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The Obama administration has announced this morning a $26 billion fraud settlement with five of the nation’s banks over their flawed and fraudulent foreclosure practices Here’s what you need to know about it:
Why did foreclosure practices come under scrutiny in the first place? In September 2010, Ally Financial halted foreclosures in 23 states after discovering flaws in the way the eviction paperwork was processed. The company’s action came after a lawsuit was filed in which a single employee of Ally was accused of signing off on tens of thousands of foreclosures without properly reviewing the documentation. It soon became clear that this so-called robo-signing issue and other types of forgeries and shortcuts were widespread problems throughout the mortgage industry. Soon, other banks were joining Ally in freezing foreclosures. Less than two weeks later, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America both announced that they would temporarily stop foreclosures in some states due to concerns over improperly prepared documents.
Meanwhile, attorneys general from Iowa, Maryland, North Carolina, Delaware, Texas, and other states were calling for broader foreclosure moratoriums in their states until the banks ironed out the mess. On Oct. 13, 2010, attorneys general from all 50 states announced that they were joining together to launch a probe into the fraudulent or mishandled documents.
How many homeowners will be helped by the settlement?About 1 million households will have the size of their home loan reduced. An additional 750,000 families or individuals who lost their homes to foreclosure will receive checks for about $2,000 each. Those who receive these restitution payouts do not give up their right to participate in future lawsuits.
What banks are involved in the probe? Wells Fargo, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Ally Financial and Citigroup.
Could that change? Yes, and the Obama administration hopes it does. The settlement could grow if officials can sign on nine other mortgage servicing companies that they have been negotiating with in recent weeks. That could bring the total number of banks participating to 14, and raise the value of the settlement to about $30 billion.
The deal is currently worth $26 billion. Is that really a lot of money? Depends what you mean by “a lot of money.” The deal is the largest of its kind since a multi-state agreement with the tobacco industry in 1998. But that deal was worth around $350 billion in today’s dollars. It’s also not a lot of money compared to the $700 billion in underwater mortgage debt, or the bailout of the banks that issue and bought the debt in the first place.
The settlement increased in size thanks to the participation of California and New York’s attorneys general, who had been holdouts. However, some critics say the amount is relatively paltry, given the extent of the nation’s housing crisis.
What’s in it for the banks? The banks have been operating under a cloud of legal uncertainty over their exposure to bad mortgages that were not properly documented. That has hurt banks’ stock prices and tied up capital. As part of today’s deal, officials have promised not to pursue certain mortgage-related claims against the targeted banks.
So are they off the hook entirely? No. One reason the deal is relatively small is that it doesn’t fully end the banks’ legal liability. New York AG Eric Schneiderman, for instance, is able to move forward with his lawsuit.
Is this a gamechanger for the housing market? No. The effects of this deal are likely to be rather modest. In terms of direct help for consumers, the aggregate impact will be quite minor.
For more: Here’s the official Web site of the settlement. Here’s the press release from the Justice Department. Here’s the Washington Post’s story on the settlement. Here are five things that Slate’s Matthew Yglesias thinks you should know. Here are 12 reasons Yves Smith thinks you should hate the deal.
After many months of negotiation, 49 state attorneys general and the federal government have reached agreement on a historic joint state-federal settlement with the country’s five largest loan servicers:
- Bank of America
- JPMorgan Chase
- Wells Fargo
This bipartisan settlement will provide as much as $25 billion in:
- Relief to distressed borrowers in the states who signed on to the settlement; and
- Direct payments to signing states and the federal government.
It’s the largest consumer financial protection settlement in US history.
The agreement settles state and federal investigations finding that the country’s five largest loan servicers routinely signed foreclosure related documents outside the presence of a notary public and without really knowing whether the facts they contained were correct. Both of these practices violate the law.
The settlement provides benefits to borrowers in the signing states whose loans are owned by the settling banks as well as to many of the borrowers whose loans they service. Borrowers from Oklahoma will not be eligible for any of the relief directly to homeowners because Oklahoma elected not to join the settlement.
KEY PROVISIONS OF THE SETTLEMENT
Immediate aid to homeowners needing loan modifications now, including first and second lien principal reduction. The servicers are required to work off up to $17 billion in principal reduction and other forms of loan modification relief nationwide.
State attorneys general anticipate the settlement’s requirement for principal reduction will show other lenders that principal reduction is one effective tool in combating foreclosure and that it will not lead to widespread defaults by borrowers who really can afford to pay.
Immediate aid to borrowers who are current, but whose mortgages currently exceed their home’s value. Borrowers will be able to refinance at today’s historically low interest rates. Servicers will have to provide up to $3 billion in refinancing relief nationwide.
Immediate payments to borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure with no requirement to prove financial harm and without having to release private claims against the servicers or the right to participate in the OCC review process. $1.5 billion will be distributed nationwide to some 750,000 borrowers.
Immediate payments to signing states to help fund consumer protection and state foreclosure protection efforts.
First ever nationwide reforms to servicing standards; something that no other federal or state agency has been able to achieve. These servicing standards require single point of contact, adequate staffing levels and training, better communication with borrowers, and appropriate standards for executing documents in foreclosure cases, ending improper fees, and ending dual-track foreclosures for many loans.
State AG oversight of national banks for the first time. Something no court could award.
- National banks will be required to regularly report compliance with the settlement to an independent, outside monitor that reports to state Attorneys General.
- Servicers will have to pay heavy penalties for non-compliance with the settlement, including missed deadlines.
BANKS ARE STILL ACCOUNTABLE FOR OTHER CLAIMS NOT COVERED BY THIS SETTLEMENT
This agreement holds the banks accountable for their wrongdoing on robo-signing and mortgage servicing. This settlement does not seek to hold them responsible for all their wrongs over the years and the agreement and its release preserve legal options for others to pursue. Specifically, this settlement does not:
- Release any criminal liability or grant any criminal immunity.
- Release any private claims by individuals or any class action claims.
- Release claims related to the securitization of mortgage backed securities that were at the heart of the financial crisis.
- Release claims against Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems or MERSCORP.
- Release any claims by a state that chooses not to sign the settlement.
- End state attorneys general investigations of Wall Street related to financial fraud or the financial crisis.
The agreement settles only some aspects of the banks conduct related to the financial crisis (foreclosure practices, loan servicing, and origination of loans) in return for the second largest state attorneys general recovery in history and direct relief to distressed borrowers while they can still use it.
State cases against the rating agencies and bid-rigging in the municipal bond market, for example, continue. Claims and investigations against MERS and how Wall Street packaged mortgages into securities also continue.
On January 27 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder along with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Director of Enforcement Robert Khuzami and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the formation of the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group. The working group will investigate those responsible for misconduct contributing to the financial crisis through the pooling and sale of residential mortgage-backed securities.
Felix Salmon, Reuters:
The long-awaited mortgage settlement is here! And it looks like a good one. The biggest worry was that the attorneys general would give away the shop in return for big headlines. While in fact they seem to have been quite successful at limiting the immunity that the five banks (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial) are going to receive:
In the agreement’s expected final form, the releases are mostly limited to the foreclosure process, like the eviction of homeowners after only a cursory examination of documents, a practice known as robo-signing.
The prosecutors and regulators still have the right to investigate other elements that contributed to the housing bubble, like the assembly of risky mortgages into securities that were sold to investors and later soured, as well as insurance and tax fraud.
Officials will also be able to pursue any allegations of criminal wrongdoing. In addition, a lawsuit Mr. Schneiderman filed Friday against MERS, an electronic mortgage registry responsible for much of the robo-signing that has marred the foreclosure process nationwide, and three banks, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, will also go forward.
Along with how broad the releases would be, California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, also pushed for her state to be able to use the state’s False Claims Act. That would enable state officials and huge pension funds like Calpers to collect sizable monetary damages from the banks if officials could prove mortgages were improperly packaged into securities that later dropped in value.
If you’re a bank shareholder breathing a sigh of relief, then, don’t. The only thing you’re protected against, now, is lawsuits over robosigning. Were those likely to cost $25 billion if they had gone to court? It seems unlikely to me that they could have raised that much. Other big-money lawsuits over securitization can and almost certainly will still be brought — which means that the big banks all still have significant litigation risk hanging over their heads.
So why did they do this deal? Well, for one thing, it’s not nearly as expensive as it might look at first glance. It’s not like they’re paying out $25 billion and getting nothing but a bit of immunity in return. A huge chunk of the money will go towards principal reductions on underwater mortgages — which means that it’s not really a cash outlay at all.
Let’s say I lent you $350,000 to buy a house, and that house is now worth only $250,000. I’m holding that mortgage on my books at par, but if I sold it there’s no way I could get $350,000 for it, or even $250,000. I give you a principal reduction of $40,000, so that you now owe $310,000. That’s good for you — which is why the settlement is a welcome development. And it means that I have to take a $40,000 write-down on my balance sheet. But the mortgage is still being held on my books at $310,000, which is still more than I could have sold it for before the write-down.
In other words, what’s happening here is that the mortgage settlement is at heart largely just encouraging banks to bring their balance sheets closer to reality — which is something they’d have to do sooner or later in any case. Indeed, insofar as principal reductions can increase the value of a mortgage, this deal is actually making banks money, over the long term.
So think of this as that rarest of settlements, one which really is a win for all sides. The attorneys general get a big deal, homeowners who got foreclosed upon get $2,000 apiece, and the banks get to do the kind of principal reductions they probably have wanted to do for a while, but while getting significant immunity from prosecution at the same time.
Now, I guess, we just wait and see what happens with all the other possible prosecutions and lawsuits, especially in New York and California. And, of course, from the FHFA.
