Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Crocodile Tears From The Corporate Right

If you're tired of talking about inequality now, we have a feeling that by the time August gets done you'll be ready to do whatever it takes to get politicians to make inequality go away - which may indeed be part of the President's broader plan.

The fact is, severe inequality is at the root of nearly every major political dispute going on in America right now - which is why President Obama is absolutely correct in focusing on trying to solve it.

We're well aware that Republicans and those on the corporate right want the discussion of this topic to go away. They're already bawling crocodile tears to right-wing media outlets about one part of the President's "Grand bargain for middle-class jobs' that he laid out in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Tuesday.

As the President himself admitted, parts of that plan are items he's already offered in the past, multiple times. For example, the President's proposal to drop the top corporate tax rate, in exchange for closing tax loopholes that corporations use to get out of paying their taxes, is one he's made before, repeatedly.

One of the newer pieces of the President's plan, however, is the prevalence of the idea of an increase in the minimum wage, to effectively make it a living wage. Of course, as soon as the corporate right hears this phrase, they immediately explode into tears as fake as their concern for the working class of America.

As Jamelle Bouie pointed out on Tuesday, business in America would actually really like to have a plan like the one President Obama suggested at the Amazon warehouse in Kentucky on Tuesday. When corporate tax rates fall and the government invests in new infrastructure, business gets a win-win situation.

Ironically, as Bouie also pointed out, American corporate executives want the kinds of jobs that Amazon became notorious for in 2012, when investigative journalist Mac McClelland exposed Amazon's warehouses as less then desirable places to work.

The key fact remains, however, that in an economy fueled by consumer spending, if consumers don't have money to spend, that economy will be running on fumes. If those consumers have enough money to live decently, those consumers - who are also often the workers for companies in that economy - will go out and spend that money, and the company will end up making more money and being more successful.

Contrary to right-wing blowhards, raising the minimum wage does not increase unemployment. As a new study shows, if corporations like McDonalds used their resources wisely, for less than 70 cents more per Big Mac, the entire company could double the salaries of every low-wage worker in their company.

To anyone not blinded by partisan rhetoric and classist weeping, President Obama's plan for middle class jobs is a big win for Americans of all economic classes and American businesses too. That still won't prevent the corporate right from bawling those crocodile tears to their propaganda outlets.

If you'd like to stop their hypocritical blubbering though, we recommend you do as the President did in Chattanooga: Ask them to present their own alternative plan that will help working poor of America.

We'll guarantee then all you'll hear from the right is silence...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The American Dream, Hijacked

It's not often these days that we focus on a topic two days in a row. However, with a topic as important as inequality, we didn't think we could do any less.

It's not an exaggeration when we say poverty, brought on by inequality, is one of the single most damaging things Americans are doing to each other, and our nation. To say the kind of poverty that steals stable retirement from older Americans, home ownership from middle-aged Americans, and the entire future of America from our young is a monster is actually understating things a bit.

In fact, according to the results of a decades old study, first written about earlier this month in the Philadelphia Enquirer, children born into severe poverty actually fare worse than babies born to crack-addicted mothers.

That's right - poverty is a worse monster than crack.

That monster, right now, is destroying the American dream, as we pointed out in our commentary Monday, and as President Obama is planning to highlight multiple times a week, every week, for the near-term future.

Even in the face of both the Associated Press study, and the Philadelphia study, there are still those people who will insist such a monster is just a figment of one's imagination, a nightmare that will affect somebody else over the next few years. Many Americans, however, already acknowledge that inequality-based poverty is a waking nightmare.

According to the Pew Research Center, one third of Americans now say they're no longer part of the middle class - they see themselves in the lower economic classes in America, and they don't see that changing anytime soon.

Sadly, a Harvard study, featured in the New York Times online last week, confirms what all of the other studies have said. It's not just your own ability or motivation that determines if you or your child (or your grandchild) can grow up to be successful, healthy, and prosperous anymore. Where you and your children were born - both as a matter of geography and as a matter of economics - determines your access to opportunity and success more than any other single factor.

When the 400 richest people in America are now wealthier than the bottom 60% of the rest of the country, this is a nation out of balance.

It's not a wonder, then, that a growing movement of America's fast food workers, in order to fight for a living wage for a fair day's work, is ending up in one-day strikes, at locations across the nation. For people willing to work two and sometimes three jobs, doing the kinds of work most Americans might find beneath them, it shouldn't surprise anyone that they're angry. Inequality in America right now, to them, means that no matter how hard they try, it's not currently possible for most of them to  have the opportunity to improve their lot in life.

Anyone who knows their history can tell you - this kind of nightmare often leads to an even more grotesque vision of horrors, as the aristocracy found when the people rose up in the days of the French Revolution.

Let's hope Americans wake up sooner, rather than later, because right now, the American dream is only a dream for most, while reality is a nightmarish monster.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Stupid Poor Of America

As we pointed out last Thursday, President Obama finally seems to have had enough of the perpetual obstructions of Republicans, especially on the issue of income inequality in America. If that wasn't clear before last week, it should have become so for most Americans during the President's interview with the New York Times, that was released over the weekend.

Add to the President's interview an exclusive Associated Press study, also released over the weekend, that made it even more clear: Income inequality and instability in America is - just as President Obama has said it was - the worst single problem we're currently facing today. According to that AP study, "Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives." That's a real blow to the long-held idea that hard work in America leads to success.

The numbers don't get any better when you dig into the study. As Ryan Cooper points out in Washington Monthly, the study's gauge of economic insecurity is defined as, "…a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent."

With those hard facts starting us in the face, and President Obama's angry frustration that Republicans continue to block any progress in fighting inequality, you needed to look no further than a group of Nebraska Republicans to understand the GOP's attitude that poor Americans must be poor as a lifestyle choice.

That feudalistic attitude was certainly on display recently when Nebraska Republican State Auditor Mike Foley gave a speech in conjunction with the right-wing group Americans For Prosperity. Foley was speaking about how the State Auditors office had found federal energy assistance checks, that are nominally for helping to pay the electric bills of poor people, used at places like Wal-Mart for the galling purpose of things like food!

