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7 Million Cheers for ‘Obamacare’

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

more than 7 millionPublic Health, Too, Is ‘National Security’

Congratulation to President Obama, the White House, and the courageous Democrats in Congress who voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the most ambitious expansion of health care for Americans since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

After the March 31 deadline for enrollments, President Obama announced that the goal of 7 million by April 1 has been met—and more: some 7.1 million previously uninsured Americans have signed up for coverage. And the numbers will rise because those who were not able to finish signing up by midnight Monday will have another two weeks to complete their registration. (Go to Healthcare.gov to learn more.)

So, congratulations to the elected officials and policy makers, and “best of health” to the American people—those who are now covered, and especially to those who do not yet have health insurance.

Let’s look briefly at some numbers. According to The New Yorker:

Three million young people remain on their parents’ health-care plans; more than eight million uninsured people are eligible for Medicaid; and, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than a hundred million people have received preventive-care services, like mammograms and flu shots, at no cost.

ObamacareWhat Does Obamacare Do for You?

Per “The Affordable Care Act by the Numbers” at WhiteHouse.gov (2012):

Click here for more benefits.

The present system of Medicare and Medicaid was signed into law in 1965 by Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson. As Jeffrey Toobin explains in The New Yorker:

Medicare, providing health insurance for all Americans over the age of sixty-five, proved popular almost immediately: after the rollout, about nineteen million people signed up, more than ninety per cent of those eligible. Medicaid, covering the poor of all ages, is financed jointly by the federal government and the states. The first year, only twenty-six states agreed to participate, and the program didn’t include all fifty until 1982, when Arizona, the final holdout, joined.

Conservative opposition to the Affordable Care Act has been principally directed at the Medicaid aspects that are mainly tailored to the very poor: “Ideas such as the requirement that everyone obtain insurance, with subsidies for people who can’t afford it; the mandate that insurance companies offer coverage to all comers; and the incentives for states to expand the number of people covered by Medicaid have meant political war,” as Toobin explains.

Steven Benen at The Maddow Blog points out that “the single biggest hindrance to expanding coverage to the uninsured is Republican governors in red states blocking Medicaid expansion. That’s not conjecture; it’s what the CBO has already documented.” Benen wrote last August:

The Affordable Care Act originally made Medicaid expansion mandatory for states, guaranteeing coverage for millions, but a narrow Supreme Court majority ruled that it must be optional – if states want to take advantage of an amazing deal they could, but if they choose to turn down the federal money, Washington can’t force them to accept it. 

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Affordable Care Act Uninsured

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Dianne Feinstein Calls Out CIA for Spying on Congress

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

DF.Photo.by Tom Williams-CQ Roll Call-Getty.

California Senator, Long a CIA Defender, Charges Obstruction of Congressional Oversight

Please join us in calling Senator Dianne Feinstein (202-224-3841 or 415-393-0707) to say thanks and, as we said to her staffer, “keep up the courage” for having spoken out yesterday on the floor of the Senate against the CIA’s spying on Congress and trying to sabotage the oversight efforts of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The particular investigation at issue concerns a report on the “enhanced interrogations” conducted by the CIA in secret prisons from shortly after September 11, 2001, until January 2009.

Here we’ll hand it over to The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, who posted “Diane Feinstein Calls Out the CIA” online March 11:

This all goes back to the first years after September 11th. The C.I.A. tortured detainees in secret prisons. It also videotaped many of those sessions. Those records should have been handed over, or at least preserved, under the terms of certain court orders. Instead, in November, 2005, a C.I.A. official named Jose Rodriguez had ninety-two videotapes physically destroyed. “Nobody wanted to make a decision that needed to be made,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2012. (He also said, “I really resent you using the word ‘torture’ time and time again.”)

Feinstein, in her speech, said that the C.I.A.’s “troubling” destruction of the tapes put the current story in motion. Michael Hayden, then director of the C.I.A., had offered the committee cables that he said were just as descriptive as the tapes. “The resulting staff report was chilling,” Feinstein said. The committee voted to begin a broader review. The terms were worked out in 2009, and staff members were given an off-site facility with electronic files, on computers supposedly segregated from the C.I.A.’s network, that added up to 6.2 million pages—“without any index, without any organizational structure. It was a true document dump,” Feinstein said. In the years that followed, staff members turned that jumble into a six-thousand-page report, still classified, on the C.I.A.’s detention practices. By all accounts, it is damning.

But, Feinstein said, odd things happened during the course of the committee members’ work. Documents that had been released to them would suddenly disappear from the main electronic database, as though someone had had second thoughts—and they knew they weren’t imagining it, “Gaslight”-style, because, in some cases, they’d printed out hard copies or saved the digital version locally. When they first noticed this, in 2010, Feinstein objected and was apologized to, “and that, as far as I was concerned, put the incidents aside.” Then, after the report was completed, the staff members noticed that at some point hundreds of pages of documents known as the “Panetta review” had also, Feinstein said, been “removed by the C.I.A.”

