Kansas Republicans, under the leadership of “compassionate conservative” Sam Brownback, are working hard to stick it to the poor:
A Kansas House tax committee passed a bill in which anyone making less than $25,000 a year — roughly half a million of the state’s 2.9 million residents — will pay an average of $72 more in taxes, while those making more than $250,000 — about 21,000 people — will see a $1,500 cut, according to Kansas Department of Revenue estimates cited by the Kansas City Star.
The hike would come from the elimination of tax credits typically benefiting the poor.
I can’t help but see this as a continuation of the conservative meme that its the poor who don’t pay their “fair share.” Last fall, as the Occupy movement gained steam, it became common for conservatives to complain about the 47 percent of Americans who “don’t pay taxes.” Presidential candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry complained about it in speeches and debate performances, while conservative activists (Redstate’s Erick Erickson comes to mind) touted it in response to the Occupy movement.
Of course, the claim was misleading to the extreme; all Americans pay something to the government—sales taxes, payroll taxes, and various state taxes—but only some make enough money to owe federal income taxes. Those that don’t, as Annie Lowrey explained for Slate, are either poor, or benefit from a variety of tax deductions:
About half of households within that 47 percent do not end up paying federal income tax because they qualify for enough breaks to cancel their tax obligations out. Of that group, 44 percent are claiming tax benefits for the elderly, like an exemption for Social Security payments. And 30.4 percent are claiming credits for “children and the working poor,” like the child-care tax credit. The remainder get breaks for investment income, spending on education, itemized deductions, and a mish-mash of other things. When combined, it’s all enough to cancel out their income tax requirements.
Because of facts like this, and the declining visibility of the Occupy movement, conservatives began to back off on the rhetoric of tax increases for low-income Americans and others who benefit from social services. That said, both policies have always been part of conservative proposals for reform—see Paul Ryan’s roadmap, for example—and in states like Kansas, Republicans are actively working to increase the burden on the least well-off.
One last thing: Kansas Republicans say that this proposal is to make the state more competitive. “Our goal is for our economy to look more like Texas, and a lot less like California,” said Brownback. If that’s the case, then the Kansas GOP should spend less time trying to raise taxes on poor people, and more time trying to encourage immigration. More than anything, Texas has been a beneficiary of the fact that people want to live there. As it stands, however, conservatives in Kansas would rather joke about shooting immigrants than work to bring them to the state.
By: Jamelle Bouie, The American Prospect, February 24
The Obama administration’s ruling requiring certain Catholic institutions like hospitals and universities to offer health insurance covering birth control prompted a furious response from the Catholic bishops. The bishops argued that this was a violation of conscience since birth control is contrary to teachings of the Catholic Church, as expressed in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae.”
What interests me as a philosopher — and a Catholic — is that virtually all parties to this often acrimonious debate have assumed that the bishops are right about this, that birth control is contrary to “the teachings of the Catholic Church.” The only issue is how, if at all, the government should “respect” this teaching.
As critics repeatedly point out, 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women practice birth control, and 78 percent of Catholics think a “good Catholic” can reject the bishops’ teaching on birth control. The response from the church, however, has been that, regardless of what the majority of Catholics do and think, the church’s teaching is that birth control is morally wrong. The church, in the inevitable phrase, “is not a democracy.” What the church teaches is what the bishops (and, ultimately, the pope, as head of the bishops) say it does.
But is this true? The answer requires some thought about the nature and basis of religious authority. Ultimately the claim is that this authority derives from God. But since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?
It makes no sense to say that the bishops themselves can decide this, that we should accept their religious authority because they say God has given it to them. If this were so, anyone proclaiming himself a religious authority would have to be recognized as one. From where, then, in our democratic, secular society does such recognition properly come? It could, in principle, come from some other authority, like the secular government. But we have long given up the idea (“cujus regio, ejus religio”) that our government can legitimately designate the religious authority in its domain. But if the government cannot determine religious authority, surely no lesser secular power could. Theological experts could tell us what the bishops have taught over the centuries, but this does not tell us whether these teachings have divine authority.
In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. It follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God. They may be wrong, but their judgment is answerable to no one but God. In this sense, even the Catholic Church is a democracy.