It wasn't just that Foley hinted that he thought poor people were stupid. He came right out and said, "Now if you are a low-income person, you’re probably not managing your money very well anyway. Sorry to stereotype, but that’s true."

That 80% of America is now at some point in their lives, for more than a year, reliant on federal aid like food stamps means that Auditor Foley just called 80% of Nebraskans, and indeed 80% of Americans, stupid, at an event where his audience appeared to agree with him. It's not just a poor minority or racial problem, either. More than 19 million white Americans, according to the AP study, now make up the economically destitute at some point in their lives.

It's no mystery that Foley has since backed down on his comments, after Nebraska Democrats pointed out his classist arrogance. Foley's comments, and indeed the actions of Republicans at many levels of government today, reflect exactly the reason President Obama is so intent on fighting both economic inequality and inequality of opportunity.

Those comments also reflect the sad reality that Ana Marie Cox pointed out in The Guardian last week, and again in television appearances over the weekend: The "middle class" moniker so many Americans have used to define themselves for most of the last 40 years, "…is starting to adjust to sad reality: Americans don't think of themselves as "middle class", because they're not."

Of course, if you're a Republican like Mike Foley, you likely don't think those non-middle class Americans had some bad luck, or maybe lost their life savings because of the criminals on Wall Street. No, if you're like Mike Foley, those poor Americans are just too stupid to know how to manage their money correctly.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Usual? Not This Time...

While this week we've been focusing on complex topics like the President's plan to tackle inequality, the ongoing sabotage governing by Congressional Republicans, and race issues, many of our professional colleagues were diddling around with Anthony Weiner stories. Others were grabbing quickie tales about Bob Filner, or creating Buzzfeed-like posts along the lines of 'The 7 lavish illicit gifts Virginia's Governor Bob McDonnell recieved.'

For the record - if it wouldn't void our journalistic ethics - every member of our staff would like a ride in the Ferrari that Gov. McDonnell got to "borrow."

It's not that there haven't been hugely important stories to cover this week. From Rep. Steve King's impressively ignorant and racist anti-immigration rants, to the blame-shifting blather and willfully wrong lies about who's to blame for Detroit's failure, to the Justice Department's new challenge of unjust voter laws in states like Texas and North Carolina, there's been no shortage of real news.

Today is Friday though, and for members of Congress and their staff, it's almost time for their annual August recess, aka "summer vacation." We know many members of both the House and Senate have plenty of activities planned in their home districts, and some staff members we know personally are going to use their staycations to try to get caught up on things they've missed dearly - like sleep.

We'd recommend to our friends on the Hill, however, that they hold off from getting too comfortable.

As we noted in Thursday's edition, President Obama and his supporters are obviously not going to be taking a break during August. Their plans are clear: Roll out to events all over the nation, and push Republicans and Democrats in Congress to actually get stuff done when they they get back to DC. For their part, the Congressional Republican leadership also made it clear to their members this week, with their 'Summer Break Packet', that August shouldn't be thought of as a month to relax by the pool and eat bonbons.

That GOP packet makes it clear - the Republican events next month may look more like the town halls of hatred that were ginned up against Obamacare in August of 2009. Already, right-wing propaganda organizations and well-trained puppet governors on the right are trying to crank up the fear machine in advance of those town hall meetings.

Not everyone is planning on a month of heat and hatred though. As Greg Sargent of The Plum Line blog at the Washington Post noted, Congressional Democrats also have a plan of their own they may put into action next month. Instead of heatedly pointing fingers at all the usual suspects on who's to blame, and not doing anything, House and Senate Democrats are proposing the idea of joint town halls, Republicans and Democrats together, focusing calmly on ideas to fix a big problem - like immigration.

That may not sound like the usual procedure for an August recess, but to us it sure sounds like a welcome change of pace to the yelling, screaming, overheated, and ultimately pointless town hall gatherings of the past. It even reminds us a bit of the cool-headed approach displayed during the Amash/Conyers Amendment debate in the House this week.

Think about it - instead of pointless accusations, yelling and screaming? Cool, logical, productive debate instead, in the heat of August.

Might be worthwhile to try somethin' different this year...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Removing The Blockage

Before you read today's commentary, if you haven't yet read, watched or listened to the President's seminal economic speech on Wednesday, do it now. If you miss the President's talk, you'll be as clueless and unable to follow our commentary today as the tea party parasites on the back of the GOP.

Contrary to snarky Beltway criticism, or the partisan bellyaching of Boehner and Republicans, Wednesday's address wasn't just the President simply laying out a similar progressive economic plan to ones he's laid out previously. In part, this is because - as many in the media still don't seem to understand - President Obama's Wednesday stop at Knox College was just the first in a series of addresses, visits, and town hall meetings, across the nation, that President Obama is going to be heavily involved in over the next eight weeks.

In short, if more of our colleagues actually understood both what the President was saying, and what he wasn't saying, then they'd deduce that President Obama's speech was more like a doctor's declaration of war - both on the GOP's parasite of tea party extremism, as well as the festering failed right-wing policy ideas like austerity and trickle-down economics. As Greg Sargent put it, Obama is going to use the bully pulpit to break the austerity curse of the GOP. Or as E.J. Dionne put it, the President is going big.

Keeping in line with our own medical imagery, you might even say President Obama is going to finally lance the monstrous boil of obstruction on the backside of the GOP that has effectively ground this nation's progress to a halt.

Obama's address was billed as a policy speech, though if policy speeches are all about details, then Ezra Klein was right when he said that the speech wasn't long on policy. Frankly, it didn't have to be. Sure, the President's six part plan is clearly laid out on the White House website. But we believe part of his real goal was to light a fire under the cowering moderate Republicans in Congress, and their too-quiet Democratic colleagues, to let them know he's got their back.

Indeed, last night in the House, that group of centrists from both parties - obviously fed up with the obstructionist methods of the right-wing tea party extremists and old-guard "leaders" from both parties - staged a near-coup, of sorts. Progressive Democrat John Conyers, and libertarian-leaning Republican Justin Amash forced a vote on an amendment that would have effectively returned the NSA's powers back to pre-9/11 levels, in the collection of phone records. There were passionate speeches from both Republicans and Democrats, and some alliances that seemed quite odd.