The Panetta review was the C.I.A’s note to itself on what might be found in all those millions of documents. Apparently, it is damning, too. The six-thousand-page report didn’t rely on it; the report didn’t have to, because it had the documents themselves. The Panetta review became important only after the C.I.A. saw the draft of the committee’s report and fought back. The agency offered a classified rebuttal (again, the report is still classified); publicly, without being specific, it said that the Senate had gotten a lot wrong, that its facts were off, its judgments mistaken. Then, in December, Senator Mark Udall, in an open hearing, said that this was a funny thing for the C.I.A. to say, given that its internal review (the Panetta review) sounded a whole lot like the Senate report. Or, as Feinstein put it this morning,

To say the least, this is puzzling. How can the C.I.A.’s official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?

This is where the C.I.A. seems to have lost its bearings and its prudence. As Feinstein noted, there have been comments to the press suggesting that the only way the committee staff members could have had the Panetta review is if they’d stolen it. The pretense for the search of the committee’s computers—where the staff kept its own work, too—was that there had been some kind of security breach. Feinstein says that this is simply false: maybe the C.I.A. hadn’t meant for the Panetta review to be among the six million pieces of paper they’d swamped the Senate with, but it was there. (Maybe a leaker had even tucked it in.) And she made a crucial, larger point about classification:

The Panetta-review documents were no more highly classified than other information we had received for our investigation. In fact, the documents appeared based on the same information already provided to the committee. What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was not their classification level but rather their analysis and acknowledgement of significant C.I.A. wrongdoing.

In other words, there were no particular secrets, in the sense of sources and methods and things that keep us safe. Instead, there was the eternal category confusion of the classifier: that avoiding political embarrassment, and basic accountability, is the same thing as safeguarding national security.

Whose embarrassment? John Brennan was at the C.I.A. when it used torture. During President Obama’s first term, he was in the White House, and got the President’s trust. In his confirmation hearings, he suggested that he had learned something from the Senate report; as director, he has tried to discredit it. Obama had made a decision early on not to pursue prosecutions of C.I.A. officials for torture and other crimes. He gave them a bye. Feinstein herself has been a prominent defender of the intelligence community, notably with regard to the N.S.A.’s domestic surveillance and collection of telephone records. It is bafflingly clumsy of the Agency to have so alienated her.

Feinstein suggested that this was why it particularly enraged her that the acting general counsel of the C.I.A., who had been, she noted, the lawyer for “the unit within which the C.I.A. managed and carried out this program,” had referred her committee’s possession of the Panetta review to the Department of Justice as a possible criminal act. (There is also an investigation of the C.I.A.’s own role.) “He is mentioned by name more than sixteen hundred times in our study,” Feinstein said. (That name is Robert Eatinger.) “And now this individual is sending a crimes report to the Department of Justice on the actions of congressional staff”; the people working for her were “now being threatened with legal jeopardy just as final revisions to the report are being made.”

There were crimes, after September 11th, that took place in hidden rooms with video cameras running. And then there were coverups, a whole series of them, escalating from the destruction of the videotapes to the deleting of documents to what Feinstein now calls “a defining moment” in the constitutional balance between the legislature and the executive branch, and between privacy and surveillance. Senator Patrick Leahy said afterward that he could not remember a speech he considered so important. Congress hasn’t minded quite enough that the rest of us have been spied on. Now Feinstein and her colleagues have their moment; what are they going to make of it?

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See also:

•  The New York Times, “Conflict Erupts in Public Rebuke on C.I.A. Inquiry” by Mark Mazzetti and Jonathan Weisman (3/12/14): “A festering conflict between the Central Intelligence Agency and its congressional overseers broke into the open Tuesday when Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee and one of the C.I.A.’s staunchest defenders, delivered an extraordinary denunciation of the agency, accusing it of withholding information about its treatment of prisoners and trying to intimidate committee staff members investigating the detention program.”

•  The New York Times, “C.I.A. Employees Face New Inquiry Amid Clashes on Detention Program” by Mark Mazzetti (3/4/14): “The Central Intelligence Agency’s attempt to keep secret the details of a defunct detention and interrogation program has escalated a battle between the agency and members of Congress and led to an investigation by the C.I.A.’s internal watchdog into the conduct of agency employees.”

•  And see Rachel Maddow’s March 11 coverage here.

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Photo credit: Detail of photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty in The New Yorker online.

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An ‘Obamacare’ Success Story

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

AFAInsurers, Too, Must Be Held Accountable

Our friend Stephen in NYC, who has contributed good ideas to this blog before, shares his experience in enrolling with an insurer. Stephen makes the very important point that the news media (including us bloggers) would serve the public interest if we would “start reporting on the incompetence of the health insurance companies and their technologically defective systems for enrollment, rather than putting all the blame for the recent mishaps of health insurance enrollment on the ACA rollout. My own experience is a case in point.”

One week after his old health-insurance policy lapsed, and three weeks after he mailed his application (with payment) to a New York health insurance company—and after speaking to eight customer service representatives and supervisors at the new insurance company over the past week—he was finally enrolled in the policy he had applied for (retroactive to Jan. 1), perhaps moved along by the threats he made earlier that day to alert the New York State attorney general, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and WOR-TV’s “Help Me, Howard” if his policy was not in effect within 24 hours—in addition to the letter that he had sent to The New York Times the day before, which is copied below.