But, even so, haven’t the members of the Catholic Church recognized their bishops as having full and sole authority to determine the teachings of the Church? By no means. There was, perhaps, a time when the vast majority of Catholics accepted the bishops as having an absolute right to define theological and ethical doctrines. Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone. Most Catholics — meaning, to be more precise, people who were raised Catholic or converted as adults and continue to take church teachings and practices seriously — now reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines that they do accept. This is above all true in matters of sexual morality, especially birth control, where the majority of Catholics have concluded that the teachings of the bishops do not apply to them. Such “reservations” are an essential constraint on the authority of the bishops.
The bishops and the minority of Catholics who support their full authority have tried to marginalize Catholics who do not accept the bishops as absolute arbiters of doctrine. They speak of “cafeteria Catholics” or merely “cultural Catholics,” and imply that the only “real Catholics” are those who accept their teachings entirely. But this marginalization begs the question I’m raising about the proper source of the judgment that the bishops have divine authority. Since, as I’ve argued, members of the church are themselves this source, it is not for the bishops but for the faithful to decide the nature and extent of episcopal authority. The bishops truly are, as they so often say, “servants of the servants of the Lord.”
It may be objected that, regardless of what individual Catholics think, the bishops in fact exercise effective control over the church. This is true in many respects, but only to the extent that members of the church accept their authority. Stalin’s alleged query about papal authority (“How many divisions does the Pope have?”) expresses more than just cynical realpolitik. The authority of the Catholic bishops is enforceable morally but not militarily or politically. It resides entirely in the fact that people freely accept it.
The mistake of the Obama administration — and of almost everyone debating its decision — was to accept the bishops’ claim that their position on birth control expresses an authoritative “teaching of the church.” (Of course, the administration may be right in thinking that the bishops need placating because they can cause them considerable political trouble.) The bishops’ claim to authority in this matter has been undermined because Catholics have decisively rejected it. The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI meant his 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” to settle the issue in the manner of the famous tag, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.” In fact the issue has been settled by the voice of the Catholic people.
By: Gary Gutting, The New York Times Opinion Pages, February 15, 2012
Virginia’s personhood bill is now dead for the year. The bill, already approved by the state House, passed out of a Senate committee this morning and headed to the floor. But the Republican-dominated Senate voted to send the bill back to committee and carry it overto next year. It’s the second big win for pro-choice advocates in Virginia this week, after Governor Bob McDonnell retracted his support for a bill requiring pre-abortion transvaginal sonograms yesterday.
“By vote of 24-14, HB 1 is rereferred to Senate Ed & Health and carried over for the year,” tweeted Democratic Senator Mark Herring triumphantly. “Translation = Bill is defeated.”
This morning, less than 24 hours after pro-life advocates saw a big victory over a Virginia pre-abortion sonogram bill, a Virginia Senate committee voted to move the controversial “personhood” bill forward. The bill, which would have changed the legal definition of “person” to include fertilized eggs and fetuses, passed the House last week amidst cries from Democrats. Now it’s heading for a full Senate vote.
The committee added a key measure to the bill to protect access to all legal forms of birth control. As I wrote last week, the version passed out of the House carved out a specific protection for in-vitro fertilization but not for birth control, prompting some opponents to argue the legal interpretations would likely outlaw birth control. Some reproductive activists have argued that even though in-vitro is carved out, the process, which often includes discarding other fertilized eggs, could still be in a legal limbo.
It wasn’t clear from the beginning that the measure would make it out of committee easily. The Education and Health Committee has seven pro-life Republicans and seven pro-choice Democrats. It also has Senator Harry Blevins, who has a mixed record on the subject. Blevins has angered both sides of the debate on reproductive rights. When I talked last week to Representative Bob Marshall, the author of the personhood bill, he was hardly confident. “I don’t know what Harry’s thinking on this,” he said. (Blevins has not responded to multiple calls asking for an interview.)
Only a few weeks ago Blevins chose to abstain on a measure that would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks. The bill, which would have faced obvious legal challenges, focused on 20 weeks as the age at which a fetus feels pain and was called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The vote in the Senate Education and Health Committee was split, with seven Republicans voting to move the bill forward and seven Democrats voting against it. As the 15th vote, Blevins’ abstention stopped the measure.
The Virginia Society for Human Life, a pro-life advocacy group, sent out a press release arguing Blevins “effectively killed the bill in committee.” This time around, however, I’m guessing pro-life advocates are pleased with Blevins’ decision.
I asked Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds for his predictions on the personhood bill when it comes to the Senate floor. He didn’t exactly give me an answer. In the past, he told me “we’ve been able to work together across party lines … that broke down completely this year.”
(I should also mention that Virginia isn’t the only state this year with a personhood bill. In Oklahoma, two different bills have been filed. One, which looks a lot like Virginia’s, is through the Senate and awaiting approval from the state House.)
By: Abby Papoport, The American Prospect, February 23, 2012
Could GOP primary voters have finally found their soul mate? In the person of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, they may have stumbled upon a presidential candidate who can speak their language with a forceful authenticity that simply can’t be programmed into Mitt Romney.
And as if by divine providence, the rise of Santorum coincides with the return of culture war issues—gay marriage, abortion, and, especially, contraception—upon which he has earned his reputation and loyal following among conservatives.
But Santorum’s turn as the not-Romney of the moment and the sudden political shift from jobs to social issues illustrate the perilous political position into which the GOP is charging headlong. It’s a confluence of candidate and issues that can lay bare the cultural gap that has grown between the Republican base and the mainstream of American politics.
Take the birth control flap. When the administration rolled out a new rule requiring, for example, Catholic-related organizations like schools and hospitals to include contraceptive coverage as part of their employees’ health insurance, it was denounced as a disaster even by regular allies of President Obama. The president “utterly botched” the policy, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne said. The rule put the country on the brink of a “religious war” and was a “dissing, in common parlance, of Catholics,” pundit Mark Shields opined. Moderate Democrats like former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine quickly repudiated the mandate.
Republicans sensed an opportunity, and even after the president unveiled a compromise whereby the contraceptives would be paid for by insurance companies rather than the offended institutions, they doubled down. They denounced Obama’s accommodation and pushed legislation allowing employers or insurers to dispense with any health insurance item that pricked their conscience. In this they had the enthusiastic partnership of the bishops of the Catholic Church, who were equally unmoved by the deal.
What they did not have, however, was the support of either the broad electorate or the bishops’ flock, a fact illustrated by the preponderance of recent polling data on the issue. A survey released by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, for example, showed that 56 percent of voters support the birth control benefit, and 53 percent of Catholics do. The same firm later polled the Obama compromise and found that 57 percent of Catholics, including 59 percent of Catholic women, support it. With the compromise, 56 percent of Catholic independents favor the contraception mandate.
These figures are not outliers. Another survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that the pre-compromise rule had the support of 62 percent of women, 58 percent of Catholics, and 51 percent of independents (and 55 percent of Americans overall). The only group in the survey that opposed the rule was white evangelical Protestants, with 38 percent in favor and 56 percent against, raising the question of whether the Catholic bishops are stewarding the right church. A New York Times/CBS News poll last week found that 65 percent of voters support the compromise, including a majority of Catholic voters.
One of the few recent surveys that produced a markedly different result, from Pew, showed that among those who have heard of the rule, opinion is closely divided—hardly the stuff to power the initial pronouncements of Obama’s doom with Catholic voters or to support the GOP going all in on the issue. All these figures help explain why, in the face of fretting that the contraceptive rule was a political blunder, Gallup announced last week that the president’s approval rating among Catholics was statistically unchanged.
But those same polls show Republican voters are, for the most part, strongly opposed to the mandate and to the compromise, which helps explain why the party continues to battle the policy on the Hill and in the campaign, which brings us back to Rick Santorum.
No candidate is better positioned to capitalize on the resurgence of culture war issues (not only birth control, but also California’s ban on gay marriage being struck down, and the Planned Parenthood-Susan G. Komen spat) than Santorum, who made his name in culture skirmishes, most famously comparing homosexuality to bestiality.
He’s been almost as outspoken on birth control. “One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is, I think, the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea,” he told the conservative blog Caffeinated Thoughts last October. “Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.’ It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Here’s a candidate, in other words, who is ready to turn the power of the bully pulpit against … contraception.
He has on other occasions said that he doesn’t think contraception works, that “it’s harmful to women” and “harmful to our society.” More generally, he has denounced the “whole idea of personal autonomy,” and the notion that “government should keep our taxes down and keep regulations low, [but] shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom … shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues.”
That kind of cultural conservative hawkishness might play in a GOP primary, but it’s why so many political observers view Santorum as completely unelectable. Which leaves Romney in a tough position: How does the self-described “severe conservative” attack his rival for being too severely conservative?
By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, February 22, 2012