Elizabeth Warren on the mortgage settlement: “it needs to be the beginning, not the end, of efforts to hold the big banks accountable”
One would think the homeowner relief settlements with five major banks just announced by the Justice Department would be welcome news for people who spend their days pretending that they care about the 99%. But oh no. The settlement just announced may have $17 billion in principal reductions for a million distressed borrowers and $3 billion in refinancing forunderwater-but-current-on-payment mortgages, but apparently, you can’t sell branded products on those and stuff your own coffers. The settlement may have $2,000 checks waiting for 750,000 responsible homeowners who were foreclosed on between 2008 and 2011, and it may include $5 billion in cash payments to states to fund consumer protection and foreclosure prevention efforts, but it doesn’t require all bankers to immediately drown themselves in the Mississippi.
Yes, the settlement requires banks to look at loan modifications and other options and makes foreclosure a last resort, bans robo-signing,stops banks from moving forward on foreclosures while a loan modification process is pending, gives borrowers a right to appeal modification denials and creates a single point of contact for borrowers. Yes, though the initialfigure is $25 billion, the way the settlement and the payouts are structured, benefits from the 5 biggest lenders to homeowners could reach $40 billion. And yes, the settlement figure can reach $45 billion if all major servicers decide to join, but hey, why would you want $45 billion in relief for homeowners and a mandated loan modification program when you can instead bitch and moan about perpwalks that the settlement leaves the door wide open to?
There is also a provision for banks to comply with the agreement promptly and properly or be charged up to $5 million per violation in serious cases and up to $1 million per violation in other cases. The agreement provides incentives for banks to get the money out within 12 months, and 75% of the settlement is required to be paid out within 24 months. Should banks fail to adhere to the timelines, they can also be charged hefty fines.
In summary, the agreement not only makes the banks pay out billions, it also sets new, consumer friendly servicing standards and fund state and federal consumer protection efforts so that the abuses of the past can never happen again.
So of course, you couldn’t help but expect the fake, self-proclaimed defenders of the Left to loudly whine.
Firedoglake is the loudest on the manufactured outrage on this one (it is ALL they are talking about today), and they are joined by groups like the racist “Progressive Change Campaign Committee,” and the bigwigs at Daily Kos. There is absolutely no logical rhyme or reason for opposing this deal from a progressive point of view, of course. The biggest hue and cry from these poutrage sellers is, of course, that by settling at all, the state attorneys general lose the ability to jail the bankers. Except that when they tell you that, they are unapologetically lying throughtheir teeth. Here is what the Justice Department press release says on the matter:
The agreement resolves certain violations of civil law based on mortgage loan servicing activities. The agreement does not prevent state and federal authorities from pursuing criminal enforcement actions related to this or other conduct by the servicers. The agreement does not prevent the government from punishing wrongful securitization conduct that will be the focus of the new Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group. The United States also retains its full authority to recover losses and penalties caused to the federal government when a bank failed to satisfy underwriting standards on a government-insured or government-guaranteed loan. The agreement does not prevent any action by individual borrowers who wish to bring their own lawsuits. State attorneys general also preserved, among other things, all claims against the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS), and all claims brought by borrowers.
In fact, the only “immunity” banks get is on narrowly defined “robo-signing” civil cases. David Dayen of Firedoglake, the most self-hyped “journalist” of our generation, has what he thinks is a clever answer to this, in a piece taking on the authorities for closing the bankers’ path to the big house. His answer is, and I quote, “Come on.”
[Iowa AG Miller] will tell you up and down that no criminal claims were given up in the settlement.
Come on. If AGs cannot win additional civil penalties on foreclosure fraud, they are not going to try to bring criminal charges. That’s just not how it works.
Too cute by half. See, David thinks that you are really, utterly stupid. What he is hinting at here is the idea that many prosecutors extract civil penalties or settlements from big financial defendants with the threat of a criminal prosecution. David is clawing at the idea that such threats of criminal prosecution – or an ongoing criminal investigation or prosecution – prods the defendants to settle the civil case, in order to avoid jail time. And David Dayen is in favor of that – i.e. using the criminal probe’s threat as a way to extract a big civil penalty.
But he’s hoping you are dumb enough to miss two crucial points here: (a) that is exactly what happened here – the banks buckled under the threat of federal and state criminal prosecutions and chalked up what could be $40 billion in civil settlements; and (b) if David Dayen is for using the threat of criminal prosecution to extract civil settlements, he is not really for jailing the bankers. Otherwise, he would be asking the state attorneys general and the DOJ to go after the banks criminally under the authorities they retain under the settlement, not be whining about how once the civil matter is settled, how it cannot be re-settled using a criminal case. You cannot both complain about bankers not being jailed and then turn around and whine about why the threat of jail time wasn’t used to get a bigger civil settlement.
As a matter of fact, some authorities are stepping up their criminal and other enforcement actions on the banks using the money that will come from this very settlement! Take California’s AG Kamala Harris, for example:
To speed investigations and strengthen prosecutions of these mortgage cases, California will expand its Mortgage Fraud Strike Force, adding to the more than 42 members already working on the team. The state will continue its investigative alliance with Nevada, that allows the sharing of resources, information and strategies, and will look to collaborate with additional states focused on a law enforcement response to the wave of mortgage fraud.
As Rick Perry would say, oops.
David Dayen, Jane Hamsher, Adam Green, Joan McCarter and their ilk have a personal vendetta against the Democratic president who won without begging at their alter. Also, they have a vested political and financial interest in defeating the president, and failing that, portraying him as a failure. Because for all the merchandise and memberships they sell, they really truly have one main product for sale: manufactured poutrage. They want to prove that they are the holy grail a Democrat has to go through to become and remain president, and success of the Obama administration – and therefore by definition, the helping of the American homeowner, consumer, and patient – is antithetical to that financial and political interest. Poutrage and hatred tend to generate more attention (and thus money) and reason and calm examination of the facts.
They haven’t done so just in this case. They have opposed health care reform that is now helping countless young people stay on their parents’ insurance, countless seniors save money on prescription drugs, and countless previously uninsurable Americans get insurance, and that will, in time, insure 32 million additional Americans, including a massive expansion of Medicaid and community health centers. They stood opposed to Wall Street reform that was the farthest reaching re-regulation of the financial industry since the 1930s. They have opposed the first tax break for the working poor in memory in the form of President Obama’s payroll tax cut. They have ridiculed the debt limit compromise in which the President protected every progressive priority and put the bloated defense budget on the chopping block.
Looked at individually and as a whole, one could well deduce that the people who have consistently opposed the pro-consumer, pro-patient, pro-working American agenda of the President are in fact as invested in the failure of America under an Obama presidency as Rush Limbaugh. And one would be correct.
The Political Carnival:
“Trickle down” is not an economic theory; it’s a self-enriching religion for the wealthiest amongst us.
The economists and pundits are legion who have challenged the notion that the amassing of wealth by a privileged few results in more jobs being created in the US. After all, if this were the case – at a time the richer are becoming even richer – why did we nearly just reach a depression? [...]
One of [labor specialist, David ] Bacon’s central arguments is that globalized corporate trade is conducted to increase the profits of large corporate entities. The result is the exact opposite, in many cases, of trickle down. Due to trade agreements that allow corporations to place factories in the lowest cost country, creating near slave-labor conditions – as BuzzFlash at Truthout has shown – for workers who, for example, make almost all American high-tech products overseas. [...]
Furthermore, in terms of NAFTA and Mexico, it dumps subsidized American products – particularly agricultural – south of the border and renders many small farmers in Mexico and Central America unable to compete. This is just one of the factors that results in increased migration to the US: the need to survive. [...]
So, if we look at the corner of the business world concerning southern sphere migration to the US, we are not looking at trickle-down economics; we are looking at increasing corporate and big agricultural profits through the exploitation of labor. [...]
The bait and switch here for the global multinationals is to cut jobs in the US, cut pay, make a bigger profit manufacturing overseas and sit on that profit or disburse it to shareholders. Americans consume the products, maybe assembled in a plant in Mexico that was formerly in the US.
Trickle down? The only thing that trickles down is wages in the US, and the decline of the manufacturing sector … The salaries received by people who used to earn decent incomes have declined in far too many cases.
Please read the whole thing here.
Today’s economic news is that new claims for unemployment benefits have fallen again, with the four-week average now at the lowest point since spring 2008. That’s not all; the stock market is also at its highest point since spring 2008, and Gallup’s economic confidence numbers are also approaching post-recession highs.
It’s no coincidence that the run of good economic news — and employment is only a part of that — has been accompanied by a climb by Barack Obama in the polls. Indeed, the Pollster average now has Obama with an average 5.5 point lead over Romney.
The less obvious, but also important, point is that virtually everything else in our politics is affected by good economic news, too.
If it continues, expect the popularity of other policies associated with the president to improve, too. If Obama become more popular — which is one effect of good economic news — then “Obamacare” will, too. Moreover, if Members of Congress, bureaucrats, and lobbyists start assuming the president will be around for four more years, it’s easier for him to get his way in policy terms, because waiting him out suddenly becomes a much less viable strategy. That, in turn, could buoy his approval, too.
One other key point: There’s a real possibility that everyone is still being overly cautious about believing in an economic turnaround. The White House’s official numbers used to make projections in the soon-to-be-released budget are very likely far too pessimistic (for technical reasons, the Office of Management and Budget doesn’t do constant revisions of its economic forecasts and so the budget released in February includes forecasts made back in the fall).
Outside economic forecasters, too, are making projections that don’t seem to reflect the recent much better news. And even some liberal economists are emphasizing what could still go wrong and why we shouldn’t get too confident — with the result that people may assume that the truth must be even worse, since liberal economists might be assumed to sugar-coat their comments when a Democrat is in the White House.
It’s certainly possible that the new economic momentum will, again, dissipate. But the signs are mounting that people are being a bit too pessimistic. And if so, there’s a chance that Democrats and the president could be about to receive a whole lot of unexpected good news indeed.
The federal jobless benefits that take effect when state aid expires are about to become less generous, and Democrats and Republicans in Congress are now fighting over how much to shorten the duration of aid or whether expanded benefits should continue at all.