Ultimately, the amendment failed - but only barely, 205-217. More importantly, what the exercise may have proven to members of the House is something Republicans in the Senate have already been finding: That they have plenty of common cause with members of the other party who actually wish to govern.

Let's hope both the President and those members of Congress who truly care about the success of all Americans, succeed in the next eight weeks at dislodging the barnacle of obstructionism.

As the President obviously believes, it's time we got America - including Congress - healthy, and back to serious work.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Point Blank Stupidity

Today, President Obama is going to be giving a major speech on the economy, politics, and economic inequality at 1PM Eastern. While we'll be covering the speech - which is really a kickoff to some major actions the President is planning to take with or without Republicans in Congress - the one thing we're certain of is that the President isn't going to self-destruct politically at the podium.

That may seem an odd thing to say, if it weren't for all the other politicians recently who've effectively been blowing their own political heads clean off. The number of fools on both sides of the aisle committing this act of stupidity these days is stunning, even to our staff of experienced journalists and political scholars.

Just yesterday, the major politicians who blew themselves away include Virginia's Republican Governor Bob McDonald, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, former Congressman and current Democratic New York City Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, and current Democratic Mayor of San Diego Bob Filner. We're not even including the North Carolina state legislature, or the GOP in general, on issues like the debt ceiling and immigration.

With all these headless political hedonists running around, you'd think that when a controversy like the recent Zimmerman/Martin case centered around a singular state-level law, most states would want to look at their own laws, and see if they too were ripe for a similar explosive legal, political, and social disaster.

That doesn't appear to be the case in Florida, or any other number of so-called 'Stand Your Ground' states.

Even after countless studies - including a fairly definitive version from Texas A&M, quoted by everyone from NPR to right-wing nutjob Glenn Beck's website 'The Blaze' - some politicians keep refusing to believe the data. Instead, they believe the propaganda pushed by groups like the NRA or ALEC, both of whom receive substantial financial backing from gun manufacturers. Often, those same politicians also benefit from NRA-related campaign donations.

That's why a growing number of artists and entertainers have decided to hit states and cities in a way politicians and residents of 'Stand Your Ground' states will likely pay attention to, whether they're personally pro-gun or anti-gun. The approach for these entertainers? An unending boycott of those 'Stand Your Ground' states.

Stars from Stevie Wonder to Madonna, and from the Rolling Stones to Usher have already cancelled concerts and appearances, costing cities and states potentially millions of dollars in lost tax revenues that won't likely be quickly or easily replaced.

While some who support the boycott lean Democratic, there are also some Republicans who deserve credit for looking at the facts and deciding 'Stand Your Ground' laws at least need a second look. Those people include Senator John McCain, who has called for a review of 'Stand Your Ground' laws nationwide, as well as Georgia's Republican Governor Nathan Deal - definitely not a long-haired hippie anti-gun politician.

No matter what your position on gun rights, the facts are clear that 'Stand Your Ground' laws should be re-evaluated in all states. The remaining question, especially if you're a politician responsible at the state level, is crystal clear: Do you really want to play the political version of Russian Roulette?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hubris Under Glass

For our entire staff, and many others we know in the political and media worlds, the many novels of Stephen King have been, if nothing else, great entertainment over the last 30 years. One of Mr. King's more recent books, "Under the Dome," has even been made into a TV series this summer, that Nielsen watchers say has been summer ratings gold - even if the acting is less than stellar.

We honestly think Mr. King might have been able to make his disaster/sci-fi TV mini-series on a smaller budget, had he just filmed a series of documentaries about how Americans are faring under the all-too-real catastrophe of sequestration.

Yes, sequestration - the topic that makes every myopically focused, ratings addicted media executive scream in terror - is back in the news, for those who are done freaking out about the birth of the progeny of the House of Windsor.

From the military to the legal system, and from housing to Head Start, while much of the media has continued to ignore the effects of the sequester, the facts are clear that the sequester is already slamming those Americans who often work hardest and can afford these cuts the least. Meanwhile, Congress - and especially House Republicans - continue to remain safely under their own version of a dome, politically protected from most of the damage their near total incompetence has created.

Real cracks are beginning to show in parts of that dome though, as evidenced by the remarks of former U.S. Senator and current U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Monday, at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Hagel admitted flat-out that the sequester is already destroying America's military readiness - and warned that things will get worse if Congress doesn't get off their asses and do something.

Sadly, as both Greg Sargent and Steve Benen have discussed for months now, this kind of sabotage governing - if it can be called governing at all - is about the only thing the extremist Republicans in the House will allow right now.

What's worse, as Sahil Kapur points out, in House GOP draft legislation for the 2014 budget, House Republicans are bullheadedly insisting that even more austerity cuts be made to nearly every corner of government, from the EPA, to the arts, to parks, fish and wildlife. Every corner, that is, except the ones that touch the fat asses of those who think they're protected under their own political dome.

For all those who still blame President Obama for not single-handedly rescuing the entire American economy, the fact is, President Obama can't do entirely on his own what's needed to get the American economy really humming again. That doesn't mean that he's not doing what he can, using the bully pulpit and the power of the Presidency this week to pivot the economy into the center of public discussion once again.

Congress, however - and especially the House Republican caucus - continues to remain blindingly ignorant of the fact that like Mr. King's summer mini-series, their own dome of political protection isn't going to last forever.

If members of Congress want to have something to show their constituents when they run for re-election in 2014, to prove that they can indeed govern, now would be the time for them to drop their ideological shields, in favor of very real compromise.

Will that happen? Not bloody likely.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Facing Down The Monsters

Americans have a history of cowardice when it comes to facing complex subjects.

On everything from race to health insurance, too often our leaders at all levels seem to avoid these complex subjects like the plague. So it was surprising but gratifying to see President Obama address race personally and directly in unscripted remarks from the White House press room last Friday afternoon.