To the Editors:

The NY Times and most other (all other?) news organizations have been covering the mishaps of the ACA rollout and ascribing them entirely to the incompetent programming of the new fed health-exchange website and some state health-exchange websites. I’d like to suggest, from my recent experience trying to get a 2014 health-insurance plan by enrolling directly with a NY health-insurance company (i.e., NOT through an exchange), that much of the incompetence is with the health-insurance companies themselves and has nothing to do with ACA. I’m still trying to get my new health-insurance company, Emblem Health, to actually enroll me in their 2104 health-insurance plan (as opposed to theoretically enrolling me)—and I applied directly through their own system, not through the fed or state health exchange.

As of today, Jan. 7, I still don’t have health insurance (my 2013 plan lapsed on Dec. 31), even though I sent my application for enrollment, along with a check for payment, by mail on Dec. 16—and it was received there on Dec. 19. Since then, I have called Emblem Health numerous times and have spoken to seven customer representatives and two supervisors, and was assured on Dec. 31 that my enrollment was in fact being processed, and that I would receive an e-mail affirming that I would be enrolled shortly and that my coverage would be retroactive to January 1. I have received nothing. I called Emblem Health again today and spoke to another customer representative, who searched on the Emblem Health system and found that my name was not on it yet. Tomorrow, I will be calling the supervisor to whom I spoke on Dec. 30 AND ON Dec. 31 (when I stayed on the phone continuously for 3 hours), to ask her why I have not heard from her about my enrollment nor received the e-mail confirming my imminent enrollment and retroactive coverage. (It’s a good thing I’ve had no health emergencies during this past week.)

So when I read or hear news reports of how bad ACA is, I’ve decided to be skeptical, and I’d like the NY Times to demonstrate some of that same skepticism, and to report on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the insurance companies and what appears to be their technologically defective systems for enrollment. I would be happy to share with a NY Times reporter more details of my frustrating experience trying to enroll for a health-insurance plan outside the exchange.

Well done, Stephen. Congratulations. But note how much time and effort he had to expend—time he had to take from his freelance work, which means a loss of some potential income. It should not have to be so difficult.

Dear readers, we encourage you to share your experiences in enrolling with health care providers under the Affordable Care Act. You can also share your stories—success stories, we hope—on Facebook at ACA Success Stories (facebook.com/acasuccessstories). Bloggers, reporters, hold the companies accountable, too, as well as the elected officials and pundits who are obstructing progress and exaggerating glitches and malfunctions for political gain.

We would also recommend that readers take a look at Rachel Maddow’s emphasis on the slow start of ‘Romneycare’ in Massachusetts (TRMS 1/2/14). This healthcare coverage expansion program, now regarded as a success for the people of Massachusetts, is roughly the template on which the Affordable Care Act was designed.

Despite Successes, 47 Million Americans Lack Health Coverage

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo finds that some 9 to 10 million people have gained health care coverage because of the Affordable Care Act, and that about 5 million “currently do not have coverage because individual states decided not to opt into Medicaid expansion.” By the end of 2013, more than 1.1. million Americans had signed up for healthcare coverage through Healthcare.gov. (One Charles Gaba has been compiling data on the number of people who have enrolled for healthcare coverage through the 14 states that have exchange sites.) Still, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports, some 47 million Americans are without healthcare coverage.

For political reasons, of course, Republicans want the president’s healthcare expansion initiative to fail.

While we’re “redistributing blame” for the ACA’s rocky start, let’s look also at what Steve Benen calls “the scourge of the wingnut hole” (the term “wingnut hole” was coined by Ed Kilgore). Whenever the totals of people enrolled in healthcare insurance programs under the Affordable Care Act are given, Benen says, “it’s worth remembering that the coverage totals would be far greater were it not for “red” states refusing to accept Medicaid expansion”—5 million greater, as Josh Marshall reports above.

In a related article, Ryan Cooper at the Washington Post’s Plum Line points out: 

About 5 million people will be without health care next year that they would have gotten simply if they lived somewhere else in America. . . . The court effectively left it up to states to decide whether to open Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor and disabled, to more people, primarily poor working adults without children. . . .

Twenty-five states declined. That leaves 4.8 million people in those states without the health care coverage that their peers elsewhere are getting through the expansion of Medicaid, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation estimate. More than one-fifth of them live in Texas alone, Kaiser’s analysis found.

Expanding healthcare coverage has been, and will continue to be, a struggle. But it is the good fight. It’s our hope that the circle of coverage will expand steadily, eventually to include all Americans, and that the insured will be able to have their policies in good health (that is, not to need them for anything too serious).

