TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week in Scandal
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is facing what has quickly turned into a genuine scandal with lots of moving parts. A US Attorney has convened a federal grand jury to look into allegations that his administration caused massive traffic tie-ins on the world's busiest bridge, over four days in September that included the 9/11 anniversary and the first day of school. Investigation has revealed other potentially damaging allegations, all of which fit a particular pattern--not unknown in politics, especially New Jersey politics, of both major parties--of bullying political enemies and rewarding political allies. The mayor of Hoboken (80% of which was underwater after the storm) has accused the administration of squeezing her to support a huge development project or lose federal Sandy recovery funds administered by the state. Governor Christie vetoed legislation that would have created a website to provide absolute transparency on all Sandy expenditures, and now we've learned that $6 million in Sandy money went to build a senior citizens' facility in Belleville--a town affected far less by the storm than others (and a project that was in the works well before the storm) but in which the Democratic machine is heavily pro-Christie. The drip-drip-drip of allegations and investigations has damaged Christie's national reputation, and since investigations will be ongoing for some time to come, his once-favorable shot at the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is almost certainly doomed, even if he's totally innocent.
If he's innocent, his best defense--his only defense--is that he appointed people to high-level jobs in his administration who would do something like shut down lanes on a busy bridge as some sort of political retribution, then lie to the boss about it. And he went off on his own appointment to the Port Authority this week, saying essentially that he's a lifetime dirtbag--yet he was Christie's "eyes and ears inside the Port Authority," according to one of the articles referenced in Christie's office's own email. A defense that relies on people accepting that you make terrible personnel decisions is not the best foundation for a White House run.
Here's a sampling of the newspaper front pages Christie woke up to on Feb. 1. That would be enough to send a guy back to bed.
The point is, whether Christie is ever specifically tied to any of these acts, the scandal is real. The George Washington Bridge should not have been partially closed for political reasons, real lives were endangered, and given the 9/11 anniversary and the fact that the bridge connects Manhattan and NJ, there were also homeland security considerations. Christie--a notorious micromanager--might not have known what his top staffers were up to, unlikely as that seems. If he proves to be completely unconnected, he might survive politically, but he'll always be damaged goods.
This is a real scandal about real people's lives and real, significant outlays of federal money.
By contrast, elected Republicans are still trying to generate some scandal--any scandal--around the president, and failing miserably. According to this article, Senator Marco Rubio (R/FL), who was in favor of comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it, says it won't happen because President Obama supports it. "Rubio said the Obama administration has lost credibility as a result of how it handled the 2012 attack against a U.S. outpost in Libya and accusations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups."
We hate to have to remind Sen. Rubio of this, but apparently he has forgotten: there was no IRS Scandal. Not only has there been absolutely no link established between the White House and the IRS bureaucrats who were targeting specific groups, but those IRS employees were also looking into progressive groups. They were looking at any groups claiming that specific tax-exempt status. The only groups that actually lost tax-exempt status were progressive ones. The IRS folks weren't playing political favorites, they were doing their jobs, but you'd never know it from the continued right-wing fake outrage.
As for Benghazi, we know a lot about it now. People made mistakes, inside and outside of the administration. Ambassador Chris Stevens didn't want a big American security presence; he wanted to rely on locals. Congressional Republicans refused to appropriate more money for embassy security. The administration, anxious to get in front of the story, repeated talking points provided in the first few hours by the intelligence community rather than saying, "Let's hold off defining what happened until we really know." We know that contrary to right-wing claims, Al Qaeda wasn't involved and the attack was prompted, in part, by an anti-Islam video. There's tragedy there, but there's no scandal.
There's real scandal and there's bogus scandal. It's not hard to tell which is which. The one facing the Christie administration is real. Folks have lawyered up, careers will be ruined (including Christie's), and heads will (figuratively) roll. It's going to be in the news for a long time to come.
Side Note: In his pre-Super Bowl interview of the president, Fox "News" host Bill O'Reilly demonstrated his inability to tell a real scandal from a phony one.
O’REILLY: I’ve got to get to the IRS –
O’REILLY: – because I don’t know what happened there and I’m hoping maybe you can tell us. Douglas Shulman, former IRS chief, he was cleared into the White House 157 times, more than any of your cabinet members, more than any other IRS guy in the history, by far. OK, why was Douglas Shulman here 157 times? Why?