Democrats on Thursday unveiled a proposal to shorten the duration of aid to 93 weeks from 99 weeks. But Republicans reacted negatively, saying the offer was too little, especially because Democrats hadn’t proposed a way to pay for the aid.
“It’s an opening position,” Sen. Jon Kyl(R, Ariz.) complained to reporters on Thursday. “We’ve got a week to go — we should be done with opening positions.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, Nev.) said earlier this week he would develop his own package–including an extension of a popular payroll-tax cut and a new measure to avoid pay cuts for doctors who treat Medicare patients–if a House-Senate conference committee does not come up with a deal by early next week. On Thursday, the House Republican leadership also took its own step forward, saying it may consider a payroll-tax package next week that is the vehicle for expanded jobless benefits.
The three items — jobless aid, the payroll-tax cut, and the fix for doctors — expire at month’s end. But Congress is working on an even tighter deadline, because lawmakers begin a week-long recess Feb. 20, which effectively means they have a week left to negotiate.
Democratic and Republican leaders of the conference committee are having trouble in part because they are being pulled in different directions by members of their own caucuses. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D, Mont.), told reporters Thursday that “we’re negotiating” paying for extended jobless benefits — but some of his Democratic colleagues weren’t on board.
“Our position is that we shouldn’t have offsets–historically we have not offset” jobless benefits, Sen. Ben Cardin (D, Md.) told reporters.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R, Mich.), who is the other chairman of the House-Senate conference committee, faces challenges from within the GOP caucus. On Wednesday, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R, N.C.) told reporters that “maybe we shouldn’t extend unemployment any longer than 26 weeks that is offered by the states.”
She said Democrats hadn’t accepted any of the Republican ideas for covering the cost, “so my question to them is how serious are they about extending it beyond 26 weeks?”
Another problem for Republicans is that Democrats rejected a GOP proposal requiring Americans who lose their jobs to undergo drug testing in order to receive federal unemployment assistance. Democrats also rejected a proposal to require some Americans who lose benefits to pursue a general equivalency diploma, which functions as a substitute for a high school diploma.
There’s always a flip side. The $25 billion settlement that the five largest U.S. banks agreed to pay—for roles they played in the mortgage meltdown—will likely result in a wave of home seizures, Bloomberg reports. Translation: While the chances of a long-term housing recovery increase, delinquent borrowers are going to be hit hard. Foreclosures were slowed down as attorneys battled with the banks for more than a year, but now that there’s an agreement, it’s time for some property seizures. With such a backlog of foreclosures, there are many Americans stuck in houses they can’t afford. That isn’t to say that as many as two million Americans will reap the benefits of the settlement, the largest of its kind in history and the biggest civil-action suit ever against the housing industry.
Despite thousands of safety and environmental violations on public lands, oil and gas companies have been virtually unpunished, due to lax oversight and enforcement. A new report from House Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee finds that the Interior Department collected fines from a mere six percent of violations over the last 13 years. Now, House Democrats will deliver these findings to the Interior Department:
“It would be an overstatement to even call these fines a slap on the wrist. For oil and gas companies making billions from drilling on America’s public lands, this kind of inadequate oversight and enforcement is little more than a pin prick,” said Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, the committee’s top Democrat …
“American citizens and workers should feel confident that oil and gas companies are conducting business in the safest manner possible, and when they don’t, that the U.S. government will step in and make sure they pay the price for their actions. This report indicates that confidence in the oversight of drilling on public lands should be limited, at best,” Markey said.
The report looked at 2,025 federal land drilling violations in 17 states, where 271 companies escaped any fees. Considering big oil made more than $137 billion in just 2011, the $275,000 in total fines amounts to pennies for the rich industry.
Millions of healthy people – including shy or defiant children, grieving relatives and people with fetishes – may be wrongly labeled mentally ill by a new international diagnostic manual, specialists said on Thursday.
In a damning analysis of an upcoming revision of the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychologists, psychiatrists and other experts said new categories of mental illness identified in the book were at best “silly” and at worst “worrying and dangerous.”
“Many people who are shy, bereaved, eccentric, or have unconventional romantic lives will suddenly find themselves labeled as mentally ill,” said Peter Kinderman, head of Liverpool University’s Institute of Psychology at a briefing in London about widespread concerns over the manual.
The DSM is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and has symptoms and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders. It is used internationally and seen as the diagnostic “bible” for mental health medicine.
More than 11,000 health professionals have already signed a petition (atdsm5-reform.com) calling for the development of the fifth edition of the manual to be halted and re-thought.
Some diagnoses – for conditions like “oppositional defiant disorder” and “apathy syndrome” – risk devaluing the seriousness of mental illness and medical zing behaviors most people would consider normal or just mildly eccentric, the experts said.
At the other end of the spectrum, the new DSM, due out next year, could give medical diagnoses for serial rapists and sex abusers – under labels like “paraphilic coercive disorder” – and may allow offenders to escape prison by providing what could be seen as an excuse for their behavior, they added.
He said the 1840 Census of the United States included just one category for mental disorder, but by 1917 the APA was already recognizing 59. That rose to 128 in 1959, to 227 in 1980, and again to around 350 disorders in the fastest revisions of DSM in 1994 and 2000.
Allen Frances of Duke University and chair of the committee that oversaw the previous DSM revision, said DSM-5 would “radically and recklessly expand the boundaries of psychiatry” and result in the “lexicalization of normality, individual difference, and criminality.”
“Madness and misery exist but they come in many shapes and sizes,” he said. “We risk treating the experience and conduct of people as if they are botanical specimens waiting to be identified and categorized in rigid boxes.
Nick Craddock of Cardiff University’s department of psychological medicine and neurology, who also spoke at the London briefing,cited depression as a key example of where DSM’s broad categories were going wrong.
Whereas in previous editions, a person who had recently lost a loved one and was suffering low moods would be seen as experiencing a normal human reaction to bereavement, the new DSM criteria would ignore the death, look only at the symptoms, and class the person as having a depressive illness.
Other examples of diagnoses cited by experts as problematic included “gambling disorder,” “internet addiction disorder” and “oppositional defiant disorder” – a condition in which a child “actively refuses to comply with majority’s requests” and “performs deliberate actions to annoy others.”
Since the controversy over the White House’s new contraception policy broke, it’s been widely assumed that the battle is terrible politics for Obama, because it will cost him among Catholic swing voters.
But some polling from August suggests a majority of Americans supports the White House position — and that the opposition to the provision from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops makes no difference to them. Even a majority of Catholic respondents said the same.
The Democratic polling firm Lake Research did a poll — commissioned by the moderate-to-liberal health care group Herndon Alliance — that tested messages on both sides. The poll was conducted in August, when the new administration rules first broke.
The poll tested the message of those who say Catholic institutions shouldn’t be required to provide birth control coverage, and found a majority see it as unconvincing:
Requiring health insurers to cover contraceptives violates the rights of people who belong to religions that don’t believe in artificial contraception. The Catholic Church morally opposes birth control and Orthodox Jews and some Protestants find birth control objectionable. Forcing religious groups, individuals, health providers, and health plans to perform or pay for a service that they may find morally objectionable is wrong.
Not convincing: 52
The wording there is not perfect, but the last sentence comes close to describing the crux of the controversy. Meanwhile, another question directly tested the fact that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes the new rule, and found that for a majority, it didn’t make any difference in their views of the Affordable Care Act:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has sharply criticized the new rule requiring private health plans to cover contraception and birth control with no co-pays or deductibles saying, quote — pregnancy is not a disease, and children are not a health problem — end quote. Does this make you more favorable toward the new health reform law, less favorable, or does it not make a difference?
The responses: 57 percent said it made no difference; versus 18 percent who said it made them look on the law more favorably, and 20 percent who said less.
Among Catholics, 53 percent said the bishops’ position made no difference to their view of the law.
“This poll tells us that the American people believe that women should have access to contraception through normal health insurance,” Bob Crittenden, the executive director of Herndon Alliance, told me. “If the White House is looking at what the American people want, they don’t want to be told what to do by Catholic bishops. Women and men in the United Sates have a strong feeling that this is a good preventive benefit that should be available to all women.”
Such polling needs to be seen in context — it’s an effort by an advocacy group to test messaging in order to persuade its own side (the White House) to stand firm. And the polling was conducted before the controversy’s latest round flared up. But as Sam Stein, who also obtained the same polling, points out, the results are very relevant politically right now.
The White House very well may buckle in this fight. But these numbers do suggest at least the possibility that leading commentators have been far too quick to declare this a certain political loser.
The Senate’s Democratic women are furious at “Morning Joe” hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski for their opposition to the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate, two sources told BuzzFeed.
California Senator Barbara Boxer and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen both got in touch with MSNBC after the two hosts of the show that starts many politicos’ days were unanimous Monday in their criticism of the rule, which would require Catholic hospitals and other institutions to offer health care plans providing contraception to their employees.
“If the federal government can do this to the Catholic church, can they not do this to any church?” host Joe Scarborough asked. Brzezinski called the move an “overstep” and “wrong.” Guests, including conservative Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, agreed with them.
“The women Senators are up in arms. They think the coverage is slanted, Mika is not doing enough to articulate their position, and they can’t get equal time,” a Democrat familiar with the situation told BuzzFeed.
Boxer and Shaheen, a source said, both asked “Morning Joe” to appear to rebut the hosts’ views; the show’s producers agreed, but said they would invite a Republican Senator on to take the other side. The two senators then cited scheduling problems, and suggested that Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal appear in their place; Morning Joe declined.
They’re not the only ones agitated: Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow voiced her complaints about the show in a lunch with donors in Washington, D.C. today, a source there said.
Spokespeople for the senators and for MSNBC declined to comment on the tiff, which is if nothing else a sign of the show’s centrality in the political conversation.
And the cable network did not exactly shut them out Thursday: Boxer appeared on The Daily Rundown, Shaheen spoke to Chris Jansing at 10, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand spoke to Luke Russert in the 1:00 hour.
The Marine Corps’ scout snipers in Afghanistan could probably use a safety stand-down. Just weeks after news broke that one elite unit of the forward-deployed Marinesurinated on the corpses of dead Afghans, a photo has surfaced of another unit posing proudly beside a flag of the Nazi’s killer SS troops.
Roger Simon, Politico:
[…] Romney is known as an even-keel kind of guy. Doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. But Tuesday he lost three states to Rick Santorum, and it threw him and his campaign into disarray and confusion.
But before we get to that, we ought to answer your chief question: Which one is Rick Santorum?
You can be forgiven for forgetting. Santorum was the guy who back in January came in second in Iowa to Mitt Romney by eight votes. Santorum had spent the most time in Iowa, and Romney had spent the least time in Iowa, and so Santorum seemed finished.
A few weeks later after a recount, however, GOP officials announced that Santorum had actually won Iowa by 34 votes, with the proviso that they didn’t actually know who the hell had won Iowa. The votes of eight precincts had gone permanently “missing.” Maybe a hog ate them, maybe they were converted into ethanol, maybe they were deep-fat fried and put on a stick for the next Iowa State Fair. Nobody knows.
Which is why Santorum got no boost from his sudden turnaround victory in Iowa. He was just another candidate on the right of his party, and the media had others to concentrate on, like Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich is colorful, quotable, unpredictable and utterly vicious. So vicious that even after he won the South Carolina primary, he began using rhetoric directed at his fellow Republicans that was so reckless he effectively disqualified himself as the alternative to Romney.
If you were a Republican who really could not bring yourself to vote for Romney — and as one wag put it, the Republicans seem torn over which of their candidates they despise the least — then your choices were limited to Santorum and Ron Paul.
Faced with that choice, anti-Romney Republicans found it easy to coalesce around Santorum on Tuesday, giving him victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
None of these contests awarded any delegates to the Republican National Convention — if you think presidential candidates are bizarre, you ought to take a look at the rules by which they are selected — but neither did the Iowa caucuses. By my way of thinking, if the media are going to go nuts over Iowa, they ought to go at least semi-nuts over Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
But the Romney campaign decided not to shrug off its losses — it has tons of money and is well positioned to win future contests — but instead to concentrate on how Santorum’s victories were meaningless because they landed him no delegates.
On Wednesday, POLITICO’s Mike Allen began his highly influential Playbook with this quote from a Romney campaign official: “It’s about delegates. We could have made the decision to spend money, resources. … We could have run television, run radio or spent more time. You can’t do everything. You gotta run your race.”
At this stage of the game, Romney should be making sure the race is not about delegates, but momentum. As long as he has the momentum, the other candidates can pick up a few delegates here and a few there and it will not matter at all, because Romney will eventually run away with the contest.
But when you decide in early February that you can let an opponent walk off with three victories and huge media attention, then you have made a critical error. You have let the momentum shift, and when that happens, anything can happen.
And Romney seemed to realize this Tuesday night even if his staff did not. He looked understandably down and read his concession speech from two teleprompters as if he were seeing it for the first time — which he may have been.
He began with a long riff on his father, with Romney portraying himself as the son of a humble carpenter. (Wasn’t there another humble carpenter who was the earthly father of somebody famous?)
“My father never graduated from college. He apprenticed as a lath and plaster carpenter. And he [was] pretty good at it,” Romney said. “He actually could take a handful of nails, stick them in his mouth and then, you know, spit them out, pointy end forward. On his honeymoon, he put aluminum paint in the trunk of the car and sold it along the way to pay for the gas in the hotels.”
[…] Then Mitt used a line in his speech that was even more questionable. “I am the only person in this race — Republican or Democrat — who has never served a day in Washington!” he proudly said.
It’s true. But it’s disingenuous. Mitt tried very hard to spend a day serving in Washington. He tried very hard to spend at least 2,191 days, the term of a U.S. senator, in Washington. The only thing that stopped him was his 17-percentage-point loss to Ted Kennedy in 1994.
There is nothing shameful about losing a Senate race to Ted Kennedy. But the fact that Romney even tried shows you how badly he wanted to get to Washington.
So it was left to Rick Santorum — who was enormously aided in his victories by the lack of a Donald Trump endorsement — to have the line of the evening. “I don’t stand here as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” Santorum said. “I stand here as the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”
There is actually no reason for anyone to count Romney out at this point. In the weeks ahead, we are going to learn if he can take a punch or if he has a crystal jaw.
Not all are downcast. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said: “Mitt Romney has the organization and the resources to go the distance in this election, and I believe he’ll ultimately win our party’s nomination.”
All Romney has to do is pick himself up off the canvas and get his head straight first.
Criticism of Mitt Romney for lacking a coherent message is grossly unfair. He has been forthright, consistent and even eloquent in pressing home his campaign’s central theme: Mitt Romney desperately wants to be president.
Everything else seems mushy or negotiable. Romney is passionate about the need, as he sees it, to defeat President Obama — but vague or self-contradictory as to why. The lyrics of “America the Beautiful,” which Romney has recited as part of his standard campaign speech, don’t solve the mystery; Obama, too, is on record as supporting spacious skies and fruited plains.
Beyond personal ambition, what does Romney stand for? Obviously, judging by Rick Santorum’s clean sweep Tuesday, I’m not the only one asking the question. I suspect an honest answer would be something like “situational competence” — Romney boasts of having rescued the 2002 Olympics, served as the Republican governor of one of the nation’s most Democratic states and made profitable choices about where to invest his money. But with the economy improving and the stock market soaring, Romney’s president-as-CEO argument loses whatever relevance it might have had.
To conservative groups, Romney can sound like a true believer who never met a tax or a labor union he could abide — and not at all like a “Massachusetts moderate,” which is what Newt Gingrich claims Romney really is.
But Romney will never be able to match Gingrich’s record, for better or worse, as one of the key figures in the development of the modern conservative movement. And Romney — who once was pro-choice — will never be able to get to the right of Santorum on social issues.
The intended centerpiece of the Romney campaign — his 160-page economic plan — is really just a list of proposed measures with no discernible ideological framework holding them together. “Any American living through this economic crisis will immediately recognize the severity of the break that Mitt Romney proposes from our current course,” the candidate promises on his Web site. But much of what he pledges to do on “Day One” has already been accomplished, or is promised, by Obama.
Romney wants to cut the corporate tax rate; Obama has said he wants to lower rates while also closing loopholes.
Romney wants to forge new trade agreements; Obama signed into law free-trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
Romney wants to weed out burdensome regulations; Obama has such a project underway.
Romney wants to survey and safely exploit U.S. energy reserves; Obama says essentially the same thing.
To be sure, some other initiatives Romney promises on Day One would take us in precisely the wrong direction. He would ask Congress for a gratuitous $20 million budget cut that would fail to make a scratch, let alone a dent, in the deficit. He would propose ending the federal role in job training, thus abdicating presidential responsibility for meeting one of the central challenges facing our economy. He would sanction China for manipulating its currency — and, perhaps, launch a needless trade war. He would seek to discourage the use of union labor on government projects, purely as a sop to the conservative GOP base.
And, of course, Romney wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, whose centerpiece, the individual insurance mandate, was pioneered in Massachusetts. By Romney. Who continues to defend the mandate as a good idea — too good, apparently, for the rest of the country.
My point is that even Romney’s sharp disagreements with Obama’s policies don’t add up to a philosophy or a vision. They’re more like what stuck after a bunch of random tough-sounding positions were thrown at the wall.
On foreign affairs, Romney offers a lot of blah blah blah about “restoring the sinews of American power” and the like, but nothing as distinctive as, say, Santorum’s extreme hawkishness on Iran or Ron Paul’s isolationist call to bring the troops home from just about everywhere. It’s hard to find any substantive differences between what Romney would do and what Obama is already doing.
Romney does accuse Obama of “appeasement,” and perhaps the charge would have some credibility if Obama hadn’t ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, or used unmanned missile-firing drones to decimate the international jihadist leadership, or helped eliminate dictator Moammar Gaddafi, or demonstrated in countless other ways that whatever else he might be, no one can call him some kind of flower-power peacenik.
One distinction — and, really, this may be the most original position that Romney takes on anything — is that he has ruled out negotiations with the Taliban and apparently wants to extend the U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan indefinitely.
Wish him luck with that on the campaign trail. He’ll need it.
Now that the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (aka STOCK) Act has been passed by both the U.S. House and Senate. Congress will now unenthusiastically hammer out the details of the bill that will prevent them from making money off of insider trades.
In a whopping 417-2 vote today, the House passed a neutered version of the billpassed by the Senate last week that would make it illegal for members of Congress and the executive branch from cashing in on what they know is happening in government by making trades in securities markets. Sure, the GOP-controlled House version doesn’t require “people who collect financial information from Congress — and sell it to investment firms — should register like lobbyists and publicly disclose their activities” like the Senate’s does, as the AP reports. That’s a detail to be worked out in reconciliation committee before being signed by the president. Today though, we’re just happy to see an insider-trading ban against elected officials that nearly everyone agrees should have been there this entire time. Even if it took a lot of Congressional teeth-pulling to get it to pass it. Just remember to thank 60 Minutes for its big scoop that led to the legislation.
Jake Tapper, ABC News:
“What are we doing here?” asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stepping outside his wheelhouse to ask about a rising storm involving the Obama administration and the Catholic Church. “What’s the point?”
It was the Fall of 2011 and Panetta had read about a proposed Obama administration rule that would require employers – excluding houses of worship but including religious organizations such as charities, hospitals, and schools – to offer health insurance that fully covered contraception.
Panetta — a Catholic, former U.S. Representative, and White House chief of staff — didn’t quite understand why the Obama administration would be stepping into this conflict.