Further Reading

Healthcare.gov

Kaiser Family Foundation

Healthcare coverage at Think Progress

Healthcare at Mother Jones

Healthcare at The Nation

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Positively Giddy

Saturday, October 5th, 2013

The Only Thing They Have to Fear Is . . . Government Itself

Pre-Existing Condition

“We’re very excited. It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it.” —Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)

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“The mood in the Capitol on Saturday, at least among Republicans, was downright giddy. When Republican leaders presented their plan in a closed-door meeting on Saturday, cheers and chants of “Vote, vote, vote!” went up. As members left the meeting, many wore beaming grins.” —NYT 9/28/13

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“[Economists] make all sorts of predictions. . . . Many times they’re wrong, so I don’t think we should run government based on economists’ predictions. —Rep. John Fleming (R-LA)

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“There is no such thing as a debt ceiling in this country. I would dispel the rumor that is going around that you hear on every newscast that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling we will default on our debt. We won’t.” —Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) on CBS This Morning, 10/8/13

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They’ve Been Planning a Shutdown for Years

Isn’t it delightful that they are so pleased with themselves? The 80-odd members of Congress known as the Tea Party caucus who insisted on this government shutdown and repeatedly refused to negotiate a budget with the Senate—these distinguished members of Congress continue to be paid from their $174,000-per-year salary. (Congressional salaries have come to $2.6 million as of Oct. 10; see chart below.) Meanwhile, 800,000 “nonessential” federal workers from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Hurricane Center, the Centers for Disease Control, inspectors at the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission; staff at NASA, EPA, FEMA, and the National Park Service, and other federal agencies and departments are made to stay home with no pay, or to work with no pay. (See “Five Ways the Government Shutdown Is Threatening Our Health and Safety.”)

These distinguished members of Congress who style themselves “fiscal conservatives” and rail against federal debt, who recently voted to cut $4 billion per year from programs that feed the needy, are costing the nation $1.6 billion every week while the government is shut down. That’s $40 million per hour. The shutdown is now in its second week, and, other than insisting on getting their way, and issuing new demands daily, the House Republicans have no plan to restart the U.S. government.

US deficit 2013[ Republicans speak constantly of “this growing federal deficit,” but ignore the fact that in the Obama years, the deficit has been steadily shrinking, and ignore the fact that in 2001 George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus from Bill Clinton, and (aided by their votes) left Barack Obama with a $1.3 trillion budget deficit. The bar graph here—click for a closer look—shows the years 2008–2013 (projected). See the bars getting smaller? ]

From Think Progress and The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, here are  just a few of the immediate consequences of the government shutdown:

Food and Nutrition: Food stamps will still be available, but the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program, a service meant to help new and expecting mothers and their young children get nutritious foods, will not. Roughly 9 million Americans depend on WIC.

Housing: The nation’s 3,300 public housing authorities will stop receiving payments from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Disaster Relief: In preparation for a potential shutdown, the Utah National Guard is holding off on sending a team to help rebuild areas in Colorado devastated by massive floods last week.

Health Care: The National Institutes of Health will stop accepting new patients and delay or stop clinical trials.

Financial Services: The Small Business Administration will stop making loans, federal home loan guarantees will likely go on hold, and students applying for financial aid could also see delays and backlogs in applications.

Think Progress notes, “All this will come at a price. The last two shutdowns during the Clinton era—one lasted six days in 1995 and another stretched 21 days at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996—cost the country 0.5 percentage points of gross domestic product (GDP) growth and more than $2 billion (in today’s dollars) in unnecessary expenses—as government employees abandoned their jobs to prepare for the shutdown.”

For more on how the shutdown will affect day-to-day life, click here and here. The NBC News chart below was published on Oct. 10, ten days into the shutdown.

ShutdownChart

The Shutdown Is Not (Only) about “Obamacare”

“We need to make sure that you are going to be with us when we shut down the government, which we will do if we win the majority this year.” —Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), addressing Faith & Freedom Conference, 2010

The tactic of shutting down the government, threatened or promised in 2010, as it was carried out by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, was originally intended to enforce fiscal restraint. The hardline Tea Party caucus of some 80 members pivoted to apply the threat of a shutdown as a way of repealing the Affordable Care Act, which they call, pejoratively, “ObamaCare.”

“We urge you not to bring to the House floor in the 112th Congress any legislation that provides or allows funds to implement ObamaCare . . .” —Aug. 21, 2013, letter from Reps. Michele Bachman, Jim Jordan, and about 80 other Tea Party caucus representatives to Speaker John Boehner

6th Congr.Distr-LAIt is important to understand that the Republican members driving this thing have been not only threatening but also promising to shut down the government at least since they were running for office in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. These radical congressmen—and they are not “conservatives,” as they like to call themselves, but are extremists, anarchists—are mostly white men from gerrymandered districts who are largely safe from any electoral consequences: they won’t have to pay a price for their brinksmanship and shenanigans in the next election because everyone in their district (which may look like the 6th district of Baton Rouge’s Bill Cassidy, M.D., shown at right) thinks very much the way they do. Either they do not have many poor people, people of color, immigrants, or college-educated liberals in their districts to worry about, or those minorities who do live, or try to eke out an existence, in their districts will most likely have a harder time voting, if they’re still on the list, next time around.

“Cut It or Shut It . . . We Want Less”

Before the current shutdown, Congressional Republicans have threatened seven times to take the government down, or take the economy over a cliff (remember the fiscal cliff?), just since early 2011. They have been looking for excuses to “cut it or shut it.”

As Steven Benen wrote in “A Series of Near-Death Experiences” at the Maddow Blog:

In April 2011, congressional Republicans threatened a government shutdown. In July 2011, congressional Republicans created the first debt-ceiling crisis in American history. In September 2011, congressional Republicans threatened a government shutdown. In April 2012, congressional Republicans threatened a government shutdown. In December 2012, congressional Republicans pushed the nation towards the so-called ‘fiscal cliff.’ In January 2013, congressional Republicans briefly flirted with the possibility of another debt-ceiling crisis. In March 2013, congressional Republicans threatened a government shutdown. 

And now . . .

Why John Boehner is allowing a comparatively small group of representatives in the House to control the agenda is beyond our understanding, though we can imagine he wants to keep his position as Speaker of the House. At least it was beyond comprehension before a front-page article in the Sunday, Oct. 6, New York Times, “A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Planning,” reported that the billionaire conservative activist Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch, had put some $200 million into fighting the Obama healthcare law, funding such groups as Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and Heritage Action, a close relation to the Heritage Foundation. These groups ran media spots against some 100 Republican members of Congress who declined to sign on to the Tea Party letter to House Speaker John Boehner mentioned above.

Cracks Appear in Republicans’ United Front

Business, and even some conservative action groups, worried that this has gone on too long already, are beginning to back away from the hardline House Republicans. On October 9, the Koch brothers sent a letter to Congress stating that Koch Industries “has not taken a position on the legislative tactic of tying the continuing resolution [for funding the government] to defunding Obamacare.” Similarly, on the same day, Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham gave essentially the same message to reporters.

“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” —Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN)

photo-tea-party-shut-it-down1The Republicans have no plan to end the standoff. They have dug themselves in too deep to pull back out. They insist that the president and the Democrats must compromise. But the Senate passed a continuing resolution some six months ago, and at least four times the House Republicans refused to join in a conference to work up their own budget proposal (as happens in a functioning Congress) because that would have required some compromise. Further, the “clean” budget bill that the Senate has been trying to get the House Republicans to vote on is billions below what the White House requested. The House Republicans held off because they wanted to drive this up to the very brink—they wanted leverage to make demands for further cuts, and then, with the Tea Party caucus’s urging, for defunding and repeal of “Obamacare”—and then, if necessary, over the cliff. Now the car is falling, falling, and they don’t know how to repeal gravity, either.

What worries business leaders and Wall Street is that vocal members of congressional Republicans apparently do not believe that blowing through the debt ceiling (around November 1) is anything to worry about. Economists across the spectrum see a default on the national debt as insane and catastrophic, with global repercussions that could dwarf the financial meltdown of 2008, but even Republican senators are blithely unconcerned. On Oct. 9, the ninth day of the shutdown, Fidelity Investments sold off its U.S. Treasury bonds out of concern that the government may indeed default, and the U.S. government’s borrowing costs have risen sharply—another unnecessary addition to the national debt brought to us by the “fiscal conservatives.” (“Deadlock Worry Jolts the Market for T-Bills”)

The Huffington Post has been running a list of Republican members of Congress who say they are willing to cast an up-or-down vote on a budget without “repeal Obamacare” strings attached. These members of Congress should be encouraged (contact information here) to stand up, speak out, and implore their likeminded members to vote with Democrats to restart the government. Perhaps this has gone on long enough?

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Geography of Inhumanity Posing as Fiscal Discipline

Below are two maps, the first (by The New Yorker) showing the congressional districts of the “suicide caucus” of Tea Party Republicans who pushed for the government shutdown. Almost every district has been made into an impregnable fortress where the representative can be as extreme as he or she wants to be without worrying about having to pay an electoral price.

Note the geographical similarities with the second map (by The New York Times), which shows the areas of the United States where poor and uninsured Americans live. The two maps are essentially the same: the hardline conservatives pushing the shutdown largely represent the states whose governors and legislatures refuse to allow expansion of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), even though they have high populations of poor, unhealthy people.

•  “Where the Suicide Caucus Lives” (The New Yorker, 9/26/13), showing districts of Republicans who signed a letter demanding that Speaker John Boehner pass legislation to defund Obamacare

•  “Millions of Poor Are Left Uncovered by Health Law” (The New York Times, 10/2/13)

SuicideCaucusCongressDistricts_final_big-01

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Where Poor and Uninsured Americans Live

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Top illustration by Chamomile Tea Party.

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Elvin R. Heiberg III, General Who Took Blame for Hurricane Katrina Failures, Dies at 81

Friday, October 4th, 2013

FEMA2

Former Head of Army Corps of Engineers Regretted Not Fighting for Storm-Surge Gates
As Tropical Storm Karen approaches the Gulf Coast, and FEMA employees, furloughed by the latest GOP Government Shutdown, are called back to work without pay, The New York Times reports the death of Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III, “who rose to the top of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s and decades later expressed regret for failing to fight hard enough to build floodgates that he believed might have protected New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.” Gen. Heiberg died last Friday, Sept. 27, in Arlington, Va. He was 81. In June 2007, the Times reports, “nearly two years after Katrina, General Heiberg wrote a letter published in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans that ‘As too many continue to rush around to find someone to blame for the Katrina engineering failures, they can blame me. I gave up too easily.’ ” After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conceived a plan to build flood-surge gates at the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain at the Chef Menteur and the Rigolets passes to be lowered in case of an oncoming hurricane (map below). Environmentalists worried that the presence of the floodgates would make it easier for developers to drain areas for development and that the flow of water would be blocked.Luke Fontana, executive attorney for Save Our Wetlands Inc., filed a lawsuit to block the floodgates. In 1985, twenty years after Hurricane Betsy, the Corps gave up the plan. (The plan and its defeat—“death-by-environmentalism,” we call it—is discussed in detail in Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid’s excellent 2006 book Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms. See our interview with Schleifstein here.) In an interview cited by NPR online, Gen. Heiberg said, “I think that’s probably the biggest mistake I made, quitting instead of fighting. . . . I think Katrina proved that.” (See “Why Did the 17th Street Canal Levee Fail?” NPR, May 19, 2006.)   1965CorpsFloodgatesPlan The New York Times obituary in full appears below.
Elvin R. Heiberg III, General Who Took Blame for Hurricane Katrina Failures, Dies at 81
04heiberg-popup Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III, who rose to the top of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s and decades later expressed regret for failing to fight hard enough to build floodgates that he believed might have protected New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, died last Friday in Arlington, Va. He was 81. The cause was cancer, said his daughter Kay Bransford. In June 2007, nearly two years after Katrina, General Heiberg wrote a letter published in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans that read: “As too many continue to rush around to find someone to blame for the Katrina engineering failures, they can blame me. I gave up too easily.” He explained that in the 1970s, when he commanded the New Orleans district, the corps planned to protect the city by building gates at the east end of Lake Pontchartrain. Environmentalists opposed the project, and local interests objected to sharing the costs, as federal law requires. A federal judge blocked the project and called for a more thorough analysis of its environmental impact. In the 1980s, when General Heiberg was commander of the corps, or chief of engineers—the youngest man to head the corps since the 19th century—the fight over the so-called barrier plan was still going on. “I was discouraged and decided to stop fighting for the barriers any longer,” he wrote in The Times-Picayune. “In retrospect, that was the biggest mistake I made during my 35 years as an Army officer.” In lieu of the barrier, the corps turned to raising levees and floodwalls around the city. It turned out to be a patchwork project that was still not complete when Katrina hit 20 years later and many segments of the floodwall failed. The official corps report on the disaster called the hurricane protection system “a system in name only.” General Heiberg’s letter fed an argument that had begun circulating soon after the storm that had blamed environmentalists for the destruction of the city, accusing them of blocking efforts to protect it. The conservative FrontPage Magazine called their tactics “Green Genocide.” But the barrier envisioned by the corps would have been ineffective, said G. Paul Kemp, an author of Louisiana’s official report on the disaster and an adjunct professor at the Louisiana State University department of oceanography and coastal sciences. Much of the water that inundated New Orleans, he said, had flowed in from a corner of Lake Borgne, which lies to the south and east of the city and which would have been outside the barrier’s reach. Alfred Naomi, a former senior project engineer for the corps in New Orleans, agreed that the barriers “might not have made a difference for Katrina,” though he argued that some areas might have suffered less damage had the barriers been there and that the project would have improved safety overall. He expressed admiration for General Heiberg and his public stand. “That showed integrity and moral certitude that you don’t find a lot in today’s society,” he said. “Right or wrong, he took the hit — and took some responsibility.” Elvin Ragnvald Heiberg III—he went by “Vald”—was born on March 2, 1932, at Schofield Barracks, the Army installation on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Like his father and a grandfather, he joined the Army and attended the United States Military Academy at West Point; the grandfather served as military attaché in Rome and died when he was thrown by a horse while visiting the Austro-Hungarian front in 1917. Vald III graduated from West Point in 1953 and earned master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Washington University. His career in the Army and Corps of Engineers took him to wartime service in Korea and Vietnam and to Saudi Arabia, where he oversaw $14 billion in corps-led construction projects for the country’s national guard. He led the corps’ cleanup and rebuilding effort after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State in 1980, and ran the Army’s Ballistic Missile Defense Program, a precursor to the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars” plan. General Heiberg’s many decorations included the Silver Star Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross from his Vietnam service; he twice earned the Distinguished Service Medal. After retiring from the military, he worked with a number of companies, including Dawson & Associates, a consulting and government relations firm with expertise in water resources, where he was a senior adviser. In addition to Ms. Bransford, General Heiberg’s survivors include his wife, the former Kathryn Schrimpf, whom he married in 1953; another daughter, Kathryn Heiberg-Browning; two sons, Walter and Elvin IV; and a sister, Dorethe Skidmore. Contacted by a reporter last year to discuss the old barrier plan, General Heiberg said, “I haven’t changed my mind on any of that.” New Orleans is now protected by a $14 billion ring of walls, levees and gates, including a two-mile barrier at the northwest corner of Lake Borgne, and gates that can close the city’s drainage canals to block any surge from Lake Pontchartrain. Barriers for Lake Pontchartrain are again under consideration. #


A Return to Literacy Tests? Take This.

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

How Many White Folks Does It Take to Pass a Jim Crow ‘Brain-Teaser’?

With the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision in Shelby County v. Holder overturning Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and with Republican Jim Crow re-enactors “free at last” to get their electoral racism on, will the United States see a return of the literacy tests once used to block African Americans from voting? We fear they may. Within two days of the decision, two thirds of the states covered by Section 4—including the old Confederate states of Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Virginia—had already rolled out legislation to limit voter participation. ThinkProgress reports:

Less than 48 hours [after the Court’s ruling], six of the nine states that had been covered in their entirety under the law’s “preclearance” formula have already taken steps toward restricting voting. . . . many of which [would] have adverse effects on the abilities of minorities, young people, and the poor to exercise their right to vote

The page below is a word-processed version from a literacy test used in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, in 1964, published by Slate, from the archives of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans. See “Louisiana Literacy Test and How It Worked to Deny Black Voting Rights” by a volunteer in the Freedom Summer of 1964, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Try it. See how well you would fare on this test, and on the pages that follow. Remember, “One wrong answer denotes failure on the test.” Good luck!

 

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Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

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“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting opinionShelby County v. Holder

 
Re-Legalizing Electoral Racism; Red State Republicans ‘Free at Last’
 

June 25, 2013, will go down in infamy as the day when a radically conservative majority of the Supreme Court ripped the guts out of the historic protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, “the crown jewel of the civil rights movement” that was so proudly signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Congressman John R. Lewis, who was beaten nearly to death by state troopers in the famous “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 (see photo below), declared the decision “a dagger in the heart” of the Voting Rights Act.

What the 5–4 decision, signed by Chief Justice John Roberts, does, nearly 50 years after its signing, is declare unconstitutional the single most important part of the Act (section 4), which identifies the states and counties that must submit to oversight (or preclearance) by the Justice Department before changing “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting” in any “covered jurisdiction.” In effect, the conservative majority struck down section 4 as a sneaky way of nullifying section 5, without actually ruling on the constitutionality of section 5. As the New York Times’s Adam Liptak explains:

The majority held that the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, originally passed in 1965 and most recently updated by Congress in 1975, was unconstitutional. The section determined which states must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they made minor changes to voting procedures, like moving a polling place, or major ones, like redrawing electoral districts. . . .

The decision did not strike down Section 5 [which sets out the preclearance requirement], but without Section 4, the later section is without significance—unless Congress passes a new bill for determining which states would be covered.

These jurisdictions that were required to seek preclearance include the very states—mostly in the Old Confederacy—that were the worst offenders against minorities seeking the right to vote. Indeed, it is no accident that it was Shelby County, Alabama—i.e., Birmingham—that brought the suit against the U.S. Justice Department. In the 1960s it was the Justice Department, very often backed up by the National Guard, that was on the front lines of protecting southern blacks against discrimination, vicious racism, and murder.

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In “An Assault on the Voting Rights Act,” the New York Times editorial board declared the decision “damaging and intellectually dishonest,” and that was just in the first sentence. In a Times op-ed, Richard L. Hasen, author of The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown, writes:

The court pretends it is not striking down the act but merely sending the law back to Congress for tweaking; it imagines that Congress forced its hand; and it fantasizes that voting discrimination in the South is a thing of the past. None of this is true.

In the Shelby decision, we see a somewhat more open version of a pattern that is characteristic of the Roberts court, in which the conservative justices tee up major constitutional issues for dramatic reversal. First the court wrecked campaign finance law in Citizens United. On Tuesday it took away a crown jewel of the civil rights movement. And as we saw in Monday’s Fisher case, affirmative action is next in line . . . 

John Roberts, who has long sought to weaken the Voting Rights Act, wrote in the majority opinion that because voter registration among black voters is higher than it was at the time the Voting Rights Act was passed, the protections afforded by the Act are no longer needed. (Click here for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s scathing dissent, in which she wrote, “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA. . . . The court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’s decision” to reauthorize the Act.) As though mere registration is the same thing as actually being able to vote, or your vote actually being counted. Ask the citizens of counties in Florida and Ohio in the contested elections of 2000 and 2004, or those who were forced to wait in interminable lines in 2008, 2012. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson points out:

Ginsburg quoted an F.B.I. investigation of Alabama legislators who referred to black voters as “Aborigines” and talked about how to keep them from the polls: “These conversations occurred not in the 1870’s, or even in the 1960’s, they took place in 2010.”

The United States Senate approved an extension of the law in 2006 by a  98–0 vote, and the House by a 390–33 vote; 33 Republicans (all white men, except one white woman, from North Carolina) voted against it. Former President George W. Bush, who nominated Roberts as chief justice, said many fine words about the importance of the Voting Rights Act in a ceremony at the White House. If you watch the videotape he sounds sincere; perhaps he was. Had the Voting Right’s Acts provisions been truly observed and enforced in the election of 2000, however—and had a similar 5–4 Supreme Court decision not ruled that Florida’s recounting of votes be stopped—George W. Bush would not have been in the White House.

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own Child’s

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

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We see the efforts needed to reduce the slaughter of innocents (of all ages) as comprising three elements: gun control; expanded psychological services; and pressure on Hollywood and video game makers to dial down the ultraviolence.

Not only do the citizens of the United States have an obligation to call at least one elected official to press for reform of gun laws—the more restrictions the better, in our view—but we also have to push representatives to allocate much more generous funding for counseling and psychological services in schools, especially to troubled teenagers, as well as to veterans.

American gun owners possess one-third of all the guns on the planet.

Dave Cullen, author of a book on the Columbine, Colorado, school killing spree of 1999, appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show Friday night and outlined three psychological profiles that cover most of the shooters in mass killings such as Friday’s in Connecticut. Two studies by the FBI and by the Secret Service with the U.S. Department of Education find that there is no single profile; rather, three basic types are (1) individuals so insane they don’t realize what they are doing, as in the Virginia Tech shooting; (2) psychopaths who are rational but lack empathy; and (3) the most common of the profiles, the clinically depressed, including some 6 percent of adolescents. Gun control is not enough: psychological counseling must play a larger part. Conservatives, elected or otherwise, who rail against “Obamacare” are not helping the children—not being pro-life, if you like—because among the provisions of Affordable Care Act are programs to expand psychological counseling services.

And Hollywood! Go to any local cinema, and if not the film you’re going to see, then in the previews you’ll see enough gunfire and explosions to simulate the “shock and awe” of the opening days of the Iraq War. These “big guns” are primarily aimed at men, of course. We don’t see the attraction, but many males of the species—most of whom have never served in the military or gone to war—seem to derive an almost sexual thrill from the gunfire and explosions. Hollywood executives, producers, agents, actors—dial it down. If citizen activists want to give liberal, activist actors such as Brad Pitt or George Clooney a good, life-affirming cause to champion, one that is closer to home and where they’ll likely have considerable influence, press them to reject films that glorify shooting, torture, and general mayhem. The Aurora, Colorado, massacre (July 20, 2012) on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises appeared to us depressingly unsurprising, given the violence enacted in that entertainment. Twelve killed, 58 injured.

Studies disagree on whether the graphic ultraviolence in video games causes their “players” to go ballistic and kill people, but we’re convinced that these “games” (Resident Evil; Left 4 Dead; Grand Theft Auto, ad nauseam) at least contribute to a culture of glorifying violence and, at the very least, not exactly encouraging reconciliation and diplomacy.

Once again proving herself one of the true adults in Congress, California senator Dianne Feinstein has announced on Meet the Press that she will introduce a bill (with a counterpart in the House) to ban assault weapons. Senator Feinstein has some experience with the damage guns can do: In 1978, when she was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she was the first to discover the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, and it was Ms. Feinstein who made the first public announcement of the killings. Please phone your support by calling Senator Feinstein’s office (202-224-3841), the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (202-224-3542; e-mail <senator_reid@reid.senate.gov>), and the White House (202-456-1111 ). Click here for more on positive signs for Feinstein’s bill.

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Think of the children most precious to you—your own daughter, a nephew, a neighbor’s or church friend’s cute twins—and then imagine Wayne LaPierre, CEO, executive vice president and chief political strategist of the National Rifle Association, or conservative members of Congress telling you that their lives are worth less than Americans’ second Amendment liberties. NRA president David A. Keene wrote after President Obama’s reelection, “We have to be prepared to fight him on each front, rally friendly elected officials, persuade those in the middle and let all of them know that gun owners will not stand idly by as our constitutional rights are stripped from us.” What would you tell them? Package that indignation and aim it constructively at your mayor, the president, and members of Congress who will listen and act.

There is a long and outrageous history of Republican opposition to any gun control measures, even after massacres. Unfortunately, Democrats have not been much more helpful, at least not in substantial, concentrated numbers. “Pro-life” conservatives love to say “protect life,” “protect the innocents,” but their concern often seems limited to one issue only, which makes us suspect their true intentions. Rep. Barney Frank used to say that for Republicans, life begins at conception and ends at birth. Now is a chance for Republicans to prove him wrong, if they can, if they will.

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Further Reading

A Guide to Mass Shootings in America (Mother Jones)

A 30-year timeline of mass shootings, with photos of the killers (Mother Jones)

A Morally Serious Videogame about Guns and Violence (Political Animal @ Washington Monthly)

Facts Behind the Tragedies (Political Animal @ Washington Monthly)

New York Times coverage of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre

Nicholas Kristof (NYT): Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?

Mass Shootings: Maybe What We Need Is a Better Mental-Health Policy (Mother Jones)

 

 

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