Because he wasn't, Bill. White House records show that he signed in 11 times. The number of times one is cleared to visit is meaningless. That nonsense was debunked in May of 2013, yet O'Reilly--in front of potentially the biggest audience of his career--felt compelled to lie about it. Some people truly have no shame.
This Week in Dirty Tricks
Speaking of having no shame, The National Republican Congressional Committee has a new trick: creating phony websites that look just like real sites for Democratic candidates. Except when a supporter clicks on the "Donate" button on these sites, any donation goes not to the Democrat but to the NRCC. The text on the site, once a visitor gets past the banner and engaging photo of the Democratic candidate, leaves little doubt as to what kind of site it is. But the purpose is obvious--to try to siphon contributions away from the candidate for whom they were intended, and to fill the NRCC's coffers, all while (maybe) staying on this side of legal.
Once again, the question has to be asked: If Republicans believe in their policies and their vision, why don't they run on those things instead of trying to suppress the votes of likely Democratic voters and pulling stunts like this?
This Week in Political Hate Speech
Did we mention shame? A woman at an Oklahoma town hall said that President Obama should be executed as an enemy combatant. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R/OK), whose event it was, didn't tell her that she was off-base, or that people shouldn't talk about the President of the United States of America that way. Instead, he laughed and said, "Everybody knows the lawlessness of this president. He picks and chooses which laws he's going to enforce or not enforce."
That's a disgusting display from a man elected to the nation's Congress, a man paid by the taxpayers, who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.
But he's not alone. Since the State of the Union address, various right-wing politicians, including former vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R/WI), have called the president lawless, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R/OH) has claimed that the reason he won't even bring an immigration bill to the floor is that nobody can trust the president to enforce the law.
These claims are, of course, baseless--every president exercises discetion in implementing certain provisions of certain laws, laying out timetables, and so on. That doesn't make them "lawless," it means they're performing a necessary function of the executive branch.
But more to the point, if Ryan believes the president is "increasingly lawless;" if Bridenstine believes he's lawless (and apparently, since he didn't contradict the woman, is okay with the idea that he should be executed), these people need to take action. They're duly elected members of the House of Representatives (embarrassing as that fact should be to any thinking American). As such, if they perceive the president to be breaking the laws, they have a duty to immediately initiate impeachment proceedings.
If they don't, then they don't really see lawless behavior. They're just saying that to stir up their base--to create and intensify hatred of the president.
They need to impeach President Obama or they need to shut the f**k up. Anything else is a violation of their oath of office, and a disservice to the nation.
This Week in the Middle Class
America's economy is largely dependent upon middle class spending. We've written a lot lately about the shrinking middle class, and the different ways people want to address the issue. The conservative approach seems to be that we need to focus on taking care of the rich, and some of their wealth will eventually trickle down to the rest of us. More reasonable people think the rich are doing just fine without our help, and we need to pay more attention to those genuinely in need.
But the fact that the middle class is shrinking--and that this is causing havoc in the business world--is no surprise to America's business community. They're feeling the pinch, and they don't like it. And the greater economic effect of a shrinking middle class is to slow economic growth.
This Week in Hostage-taking
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has announced that the debt ceiling will have to be raised again by the end of February. Republicans in Congress, who continue to pretend that raising the debt ceiling is in itself an action that increases the debt (it's not--it's a mechanism to pay the nation's bills; not raising it would cause a default, hiking interest rates and increasing our debt), are once again threatening to take the nation's financial well-being hostage, in exchange for a ransom they haven't decided on yet.
This game is getting old. Each time they make this threat, the economy suffers. Each time, they cave. Why don't they just go straight to the caving part--which then would no longer be caving, but responsible governing?
Side Note 1: That deficit they claim to be worried about? When President Obama took office in January 2009, it was $1.4 trillion. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that for fiscal year 2014, it'll drop to $514 billion. Keynesians among us don't see this as a good thing--after all, borrowing money right now is essentially free, and we still need government investment to keep the recovery going. A growing economy generates revenue and reduces the deficit in a more natural, sustainable fashion than forced austerity. An emphasis on deficit reduction has slowed growth and cost us jobs. But deficit hawks--if they were really deficit hawks--would be among Obama's biggest boosters at this point.
Side Note 2: One of the ransoms congressional Republicans are considering involves eliminating the ACA's risk corridors--which they incorrectly call "bailouts." According to the CBO analysis, those risk corridors will save the government $8 billion--which means the Republican plan to get rid of them would cost us $8 billion. Again, they're not as serious about deficit-cutting as they like to pretend.