Of all the complicated issues in America, race is one of the most complex. As Jamelle Bouie noted, "The idea of race was shaped on American soil, and racism — as a system, as an ideology — is part of our national DNA." To know that the President himself, in just the last dozen years, has personally experienced the injustice of being profiled while simply being black in America was both cathartic and - in light of the ongoing discussion of the ruling in the Zimmerman/Martin case - humbling, especially for many white Americans.

As Ed Kilgore wrote, no matter what you think about the President's remarks, you can't pretend the experiences and the history of African-Americans aren't relevant to the discussion of race. Yet many on the right freaked out after the President's comments on race, desperately trying - and failing - to discount the life experiences of black Americans. At the same time, their despicable comments tried to defend the racism and ignorance of some whites as acceptable.

In a similar way, Republicans across America tried and failed to defend their ignorance and classism on the issue of Obamacare over the weekend. Like a monster that keeps trying and failing to scare children, the Obamacare opposition is loud, ugly, and leaves piles of crap in its wake. However, as we noted last Friday, the continuing bluster from that opposition is not stopping the ACA from moving forward.

Even so, over the weekend, House Speaker John Boehner promised even more pointless votes in the House to try and kill Obamacare. Yet three years after passing the Affordable Care Act - also known as 'Obamacare' - Republicans still have no alternative ideas, let alone any viable replacement legislation. What they have is fear and misinformation.

This was obvious on Friday, when - in the wake of the massive amount of factual information about the health insurance system (that we featured in our extended Friday edition) - the state of Indiana published a misleading and flawed announcement about Obamacare rates in their state. Thankfully, by Saturday afternoon, Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post's Wonkblog had already published a debunk and a clarification of Indiana's lies.

Both race and health insurance are complicated issues that are hard to understand. More than any other single group in America today, those on the American political right seem to fear that which they do not understand - and they nearly always react these days with knee-jerk stupidity. Fear-mongering, sadly, has become the GOP's sole method of motivation over the last fifteen years, and it is the primary driver behind most right-wing media today.

Today's young people, however, don't seem to be buying into all the fear. This is reflected not just in the dismal numbers of new voters joining the Republican Party, but also in polls and through the actions of young Americans on complex issues like race. That was a point President Obama made in his remarks on Friday, as Greg Sargent sagely noticed.

The President observed that his kids and their generation are better at handling the complex issue of race than his contemporaries, or any of us are currently doing. Chances are likely the next generation will also be much better about handling issues of public conscience like health care for all Americans.

Kids these days are not afraid of facing complex issues head on. Too bad more of our current leaders aren't willing to learn from their generation.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Talking The Talk, With Suprising Results

It's Friday again, thankfully, and to our complete lack of surprise, there are far more topics to talk about fully than we have space for here.

On a positive note, after Mitch McConnell and the Republican extremists in the Senate got their heads nearly handed to them, Congress - specifically the Senate - actually got a few things done this week. Multiple members of President Obama's cabinet were approved by the Senate, and the Senate even managed to put together a student loan deal that might fix the ongoing student loan interest rate problem. Those were both nice surprises this week.

Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and their Wonkblog teammates released an incredibly thorough and detailed breakdown of Obamacare yesterday at the Washington Post, which we recommend you take a look at this weekend. Greg Sargent, also at the WaPo, pointed out the unsurprising fact that no matter how the right wing stamps their feet and tries poorly to obstruct progress, the battle over universal health care coverage is over. Spoiler alert - the anti-Obama folks lost, for good.

In neither good or surprising news, Detroit filed for bankruptcy this week, the largest city in the United States to ever to do so. It also wasn't surprising that the Texas Legislature had their 20 week abortion ban signed into law by Gov. Rick "I can't remember the third one" Perry. The Texas Leg also went a bit farther, overreaching as they try to create a six week abortion ban - which will likely end up being blown out as such restrictions are unconstitutional.

We were also sadly unsurprised by the racism and ignorance displayed by so many this week, in the wake of the verdict surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Like 'The Talk' about race and judgment that nearly every parent of an African-American child must have with their kids, we knew that no matter what the jury decided in the Zimmerman trial, there would be a lot of talk about race, racism, and exactly what kind of people walk around with semi-invisible bull's eyes on them, in modern America.

What we didn't expect this week was to see the ugliness of race and racism infect an event we'd been waiting a whole year to see, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

Two separate incidents riled the inbred redneck portion of the All-Star audience this week: the post-Home Run Derby interview with the winner, Cuban-born Yoenis Céspedes, and the singing of "God Bless America" at the All-Star game by American-born, Grammy-winning bilingual singer Marc Anthony.

We may be a little biased, having a professional linguist on our staff, but the idea that Céspedes spoke mostly Spanish in his post-derby interview didn't really bother us that much. For the ignorant and intolerant in America, however, the idea that the winner of America's national home run contest chose to speak both Spanish and English was a horror nearly as bad as being stalked to death by a neighborhood watchman with a gun, and an itchy trigger finger.

As Gregg Doyle of CBS Sports made blisteringly clear on Thursday, bilingual Americans are indeed America's future. For all the flak Trayvon Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel got from the right wing about her less-than-perfect English, the fact that Ms Jeantel is fluent in at least three languages is one they constantly overlooked ths week - which didn't surprise us at all.

For all the ugliness we saw and heard this past week, and all the injustice we witnessed, we think it's important to remember what one of our friends of an African-American child told us, when we asked about their reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.

"We had 'The Talk' and he knows how to behave," she said about her young son. "He's a good boy and, God willing, he'll become a good man. All I can do now is count our blessings at the end of the week, and remember those angry ignorant people are the exception, not the rule."

Truthfully, that's all most of us can do in life: Count our blessings, remember the worst people in life are the exception, then get back on the playing field of life and knock the cover off the ball.

Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The High Cost Of Low Information

As the media circus surrounding the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story begins to ebb, and the fallout from the near-nuclear actions in the Senate settles, many in the media are being forced at the height of summer to run around and do something they appear to desperately hate: enage in real journalism and reporting.

Admittedly, on the reporting front, some of our colleagues in DC had an easy day Wednesday, as the perpetually unproductive House GOP slammed their collective head against the rock of Obamacare again, attempting to repeal all or part of it for the 67th time. There was also a bit of excitement in the media about the latest edition of Rolling Stone, as well as a couple of major stories about the ongoing Mid-East turmoil.

What we didn't notice our media colleagues paying much attention to, as they zipped across town from interview to appointment, is that gas prices went up an average of 15 cents nationwide this past week. Of course, the unrest in Egypt and Syria has a lot to do with the current jump in the pump price - but considering the study we saw yesterday, we can't complain too much.

That study, from the group "Consumer Watchdog," says that if the Keystone XL pipeline is allowed to be built, Americans will have even more to worry about than their already-fragile water supply. The Midwestern section of the United States will also get the not-so-hidden benefit of a 40 cent bump to the base cost of a gallon of gas, as the oil companies try to suck the American people dry.

That bump to prices will come in part because TransCanada will naturually choose not to help the Midwesterners over whose water supply the new pipeline would be built. Rather, TransCanada would actually be using the pipeline to effectively bypass the U.S., shipping the oil from the Gulf of Mexico while significantly decreasing the amount of oil available for Americans in the Midwest.

The story goes even deeper than Keystone though. There's another oil company attempting to fast-track yet another pipeline through the approval process of the Army Corps of Engineers. That other Midwest pipeline could carry even more tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico - which would likely increase the cost of gas in the Midwest even more.

The name of the company behind the other pipeline, Enbridge, Inc. of Calgary, Canada, may ring a bell for you. They're the geniuses responsible for the disastrous oil spill in Michigan three years ago that still isn't 100% cleaned up. What's worse, Enbridge is looking to get their new pipeline approved under a special permit process which would allow them to ignore the rigorous Clean Water Act standards - even though this new pipeline would cross the largest inland river in America, the Mississippi River.

We can't say we're surprised at the gall of the oil companies, who long ago lost any ability to be cowed by shame or reason. They've made it clear many years ago: Their entire reason for being is to suck as much money as possible out of the pockets of every American, and damn consequences to the environment or the American people.

What keeps amazing us is that so many American people keep acting like the oil companies have not only sucked out their money - but sucked out their brains to boot.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nuclear Option Fallout

As we noted in our extended edition on Tuesday, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid did not end up pushing the button on the "nuclear option" that would have changed the filibuster rules in the Senate.

Like Ed Kilgore at The Washington Monthly, some of our staff members were a bit disappointed that Sen. Reid didn't lay legislative waste to the long-abused rules of the Senate filibuster. Still, Tuesday's deal with Senate Republicans to at least modify how the Senate uses the filibuster was a major win, both for Harry Reid and indeed for the Senate itself.

As Greg Sargent explained at The Plum Line blog, the agreement is fairly simple. Under the new rules, President Obama's nominations for all open Executive Branch positions will get more than 60 votes to break any filibuster on cloture. In practical terms, that means President Obama now only needs a majority vote in the Senate for confirmation of his choices.

Democrats also didn't agree to put the legislative nuke back in its silo - meaning Senate Republicans will continue to have the fallout from the near-nuclear option hanging over their heads for the foreseeable future. While some Republicans still see this whole event as a giant turkey, as Sahil Kapur noted at TPM, the deal still leaves the 60-vote threshold alive for nearly everything else in the Senate.

Finally, in exchange for Republicans discontinuing their nullification-by-filibuster policy, Democrats had to agree to replace two of President Obama's nominees for the National Labor Relations Board with two new nominees, chosen by the president, in consultation with labor groups. The White House wasted no time choosing new nominees, sending over the names of two new nominees for the NLRB before dinnertime on Tuesday.

While there is still some grumbling on all sides, the deal to avoid enacting the nuclear option isn't really a giant turkey for either Republicans or Democrats.

The arrangement, worked out by Sen. John McCain - who effectively depantsed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell politically by going around him to actually work WITH Senate Democrats - will work to the advantage of whichever party holds both the White House and the Senate majority in the future. It also tends to turn down the temperature in the Senate by lessening a major route for immature "payback" and pure obstructionism - which in theory should mean the Senate has more time to actually get bills passed.

As Dave Weigel of Slate noted, if Americans actually paid attention to the recent history of the Senate, Tuesday's last-minute de-fuse of the nuclear option shouldn't really have been too big a surprise.

Still, as Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic made clear, Sen. Reid and the Democrats got a very big win over McConnell and the Republicans. So did every American who truly cares about protecting themselves and their fellow citizens from the predatory monsters on Wall Street, as well as those Americans fighting to build and strengthen unions.

On an effective basis, the filibuster in the Senate really was reformed on Tuesday, meaning that more actual governing may once again happen in Washington - at least outside the reach of the House of Representatives.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Time To Light 'Em Up

While the temps near our DC offices are forecast to get near 100ºF this week, we have no doubt that inside the Old Senate Chambers last night, and inside the normal Senate chambers today, will be where the real heat is at.

As you may know, the full U.S. Senate - all 100 members - met yesterday evening in the Old Senate Chambers to discuss a possible way around Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoking the infamous "nuclear option" in the U.S. Senate. Since no deal was reported out of that meeting, we fully expect Majority Leader Reid to push ahead with all seven votes on President Obama's nominees this morning.

If Sen. McConnell and the Republican leaders in the Senate balk, stall, or try to obstruct a vote on any of those nominees, Sen. Reid has confirmed he will push the metaphorical button, and use the so-called nuclear option to change the rules in the U.S. Senate. That the Republicans' obstructionist ways will finally blow up in their faces shouldn't surprise anyone - and frankly, this rule change isn't anything to fear.

The level of rule change Majority Leader Reid is looking for isn't a complete elimination of the filibuster in the Senate. Rather, it's an adjustment that actually brings the Senate closer to both the letter and the intent of the Constitution, specifically Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 - The Appointments Clause.

The Appointments Clause empowers the President of the United States to appoint individuals to positions, including cabinet level agencies, with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. There's nowhere in this clause, or in any of our country's founding documents that says this power had a duel use, as both a way to confirm nominees and a way for the Senate to prevent a President from picking the people that President wants to work with in the Cabinet. The Senate is simply supposed to advise, and then, if a majority of Senators agrees, consent to the President's nomination. That's a majority of Senators - not a supermajority.

Yet, as Sen. Reid noted in his Monday press conference at the Center For American Progress, Republicans in the Senate have used the filibuster at such a high rate, if they continue at this pace, before the end of his second term, they'll have blocked more of President Obama's appointments than all other Presidents have had blocked by the Senate, combined.

There's absolutely no reason for this kind of nullification tactic by Republicans - or anyone else for that matter. Indeed, as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted Monday morning and as Sen Tom Harkin of Iowa noted Monday afternoon, Republicans aren't filibustering President Obama's nominees for any reason other than as an act of nullification.

As Sargent also correctly noted, even longtime GOP House and Senate staffer Richard Arenberg conceded last week that the way Republicans have been using the filibuster to block presidential nominees under President Obama has been effectively "poking the Democrats with a sharp stick."

That Harry Reid has finally been pushed to the point of using the Constitution to blow away at least some of the pointless and infantile obstruction of the Republican Party may blow back a bit in the faces of Democrats, true.

More likely, though, using the "nuclear option" to fix the Senate, and make it more functional again, will force sane Republicans in the Senate to truly take on the tea bag extremists in their own party - and that's an explosion we've been waiting a long time to see.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Symbols Of Injustice

"Even when we already know the likely outcome of some events, we can still be amazed at how some of those events unfold - and how persons involved in those events can justify horrible outcomes as acceptable."

That's how we began a commentary back in 2012 about stupidity in law and politics, in which we wrote about George Zimmerman's murder of Trayvon Martin. Sadly, we didn't know how prophetic those words would be.

In case you missed the news, on Saturday night, George Zimmerman - a man who admitted to shooting and killing the unarmed, innocent, barely 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida in February of 2012 - was acquitted of second degree murder in a Florida courtroom. While George Zimmerman may be legally not guilty of second degree murder, he will never escape the fact he killed an innocent boy.

Even so, George Zimmerman got to go home. He'll likely get his gun back. Trayvon Martin is still dead, and the legal system in Florida - because it cannot be called a justice system - failed him. That system isn't some mechanical thing, though. That so many groups and individuals failed the innocent Trayvon Martin hasn't been lost on us.

To start with, Mr. Zimmerman, who was supposed to be a "Neighborhood Watch Captain" failed in his duties, completely. Not only should Zimmerman - a man convicted of assault more than once - not have been carrying a weapon on his neighborhood watch duties. He shouldn't have even been allowed to carry a gun. Sadly, we've discussed the failures of the gun lobby to be responsible more times than we'd care to count in these pages.

The Florida legislature also failed the young Trayvon Martin - though we have a strong suspicion the laws in Florida are actually meant to be unjust. Even so, as writers Josh Marshall and Eugene Volokh point out, the self-defense statutes in Florida, and indeed around the nation, don't actually match up with what common sense - and the original common law they were based on - should be.

The Florida State Attorney General and the Seminole County prosecution team also obviously failed in their duties. There are concerns about how they handled evidence, and about how race was and was not used as a factor in court, in what was an obviously a racial shooting incident. The list of failures by the prosecution team may even spur U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to file charges against both the prosecution team and Mr. Zimmerman himself.

The upside, such as it is, to all this failure, is that George Zimmerman has to spend the rest of his life being George Zimmerman. As both supporters of Trayvon Martin and of Mr. Zimmerman noted over the weekend, Mr. Zimmerman isn't even safe in his own hometown of Sanford any longer - and he likely won't feel safe in most places in the United States.

Further, there are still more lawsuits Zimmerman will have to face, including a civil lawsuit where he will be forced to testify, and that legal experts we've consulted note he is highly likely to lose.

If there is any individual justice for Trayvon Martin, that may be part of it: that George Zimmerman is now sentenced to a life of perpetual paranoia, and unending lawsuits with little hope of ever being anything more than a living symbol. For gun nuts, racists, and Fox News viewers, that symbol will be as a hero who can effectively roam neighborhoods freely at will, dispensing "justice" vigilante-style, as Charlie Pierce so eloquently noted at Esquire.com.

For the rest of us, Zimmerman should be a symbol of how all Americans have failed, and are continuing to fail, in ensuring we have a true justice system, and not just a legal system.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Food For Thought

As we head toward the first regular weekend on the downhill side of 2013, food and hunger are on our minds, for multiple reasons. Conveniently, we're also looking at a feast of news stories to choose from today.

There's the bitter fruit of the GOP that continues to rot that political party from the inside out. This was exemplified by a mostly party-line vote in the House on Thursday, on the Farm and Food Bill. With that vote House Republicans made it clear they expect all of America to shell out billions of dollars in subsidies to Big Agriculture. At the same time, they also expect Americans who are poor - including children and the elderly - to go hungry indefinitely, as Republicans refused to fund any portion of the traditional food aid package, primarily food stamps.

There is the spicy meat of the immigration bill too, though it also seems that legislative topic may have passed its 'use by' date, also thanks to the obstinate and ignorant extremists in the House GOP. The stale nutcake of the George Zimmerman trial is also on the news buffet, though frankly, as people who have a bit more refined palate for news, we're pretty tired of that tabloid fodder.

Of course, the fiery stew of turmoil in the Middle East continues to boil and make a very explosive mess. The Syrian civil war is rolling on, and sectarian violence continues in Iraq, even as Egypt's latest revolution attempts to move toward its next phase.

For all the choices on the news menu today though, since it's Friday, we're looking forward to the weekend, and to our collective guilty media pleasure - specifically, the HBO show 'The Newsroom,' which begins it's second season this Sunday.

For far too many spoiled, bitter pundits inside the Beltway and in New York, hating on Aaron Sorkin's 'The Newsroom' during the show's first season became the "cool" thing to do. Even many writers and journalists whose parents haven't bankrolled their dabbling in news media threw potshots and low blows at the show, in desperate attempts to appear cool.

For many of those working in the media who haven't had traditional paths to success, who've busted their backsides for years and worked their asses to positions of prominence, the show is a humorous, overwrought paean to what great media - and specifically, the news media - really should be.

For all the snark and bitter "hate-watching" comments many media hacks have already been gleefully tossing around, the stories produced by "The Newsroom" parallel many of the tales told in newsrooms our staff and friends have worked in or known over the last thirty years - stories that primarily only members of the media have seen, heard, or experienced regularly. We certainly don't think those stories should remain just the purview of those in the media.

We'll admit - many of our professional colleagues tend to turn their noses up cynically at fare like 'The Newsroom,' that are basically stories they've already had a taste of before.

That's certainly not something we'll do this weekend, with the comfort food for the spirit that is what "The Newsroom" really is for us and others in the media, who are lucky enough to work ourselves to the bone doing something we love.

TV, in general, may not be the perfect form of entertainment escapism - but 'The Newsroom' gives us a taste of what media, done well, should really be like.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Staring Down The Sacred Cows

For several months now, we've generally left the politics of our home state, Nebraska, off these pages. In part that decision has been motivated by the fact that - at least in an above board capacity - there hasn't really been any major political action going on at home.

Of course, we've also had plenty of political follies and failures to keep our attention as we've watched Virginia politics implode, from our DC office. The massive, messy, and unbelievably corrupt scandalpalooza of Virginia's Gov. Bob McDonnell is more real - and likely more devastating - than any of the fake scandals the mainstream media has been screaming about lately. There's also been the usual circus - politically and otherwise - to keep our attention in our South Florida office, including the trial of George Zimmerman.

In our Nebraska office, however, we've been waiting for the other political shoe to finally drop on the failed tax reform plans that Nebraska's GOP Governor Dave Heineman has been longing for since at least the beginning of 2012.

Wednesday, that shoe finally fell as the Nebraska Tax Modernization Committee - created this year by the Nebraska Legislature - began to get to work to decide which of Nebraska's sacred cows of tax policy are likely to end up on the political grill next year. However, for Governor Heineman and those like him hoping the committee will give them a reason to slash taxes, the news this week may have actually put the tax cows they'd like to put the budget knife to out of reach.

In case you missed the news, according to corporate-leaning cable channel CNBC, Nebraska now ranks fourth in the nation for best economic climate for business. While Gov. Heineman tried to put a shine on that news this week, news of Nebraska's successful business climate directly counters a key reason Heineman gave for wanting to cut taxes in both 2012 and 2013 - namely that Nebraska needed to cut taxes more in order to be favorable to business.

For Heineman and his tax cut addicted friends there was even more bad news this week. On Tuesday, it was announced that Nebraska's fiscal year, which finished June 30, was incredibly robust, as the year finished with significantly more money in the state's coffers than had been expected.

For state oversight agencies like the auditor's office, state ag and water management projects, schools - including Nebraska's six state colleges and universities, and even basic health care programs, this bounty of tax revenues should be great news, as Nebraska may finally be able to properly fund its fiscal responsibilities and obligations, after several years of deep painful cuts.

Unsurprisingly, Governor Heineman greeted the news about Nebraska's business climate and budget bonus in the selfish, foolish, arrogant way that we've come to expect from modern Republican politicians who live in the pockets of their wealthy donors. Heineman and company immediately began talking about giving tax cuts to their friends, instead of wisely noting that now is time to repair Nebraska's investments and to prepare for future economic storms and droughts.

While we applaud the idea of modernizing tax structures and laws everywhere, including in Nebraska, some of the basic rules about taxes and budgets remain the same as they always have - including the problems of staring down the 'sacred cows' on government budget sheets. The most basic fact remains the same: In the good times, the government should repair, replace, invest, and save, so that the bad times won't be nearly so bad.

Until voters elect officials truly willing to take on sacred cows - like the idea that any unexpected bonus tax revenue should always go to the rich instead of being reinvested back into the state - don't expect anything but bull from people like Nebraska's Gov. Heineman.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Monsters Of DC

There are many kinds of monsters in Washington, DC, from the political types right down to the people who allow their pets to tear up the neighborhood as they walk around the block.

When it comes to the monster that is "The Sequester," or more appropriately, the federal budget sequestration cuts that went into effect March 1 of this year, we've been saying for almost a year now that the sequester monster would not only bite, but would hurt the job market and possibly do significant damage to the economy. Thankfully, we haven't been the only ones sounding this alarm.

From journalists Amanda Terkel and Sam Stein at the Huffington Post to former White House economist Jared Bernstein, along with a host of others, story after story has proven the sequester is turning out to be the monster the Obama Administration warned it would be.

From Meals On Wheels, to Head Start for kids, from furloughed Pentagon workers to firefighters in the middle of wildfire season - this dinosaur of an idea continues to get worse. Contrary to a recent sop piece for conservatives in the Washington Post, the facts prove the sequester is seriously hurting the economy.

Sadly, the only people who could do anything to fix the problems created by sequestration are in the 113th Congress, who are currently are on a pace to be the least effective Congress in recent history. So far, this Congress has only passed 15 bills so far. Even the previous 112th Congress - itself a model of failure − had passed 23 bills by this point in their tenure.

We can blame the entire Congress for not getting this monster under control - and to some degree, we should.  While Sen. Harry Reid may finally tackle Senate filibuster reform this month, he should have done it years ago. Admittedly, Reid isn't the only Democratic member in either the House or Senate too timid to stand up to the real problem in our Federal government.

That problem, as Greg Sargent so perfectly articulated on both Monday and Tuesday of this week, is that the current Republican Party is deeply committed to "Sabotage Governing." Effectively, that means the current GOP - like an angry, selfish toddler - is willing to destroy anything and everything unless they get their way, 100%, which is neither possible or wise. As Sargent points out, this fact is one that "dirty hippie liberal blogger types" like us and many others have been saying for years.

That Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and the 'First Read' crew at MSNBC also are now strongly echoing the same message, that Republicans really do carry the majority of the blame is surprising, in a good way. Their admission may be finally be the turning point for those in DC with their heads buried solidly inside the Beltway, who far too often lean on the false equivalence that "both parties" do everything the same.

The fact is, the two parties are nowhere near the same anymore. That the GOP is currently engaged in an obviously desperate gamble to push away minorities while going after even more of the white, rural, ignorant vote is evidence enough of that.