Panetta’s fears have to a degree been realized as White House officials now find themselves taking heat on a policy debate about conscience and religious liberty; the Obama administration is working to find a way to allow religious organizations to not pay for services they find morally objectionable, while also ensuring that, say, the women nurses and doctors who work at Catholic hospitals have full access to birth control. Some officials are discussing a way to introduce something like the law in Hawaii, where religious organizations don’t have to pay for employee insurance that covers contraception, but they do have to inform employees how they can get it on their own.
The debate within the White House on this issue was, sources say, heated, and President Obama was legitimately torn. Panetta wasn’t alone in his concerns. For months, Vice President Joe Biden and then-White House chief of staff Bill Daley argued internally against the rule, sources tell ABC News. Biden and Daley didn’t think the rule was right on either the policy or the politics, sources said. Joshua Dubois, head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also expressed concern.
The policy was wrong, the two Catholic men, Biden and Daley, argued, saying that the Obama administration couldn’t force religious charities to pay for something they think is a sin. Sources say that Biden and Daley in these internal debates emphasized the political fallout more so than the policy issue. Catholics are the ultimate swing voters, they argued. President Obama won the Catholic vote 54-46% in 2008, but he lost among white Catholics 47-53%, according to exit polls.
But Biden and Daley faced a strong group making the case for the rule within the administration – including Catholics such as senior adviser David Plouffe and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, senior White House advisers Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse, and then-domestic policy council director Melody Barnes. Others outside the White House also pushed hard for the rule, including former White House communications director Anita Dunn, Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards. (Some of the details of this internal division were first reported yesterday by Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning and Margaret Talev.)
For these advocates, this issue was logical and based on science: birth control saves women’s lives, reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, and is a fundamental issue of a woman controlling her own health care. And the politics were in the long term good, they said. Even with the current controversy raging, many Democrats maintain that the voters they need to vote for Obama in November – young voters nationwide, women voters in battleground states such as Colorado, Virginia, and Pennsylvania – support the president’s decision.
Those advocating for the rule argued that the Catholics likely to be most offended by this rule – those who attend mass at least once a week – voted for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 59-41%. (Though sources say this tidbit was not discussed internally at the White House, it’s interesting to note that President Obama narrowly won the Catholics who don’t attend church regularly, 52-48%.)
The two sides couldn’t even agree about what they were debating. In the fall, Richards brought in polling indicating that the American people overwhelmingly supported the birth control benefit in health insurance. She also highlighted statistics showing the overwhelming use of birth control.
The Vice President and others argued that this wouldn’t be seen as an issue of contraception – it would be seen as an issue of religious liberty. They questioned the polling of the rule advocates, arguing that it didn’t explain the issue in full, it ignored the question of what religious groups should have to pay for. And they argued that women voters for whom this was an important issue weren’t likely to vote for Mitt Romney, who has drawn a strong anti-abortion line as a presidential candidate, saying he would end federal funding to Planned Parenthood and supporting a “personhood” amendment that defines life as beginning at the moment of fertilization.
Political hands disagreed with that interpretation. Cultural issues will play a bigger issue in the 2012 election than they did during the economic crisis of 2008, they said. Some of the suburban women up for grabs in this election, ones who are starting to feel more confident about the economy, can be firmly won over if they learned about this rule – if they also were told that President Obama supported an exemption for houses of worship while Romney opposes not only abortion but federal funding for contraception.
Some in the White House thought that the president’s hands became tied when Sebelius issued the proposed rule in August; they would have preferred a delay so as to work out some sort of arrangement with religious charities and schools. The president was boxed in by this rule, they say; after the rule was issued, any discussion about expanding the exemption became a rallying cry for groups that support contraception and legal abortion, such as Planned Parenthood. When President Obama met with Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in November, discussing this topic as well as others, these groups sounded the alarm.
In addition to lobbying by Richards and Dunn, Rouse — a former Senate staffer so plugged in he has been called “the 101st Senator” — spent a great deal of time talking to Boxer, Shaheen, and other senators who felt strongly in support of the rule.
The president ultimately sided with the rule’s advocates. He and Secretary Sebelius felt that the policy needed a way to treat religious universities, hospitals, and charities different than general employers, White House officials insist, which is why the Department of Human Services announced that the policy would not be fully implemented until August 2013, giving the administration and these groups more time to work on a policy that would alleviate most concerns.
The president wanted the decision about the rule to be announced before the State of the Union, so as not to step on his economic message. So much for that.
TPM: [Please see original for extensive links.]
The intense media debate over the White House push to require all insurance plans to cover contraception is barely 48 hours old. And already some Democrats are bailing on President Obama.
Just like Republicans, Democrats have mixed opinions on choice in their caucus. And pro-life Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) have taken a line on the new rule — opposition and concern — in keeping with their views.
But on Wednesday, pro-choice Democrats started coming out in opposition to the new White House edict that the insurance rules follow the example of 28 states and include religious-run health plans at large institutions like hospitals and universities. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine — the past chair of the DNC and now a candidate for U.S. Senate — told a Virginia radio show that he’sopposed to the new White House rules when it comes to religious institutions. Rep. John Larson (CT), a member of the House Democratic leadership with 100% voting score from NARAL, released a letter Wednesday in which he also split with the White House on the contraception rules.
It’s easy to see this as very strange, considering polling that shows an overwhelming number of Americans — including the majority of Catholics — support the White House move, and the idea of increasing access to contraception. Of course, those are national polls, and some strategists wonder if the House GOP has calculated this issue could hit Dems where it hurts: in “blue dog” swing seats with high concentrations of more religious voters.
Rep. Mike Quigley (IL) is one of the few Democrats openly pushing the issue as a both a moral and political victory (as he did in this Tuesday op-ed). He told TPM that while he understands that inserting religion into this argument can lead to a broad range of responses, he said that pro-choice Democrats need to get on board with the White House plan and stay there.
“If you’re pro-choice, the most important thing you need to is be pro-education and [pro-]contraception,” Quigley said. “Even if you’re just thinking so practically and cold-heartedly with, ‘oh, it’s an election year’, you know what? The vast majority of Catholic women want access to birth control, are on birth control and they want free birth control in their plan.”
I spoke to several Democrats in DC charged with getting more Dems elected next fall. None of them were working on the presidential race. And to a person, they said the contraceptive issue will probably not play a major role in the general election. They see the sudden GOP interest in talking about the birth control pill simply as a means for the party to distract from bright economic news. Still, they said they expected Democrats to go their own way on this issue — meaning the White House could face more opposition from both sides of the aisle.
Quigley cautioned his pro-choice colleagues against that.
“Look, this is the right thing to do, and it’s the politically correct thing to do,” he told me. “Rarely do you get both of those on the same page.”
Angry Black Lady Chronicles:
There’s a method to this madness.
MoJo’s Nick Baumann puts the various GOP birth control freakout stories inperspective as he catches “moderate” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida dropping this bombshell of a bill: the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
What does it do? Why, it ends birth control insurance coverage for women, of course.
Rubio has sold his proposal—introduced Jan. 31 as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” or S. 2043—as a way to counter President Barack Obama’s controversial rule requiring even religiously affiliated schools and universities to offer copay-free birth control to their employees. But health care experts say that its implications could be far broader.
If passed, the bill would allow any institution or corporation to cut off birth control coverage simply by citing religious grounds.(You can read the bill here or in the DocumentCloud embed below.) It has 26 cosponsors in the Senate; a similar proposal sponsored by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) has 148 cosponsors in the House. On Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed to repeal Obama’s rule, and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pointed to Rubio’s bill as a potential model for doing so.
In English, this means that no entity has to cover birth control in a health plan if it can point to a religious reason for not doing so. And the entity itself is not required to have any religious affiliation. It could just be a plain old corporation. That means that if the middle-aged white guy who runs your company is religiously opposed to birth control, he can have it stripped out of your insurance plan—even if his Viagra is still covered. You could wake up the next morning and find you’re paying full price for drugs that you once got for free or at much-reduced prices.
Endgame. As I said earlier this morning, guess what the price of President Obama’s payroll tax cut extension will be?
Within about a week, we’ve gone from a measure that Republicans supported in 2004 on birth control to now basically the end of birth control being covered by employee health plans. And I expect this will only be the first of as many poison pill/hostage crises as the Republicans can jam into the Affordable Care Act as they can.
They were never going to repeal “Obamacare”, they were going to make it so awful that the American people would demand the old broken system back. Getting rid of employee birth control coverage is just the start.
Senate Democrats offered Thursday to extend unemployment insurance benefits for 93 weeks, defying calls from House Republicans to accept modifications to the federal jobless benefit program as time runs short to reach a deal.
The offer, which includes a full extension of the current number of benefit weeks, rejects some of the most controversial elements of the House Republican plan, including drug testing and high school diploma requirements. Those elements have been panned by Democrats since they were first proposed last December. But they are touted as essential to gaining Republican support in the House.
The plan is likely to rally Democrats who have grown frustrated by conference committee negotiations confined to elements of the House-passed bill. The new offer is certain to draw fury from Republicans, who have said a serious step forward must include compromises on big issues untouched by this proposal.
“Our progress on resolving unemployment issues over the past week and the latest offer today are part of a real effort to work through these issues and get to ‘yes,’” said a Democratic aide with knowledge of the negotiations. “We look forward to continued progress.”
Wendy Kaminer, The Atlantic:
You might expect the Catholic Bishops to recognize an Inquisition when they see one. But listening to their laments about the administration’s “unprecedented assaults” on religious liberty, you’d think Barack Obama was the second coming of Torquemada. Reasonable people will differ about the justice or wisdom of requiring church-affiliated employers to include contraceptive coverage in employee health insurance plans, but only unreasonable ones will regard this requirement as the coup de grace of religious liberty. Churches are exempt from the obligation to provide reproductive health care coverage; the requirement applies instead to affiliated hospitals, schools, and other institutions that generally receive public support to employ and serve religiously diverse members of the general public.
