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“The Polar Express”: It’s A Wonder Anything Ever Gets Done In Congress

This is the season of Extreme Politics. Everything’s exciting. Mitt Romney paid taxes! Joe Biden just bought a 36-pound pumpkin! Paul Ryan is campaigning with his mom again!

Oh, and Congress is ready to go home to run for re-election. I know you were wondering.

“I haven’t had anybody in West Virginia tell me we should hurry home to campaign,” protested Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat.

This might be because Manchin is approximately 40 points ahead in the polls. He could probably spend the next month in a fallout shelter without anybody noticing. Nevertheless, he is so fearful of alienating conservatives that he refuses to say who has his support for president. There are only about five undecided voters left in this country and one of them is a senator from West Virginia.

The good news is that our lawmakers spent their last pre-election days in Washington working to pass a bill that would keep the government running for the next six months. This is sometimes referred to as a “continuing resolution,” and sometimes as “kicking the can down the road.” Personally, I am pretty relieved to see evidence that this group has the capacity to kick a can.

Let’s look at what else they were up to. This is important, partly because the last things you take up before going back to the voters shows something about your true priorities. Also partly because it will give me a chance to mention legislation involving 41 polar bear carcasses in Canadian freezers.

The Senate had a big agenda for its finale. Kicking the budget can down the road! Passing a resolution on Iran designed to demonstrate total support for whatever it is Israel thinks is a good idea! The Sportsmen’s Act!

O.K., the last one was sort of unexpected. It’s a bunch of hunting-and-fishing proposals, ranging from conservation to “allowing states to issue electronic duck stamps.” Also, allowing “polar bear trophies to be imported from a sport hunt in Canada.” A long while ago, some Americans legally hunted down said bears, happily envisioning the day when they could display a snarling head on the study wall, or perhaps stuff the entire carcass and stick it in the front hallway where it could perpetually rear on its hind legs, frightening away census-takers.

But then the United States prohibited the importation of dead polar bears, and there have been 41 bear carcasses stuck in Canadian freezers ever since.

Free the frozen polar bears! Well, not before November, since the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, dug in his heels, claiming the whole hunting bill was only coming up to help its main sponsor, Jon Tester of Montana, in a tight race. McConnell, who publicly set his own top policy priority as making sure Barack Obama didn’t get re-elected, hates naked partisanship.

The House, meanwhile, declined to take up two major bipartisan bills from the Senate. One was the farm bill, which Speaker John Boehner admitted he just couldn’t get his right wing to vote for despite pleas from endangered rural Republicans.

The other was aimed at reviving the teetering U.S. Postal Service, which is about to default again. “I hear from our Republican colleagues they didn’t want to force their folks to make difficult votes,” said Tom Carper, a lead Senate sponsor.

Really, there’s no excuse on this one. By the time a difficult issue has been turned into a bipartisan Senate bill, it’s no longer all that difficult. People, if you see a member of the House majority campaigning in your neighborhood, demand to know why the Postal Service didn’t get fixed.

Although on the plus side, the House did agree that the space astronauts should be allowed to keep some flight souvenirs.

One thing virtually nobody in the Senate considered a pre-election priority was spending hours and hours arguing about a proposal from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to eliminate foreign aid to Libya, Pakistan and Egypt. However, in the grand tradition of the upper chamber, Paul had the power to hold up the crucial kicking-the-can bill hostage by threatening a filibuster if he didn’t get his way.

“He can keep us here for a week and a half if we don’t let him bring it up,” grumbled Senator Charles Schumer.

Rand Paul does this sort of thing all the time. Who among us can forget when he stalled the renewal of federal flood insurance under the theory that the Senate first needed to vote on whether life started at conception?

The majority leader, Harry Reid, pointed out repeatedly that he has had to struggle with 382 filibusters during his six years at the helm. “That’s 381 more filibusters than Lyndon Johnson faced,” he complained. Obviously, Robert Caro is never going to write a series of grand biographies about the life of Harry Reid.

It’s a wonder anything ever gets done. Although, actually, it generally doesn’t.

By: Gail Collins, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 21, 2012

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Choice Bigger Than The Next Four Years”: Progressives Must Work To Retake The Supreme Court

While the election is dominated by talk of the economy and Mitt Romney’s latest foreign policy blunder, don’t lose sight of one important fact: Perhaps nothing will have a bigger impact on the United States’ future than the Supreme Court. And with four justices above the age of 70, the next president of the United States could have enormous power to shape the court for generations to come. Age is not, as Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner has suggested, just a number.

In a government paralyzed by partisan gridlock on the most important matters of the day, the Supreme Court has become what Bill Moyers calls “The Decider.” A majority of the justices has taken a far right turn in its decisions.

This extremism has a history. In 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and soon to be a Supreme Court justice, wrote a memo at the request of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urging it to push for an activist, pro-business court that would rubber-stamp its agenda. Powell’s memo laid the groundwork for a right-wing rise in all areas of public life, including law firms, think tanks, campus organizations and media outlets. The 1987 failed Supreme Court nomination of right-wing ideologue Robert Bork was, in hindsight, only a setback in the movement to push the court toward the right. Extremists including Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito would eventually be confirmed.

For much of the past 40 years, even as the court has contributed to growing inequality and the enrichment of the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent, public opinion has largely and consistently favored the justices. But today, after a series of 5 to 4 decisions in high-profile cases such as Bush v. Gore, Citizens United and the Affordable Care Act, 75 percent of Americans believe that the justices’ decisions are influenced by their personal or political views.

They’re right. The court headed by right-wing Chief Justice John Roberts has suppressed the ability to organize through labor unions. It has weakened the right to bring class-action lawsuits. It has impeded ordinary people’s access to courts. It has given corporations more power — and personhood — to inflict their will on Americans. It has shielded financial institutions from accountability. It even threatened the Constitution’s commerce clause in its health-care decision, putting a range of social programs and protections at risk.

Unless progressives find a new way forward, the juris-corporatists will only strengthen their grip on our courts. As Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron outlines in this week’s issue of the Nation (which is devoted to the 1 percent court), progressives cannot sit on the sidelines. Indeed, they should take a page from the Powell playbook, adopting “a new way of thinking about the courts, new tactics for shaping the public debate, and a whole lots more energy from the left.”

Progressives should focus on “building the bench for the bench” with a pipeline of progressive legal talent ready to fill judicial appointments — and a Senate that understands the importance of those candidates. And just as conservatives have used the courts to mobilize their supporters, progressives must make this a galvanizing issue. This means educating the public about how Supreme Court decisions impact almost every aspect of their lives. Moreover, progressives must reshape the debate by exposing the hypocrisy of a right wing that criticizes so-called “activist judges” on the left while aggressively pushing justices who legislate from the bench.

In the four decades since the Powell memo, the right has understood and used the power of the courts to shape U.S. politics, U.S. policies and the U.S. economy, while progressives simply haven’t demonstrated the same intensity on this issue.

In this election year, with so much at stake, there is an enormous opportunity to close that intensity gap. Unless the Supreme Court becomes a central issue in this election, progressives are at risk of losing everything they care about, fought for and won.

This is no exaggeration. Let’s not forget that Mitt Romney has resurrected Bork as his chief judicial adviser. This is a man who would overturn Roe v. Wade, who doesn’t think the equal protection clause applies to women, who consistently favors corporations over citizens, who opposes voting rights. He originally opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act! As Sen. Edward Kennedy said before the Senate rejected the nomination, in Bork’s America, “the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of the individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.”

With Mitt Romney in the White House, Bork would be in a position to reverse the progress the United States has made to expand its democracy.

In this election, Americans have a choice that is bigger than the next four years. They will choose between those who would turn the clock back economically, culturally and socially to the days before the New Deal, or those who want to build a more just, fair and diverse 21st-century society.

 

By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 18, 2012

 

 

 

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Days Late, Dollars Short”: Mitt Romney’s Tax Returns Still Incomplete

After months of withering attacks, Mitt Romney has finally (sort of) lifted the veil of secrecy around his personal finances. At 3 pm, his campaign released his full 2011 tax return and a summary from PriceWaterhouseCooper of his tax filings over twenty years, from 1990–2009.

The bottom line: as everyone suspected, Romney pays a lower tax rate than the typical middle-class family—and he seems to have purposely engineered a higher rate for himself for optical reasons. Moreover, by only summarizing the past twenty years of returns, there’s a lot we don’t know.

Here’s a look at what we learned so far—check back for updates.

2011 returns

The top-line takeaway from the returns isn’t particularly good—his 2011 tax rate was 14.1 percent, below the effective tax rate for most Americans despite Romney’s vast wealth. (The middle 20 percent of households paid a 16 percent federal income tax rate in 2010). Most of Romney’s income is from capital gains, which is taxed at a lower rate than income—and Obama wants to change that and raise the rate, while Romney does not.

The returns are sure to underscore the absurdity of someone who made $13,696,951 last year, as Romney did, paying a lower tax rate than, say, a plumber in Memphis.

Additionally, by the campaign’s own admission, Romney purposely did not deduct all of his charitable giving—claiming only $2.25 million out of about $4 million—to make his rate “conform to the Governor’s statement in August…that he paid at least 13% in income taxes in each of the last 10 years.” If he did the deductions in full, he would have paid around 9 percent. (By Romney’s own standard, this disqualifies him: he said on the trail that “frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don’t think I’d be qualified to become president. I’d think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires).

So here’s a guy who made over $13 million last year, paying a lower tax rate than most Americans, and purposely paying more to the IRS so as not to seem too rich. If this is what Romney’s campaign wanted to change the conversation to, they must have been really unhappy with what it was.

The 1990–2009 Summary

Romney’s trustee, Brad Malt, has a summary of the summary on the campaign website. (Note that Malt oversees Romney’s supposedly blind trust, which makes it interesting he’s also serving a campaign function here). It says:

  • In each year during the entire 20-year period period, the Romneys owed both state and federal income taxes.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the average annual effective federal tax rate was 20.20%.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the lowest annual effective federal personal tax rate was 13.66%.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the Romneys gave to charity an average of 13.45% of their adjusted gross income.

This is a really sneaky maneuver. The tax rate averages out to a semi-respectable 20.20 percent, but what does that really tell us? It’s still possible that in really high-earning years, Romney paid an absurdly low tax rate. If he paid a normal rate in lower-earning years, it could still produce that average.

And if Romney did pay really low rates during high-income years, what mechanisms did he use? What sort of tax shelters might he have employed? We don’t know that either, and aren’t likely to find out unless Romney releases the actual returns—something he required of all his potential vice-presidental nominees.

 

By: George Zornick, The Nation, September 21, 2012

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Political Pickle”: Conservative Media Tries To Save Romney’s Campaign

Mitt Romney sure is lucky that major media outlets exist to serve his interests. After a video came out on Monday afternoon in which Romney denigrates the nearly half the country that did not pay federal income taxes last year as irresponsible and entitled, it seemed he was in quite a political pickle. The comments were unlikely to endear him to swing voters who perceive Romney as an out-of-touch elitist. But since Romney got the idea that 47 percent of the country are lazy Democratic moochers from movement conservatives, he could not repudiate his own remarks.

At first, Fox News had no idea how to respond. They simply ignored the story, even as it dominated coverage on other networks, all through their primetime lineup on Monday. Finally, when Romney gave a press conference after 10 pm, in which he admitted to having made poor word choices but not a substantive error, they showed it. On Tuesday, the Fox Business network hosted Romney for a softball interview with Neil Cavuto. Fox was determined to avoid covering the story except to help Romney burnish his self-defense. Alas, Romney himself did not have much of a defense, other than to say that he had simply been acknowledging that he will not win a landslide victory.

But then, Providence struck. On Tuesday afternoon the Drudge Report released an audio recording from 1998 in which Barack Obama says, “I actually believe in redistribution.” Drudge splashed the phrase in a banner headline across his front page as if it were earth shattering news. Since then, according to Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone, Fox has played the audio clip twenty-two times.

The Romney campaign immediately seized on the clip as a way of shifting their defense of Romney’s unappealing rhetoric into more friendly terrain. Speaking to Cavuto, Romney said:

There is a tape that just came out today where the president is saying he likes redistribution. I disagree. I think a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that’s the wrong course for America…. The right course for America is to create growth, create wealth, not to redistribute wealth.

Romney’s campaign sent out the quote as part of a press release. They followed up shortly with another press release that lists their usual litany of depressing economic indicators as proof that “Obama’s redistribution plan…didn’t work.” What is missing is any proof, besides a fourteen-year-old quote, that Obama actually pursued a redistribution plan once in office.

By Wednesday, the Romney campaign had regained its footing. Reporters were being inundated with statements using the redistribution quote as a hook for all their usual talking points. For example, they released a statement headlined, “Obama’s Redistribution Didn’t Work For Small Businesses.” “Mitt Romney understands that opportunity and free enterprise create jobs and grow our nation’s small businesses—not government redistribution,” said Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul. The campaign also worked the phrase into their stump speeches. Paul Ryan told a Virginia audience that, Obama is “going to try and distract and divide this country to win by default.” Then he asserted:

President Obama said that he believes in redistribution. Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth. Efforts that promote hard work and personal responsibility over government dependency are what have made this economy the envy of the world.

As Slates Dave Weigel points out, it is ridiculous to blame Obama for distracting and dividing the country, and then attack Obama for something he said fourteen years ago.

Conservative pundits, though, are cheering on the Romney/Ryan campaign’s silliness. After Romney’s appearance on Cavuto, Fox panelist and Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes said of the attack on Obama’s quote, “[It’s] good, [he should] make the argument. Going back to 1998 shows the president has believed this for a long time.” That’s a specious argument. If you go back to 1998 and look at anything Mitt Romney said, it may be diametrically opposed to what he believes today. Generally, the older the quote, the less relevant it is. Certainly that’s the standard Hayes would use if it were Romney who long ago said something Hayes considers damaging.

More importantly, Ryan’s statement creates two false dichotomies. Contra Ryan, redistribution can promote hard work instead of government dependency. A great example is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a wage subsidy for low-earning households. The purpose is to make menial jobs more financially attractive relative to being unemployed and eligible for welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. It was created with bipartisan support, and by all accounts it has worked well. It also happens to be one reason that so many low-income families do not pay any income taxes, the very state of affairs that Romney decried.

It is also wrong to assume that any wealth redistribution is the opposite of creating wealth. Reasonable people can differ on the optimal amount of redistribution to generate economic growth. But a glance at countries such as Denmark and Germany shows that high marginal tax rates, with the revenue going to strong educational and healthcare systems can develop a healthy, educated and therefore globally attractive workforce. That, in turn, can yield strong rates of economic growth.

The underlying complaint against Obama is bogus anyway. Drudge misleadingly cut the quote to create a false impression. As Jonathan Chait explains in New York magazine, if you read the full quote, you see that Obama is actually expressing a very moderate, neoliberal attitude. Obama actually said that some of the backlash against government has been deserved. To revive faith in collective action, Obama argues, government programs must be more efficient. “We do have to be innovative in thinking, what are the delivery systems that are actually effective.… because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody’s got a shot,” said Obama. This is not radical socialism. But then, neither is the Affordable Care Act, even though conservatives have labeled it as such. If Romney’s incompetent campaign did not have the conservative media to invent these myths, they would truly be lost.

By: Ben Adler, The Nation, September 19, 2012

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Disdain For Workers”: Of The Wealthy, By The Wealthy, And For The Wealthy

By now everyone knows how Mitt Romney, speaking to donors in Boca Raton, washed his hands of almost half the country — the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes — declaring, “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” By now, also, many people are aware that the great bulk of the 47 percent are hardly moochers; most are working families who pay payroll taxes, and elderly or disabled Americans make up a majority of the rest.

But here’s the question: Should we imagine that Mr. Romney and his party would think better of the 47 percent on learning that the great majority of them actually are or were hard workers, who very much have taken personal responsibility for their lives? And the answer is no.

For the fact is that the modern Republican Party just doesn’t have much respect for people who work for other people, no matter how faithfully and well they do their jobs. All the party’s affection is reserved for “job creators,” a k a employers and investors. Leading figures in the party find it hard even to pretend to have any regard for ordinary working families — who, it goes without saying, make up the vast majority of Americans.

Am I exaggerating? Consider the Twitter message sent out by Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader, on Labor Day — a holiday that specifically celebrates America’s workers. Here’s what it said, in its entirety: “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” Yes, on a day set aside to honor workers, all Mr. Cantor could bring himself to do was praise their bosses.

Lest you think that this was just a personal slip, consider Mr. Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. What did he have to say about American workers? Actually, nothing: the words “worker” or “workers” never passed his lips. This was in strong contrast to President Obama’s convention speech a week later, which put a lot of emphasis on workers — especially, of course, but not only, workers who benefited from the auto bailout.

And when Mr. Romney waxed rhapsodic about the opportunities America offered to immigrants, he declared that they came in pursuit of “freedom to build a business.” What about those who came here not to found businesses, but simply to make an honest living? Not worth mentioning.

Needless to say, the G.O.P.’s disdain for workers goes deeper than rhetoric. It’s deeply embedded in the party’s policy priorities. Mr. Romney’s remarks spoke to a widespread belief on the right that taxes on working Americans are, if anything, too low. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal famously described low-income workers whose wages fall below the income-tax threshold as “lucky duckies.”

What really needs cutting, the right believes, are taxes on corporate profits, capital gains, dividends, and very high salaries — that is, taxes that fall on investors and executives, not ordinary workers. This despite the fact that people who derive their income from investments, not wages — people like, say, Willard Mitt Romney — already pay remarkably little in taxes.

Where does this disdain for workers come from? Some of it, obviously, reflects the influence of money in politics: big-money donors, like the ones Mr. Romney was speaking to when he went off on half the nation, don’t live paycheck to paycheck. But it also reflects the extent to which the G.O.P. has been taken over by an Ayn Rand-type vision of society, in which a handful of heroic businessmen are responsible for all economic good, while the rest of us are just along for the ride.

In the eyes of those who share this vision, the wealthy deserve special treatment, and not just in the form of low taxes. They must also receive respect, indeed deference, at all times. That’s why even the slightest hint from the president that the rich might not be all that — that, say, some bankers may have behaved badly, or that even “job creators” depend on government-built infrastructure — elicits frantic cries that Mr. Obama is a socialist.

Now, such sentiments aren’t new; “Atlas Shrugged” was, after all, published in 1957. In the past, however, even Republican politicians who privately shared the elite’s contempt for the masses knew enough to keep it to themselves and managed to fake some appreciation for ordinary workers. At this point, however, the party’s contempt for the working class is apparently too complete, too pervasive to hide.

The point is that what people are now calling the Boca Moment wasn’t some trivial gaffe. It was a window into the true attitudes of what has become a party of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy, a party that considers the rest of us unworthy of even a pretense of respect.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 20, 2012

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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