The final signal that the GOP is no longer honestly interested in governing as a means of solving the problems of their constituents should be that the Republican Party and its "leadership" in both the House and Senate still selfishly refuse to even discuss the words "sequester" or "sequestration." Congressional Republicans have made it clear they'd rather hurt millions of Americans over the next decade by doing nothing to fix the sequester, than take the political pain themselves by doing the right thing and getting this monster under control. To us, that just proves the real monster in Washington isn't some pet budgetary creation.

It's the clueless, gutless cowards in Congress.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Coming Wave

It should be no surprise to anyone that even though Congress is back in session, absolutely nothing is likely to get done on Capitol Hill. That doesn't mean there aren't a pile of things that need tending to, from passing the Farm Bill to raising the debt ceiling to passing comprehensive immigration reform to dealing with student loans.

However, as we noted on Monday, Congress - and specifically House Republicans - have no intention of doing anything to help anyone but themselves. Greg Sargent stated it bluntly in his headline on Monday: "The problem isn’t generic 'Washington gridlock.' It’s the House GOP." We strongly agree with Greg on that, though we'd be willing to go one step further and say it's the extremists in the Republican Party that dominate the House GOP leadership right now.

Indeed, our hypothesis that mind-numbingly selfish, extremist House Republicans are the real problem is clearly reflected in the fight going on in the Senate this week over the student loan interest rates that Congress allowed to double over the holiday break.

Make no mistake - the doubling of student loan interest rates is no small small drop in a bucket. It's more like a tidal wave of financial destruction, caused by the financial cannonball of the 'college as a business' model, that's already gotten the idea of college as a wise investment all wet.

We addressed this problem in April 2012 when House Republicans attempted to take the student loan interest rate hostage in return for cuts to the implementation of Obamacare, and we noted then - student loans are meant to be a contract with society. Judging by the behavior of the House Repubs on this issue, they would still obviously prefer that contract with America's college students to be a loan shark agreement, where they get to play the part of the bully banker.

House Republicans right now are practicing that role, as they attempt to bully Senate Democrats into accepting their draconian version of a student loan interest rate "repair" bill, that easily could raise interest rates on student loans above the seven percent range where they are now, thanks to Congress' inaction.

That kind of loan sharking behavior seems especially ill-advised with student loan debt over $1 Trillion right now, and with median individual student debt at graduation now over $35,000. Students at nearly fifty percent of for-profit private colleges and universities are now more likely to default on their student loans than to graduate.

There are some states like Oregon that are pushing seriously into new and innovative ways to fund college educations, and President Obama has done a great deal to add programs to reduce student loan debt, increase Federal Pell grants, and add better repayment plans.

While all those steps have been great, the fact remains, the student loan repayment crisis in America is a massive crushing wave that will not only steal the chance for the American Dream from those in their mid forties and younger - it will also make them more educated and angry.

For a party that keeps claiming they want to expand their voting base, crushing even the potential for achieving the American dream under a wave of perpetual debt for millions of Americans under the age of 45 isn't exactly what anyone sane would consider a smart political move by the GOP.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ways Of Shutting That Down

We hope that over the last week and a half, while we were enjoying some vacation, and attempting to get on top of other projects, you stayed informed with other news sources and had a few days off yourself.

Quite a lot has gone on over the last two weeks. After a nearly criminal ruling on the Voting Rights Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled in surprisingly just and fair ways on both DOMA and Prop 8, while President Obama announced a series of major actions he'll be enacting toward cleaner energy. Unfortunately, a major oil spill and explosion just over the border in Canada killed five (as of publication time) and destroyed an entire town in Quebec. There was also a major plane crash in San Francisco with fatalities, major deadly fires out West, and major political shifts in the Middle East, specifically in Egypt.

There wasn't was much action on Capitol Hill, where Congress' inaction not only allowed the interest rates on student loans to double but effectively cancelled the Independence Day holiday for some of our service members and their families, thanks to the sequester cuts that Congress STILL hasn't dealt with. In fact, House Republicans are already rattling their swords, preparing to come back to Washington and demand even more federal budget cuts - meaning once again, Republicans at the national level appear ready to hold the nation's economy hostage.

We suppose that's better than what Republicans at the state level have been doing these last two weeks. In states from North Carolina to Ohio, and from Wisconsin to Texas, the GOP declared war on women once again - and this time, not even the celebrations of our nation's birthday were enough to stop the roving horde of misogynists and women haters that seemingly makes up the tattered remnants of the Grand Old Party these days.

In case you missed it, Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and the Republicans in the state legislature there jammed a series of anti-choice and anti-women legislation into a last-minute budget bill. Kasich then signed what is effectively a declaration of war on Ohio's women, flanked by only male members of the Ohio Legislature.

Not to be outdone, Wisconsin's GOP Gov. Scott Walker signed his own bill attacking doctors who perform abortions - though Walker was immediately sued by hospitals, women's centers, and abortion clinics for doing so.

Despite being blasted by North Carolina's own Republican Governor, and by Senate Democrats, North Carolina's extremist GOP jammed through even more anti-abortion laws in their state Senate. That rash act could set up a serious Republican civil war in the state that began the first American Civil War.

Last but not least, you likely heard about the eleven-plus hour filibuster by Texas Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis. Her efforts stopped Republican Gov. Rick 'I can't count to three' Perry and the Texas GOP from cramming through yet another anti-choice, anti-woman law in a special session of the Texas Legislature. Perry has since called for yet another special session of the Texas Leg, and has even bragged they'll jam the anti-woman bills through this time in under two weeks, claiming that Texans like him "want to protect life" - even as Perry signed the death warrant for Texas' 500th execution.

At this point, it almost has to be asked if some Republicans are actively trying to split their political party in two with these brainless attacks on half the population. Even if they are, for now it appears that the extremists in charge of the GOP plan on continuing to aim their misogynist policy guns at women, even after losing the war on women so badly at the polls in 2012.

To paraphrase one particular Republican loser from that election cycle, Republicans should have learned then - women have a way of shutting that whole misogyny thing down.