly power is the clear motivation behind this wasteful deal. The merger’s primary architect, John Malone, is a familiar face from cable’s original pay-TV days. Now he’s trying to take advantage of cable’s broadband monopoly, consolidate the video-programming distribution market and stifle competition to pay-TV from independent online video producers and distributors.

“The parties to this deal have failed to show that it would benefit consumers or enhance competition. They can’t point to any merger-specific benefits, and have instead dismissed in unconvincing fashion the deal’s likely harms. Like Comcast’s proposed takeover, this merger would pose a serious danger to the development of the streaming video industry, and thus to further development of the US advanced broadband market.”

See freepress.net.

‘MOTHER JONES’ WINS LAWSUIT FILED BY BILLIONAIRE POLITICAL DONOR. Mother Jones magazine won a legal victory for free speech when a state district judge in Idaho ruled in the magazine’s favor dismissing a defamation case filed by a major Republican donor, Frank VanderSloot, and his company, Melaleuca Inc.

Feb. 2, 2012, Mother Jones published an article about VanderSloot after it emerged that his company, Melaleuca, and its subsidiaries had given $1 mln to Mitt Romney’s super PAC. The piece noted that VanderSloot had gone to unusual lengths to oppose gay rights in Idaho, and that Melaleuca had run into trouble with regulators.

“VanderSloot’s lawyers sent us a letter complaining about the article. We reviewed their concerns and posted a correction about a few details. So far, not an uncommon scenario; it’s something every newsroom deals with from time to time,” Editor-in-Chief Monica Bauerlein and CEO Clara Jeffery wrote at MotherJones.com (10/8).

“But that September, we broke the story of Romney’s 47% comments, which some have argued cost the GOP the White House. Four months later, VanderSloot—who was also one of Gov. Romney’s national finance chairs—filed a defamation lawsuit against Mother Jones as well as Stephanie Mencimer, the reporter of the article, and Monika personally (for her tweet about the piece),” Bauerlein and Jeffery wrote.

Mother Jones faced a take-no-prisoners legal assault from VanderSloot and Melaleuca that consumed two and a half years and cost $2.5 mln in legal fees. In the course of the litigation, VanderSloot also sued a former small-town Idaho newspaper reporter whose confrontation with him Mother Jones mentioned in the article. His lawyers asked a judge to let them rifle through internal records of the Obama campaign. “They deposed a representative of the campaign in pursuit of a baseless theory that Mother Jones conspired with Obama’s team to defame VanderSloot. They tried to get one of our lawyers disqualified because his firm had once done work for Melaleuca. They intrusively questioned our employees—our reporter was grilled about whether she had attended a Super Bowl party the night she finalized the article,” Bauerlein and Jeffery wrote.

“This was not a dispute over a few words. It was a push, by a superrich businessman and donor, to wipe out news coverage that he disapproved of. Had he been successful, it would have been a chilling indicator that the 0.01% can control not only the financing of political campaigns, but also media coverage of those campaigns.”

Ultimately, state District Judge Darla Williamson found that Mother Jones did not defame VanderSloot or Melaleuca because “all of the statements at issue are non-actionable truth or substantial truth.” The court also found that the statements were protected as fair comment under the First Amendment.

Despite the dismissal of his claims, VanderSloot highlighted sections in Williamson’s decision criticizing Mother Jones’ reporting as “non-objective” and resorting to “sophomoric bullying and name-calling to lead the reader to adopt its particular agenda.”

VanderSloot has endowed a $1 million fund earmarked for lawsuits against so-called “liberal” news outlets, Boise Weekly reported.

“It will be a mission for me for the rest of my life to hold the press accountable,” VanderSloot said, according to the Associated Press.

Mother Jones' legal fight is a victory for all political journalism. If you can, throw a few dollars their way. Contributions to Mother Jones are tax deductible.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2015


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