What accounts for the rhetorical excesses of the Catholic Church and its advocates on the campaign trail and in the media? They reflect some genuine outrage, no doubt. But, in part, the rhetoric is an organizing tool (which may succeed in wresting new concessions from the administration). And in part, it reflects larger rhetorical trends: We inhabit a culture of hyperbole, especially during election years. Every argument is a gunfight (to which someone mistakenly brings a knife), every gunfight is a war, and every war a potential apocalypse.
Still, while the fate of American civilization doesn’t depend on this debate about the obligations of church-affiliated institutions to abide by secular law, the stakes are relatively high. As government workers are laid off and government programs shrink, the public role of private, tax-exempt non-profits expands. The stronger their right to dispense public funds and deliver public services according to sectarian religious dictates, the weaker our rights to a non-sectarian public sphere. It’s a zero-sum game.
Non-sectarianism may lose out in the end, regardless of the unpopularity of some sectarian ideals (in this case, opposition to birth control). The desires that drive people to behaviors that their religious leaders deem sinful don’t generally drive support for eradicating the very concept of sin. Eliminate sin, after all, and you’d eliminate the pleasure, and perhaps the possibility of redemption. And despite the emergence of a coherent non-theist movement, religiosity (in approved forms) remains essential to prevailing concepts of patriotism — and, with few exceptions, to political success in state or federal elections. (This is not only the case in Republican primaries, where the non-existent threat of a “secular, socialist America” looms large.)
Reproductive choice has been an obvious casualty of sectarianism. State and federal laws impose dramatic, direct limitations on abortion rights. Conscience clauses allow pharmacists and physicians to refuse medical treatment, even when a patient’s life is at stake. This right of refusal isdefensible — so long as it’s accompanied by an obligation of the pharmacy or health care facility to ensure that that there are always other providers on the premises willing to dispense contraception and perform elective or medically essential abortions.
But conscience or refusal clauses are also reminiscent of policies allowing white-only hospitals to refuse treatment to black patients, or accommodations to black travelers, in the segregated South. What if belief in segregation were an article of faith, a matter of conscience, for some? (Some clergymen once defended slavery.) I’m not comparing opposition to birth control with racism, much less slavery. I’m simply pointing out that religious beliefs can, and often do, conflict with civil society and individual rights.
Would we tolerate a religious right to refuse treatment or accommodation on the basis of race as readily as we tolerate a religious right to refuse reproductive health care? Of course not. Your right to act on your religious beliefs is not absolute; it’s weighed against the rights that your actions would deny to others. Today, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, claims of religious freedom tend to outweigh claims of reproductive freedom. But that is a consequence of history, politics, and culture and is subject to change. The balance of power is not divinely ordained.
Twenty-eight states already require organizations that offer prescription insurance to cover contraception and since 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control, many Catholic institutions offer the benefit to their employees. For instance, a Georgetown University spokesperson told ThinkProgress yesterday that employees “have access to health insurance plans offered and designed by national providers to a national pool. These plans include coverage for birth control.”
Similarly, an informal survey conducted by Our Sunday Visitor found that many Catholic colleges have purchased insurance plans that provide contraception benefits [...]
How fake? Pretty darn fake:
“The employee health insurance plans include a prescription contraceptive benefit, in compliance with state and federal law,” DePaul University spokesperson Robin Florzak confirmed to ThinkProgress.
No, really. Really, really damn fake:
Yes, the [Georgia] law was originally passed back in 1999, four years before Republicans gained control of Georgia’s government. But Republicans have had ten years in which to change the law if they thought there was a problem with it; yet, it has remained intact through ten Republican-controlled legislative sessions.
And with no stated exceptions, this law applies to mega-employer Saint Joseph’s Hospital, a 410-bed acute care facility in Atlanta with several subsidiaries including an employed physician’s group and research facilities, with a total of 3,000 employees. And the law also applies to Saint Mary’s Hospital, a 196-bed acute care hospital in Athens, GA.
Both hospitals are members of the Catholic Health East system.
But you see, everyone just noticed that right now. Or rather, it suddenly became untenable just now.
So some Catholic bishops and assorted other anti-healthcare and anti-letting-women-have-birth-control hangers-on have got their knickers in a double bowline over something that has already been the law for many years, that Catholic institutions have been complying with without difficulty for years, and which only just now, for some inexplicable reason that nobody can quite explain, is suddenly an epic threat to Whatever. Because if we don’t allow large American employers “exemptions” from national laws in accordance with their every possible religious prejudice, no matter how fringe, then the government is oppressing people.
This can only mean that once again, we have solved all of America’s other problems and are at a loss for other things to complain about.
Again, since it is apparently difficult for some people to understand: We are not talking about going into churches and demanding people take birth control when they don’t want to. We’re not talking about going into churches at all, for that matter. We’re talking about large employers, colleges and hospitals, and stating that their religious beliefs do not trump employment laws or the rights of their employees, many of whom are not even of the religion in question. Want to form a church? You can believe whatever you want, and act however you want. Oppress women, be bigoted against brown people, whatever floats your ark. Want to be an employer? Then certain rules apply. You have to provide a minimum wage, you can’t chain people to their workstations, you have to have sufficient bathrooms, and if you provide them healthcare you have to provide it in a non-discriminatory fashion to both men and women, and without religious dogma attached. It’s a simple concept. A college is not a church. A hospital is not a church. Putting a big cross outside doesn’t allow you to treat your employees however you want regardless of the law, and America is very roundly screwed if that ever becomes the case.
This is a non-issue being pushed into the spotlight because one side desperately needs to convince people they’re being oppressed and needs preferential treatment. In this particular case, the bishops don’t even have the respect of their own flock, and the conservatives using it as yet another bludgeon against healthcare reform doesn’t have the public on their side. Yes, yes, it’s a “wedge issue.” But it’s an embarrassingly phony one. The White House has done themselves no favors by continually “negotiating” the non-issue, either. Show some spine, and stick up for employees. It shouldn’t be up to your damn employer whether you’re “allowed” to use birth control or not.
Shorter Obama ad: I’ve kicked some ass as President.
[…] Much has been made of Santorum’s far-right views: The famed comparison of gay sex to “man-on-dog” intercourse that got him his unfortunate Google problem in the first place, his grandstanding on abortion, and his connections to a religious rightdesperate to have an alternative to the Mormon Romney.
But Santorum’s success in Midwestern states isn’t all about opposing abortion and hating gay people. Instead, what’s working for him there is what brought him success in his home state of Pennsylvania, a swing state with a solid union base. What Santorum learned in Pennsylvania was to appeal to white working-class voters—the same ones Hillary Clinton invoked on the campaign trail in 2008 with her now-infamous comment about how “hardworking Americans, white Americans” were supporting her against Barack Obama, and the same ones former Pennsylvania Democratic governor Ed Rendell meant when he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.”
Pennsylvania has been described as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Kentucky in between,” but it’s more complicated than that. It is, however, a deeply working-class state, with nearly 16 percent of its workers represented by unions, and its western side, where Santorum grew up, is far more Midwest-Rust Belt than it is Northeastern. It’s a state with a split personality in many ways, and politicians from outside of Philadelphia have grown adept at playing off rural and even suburban voters against the popular perception of Philly as crime-ridden, and largely African American (who represent 43 percent of Philadelphians, as opposed to 10.8 percent of the state as a whole). Central and Western Pennsylvaniamay not be any better off economically than the city, but the welfare-queen rhetoric Santorum’s been spouting about Obama hits a nerve in areas where people resent any of their money going to fix the city’s problems—even though Philadelphia is actually an economic engine for the Keystone State.
The politics of grievance aren’t new, and Newt Gingrich, like Santorum, has done his best to exploit them on the campaign trail, most successfully with a win after some pretty blatant racist statements in South Carolina. But Santorum brings to Midwesterners what Gingrich (formerly his mentor in the House) can’t—that sense of being one of them, just a blue-collar guy who made it on hard work. As Marcy Wheeler noted on Tuesday night, Santorum is the only Republican candidate who can “do Orthogonian”–Rick Perlstein’s famous characterization of Richard Nixon, the perennial second-tier guy who managed to make good. If Romney is the good-looking rich guy, Santorum is the geek in the sweater-vest, the guy who doesn’t quite fit in but hustles, the guy who believes.
1. People are feeling better about the economy.
Consumer confidence in the U.S. climbed last week to a one-year high, spurred by improving employment opportunities and a rally in the stock market [...] Confidence among political independents, considered a key group in presidential elections, increased to a four-year high.
2. The markets are on a roll, making a mockery of their cries about “socialism”. The Dow hit a four-year high, while the NASDAQ hit an 11-year high this week.
3. President Barack Obama’s approvals are rising:
And that chart doesn’t quite capture the recent numbers: 49/45 from Gallup, 50/49 from Rasmussen (ha ha!), 50/46 from WaPo/ABC, etc. He’s now in positive territory all around.
4. Obama is also looking pretty good in the battleground states.
5. Rick Santorum. ‘Nuff said.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid neared a four-year low last week, an encouraging sign that strong hiring could continue in the coming months.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted 358,000. That’s the second-lowest level since April 2008.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to 366,250, the lowest since late April 2008. When applications fall consistently below 375,000, it usually signals that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Best job numbers since George Bush was finishing up his hatchet job on the economy.
7. Mitt Romney.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is investigating the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee over possible violations of insider-trading laws, according to individuals familiar with the case.
Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who holds one of the most influential positions in the House, has been a frequent trader on Capitol Hill, buying stock options while overseeing the nation’s banking and financial services industries.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent investigative agency, opened its probe late last year after focusing on numerous suspicious trades on Bachus’s annual financial disclosure forms, the individuals said. OCE investigators have notified Bachus that he is under investigation and that they have found probable cause to believe insider-trading violations have occurred.
The case is the first of its kind involving a member of Congress. It comes at a time of intense public scrutiny of congressional ethics, with the House passing legislation Thursday to tighten rules against insider trading by lawmakers. The impetus for the legislation, a version of which passed in the Senate a week earlier, came from a “60 Minutes” report and a book mentioning Bachus’s trades,“Throw Them All Out,” by Peter Schweizer.
“The Office of Congressional Ethics has requested information and I welcome this opportunity to present the facts and set the record straight,” Bachus said in a statement issued Thursday by his spokesman, Tim Johnson.
Omar S. Ashmawy, OCE staff director and chief counsel, declined to comment. “The office does not confirm or deny whether an investigation is taking place.” Chief counsel for the House Ethics Committee, Dan Schwager, also declined to discuss the case. “The committee doesn’t comment on specific matters or allegations,” he said.
OCE investigators are examining whether Bachus violated Securities and Exchange Commission laws that prohibit individuals from trading stocks and options based on “material, non-public” inside information, said the individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The office also is investigating whether Bachus violated congressional rules that prohibit members of Congress from using their public positions for private gain.
In recent years, Bachus has made numerous trades, some of them coinciding with major policy announcements by the federal government and industries under his congressional oversight, according to a review of his financial disclosure forms by The Washington Post.
Most of his investments are for less than $10,000, and almost all involve options rather than stock purchases. The options allowed Bachus to buy or sell stocks at certain prices in the future — betting that the value of those stocks will rise or fall.
A Fidelity brokerage statement Bachus submitted for 2008 shows that he made $30,474 in short-term investments, many of them bought and sold in a matter of days, sometimes during the same day.
The former member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee made several options bets on railroads. While President George W. Bush’s fiscal stimulus bill was being crafted in summer 2008, Bachus bet that the stock of Burlington Northern Railroad would rise, and he cashed out that July for a $16,588 profit. In August, he made the same bet but lost $2,900.
On Sept. 18, 2008, at the height of the economic meltdown, Bachus participated in a closed-door briefing with then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. At the time, he was the highest-ranking Republican member of the Financial Services Committee. According to a book Paulson would later write, the topic of the meeting was the high likelihood of decline across the entire economy if drastic steps were not taken.
The next day, Sept. 19, Bachus traded “short” options, betting on a broad decline in the nation’s financial markets, and collected a profit of $5,715. Also that day, he cashed out options in which he had bet that General Electric stock would rise, and collected a $12,713 profit, before GE’s stock price started to tumble, The Post found.
The short options betting on an economic downturn were reported in “Throw Them All Out,” which was the basis of the “60 Minutes” story, which aired Nov. 13. Bachus criticized the reports, calling allegations that he engaged in insider trading “absolutely false.”
But the book inaccurately said Bachus bet on GE’s price to fall rather than rise. Schweizer acknowledged his mistake but said it made no difference to his larger point.
In a letter to the publisher, Bachus attacked the book for the mistake about GE. “The book is absolutely false and factually inaccurate when it states that I ‘shorted General Electric options’ and did so ‘four times in a single day.’ ”
He also said there was no inside information provided in the briefing by Paulson and Bernanke.
“The idea that I or anyone else needed this meeting to know our financial markets were in trouble is just laughable,” he wrote in the letter. “You would have to be living under a rock not to know by September 18, 2008 that the economy was in bad shape.”
He said a press conference held immediately after the briefing revealed what was discussed.
“This meeting was so ‘secretive’ that members of the press knew about it beforehand, were waiting outside the door, and a press conference was held immediately after the meeting to inform the public about what we discussed,” he wrote.
In October, Bachus bet on the market going up, but this time he lost $21,558.
Bachus said he gave up his “hobby” of trading when he became chairman of the Financial Services Committee after the Republican takeover of the House in November 2010. Although he has sometimes made money on trades, his financial disclosures indicate that his net worth has been cut in half during his time in Congress, declining from up to $2.3 million in 1995 to up to $1.1 million at the start of this year.
Bachus was elected in 1992. Before coming to Congress, he served in the Alabama Senate and worked as a lawyer. He is originally from Birmingham and lives south of the city in Vestavia Hills.
The Senate passed its version of the Stock Act last week. The legislation will make it easier for SEC officials to prosecute insider-trading cases against members of Congress, their staff and top officials in the executive branch. It will also require them to disclose all stock trades every 30 days.
Earlier stories in The Post and the Wall Street Journal described the lack of stringent rules governing Congress and the conflicts presented by assets owned and traded by lawmakers and their public roles. Post stories detailed the reporting weaknesses in the disclosure system, which cannot be electronically searched. The Stock Act requires electronic filing of disclosure forms.
Differences between the measures will be taken up in a conference committee.
The Office of Congressional Ethics was created in March 2009 in response to public criticism that the House Ethics Committee was failing to properly police its members.
The OCE conducts independent investigations into allegations of misconduct against members, officers and staff. However, its powers are limited. It cannot compel a member to cooperate with an investigation, and it does not have subpoena powers.
Once the office completes its investigations, the results are forwarded to the ethics committee. That committee has the final say on whether a violation has taken place and what sanctions, if any, should be imposed.
I found this link on Drudge. The poll was conducted for World Net Daily, the go to news source for Conservatives who wear tin foil hats under their tri-cornered hats. Gotta love the “Republicans for Obama” bumper sticker image they posted. I wish the election was tomorrow…
20% OF REPUBLICANS LEANING TO OBAMA!
2012 election looks like replay of 2008
The latest WND/Wenzel Poll shows none of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates has solidified the base of the party, with one in five GOP voters leaning toward support of Obama in November.
So just go read it already! It will make your day!
Just not popular
The attack on unions is nothing new. Unions have been under assault since their inception, but the attack was put on steroids thirty years ago. The argument that many average Americans make is that since we have laws to protect the worker, so we no longer need unions. Unions had their place, but now with these laws on the books, unions are irrelevant and actually an obstacle to job creation.
Well, for those of you who believe that unions are no longer needed, take a look at New Hampshire. According to the Concord Monitor, the Republicans are looking to eliminate a law mandating a lunch break after five hours of work.
They are putting their faith in employers to do the right thing and give their employees a lunch break. While that is probably true in most cases, there is also a reason why the law mandating lunch breaks exists.
Given the circumstances of their work an employer may tell you one day, “no lunch today” we are on a tight schedule. We need this job done. Before lunch breaks were legally required this is the way it used to be, and if Republicans get their way, this is the way it will be again.
Those who believe that laws are enough need to understand that all laws can be eliminated, all it would take is one congressional action followed by a presidential signature to repeal OSHA, and we would no longer have oversight of safety in the workplace. We can repeal minimum wage and other laws that protect workers. Nothing is permanent in a democracy anything is subject to change or elimination, given the right circumstances.
When we forget history, we are doomed to repeat it. Labor laws exist because of past actions against workers and without unions there would be no one pressuring lawmakers to pass laws to protect workers.
This is a really old story, but let me tell you anyway.
When I was first married, my mother-in-law sat down at her kitchen table and told me about the day she went to confession and told the priest that she and her husband were using birth control. She had several young children, times were difficult — really, she could have produced a list of reasons longer than your arm.
“You’re no better than a whore on the street,” said the priest.
This was, as I said, a long time ago. It’s just an explanation of why the bishops are not the only Roman Catholics who are touchy about the issue of contraception.
These days, parish priests tend to be much less judgmental about parishioners who are on the pill — the military was not the first institution in this country to make use of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” system. “In most parishes in the United States, we don’t find them preaching about contraception,” said Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice. “And it’s not as though in the Mass you have a question-and-answer period.”
You have heard, I’m sure, that the Catholic bishops are in an uproar over an Obama administration rule that would require Catholic universities and hospitals to cover contraceptives in their health care plans. The Republican presidential candidates are roaring right behind. Mitt Romney claimed the White House was trying to “impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away.”
Let’s try to work this out in a calm, measured manner. (Easy for me to say. I already got my mother-in-law story off my chest.)
Catholic doctrine prohibits women from using pills, condoms or any other form of artificial contraception. A much-quoted study by the Guttmacher Institute found that virtually all sexually active Catholic women of childbearing age have violated the rule at one point or another, and that more than two-thirds do so consistently.
Here is the bishops’ response to that factoid: “If a survey found that 98 percent of people had lied, cheated on their taxes, or had sex outside of marriage, would the government claim it can force everyone to do so?”
O.K. Moving right along.
The church is not a democracy and majority opinion really doesn’t matter. Catholic dogma holds that artificial contraception is against the law of God. The bishops have the right — a right guaranteed under the First Amendment — to preach that doctrine to the faithful. They have a right to preach it to everybody. Take out ads. Pass out leaflets. Put up billboards in the front yard.
The problem here is that they’re trying to get the government to do their work for them. They’ve lost the war at home, and they’re now demanding help from the outside.
And they don’t seem in the mood to compromise. Church leaders told The National Catholic Register that they regarded any deal that would allow them to avoid paying for contraceptives while directing their employees to other places where they could find the coverage as a nonstarter.
This new rule on contraceptive coverage is part of the health care reform law, which was designed to finally turn the United States into a country where everyone has basic health coverage. In a sane world, the government would be running the whole health care plan, the employers would be off the hook entirely and we would not be having this fight at all. But members of Congress — including many of the very same people who are howling and rending their garments over the bishops’ plight — deemed the current patchwork system untouchable.
The churches themselves don’t have to provide contraceptive coverage. Neither do organizations that are closely tied to a religion’s doctrinal mission. We are talking about places like hospitals and universities that rely heavily on government money and hire people from outside the faith.
We are arguing about whether women who do not agree with the church position, or who are often not even Catholic, should be denied health care coverage that everyone else gets because their employer has a religious objection to it. If so, what happens if an employer belongs to a religion that forbids certain types of blood transfusions? Or disapproves of any medical intervention to interfere with the working of God on the human body?
Organized religion thrives in this country, so the system we’ve worked out seems to be serving it pretty well. Religions don’t get to force their particular dogma on the larger public. The government, in return, protects the right of every religion to make its case heard.
The bishops should have at it. I wouldn’t try the argument that the priest used on my mother-in-law, but there’s always a billboard on the front lawn.
[…] The traditional media continues to portray this “debate” about contraception as something that has angered Catholics, alienated the president’s fellow Democrats, and may even pose a threat in this year’s election.
But poll after poll shows that the majority of the country is with the president—not the disingenuous Republicans, like thrice-married serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, who has once again appointed himself the arbiter of morality, or the Catholic Church, whose own authority on issues of morality is non-existent.
Greg Sargent rather mildly observed that “these numbers do suggest at least the possibility that leading commentators have been far too quick to declare this a certain political loser.”
That’s a very understated and polite way of saying that the traditional media, which keeps insisting that contraception coverage is a political loser for the president, are flat-out wrong.
This is not an issue that requires any more debate. The American people have spoken. They want the Affordable Care Act to cover contraception without co-pays. Period.
It’s time for the media to report the facts, not the ginned-up hysteria from Catholic leaders and Republicans.
And it’s time for the president to say enough is enough. The debate is over.
United Church of Christ:
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, is among 21 major mainstream religious leaders releasing a statement today (Feb. 8) in support of the Jan. 20 announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services that contraceptive services must be covered by most insurance policies without deductibles or co-pays, and that only purely sectarian organizations are exempt.
“I am very pleased that Rev. Geoffrey Black has joined other faith leaders in the United States in support of the [Obama] Administration’s decision,” said the Rev. Loey Powell, UCC executive for administration and women’s justice. “The UCC has long supported equal access to contraception and affirms that its use should remain a personal and private decision.”
“If religiously-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools who employ people who do not share the theological views of the institution are going to decide what is acceptable health care for all their employees, where will it stop?” said Powell. “Will preventing organ transplants or blood transfusions be next?”
Others signing on to the statement were:
Catholics for Choice; the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Concerned Clergy for Choice; Disciples Justice Action Network; Episcopal Divinity School; Episcopal Women’s Caucus; Hadassah; the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation; Jewish Women International; Methodist Federation for Social Action; Muslims for Progressive Values; the National Council of Jewish Women; Planned Parenthood Clergy Advisory Board; the Rabbinical Assembly; the Religious Coalition to Reproductive Choice; the Religious Institute; Society for Humanistic Judaism; The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Union Theological Seminary; and Unitarian Universalist Association.
The groups represent millions of religious leaders and people of faith across the country.
Together, the leaders of these Christian, Jewish and Muslim national organizations affirmed:
“We stand with President Obama and Secretary Sebelius in their decision to reaffirm the importance of contraceptive services as essential preventive care for women under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and to assure access under the law to American women, regardless of religious affiliation.
“We respect individuals’ moral agency to make decisions about their sexuality and reproductive health without governmental interference or legal restrictions. We do not believe that specific religious doctrine belongs in health-care reform – as we value our nation’s commitment to church-state separation. We believe that women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services.
“The Administration was correct in requiring institutions that do not have purely sectarian goals to offer comprehensive preventive health care. Our leaders have the responsibility to safeguard individual religious liberty and to help improve the health of women, their children and families. Hospitals and universities across the religious spectrum have an obligation to assure that individuals’ conscience and decisions are respected and that their students and employees have access to this basic health care service.
“We invite other religious leaders to speak out with us for universal coverage of contraception.”
That’s not all. Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rising conservative star who’s considered a possible pick for the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nomination, introduced a bill that could cut off birth control access for millions of women by allowing even non-religious employers to refuse birth control coverage as long as they cite a religious reason. In other words, if your boss doesn’t want to cover birth control in the company health plan because he says it would offend his religious beliefs, he wouldn’t have to—even if his Cialis was still covered. Rubio’s bill could also allow states to refuse to provide birth control through Medicaid, which provides family planning services to millions of poor women.
The Republican presidential candidates also have come out against birth control. Mitt Romney has slammed President Barack Obama for requiring most employers to offer insurance that provides birth control at no cost to women who want it, even though Romney himselfmaintained a similar rule as governor of Massachusetts.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the non-binding Missouri primary as well as the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses on Tuesday, has also slammed Obama’s decision. But he’s also gone farther than that, suggesting that any form of birth control is immoral. “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay,” Santorum, a devout Catholic, said in October. “It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” As Salon’s Irin Carmon has documented, Santorum thinks Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court decision that said states can not deny married couples access to contraception, should be overturned.
Even previously uncontroversial ideas about contraception are now being questioned. As I explained in this story about Obama’s birth-control policy, most of the administration’s recently-issued rule requiring companies to provide birth control to their employees has been widely accepted federal law for a decade. Requiring employers to provide birth control if they provide other preventative services was so uncontroversial that most employers—even Catholic universities like DePaul, in Chicago—simply changed their policies and offered birth control to avoid being sued. The percentage of employers offering birth control coverage tripled in a decade. The national controversy only erupted after Obama issued the new rule in January.
NARAL’s Shipp thinks the battlefield has definitely shifted. “First, everyone thought it was all about abortion access and abortion rights,” she says. “But they decided to move the goalposts, and it’s been kind of stunning how far to the right they’ve gone. These are people who have never, ever approved of birth control, and they saw an opportunity to take it one step further.”
The White House probably isn’t entirely unhappy with all the fighting over contraception. As the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff wrote, the birth control issue gives Obama’s reelection campaign “a chance to widen the reproductive health debate beyond abortion” and energize young, secular abortion-rights supporters who might not otherwise vote.
Republicans who support abortion rights have warned their fellow GOPers that picking a fight over contraception could be a disaster. But even that hasn’t slowed down the onslaught—on Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), warned that he would soon push forward legislation that would allow employers to refuse to provide birth control to their employees. Boehner’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), noted that several Republican senators have already introduced bills on the subject. One of those bills is Rubio’s aforementioned Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“I’m a little bit stunned with how far they have gone on birth control with absolutely no regard for the political consequences,” Shipp continues. “Whether it’s Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney—I don’t think Newt Gingrich—if any of these guys think they’re going to be able to come back to the middle after the attacks they’ve made on birth control, they’re sadly mistaken, because the general public thinks they’re just whack-a-doodle.”
A federal judge’s ruling against a Houston mother who says she was fired after asking for a place to pump breast milk has highlighted a question left unanswered by higher courts: Is firing a woman because she wants to pump at work sexual discrimination?
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said it wouldn’t be illegal even if Donnicia Venters and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were correct in assuming that Houston Funding, a debt collection agency, fired her because she’d asked to pump breast milk at work. The judge reasoned that lactation was not pregnancy-related and, as a result, “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.”
Several other district courts have issued similar statements, but no higher-level appeals court has ruled on the issue, leaving many new mothers in legal limbo, said Carrie Hoffman, a labor lawyer in Dallas. She said President Barack Obama’s health care law addresses breast feeding and requires employers to give new mothers a break to nurse, but it doesn’t specifically protect women from being fired if they ask to do so.
“The intent was to get nursing mothers back to work but allow them to continue to nurse because of the health benefits associated with nursing,” Hoffman said. “But even so, that law doesn’t have anything to do with terminating the employee … it just requires break time. There appears to be a hole.”
Either way, the rule — which went into effect in the past year — would not apply to Venters.
Her story began in December 2008, when she took maternity leave and gave birth to her now 3-year-old daughter, Shiloh. She kept in close contact with Houston Funding during her roughly 10-week leave, according to cellphone records obtained by the EEOC and written statements by her former supervisors, said Tim Bowne, a senior trial attorney with the EEOC in Houston who helped litigate the case.
At least twice during her leave, Venters told her direct supervisor, Robert Fleming, she wanted to pump milk while on her break at work and asked him to get permission from their boss, Vice President Harry Cagle.
“He was completely fine about it,” she said of Fleming. “I never got an answer back and I didn’t think anything of it.”
Venters, 30, had worked at the company for almost three years, earned a promotion and figured that at worst Cagle might feel uncomfortable and deny her request.
“I didn’t think I would get the boot for it,” Venters told The Associated Press. “It didn’t really make sense to me.”
In a signed affidavit provided to the judge, Fleming said that when he told Cagle that Venters wanted to bring a breast pump to work, Cagle responded with a strong “No. Maybe she needs to stay home longer.”
Bowne said Venters told the EEOC that when she told Cagle she wanted to use a breast pump in a back room during breaks at work, his “demeanor changed. He paused for a few seconds and said, ‘I’m sorry. We’ve laid you off.’”
The company issued a statement Thursday evening saying it welcomed the court’s ruling, denied discriminating against Venters and would comply with new laws protecting women’s rights to breast feed in the workplace.
In response to the lawsuit, Houston Funding had argued that Venters was terminated because she failed to keep in good contact with the company and didn’t return to work as scheduled. But Fleming said he had spoken to Venters at least weekly during her medical leave, which the EEOC argued was evidence that Houston Funding’s excuse for firing Venters — “job abandonment” — was simply a “pretext for unlawful discrimination.”
Hughes sided with the company in his ruling last week, but he also wrote: “Even if the company’s claim that she was fired for abandonment is meant to hide the real reason — she wanted to pump breast milk — lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.
“She gave birth on Dec. 11, 2009. After that day, she was no longer pregnant and her pregnancy-related conditions ended. Firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination,” the judge wrote.
But Hoffman and Bowne said the issue won’t be definitively determined unless an appeals court takes up the case. The EEOC has not yet decided whether to appeal Hughes’ ruling, Bowne said.
“It’s quite likely that we’ll seek an appeal, but that decision is made in headquarters,” Bowne said, noting that decision would probably be made in April.
Current law clearly protects pregnant women from being fired simply because they are having a child, and many of the arguments made regarding lactation have focused on it being a “pregnancy-related condition.” Hoffman believes, however, that attorneys seeking to get stronger protection for new mothers should instead focus on sexual discrimination.
“It’s certainly sex-based. Men can’t lactate,” Hoffman said.
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
“The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.” ~~HL Mencken