This Week in "Let Them Eat Cake"
The Senate tried again this week to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. More than 1.7 million people lost those benefits at the end of December, and more are getting close. As a reminder, these are all people who lost their jobs due to circumstances beyond their control. They weren't fired for cause, and they didn't quit. They paid into unemployment, in many cases for decades. They are actively looking for work. And now they've lost their last lifeline. But Senate Republicans successfully filibustered the effort, by one vote. Note: they didn't filibuster the legislation--they filibustered the attempt to bring the legislation to the floor so it could be debated and voted on.
Why are they so determined to see Americans fall into poverty?
This Week in Health Care
According to a new study by Harvard University and City University of New York, in the states that have refused the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, between 7,000 and 17,000 Americans will die every year whose lives could have been saved by that expansion.
And no, Fox "News" and other conservative outlets and politicians, the ACA is not going to "kill 2 million jobs," like you've been saying. It makes it easier for people to not work, should they choose that option, and still keep their health insurance. That's an advantage to people like, for instance, freelance writers. Or entrepreneurs who want to start their own businesses. Or moms who want to stay at home and raise the children. Or those who've been delaying retirement. The jobs don't go away--someone else can fill them. But people will be less bound to those jobs by the need to keep their insurance. Overall, that's a good thing.
Finally, the ACA is hurting a lot of people. Or is it? Somehow, a majority of self-identified conservatives believe (or claim to believe) that the law has hurt them or their families. However, only 19% of Americans overall make that claim. The only reasonable conclusion is that those people are saying the law is hurting them out of ideological partisanship, not real-world evidence. Subtract all the people who are only making that claim because they believe that's what conservatives feel, and you'd get a number much smaller than 19% (a number, in other words, much closer to the real world, in which conservatives who want to complain about the ACA can't even find stories about people genuinely hurt by it to tout in public).
This Week in Gun Safety
The New York Times has a blog called The Gun Report that--as one might guess from the title--tries to keep up on gun violence, on a daily basis. A year into the project, one of its authors, Joe Nocera, has reached a few conclusions, excerpted below:
"First, the biggest surprise, especially early on, was how frequently either a child accidentally shot another child — using a loaded gun that happened to be lying around — or an adult accidentally shot a child while handling a loaded gun. I have written about this before, mainly because these incidents seem so preventable. Gun owners simply need to keep their guns locked away."
"Second, the N.R.A. shibboleth that having a gun in one’s house makes you safer is demonstrably untrue. After The Gun Report had been up and running for a while, several Second Amendment advocates complained that we rarely published items that showed how guns were used to prevent a crime. The reason was not that we were biased against crime prevention; it was that it didn’t happen very often. (When we found such examples, we put them in The Gun Report.) More to the point, there are an increasing number of gun deaths that are the result of an argument — often fueled by alcohol — among friends, neighbors and family members."
This supports what we say here all the time. If you must own guns, store them safely (and store the ammunition separately). If you think you're owning guns so you can use them to defend your home, think again--that is a fantasy scenario that very rarely plays out in the real world.
This Week in School
At a Salt Lake City, UT, elementary school, some parents were behind in paying for their kids' lunches. The school told cafeteria workers not to feed those kids, but cafeteria workers couldn't tell which kids were behind until they checked out. So they let the kids load their trays with food, but then if the kid's meal plan was behind, they confiscated the food and threw it away (you can't feed it to another kid, once one kid has touched it). Really, there has to be a better way.
This Week in Abortion Politics
How do you lower the abortion rate in America? There are a couple of options. One is to make every pregnancy reportable to the government, which will then monitor said pregnancy and make sure that the outcome is acceptable to whichever government authorities are doing that monitoring. That seems like the ultimate in Big Brother, and the ultimate big government solution to a problem.
The other way, it turns out, is to make effective contraception easily available and teach people how to use it. This way actually works, and is a much more conservative, small government, personal responsibility-based approach. It doesn't require closing clinics that offer those services along with many other vital health care services, mostly to women of limited means. It doesn't require murdering doctors. And it doesn't require restrictive laws that are likely to send women out of the country or back into the shadows to terminate unintended pregnancies.
This Week in Bears
Bears doing human things.
We here at TWiA World Headquarters can, at our discretion, declare that TWiA's brief includes all of North America, so therefore Canada counts. We're doing so this week so we can include this video of a giant panda playing in the snow: