Saturday editions contain the best articles from the past week, along with any big breaking news. Please remember that you can now access all the past editions of The Daily Planet on the green Category bar on the top of each page under the heading PlanetPOV.
Two things in life are certain: Death and taxes. Except for corporations.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone to stand with sanitation workers demanding their dream: The right to bargain collectively for a voice at work and a better life. The workers were trying to form a union with AFSCME.
Beginning with worship services over the April 1 weekend, and continuing through the week of April 4, unions, people of faith, civil and human rights activists, students and other progressive allies will host a range of community- and workplace-focused actions.
Join us in solidarity with working people in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and dozens of other states where well-funded, right-wing corporate politicians are trying to take away the rights Dr. King gave his life for: the freedom to bargain, to vote, to afford a college education and justice for all workers, immigrant and native-born. It’s a day to show movement. Teach-ins. Vigils. Faith events. A day to be creative, but clear: We are one.
I can’t remember the last time there was a greater disconnect between public demands and policymakers’ priorities. It’s almost comical in its ridiculousness.
To hear congressional Republicans tell it, Americans are desperate to see sweeping cuts to public spending and an unwavering commitment to deficit reduction. Indeed, this assumption has served as the basis for two months of heated debate in Washington, with GOP leaders boasting about how they, and only they, are delivering on what the public wants.
And yet, the evidence to the contrary remains overwhelming.
More than nine in 10 Americans call the federal budget deficit a serious problem, the poll shows — as many as seven in 10 call it very serious. However, just 7 percent named the deficit as the most important problem facing the country today. Most Americans, 51 percent, called the economy and jobs the most important problem, and most Americans agree Washington is not doing enough to create jobs.
Asked specifically which is more important, cutting spending or creating jobs, 63% said job creation should be the top goal, with 26% saying spending cuts should be the priority. As absurd as this seems, congressional Republicans are desperate to side with the 26% minority over the 63% majority, even after promising for two years to focus on jobs.
Indeed, 68% of Americans don’t agree on much, but they agree that lawmakers aren’t spending enough time focused on bringing down unemployment.
And yet, one-sided results like these still won’t change the debate. Policymakers and the very-serious media voices will continue a foolish debate — whether to cut a little or cut a lot — while the public clamors for a jobs policy that isn’t even on the table.
Let me say this plainly: most folks just don’t care about cutting spending or the deficit. They care about growing the economy and creating jobs. It’s not just one poll; every poll says the same thing.
Why did the electorate vote in a bunch of Republicans with the opposite priorities? Because folks were frustrated with the status quo, and didn’t realize the GOP that kept asking “where are the jobs?” would immediately start working on plans to make the jobs crisis worse.
But because our political system is so often exasperating, White House and congressional leaders will nevertheless sit down fairly soon, and to avoid a government shutdown, begin talks on just how many unpopular cuts it will take to make Republicans happy enough to end their hostage strategy. Dems should have leverage in these talks — what the GOP wants is the opposite of what the American mainstream wants — but that will almost certainly make no difference whatsoever.
Just as rigid pacifists aren’t credible on national defense and dogmatic Christian Scientists are rarely consulted on health-care policy, a politician who has made an ideological vow to refuse to even consider tax increases is not interested in reducing deficits — and that’s true no matter how often they say the word “deficits.” So if Grover Norquist has really gotten ironclad assurances from both Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that they will not permit tax increases as part of a deficit deal, then the only sensible conclusion is that Boehner and McConnell are not interested in deficits.
One politician making it a priority, however, is Sen. Tom Coburn. The play that Coburn and the other “Gang of Six” members want to run is to shut down loopholes in the tax code and reform expenditures such that the code is flatter and broader and raises more money. Norquist (and his organization, Americans for Tax Reform, or ATR) considers that a tax increase, and he’s technically correct — it will mean more taxes get paid. But Coburn’s office is undeterred. “Dr. Coburn has been arguing for many years, in word and deed, that the problem is overspending, not under-taxation,” John Hart, Coburn’s communications director, told the Hill. “That said, he strongly disagrees with ATR’s belief that every distortion and corporate welfare subsidy in the tax code, such as that for ethanol, is a ‘tax cut’ that needs to be preserved. Trusting Washington to pick winners and losers in the tax code should be anathema to conservatives. ATR’s odd definition of tax purity is an argument for tax deferment, tax complexity, more spending and unsustainable borrowing.”
It’s worth noting how far the goalposts have moved on this issue: rather than courage on the conservative side denoting a willingness to straightforwardly raise taxes to reduce deficits, it’s now a willingness to argue that closing tax loopholes, reforming expenditures and ending some tax breaks should not be defined as raising taxes — even if doing so means more revenues. This may end up being a distinction without much difference: Given that the tax code includes more than $1 trillion in these breaks and expenditures annually, it’s entirely possible that we could find serious money there and never need to raise taxes in the traditional manner. But that’d mean taking on popular policies like the mortgage-interest deduction and the deduction for employer-provided health-care insurance. Raising taxes in the traditional manner might actually prove easier. And if that’s the case — if it’s a straightforward tax increase or no balanced budget — will the self-styled deficit hawks in the Republican Party step up and do what we all know needs to be done?
[O]ver the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries. Those with accountants or lawyers to work the system can end up paying no taxes at all. But all the rest are hit with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and it has to change.
So tonight, I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years – without adding to our deficit. It can be done.
–President Barack Obama, 2011 State of the Union Address
The President has called upon us all – Republicans and Democrats, his Administration and Congress, businesses and other stakeholders to come together to enact comprehensive tax reform that lowers our high statutory corporate tax rate and improves the tax system for the U.S. corporate community as a whole.
Comprehensive, long-term reform has the potential to benefit businesses across the United States, and make our economy more competitive. That is why a broad range of businesses have expressed a willingness to answer the President’s challenge and come together to make our principal focus an overhaul our corporate tax code. A narrow group of businesses has suggested that instead, our primary focus should be a temporary repatriation tax holiday – an idea tried a few years ago that gave a select group of U.S. multinational corporations a temporary, substantial tax break on their overseas profits. However, letting our eye off the ball of comprehensive tax reform in favor of a temporary measure of this kind would be a mistake.
In 2004, when the U.S. enacted a repatriation tax holiday, the goal was to encourage U.S. multinationals to pay bigger cash dividends from their overseas subsidiaries and use the cash to make investments in the United States. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that it increased U.S. investment or jobs, and it cost taxpayers billions.
We are in the process of trying to build consensus among lawmakers, the public, and the private sector, including a broad section of the business community to do just that. The tax treatment of overseas earnings could be considered as a part of broader corporate tax reform, but as Secretary Geithner has said, it would not be sensible to consider a repatriation holiday outside of that context.
Comprehensive reform can be done. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted from that goal.
The nation’s large banks have made major progress rebuilding capital levels that had been depleted during the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve said Friday, as it gave many of the firms the green light to pay dividends to their shareholders.
Fed regulators applied a “stress test” to the 19 largest U.S. banks, similar to the one performed in the spring of 2009, to establish whether they would continue to have enough capital even if the economy went back into recession. The Fed examined what would happen to the banks’ finances if unemployment rose to 11 percent by the end of this year, up from 8.9 percent last month.
Consumer advocacy groups and politicians from both sides of the aisle have begun to speculate on what the impending merger between AT&T and T-Mobile will mean for the country’s economy and the effect it could have on contentious policy issues, such as network neutrality.
The $39 billion deal was announced over the weekend. The sale will not officially close until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Justice Department finish conducting regulatory reviews, which could take up to 18 months.
The acquisition would reduce the amount of national wireless providers from four to three and give AT&T approximately 130 million subscribers – about 43 percent of the market – making it the biggest mobile phone carrier in the United States. The FCC and the Justice Department could impose certain restrictions on AT&T/T-Mobile before approving the deal to ensure that the new entity gives up ownership of some of its airwaves and provides coverage in rural areas.
Critics of the deal warn that less competition could have a negative impact on the economy, particularly as mobile devices increase in popularity among average consumers.
“I think it has a number of implications for lots of different policies in the communications realm,” said Joel Kelsey, political director of media reform organization Free Press. When the FCC in December decided not to regulate wireless carriers to ensure net neutrality, “their justification was that you’re less likely to see some of the same types of anti-competitive actions for fear that a carrier would lose a large number of customers … looking at it through the lens of this merger, I think that justification has kind of gone out the window.”
Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge, said that consumers know “the results of arrangements like this – higher prices, fewer choices, less innovation … the US needs both strong network neutrality rules and a competition policy that requires dominant broadband providers to make their networks available to competitors.”
The Wall Street Journal predicted that if the deal is approved, several thousand jobs are likely to be lost through layoffs and attrition.
“The proposed AT&T and T-Mobile merger raises important questions about competition in the telecom industry and the effect on American consumers,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which will hold a hearing to discuss the merger. “Congress must take a close look at the plan to ensure that the proposed merger promotes a healthy and competitive telecommunications market.”
Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, on Monday echoed Smith’s comments, stating, “With every passing day, wireless services are becoming more and more important to the way we communicate. So it is absolutely essential that both the Department of Justice and the FCC leave no stone unturned in determining what the impact of this combination is on the American people.”
Economist Richard D. Wolff discusses that factors that led to the increasing personal debt of Americans and offers solutions.
The state budget squeeze is fast becoming a city budget squeeze, as struggling states around the nation plan deep cuts in aid to cities and local governments that will almost certainly result in more service cuts, layoffs and local tax increases.
The cuts are widespread. Ohio plans to slash aid to Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and other cities and local governments by more than a half-billion dollars over the next two years under the budget proposed last week by its new Republican governor, John R. Kasich. Nebraska passed a law this month eliminating direct state aid to Omaha and other municipalities. The governors of Wisconsin and Michigan have called for sending less money to Milwaukee, Detroit and other local governments.
And it is not only Republicans who are cutting aid to cities: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, decided not to restore $302 million in aid to New York City that was cut last year, while Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, another Democrat, has called for cutting local aid to Boston and other cities by some $65 million.
Some mayors said the proposed cuts could force them to raise local property taxes, even as many homeowners complain that they are already overtaxed. Many are combing through their budgets, looking to wring out more savings where they can. Libraries may close. Garbage collection could be curtailed. Potholes might linger a bit longer. Some warned that they could be forced to lay off more city workers, including police officers and firefighters.
The reductions in state aid, along with falling property tax revenues that are finally catching up with lower home values, are major sources of fiscal stress for many cities. Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, said in a speech this month that “many localities have been hard hit by reductions in state aid, which in 2008 accounted for about 30 percent of local revenues.” And Moody’s Investors Service, the ratings agency, said in a report last week that many states “are increasingly pushing down their problems to their local governments.” The Moody’s report warned that this would be “the toughest year for local governments since the economic downturn began.”
The cuts are a vivid illustration of a fact of fiscal life: budgetary pain flows downhill. Although state tax collections are finally improving again after the longest and deepest decline on record, they remain well below their pre-recession levels. Stimulus money from Washington, which helped keep many states afloat over the last two years, is drying up. So states facing large deficits are proposing cuts in local aid.
Chris Hoene, the director of research for the National League of Cities, said that many states eliminated direct aid to cities — used to keep property taxes low, ease disparities among localities and help pay for general government services — after past recessions. Now, he said, most of the coming state cuts will be in the form of cuts to specific programs. Cuts to child health care, mental health programs, libraries or transportation will all have an impact on cities. On top of that, many states also have complex revenue-sharing programs with local governments, and a number of them are proposing to keep more of the money for themselves.
How Rich are the Superrich?
A huge share of the nation’s economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.
Winners Take All
The superrich have grabbed the bulk of the past three decades’ gains.
Out of Balance
A Harvard business prof and a behavioral economist recently asked more than 5,000 Americans how they thought wealth is distributed in the United States. Most thought that it’s more balanced than it actually is. Asked to choose their ideal distribution of wealth, 92% picked one that was even more equitable.
Why Washington is closer to Wall Street than Main Street.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) $451.1 million
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) $435.4 million Rep.
Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) $366.2 million
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) $294.9 million Rep.
Jared Polis (D-Colo.) $285.1 million
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) $283.1 million
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) $231.2 million
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) $201.5 million
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) $136.2 million
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) $108.1 million
combined net worth: $2.8 billion
For a healthy few, it’s getting better all the time.
How much income have you given up for the top 1 percent?
The first ever International Summit on Teaching, convened last week in New York City, showed perhaps more clearly than ever that the United States has been pursuing an approach to teaching almost diametrically opposed to that pursued by the highest-achieving nations.
It was the first time that government officials and union leaders from 16 nations met together in candid conversations that found substantial consensus about how to create a well-prepared and accountable teaching profession.
Evidence presented at the summit showed that, with dwindling supports, most teachers in the United States must go into debt in order to prepare for an occupation that pays them, on average, 60% less than the salaries earned by other college graduates. Those who work in poor districts will not only earn less than their colleagues in wealthy schools, but they will pay for many of their students’ books and supplies themselves.
And with states’ willingness to lower standards rather than raise salaries for the teachers of the poor, a growing number of recruits enter with little prior training, trying to learn on-the-job with the uneven mentoring provided by cash-strapped districts. It is no wonder that a third of U.S. beginners leave within the first five years, and those with the least training leave at more than twice the rate of those who are well-prepared.
The contrasts to the American attitude toward teachers and teaching could not have been more stark. Officials from countries like Finland and Singapore described how they have built a high-performing teaching profession by enabling all of their teachers to enter high-quality preparation programs, generally at the masters’ degree level, where they receive a salary while they prepare. There they learn research-based teaching strategies and train with experts in model schools attached to their universities. They enter a well-paid profession – in Singapore earning as much as beginning doctors — where they are supported by mentor teachers and have 15 or more hours a week to work and learn together – engaging in shared planning, action research, lesson study, and observations in each other’s classrooms. And they work in schools that are equitably funded and well-resourced with the latest technology and materials.
How poignant for Americans to listen to this account while nearly every successful program developed to support teachers’ learning in the United States is proposed for termination by the Obama administration or the Congress: Among these, the TEACH Grants that subsidize preparation for those who will teach in high-need schools; the Teacher Quality Partnership grants that support innovative pre-service programs in high-need communities; the National Writing Project and the Striving Readers programs that have supported professional development for the teaching of reading and writing all across the country, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which certifies accomplished teachers and provides what teachers have long called some of the most powerful professional development they ever experience in their careers.
These small programs total less than $1 billion dollars annually, the cost of half a week in Afghanistan. They are not nearly enough to constitute a national policy; yet they are among the few supports America now provides to improve the quality of teaching.
Reid and other top Senate Democrats who oppose the amendment are looking for ways to kill it. And they may have a tougher time than they expected, given the momentum after the Energy and Commerce vote and anti-EPA sentiment among moderate Senate Democrats.
Option 1: Get the votes to defeat it
Majority Whip Dick Durbin told POLITICO that he’s expecting a vote early Wednesday. Durbin didn’t say how many Democrats would defect to vote in favor of the amendment, but he thinks it will fall short of the 13 needed to get to 60.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer “felt that she could defeat McConnell directly,” Durbin said. “I don’t know if that changed late this afternoon, but that’s what she felt at lunch.”
But Republicans think they’ve got a chance.
According to POLITICO’s whip count,17 Democratic votes are in play when it comes to legislation to block or delay EPA’s climate rules.
Option 2: Use Rockefeller’s alternative to lure away Dems
In order to siphon off Democratic votes, leadership could offer a vote on a plan from Sen. John Rockefeller to impose a two-year delay on EPA climate rules for stationary sources. Just before a vote on another GOP effort to nullify EPA climate rules last summer, Democratic leadership drew moderate senators away by promising a vote on a two-year timeout from Rockefeller. But that vote never happened, and the West Virginia Democrat offered his measure Tuesday night as an amendment to the small-business package as an alternative to the McConnell-Inhofe effort. Rockefeller called the McConnell language an “emasculation of EPA forever.”
Option 3: Don’t hold the vote
Adding the controversial rider won’t help the bill’s chances of making it through the chamber and could prompt White House opposition. The amendment drew immediate pushback from the White House, where top officials have insisted President Barack Obama would veto a stand-alone bill to block EPA climate regulations.
“This amendment rolls back the Clean Air Act and harms Americans’ health by taking away our ability to decrease air pollution,” said White House spokesman Clark Stevens. “Instead of holding big polluters accountable, this amendment overrules public health experts and scientists. Finally, at a time when America’s families are struggling with the cost of gasoline, the amendment would undercut fuel efficiency standards that will save Americans money at the pump while also decreasing our reliance on foreign oil.”
EXCLUSIVE: NO Lessons Learned From B.P. Oil Spill Catastrophe
Rather than destroying HIV, a proposed treatment would embrace its infectious abilities, sending the virus into competition with a harmless, stripped-down version of itself.
Dubbed therapeutic interfering particles, or TIPs, these engineered viral scraps would ride with HIV as it spreads from person to person. By out-competing HIV for cellular resources, the TIPs might slow its progression and lower infection rates.
“A virus can’t replicate without a host, and similarly TIPs can’t replicate without HIV. It would piggyback on the virus,” said biophysicist and virologist Leor Weinberger of the University of California, San Diego, who modeled the epidemiology of TIPs in a study March 17 in PLoS Computational Biology. “It’s basically a virus of a virus.”
Approximately 33 million people now carry HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, which infects immune system cells that defend against disease. The virus gradually destroys them, taking away the body’s ability to protect itself. Without treatment, HIV infection leads to AIDS in about 10 years. Death follows soon after as common diseases overcome the body.
When it comes to health effects from low radiation doses, scientists don’t know beans.
To be more precise, doses below 100 millisieverts are in a gray zone. Safety standards — such as the one that limits drinking water exposure for infants to less than about 2 millisieverts — are based on extrapolation from the best data scientists have. Those figures come mainly from a 60-year study of health effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
That was a unique research opportunity — and let’s hope it remains that way.
But some scientists think the Fukushima power plant disaster — the second-worst nuclear power accident in history — offers another precious opportunity to learn more about what happens to people exposed to radioactivity in the millisievert range.
An article posted Wednesday by The New Scientist quotes experts who say there’s no time to lose in setting up a study that would map radiation doses and monitor the health of those who’ve been exposed in the Japanese incident.
One of those experts points to the Hiroshima-based Radiation Effects Research Foundation as the obvious candidate to do the work. It has conducted the six-decade-long project following atomic-bomb survivors.
I called Evan Douple, RERF’s associate chief of research, to ask what he thought of the idea. What he said surprised me.
Here are the highlights from our conversation, edited mainly for length. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/03/24/134833008/why-we-may-not-learn-much-new-about-radiation-risks-from-fukushima?ft=1&f=1001&sc=tw&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter
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In an abrupt change of course, Arizona lawmakers rejected new anti-immigration measures on Thursday, in what was widely seen as capitulation to pressure from business executives and an admission that the state’s tough stance had resulted in a chilling of the normally robust tourism and convention industry.
Opponents of the five bills said that the state’s image had been hit hard, and that it did not make sense to pass new measures while the state had already put itself so far out in front of other states and the federal government on the issue — at a cost to tourism and other industries.
They said that previous immigration bills were still being reviewed by the courts, and that it was not smart to pass new legislation that plainly conflicted with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
So far, Arizona-style anti-immigration bills have not lived up to their advance billing in other states, which despite strengthened Republican legislative majorities have failed to pass any identical bills. Similar proposals are still advancing in some states, but they, too, have encountered strong business opposition.
So now, in what is being billed as the biggest legal action taken by a regulator against executives of a financial institution involved in the great crash, the FDIC is suing WaMu’s three top corporate officers for, among other things “gross negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and fraudulent conveyance.” The gist of the case: CEO Kerry Killinger and his two right-hand men knew that they were taking big risks by putting people in homes they couldn’t afford. They were warned countless times of the danger they were exposing the bank to. But they went ahead and did it anyway, continuing their reckless gambling even as the housing boom collapsed around them.
A U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty Wednesday to the murders of three Afghan civilians was sentenced to 24 years in prison after saying “the plan was to kill people” in a conspiracy with four fellow soldiers.
Military judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks said he initially intended to sentence Spc. Jeremy Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, to life in prison with possibility of parole but was bound by the plea deal.
The 22-year-old Morlock is a key figure in a war crimes probe that has raised some of the most serious criminal allegations to come from the war in Afghanistan. Army investigators accused him of taking a lead role in the killings of three unarmed Afghan men in Kandahar province in January, February and May 2010.
His sentencing Wednesday came hours after he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, and one count each of conspiracy, obstructing justice and illegal drug use at his court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle.
Morlock, the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade to be court-martialed in the case, will receive 352 days off of his sentence for time served and could be eligible for parole in about seven years, said his lead attorney, Frank Spinner. He will be dishonorably discharged as part of his sentence.
Under his plea deal, he has agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
Earlier this week, the German news magazine Der Spiegel published three graphic photos showing Morlock and other soldiers posing with dead Afghans. One image features Morlock grinning as he lifts the head of a corpse by its hair.
Douglas Hampton is a former top aide to Senator John Ensign, and at this point he must really be hating his old boss. Federal prosecutors have hit Hampton with seven charges of conflict of interest, which were discovered during an investigation of whether Ensign tried to cover up his affair with Hampton’s wife. (Ensign’s parents gave the Hamptons $96,000 as a gift in April 2008. The Nevada senator admitted to the affair in June 2009.)
The charge against Hampton is connected to the fact that he left Ensign’s employ in April of 2008, but lobbied Ensign’s office on behalf of an “airline and energy company,” according to USA Today, before a year had passed; ethics rules require a one-year “cooling off” period for congressional staffers before they can lobby their old pals.
So Hampton has gotten caught up in a federal investigation of Ensign’s affair with his wife. In an additional bitter pill, the Feds announced late last year that they’re not planning to charge Ensign with anything. Hampton has called on Ensign to resign; Ensign has said he won’t see reelection next year.
The Newspaper Guild is urging its 26,000 members to stop providing free content to the Huffington Post website. The Guild said, “Working for free does not benefit workers and undermines quality journalism.” The Huffington Post relies on a mix of paid professional journalists and unpaid bloggers. The site’s labor practices have come under increasing scrutiny since its $315 million merger with AOL.
After hearing the news that AOL had acquired the Huffington Post for $315 million, Stephen Colbert checked out the business model. Between charging old ladies $10 an hour for dial-up service and re-blogging other people’s content, Colbert said, it doesn’t seem that tough.
Dahling, I happened to cruise by your $300 million website ,and you know what I find? A whole lot of me! You’ve achieved the impossible: making me angry while looking at pictures of myself.
Obvious answer? Re-blog the whole site under the Colbert banner. Behold:
By LAKHDAR BRAHIMI and THOMAS R. PICKERING
Neither side of the conflict can hope to vanquish the other through force. Meanwhile, public support in Western countries for keeping troops in Afghanistan has fallen. The Afghan people are weary of a long and debilitating war.
For their part, the Taliban have encountered resistance from Afghans who are not part of their dedicated base when they have tried to impose their stern moral code. International aid has improved living standards among Afghans in areas not under Taliban control. That has placed new pressure on the Taliban, as has an increasing ambivalence toward the Taliban in Pakistan.
The stalemate can be resolved only with a negotiated political settlement involving President Hamid Karzai’s government and its allies, the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan, and other regional and international parties. The United States has been holding back from direct negotiations, hoping the ground war will shift decisively in its favor. But we believe the best moment to start the process toward reconciliation is now, while force levels are near their peak.
For the insurgents, the prospects for negotiating a share of national power are not likely to improve by waiting until the United States withdraws most combat forces by the end of 2014; on the contrary, the possibility that Americans might find a way to maintain an enduring military presence past 2014 suggests that perhaps the only way they can truly get the Americans out is with a negotiated settlement.
A peace settlement would require a domestic element — a political order broadly acceptable to Afghans — and an international element: severing Taliban ties to Al Qaeda and containing rampant drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan. Both elements would need to be negotiated along parallel tracks.
Contrary to popular view, Pakistan cannot unilaterally dictate the outcome. Pakistanis told us they were finding it increasingly difficult to prevent the Afghan conflict from fueling extremist violence in their country. Pakistani security officers who have provided long-time support for the Taliban run the risk of events getting beyond their control.
A neutral international facilitator is needed to begin explorations with all potential parties toward negotiation. The United Nations could appoint a facilitator. Or a facilitator could be a group, an international organization, a neutral state or a group of states. A settlement would require international guarantees, aid, peacekeeping and enforcement of the agreement.
The international community has confronted equally intractable conflicts in Cambodia, Bosnia and elsewhere and, with unity of purpose, resolved them. Afghanistan is a particularly challenging case, but it is not hopeless.
Disenfranchisement of the elderly, students, and minorities generally means disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. Every presidential election season, this becomes an issue, one that is a potential threat, one that doesn’t get enough attention, IMHO. You’d think stealing democracy would be a bigger deal, wouldn’t you?
Requiring a photo I.D. at the polls is tantamount to said disenfranchisement, because these are often unaffordable or otherwise not accessible for many.
Conclusion: Arkansas and North Carolina sure seem to be trying to suppress the Democratic vote.
In statehouses across the country, Republican lawmakers are raising the specter of “voter fraud” to push through legislation that would dramatically restrict the voting rights of college students, rural voters, senior citizens, the disabled and the homeless. As part of their larger effort to silence Main Street, conservatives are pushing through new photo identification laws that would exclude millions from voting, depress Hispanic voter turnout by as much as 10 percent, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. In the next few months, a new set of election laws could make going to the polls and registering to vote significantly more difficult — in some cases even barring groups of citizens from voting in the communities where they live.
But just months after election day, three new Midwestern governors — Wisconsin’s Scott Walker (R), Ohio’s John Kasich (R), and Michigan’s Rick Snyder (R) — have seen their approval ratings fall to the point that polls show them losing hypothetical do-over elections with the candidates they beat last year.
Congressional leaders in both parties agree they have to stop putting off the inevitable and reach a deal to fund the federal government through September, the end of the fiscal year.
But there is one big obstacle in the way of a long-term deal, one that goes beyond the arguments over dollars and cents. The budget proposal the House Republican majority approved this year included a number of unrelated amendments — riders, in Congress-speak — that would impose restrictions on federal agencies.
One rider would prohibit federal money from going to Planned Parenthood. Another would curtail the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to monitor air and water, and restrict the use of funds to inspect coal mines.
For Democrats, these riders are deal-breakers, and they are the ideological fault line in talks taking place this week.
“We have to get beyond this political bumper-sticker museum,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said, accusing Republicans of reverting to the social-issue wars of the 1980s and 1990s.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), however, has delivered a much different message to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and the Obama administration. “A bill without any riders cannot pass the House,” a senior House GOP aide said, requesting anonymity to discuss Boehner’s internal deliberations.
The two congressional leaders, Boehner and Reid, find themselves in a difficult situation. Both are skilled dealmakers, and they both know they must both find a way to claim partial victory — Boehner by persuading Reid to keep some of the Republican riders intact, and Reid by persuading Boehner to remove the provisions that most incense Democrats.
Boehner is in an especially tough spot. He oversees the largest Republican majority in more than 60 years. But it includes 87 newcomers who were elected in part because they railed against these kinds of backroom deals. So far, the Class of 2010 has been willing to follow Boehner’s lead, approving by wide margins two recent short-term spending resolutions that kept the government running in exchange for $10 billion in savings.
Yet their patience, as well as that of the nearly 100 other party conservatives emboldened by the freshmen, has run thin. One freshman, using this week’s congressional recess to hold town hall and community meetings, found himself undecided about whether he would demand a perfect bill, risking a shutdown, or settle for a compromise.
Boehner is said to be willing to pass a compromise bill that would appeal to most of the Republicans and attract some Democrats to clear the 218-vote hurdle for a majority. But it is doubtful that he would agree, in his first major deal as speaker, to anything that sharply divides his 241-member conference.
Meanwhile, Reid is shepherding a caucus whose ranks have shrunk by seven senators since January 2010, clinging to a majority of 53. He is loath to accept a compromise that would infuriate the liberal wing of his caucus.
“Not only no, but hell no,” Reid told reporters last week when asked whether his chamber’s Democrats would tolerate the rider eliminating Planned Parenthood funding.
Some Democrats admit that they are willing to support a final 2011 deal that makes steep cuts in federal spending, as long as the package is free of the policy riders, such as those restrictions on Planned Parenthood and the EPA.
“If the riders stay out, it becomes significantly more doable,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said.
House and Senate leaders are eager to get past the 2011 budget impasse — which is leftover from last year, when the Democrat-led House and Senate couldn’t agree on a budget — because it is diverting their attention from the larger and more difficult issues that await.
A contentious vote on whether to lift the debt ceiling above its current $14.3 trillion is slated for late spring. And a bipartisan collection of more than five dozen senators is demanding sweeping action on the most pressing fiscal issues facing the government: reforming entitlements such as Medicaid and Medicare, and simplifying the cumbersome federal tax code.
On Thursday, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and nuclear watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., accused the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a report of allowing companies that operate plants to ignore, or delay repairs to, leaky pipes, electrical malfunctions and other problems that could escalate into something more serious.
The report echoes more general concerns raised on Wednesday in Congressional hearings, when the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, fielded questions from lawmakers about the age of the nation’s nuclear plants and whether safety and oversight procedures needed to be revisited.
David McIntyre, a spokesman for the commission, said the fact that the organization had reports of problems to scrutinize suggested that the regulatory system was working.
“We have resident inspectors stationed full time at each plant,” Mr. McIntyre said, “and if they say our inspectors are catching these things then that says they’re doing their job.”
The report by the Union of Concerned Scientists examined 14 instances in 2010 in which significant problems at nuclear power facilities set off special inspections by federal regulators — incidents characterized by the regulators as “near misses.” Reports on such incidents are made available publicly by the regulatory commission.
Twelve of the events involved lingering safety problems, among them leaky roofs and floods near safety equipment, faulty pumps, rusty pipes, fires and inadvertent shutdowns. Two others involved compromises in plant security, though details on those were not made public.
The Federal Reserve will publish new details about its emergency lending to banks during the 2008 financial crisis after the Supreme Court on Monday rejected an industry appeal for secrecy.
The Fed said it would release detailed information soon about its main emergency aid program, the so-called discount window, breaking a policy of confidentiality that dates to its founding in 1913. The Fed was required by Congress to publish similar data about its other lending programs last year.
“The board will fully comply with the court’s decisions and is preparing to make the information available,” David Skidmore, a Fed spokesman, said.
The disclosures could embarrass some of the nation’s largest banks, which are eager to focus public attention on their renewed profitability, by returning a spotlight to the extent of their dependence on federal aid during the crisis. It also signaled a victory for Bloomberg News, which first requested the data in 2008.
The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a Republican lawsuit challenging limits on party spending.
The lawsuit, brought by former Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) and the Republican National Committee against the Federal Election Commission, argued that a rule limiting the amount that parties could spend in coordination with its candidates violated their First Amendment rights. The suit was part of a sustained assault on campaign finance restrictions by conservatives.
Election law experts had considered it likely that the court would at least agree to hear the case, given that its conservative majority has been skeptical of rules restricting the flow of money into politics, as borne out most significantly in its sweeping 5-4 decision last year in a case called Citizens United v. FEC allowing corporations to fund election ads.
More recently, though, the court had refused to hear another case brought by the RNC challenging the prohibition on unlimited contributions to parties – the so-called soft money ban.
Civil liberties advocates opposed to the government’s expanded wiretapping powers can fight another day after an appellate court on Monday reinstated a lawsuit challenging an eavesdropping law passed by Congress three years ago.
The decision could put the Obama administration in the uncomfortable position of having to argue in support of broad executive authority to conduct surveillance operations – a position that President Obama, as a presidential candidate, had once opposed.
In the lawsuit, one of the few remaining on the issue, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups charged that the expanded surveillance powers granted by Congress in 2008 were unconstitutional and illegal.
The 2008 law passed by Congress, known as the FISA Amendments Act, followed a furious debate over the legality of then-President Bush’s secret eavesdropping program, and it gave intelligence agencies wide leeway to monitor international communications without direct court oversight.
Mr. Obama, then an Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate, opposed the broadening of executive power, but he angered some liberal supporters by reversing his position and voting for the measure.
The Justice Department, which could seek a re-hearing in the Second Circuit to prevent the case from returning to the district court, had no comment on Monday.
Workers who complain to their employers about wage violations are protected from retaliation whether the complaints are oral or written, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a 6-to-2 decision.
The question in the case, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority, was whether the phrase “filed any complaint” in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 applied only to written complaints.
The case arose from complaints Kevin Kasten said he made to his former employer about where it kept the time clocks that recorded the hours he worked at a Wisconsin manufacturing plant. Though workers had to wear protective gear that took time to put on and take off, the time clocks were in an area beyond the changing area.
That was, a federal judge later found in a related case, a violation of the 1938 law.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Breyer’s opinion. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case.
Justice Breyer declined to address a second argument made by the company — that the law applies only to complaints made to the government and not to private employers — because the company had failed to assert the argument adequately when the case first reached the Supreme Court.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said he would have ruled for the company on the ground that the majority would not consider.
Wisconsin officials couldn’t agree Friday about whether an explosive law taking away nearly all public worker collective bargaining rights was about to take effect after a nonpartisan legislative bureau published it despite a court order blocking publication.
The Legislative Reference Bureau’s action was noted on the state Legislature’s website Friday, sending confused lawmakers and legal experts scrambling to determine what’s next for the measure that has brought waves of chaos to the state since it first was proposed by Gov. Scott Walker.
Legislative Reference Bureau director Steve Miller insisted the action doesn’t mean his action will result in the law taking effect Saturday. He says that won’t actually happen until Secretary of State Doug La Follette orders the law published in a newspaper.
“It’s not implementation of all,” Miller said. “It’s simply a matter of forwarding an official copy to the secretary of state.”
But La Follette wasn’t so sure, saying it wasn’t clear what the action means.
“I think we’re going to have to get some legal opinion on this,” he said.
And Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the action means the law takes effect Saturday.
“It’s my opinion it’s published, it’s on the legislative website, it’s law,” Fitzgerald said.
A judge last week issued a temporary restraining order blocking any further implementation of the law while the court considers challenges to its approval. The order specifically blocked La Follette from publishing the law.
But the Reference Bureau said it’s still required to publish every new law within 10 working days after it’s signed by the governor, on the date designated by the secretary of state.
Walker signed the collective bargaining measure March 11 and La Follette had designated Friday as the date of publication. But after the judge’s restraining order, La Follette had sent a letter to the Reference Bureau saying he was rescinding his setting of that as the publication date.
Walker’s top aide Mike Huebsch, secretary of the Department of Administration, issued a statement saying he had been notified that the law had been published.
“The administration will carry out the law as required,” Huebsch said.
John Jagler, a spokesman for Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said he assumed the action means the law takes effect on Saturday.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who filed the lawsuit challenging the law that led to the restraining order, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The new law requires nearly all public sector workers, including teachers, to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance, changes that amount to an average 8% pay cut. It also strips them of their ability to collectively bargain for anything except wages no higher than inflation.
Consideration of the proposal led to Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois for three weeks in an attempt to block the measure by preventing a quorum. It also spurred massive protests that grew to more than 85,000 people the day after Walker signed the measure. It made Wisconsin the national focus in the fight over union rights.
In a replay of the recent political upheaval in Wisconsin, Indiana state government remains at a five-week standstill with the departure of 39 House Democrats who remain holed up in Illinois. In this instance, they are protesting of a Republican agenda they characterize as unfair to the state’s middle class and a threat to future business development.
While walkouts are not uncommon among Indiana state legislators, what makes the current situation unique – and different from the one in Wisconsin – is that Democrats are protesting the entire Republican agenda, not any single bill. As a result, lawmakers don’t appear to know where to start to find compromise. In addition, hotter-than-usual rhetoric fueled by a mounting sense of political uncertainty in the Hoosier State is making the situation more volatile.
The standoff, which has no sign of abating on either side, may lead to a government shutdown if the Democrats do not return by April 29, the last day in session and the final opportunity legislators have to approve a state budget, due June 30.
It’s not like we didn’t see it coming.
At the very start of this year, January 2, The New York Times warned us of the coming battle with a front-page story, “Public Workers Facing Outrage in Budget Crisis.” The Economist, in its January 8 issue, gave us, “The battle ahead: confronting the public-sector unions.” And the January Time Magazine, “Public Employees Become Public Enemy No. 1.”
That is, there is a plan at work here – let’s call it, “the Plan” – and that plan is designed to accomplish the following goals:
1. Defund the Democrats. This is perhaps the most transparent of the goals of the Plan, because Republicans have not been shy about pointing out how, in various states, labor union contributions of both time and money have supplied Democrats with critical support at election time. The actual numbers can be debated and most of the Republican claims of labor union dominance of the Democratic Party are overblown. The failure of Congress, even when Democrats controlled both the White House and both houses of Congress from 2008-2010, to enact any substantive federal labor law reform, is stark evidence of that. But labor generally comes back to the Democrats and Republicans, and other right-wingers recognize that disabling labor unions now will advance their legislative agenda in the long run.
2. Delegitimize Government. Once public-sector unions are destroyed or damaged and the wages and benefits of public employees are slashed, the ability of government to attract and retain qualified, dedicated employees – whether teachers, bus drivers, fire fighters or police – will deteriorate. The more that happens, the greater the pressure to turn over these and all other “public” services to for-profit private companies, a trend that is already in full swing.
3. Redefining the Middle Class Downward. Above all else, the attack on public employees and their unions is an effort to eliminate the one substratum of working people who still, to a large extent, maintain a truly “middle-class” existence, a life where the rent or mortgage payments may be paid, health coverage is maintained and retirement savings socked away in defined benefit pension plans, where it will actually still be available upon retirement.
It is this last motive about which the proponents of the Plan speak the least, but which is perhaps the most important. As long as some workers, those in the public sector, are still being paid decent salaries and benefits, there is an implicit message to all workers, including those in the private sector, that this type of compensation might be something which an adult worker could reasonably expect to attain. If the goal of a middle-class income for public employees can be painted as a mere utopian fantasy, workers in the private sector will lose that dream as well. In the end, it is this downward pressure on our standard of living that should have all of us concerned, and which should inspire all of us to stand next to public employees as they cling to the middle-class dream.
Much of the bill is based upon verifying that those who receive food stamps benefits are meeting the federal requirements for doing so. However, one section buried deep within the bill adds a startling new requirement. The bill, if passed, would actually cut off all food stamp benefits to any family where one adult member is engaging in a strike against an employer:
The bill also includes a provision that would exempt households from losing eligibility, “if the household was eligible immediately prior to such strike, however, such family unit shall not receive an increased allotment as the result of a decrease in the income of the striking member or members of the household.”
Dems say they’ve gathered more than half the signatures they need to hold elections to recall GOP Senators, and are now flatly predicting they’ll take back the state senate:
Twenty days into a recall campaign spurred by the state’s rollicking budget fight, Wisconsin Democrats are now predicting that they will be able to take back control of the state Senate this summer.
Statewide, Democrats say they have over fifty percent of the number of petitions they need to recall eight Republican state senators, although they are not over the fifty percent threshold in every district.
“We’re well ahead of schedule,” said Graeme Zielinski, Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman. “I think in mid-summer, you will have a Democratic Senate.” The party would not release detailed percentages of where the party stood in each targeted seat.
Under a GOP-backed bill expected to sail through the House of Representatives, the Internal Revenue Service would be forced to police how Americans have paid for their abortions. To ensure that taxpayers complied with the law, IRS agents would have to investigate whether certain terminated pregnancies were the result of rape or incest. And one tax expert says that the measure could even lead to questions on tax forms: Have you had an abortion? Did you keep your receipt?
In testimony to a House taxation subcommittee on Wednesday, Thomas Barthold, the chief of staff of the nonpartisan Joint Tax Committee, confirmed that one consequence of the Republicans’ “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” would be to turn IRS agents into abortion cops—that is, during an audit, they’d have to detemine, from evidence provided by the taxpayer, whether any tax benefit had been inappropriately used to pay for an abortion.
More than half of Americans say it should be legal for gays and lesbians to marry, a first in nearly a decade of polls by ABC News and The Washington Post.
This milestone result caps a dramatic, long-term shift in public attitudes. From a low of 32 percent in a 2004 survey of registered voters, support for gay marriage has grown to 53 percent today. Forty-four percent are opposed, down 18 points from that 2004 survey.
The issue remains divisive; as many adults “strongly” oppose gay marriage as strongly support it, and opposition rises to more than 2-1 among Republicans and conservatives and 3-1 among evangelical white Protestants, a core conservative group. But opposition to gay marriage has weakened in these groups from its levels a few years ago, and support has grown sharply among others – notably, among Catholics, political moderates, people in their 30s and 40s and men.
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
Nate Silver’s 538:
Statistics can be used for benevolent purposes or for evil ones. Then there’s the middle ground, which is where this column resides. Once each month, I’ll suggest ways in which you can exploit data to improve your lot in everyday life. I won’t advocate that you do anything illegal or (in my opinion) immoral. But statistical analysis is being used, and not always to your benefit, by everyone from your cable company to your real estate broker. Consider this your chance to fight back.
Let’s start with that confounding multipiece puzzle of modern life: the local salad bar. Odds are that it’s a pretty bad deal. You plop a few items into a plastic box, and next thing you know you’re forking over 13 bucks. There’s got to be a better way.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
“Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.”