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“Brush-Back Pitch”: Senate Democrats Have Had All They Can Take From David Vitter And His Obamacare Fixation

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) this week tied up his chamber, blocking efforts to work on a bipartisan energy efficiency bill. He said he’d reconsider his obstructionist antics if the Senate voted on his measure to end the “Washington exemption from ObamaCare.”

As a substantive matter, Vitter is either deeply confused or playing a silly game in the hopes the public is deeply confused. There is no congressional “exemption” from the Affordable Care Act, as I imagine most senators realize. But Vitter engaged in his little stunt anyway, to his colleagues’ annoyance.

It appears that some of those colleagues are growing tired of the Louisiana Republican’s antics, and have a brush-back pitch in mind.

Senate Democrats have had all they can take from David Vitter and his fixation on Obamacare — and they’re dredging up his past prostitution scandal to hit back.

Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, has infuriated Democrats this week by commandeering the Senate floor, demanding a vote on his amendment repealing federal contributions to help pay for lawmakers’ health care coverage.

But Democratic senators are preparing a legislative response targeting a sordid Vitter episode. If Vitter continues to insist on a vote on his proposal, Democrats could counter with one of their own: Lawmakers will be denied those government contributions if there is “probable cause” they solicited prostitutes.

Ouch.

For those who may have forgotten, Vitter ran for the Senate on a “family values” platform, before getting caught with prostitutes. Making matters slightly worse, in at least one instance, the far-right Republican was found to have arranged a liaison with prostitutes from the congressional floor.

Vitter then ran for re-election anyway and won with relative ease.

By and large, Democrats have made very little effort to humiliate their conservative colleague over this, but it’s obvious they haven’t forgotten about it, either. The issue has apparently become something of a trump card Dems are prepared to play if nothing else works.

I imagine Vitter will see this as a cheap shot. Indeed, he’s already complaining.

“Harry Reid is acting like an old-time Vegas mafia thug, and a desperate one at that,” Vitter said in a statement to POLITICO, referring to the Senate majority leader. “This just shows how far Washington insiders will go to protect their special Obamacare exemption.”

First, let’s just be absolutely clear about the policy — there’s no such thing as an Obamacare exemption for Congress. It’s a made-up talking point that Republicans are fond of, which has no basis in fact. Whether or not Vitter realizes how wrong he is doesn’t matter; he keeps saying something that isn’t accurate.

Second, when you’re a married, family-values conservative who gets caught with prostitutes, you probably shouldn’t expect there to be no consequences for your actions.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 13, 2013

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Senate | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Power Of Words”: Syria Moving To Sign The Chemical Weapons Treaty Is A Win For The U.S.

The Syrian regime today told the United Nations that it intends to sign and abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. This commitment does two things that change the dynamics of the international response to Syria regardless of whether it is implemented.

First, it ends arguments about whether Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has chemical weapons, and whether the concern with his using them is “just” an American preoccupation. Second, it gives the international and intrusive United Nations machinery a real and expanding role in dealing with Syria’s chemical stocks, potentially starting to move Russia off center stage.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein interprets an interview that Assad gave today as a “ransom note”: that Assad will not agree to move forward on chemical weapons destruction unless the U.S. agrees to stop arming his opponents. It’s almost touching to see Assad trying to inflate the importance of recent U.S. arms shipments, even as Syrian rebels continue to say they aren’t getting what they want. But if Assad has that interpretation, it’s a major plus for Washington. Here’s why every step toward getting Syria’s name on the Chemical Weapons Convention is a plus for Washington:

Implementation is no longer in Russia’s hands alone. As American politics takes a detour into obsessing with Vladimir Putin and his Thursday op-ed, Assad’s move to the U.N. actually begins the process of pushing Russia back out of the spotlight. Rather than foresee a future in which Assad hands chemicals straight to Russia, Assad’s signal of intent to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention kicks off a process that should put the U.N. out front in moving quickly to get Assad’s signature and establish what will comprise ratification. (You can see Assad claiming rebel attacks make it hard for the Syrian People’s Council, elected last year during the civil war, to meet. But its speaker has been sending fan letters to anti-war Western politicians without difficulty.)

As soon as that happens – or before, if Syria were to announce that it will begin abiding by the Convention, as Russia should be asked to pressure it to do – Syria becomes liable for declaring all of its weapons and production sites within 30 days, allowing 100 percent of them to be inspected by trained international inspectors affiliated with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and destroyed in a manner that can be verified by the OPCW. The Russians have apparently suggested to Washington that a model for how Syrian stocks are verifiably destroyed could be the joint U.S.-Russian destruction of old Soviet stocks carried out under the provisions of the Nunn-Lugar Agreement. Phones over at Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, which on its own has overseen removal of nuclear materials from some dicey places, should be ringing off the hook about now.

The standard for success becomes clearer. Pundits weighed in faster than a senator to a camera on the difficulty of destroying all of Syria’s chemical stocks. That’s the wrong standard. 16 years after the U.S. and Russia joined the treaty, we’ve destroyed 90 percent of our stocks and Russia 65 percent of its. What’s the right standard? Every pound destroyed is a pound that can’t be used by Assad, can’t fall into the hands of extremist groups and doesn’t swell the target list for possible military intervention.

Assad puts himself on the line internationally. The treaty text is simple, committing its signatories “never … to use chemical weapons” and “to destroy chemical weapons it owns or possesses.” The treaty also foresees a compliance mechanism – a soft one, but one much-discussed in recent days: “the Conference shall, in cases of particular gravity, bring the issue, including relevant information and conclusions, to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.” The use of “shall” is important. The treaty doesn’t say that treaty members vote on whether or not to refer to the Security Council, or that they “may” refer serious noncompliance to the Security Council. It says that they will. So one of Russia’s prior avenues for vetoing Security Council consideration would be removed.

Most important, Assad runs the risk, if his regime uses chemical weapons again, that Washington’s strike plans will be right back on the table, with considerably more international support. The rebels know this, and are likely to push him as hard as they can. Which hardly adds up to a win for Assad. It does, however, add up to the chance for a big win for the U.N., the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and the power of … words.

 

By: Heather Hurlburt, U. S. News and World Report, September 12, 2013

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Suffering Under The Weight Of Inequality”: Reaching The Point That Endangers Growth Itself, And That Should Concern Everyone

A report released this week by an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, shows that income inequality in the U.S. economy is at a new high. As the economy struggles in the wake of the Great Recession, income inequality broke records going back nearly 100 years.

According to the study, incomes among the top one percent rose by 31.4 percent between 2009 and 2012, while incomes for everyone else grew just 0.4 percent. The top decile of earners in the economy now captures more than half the total income.

Predictably, the debate rages about fairness. Commentators on the left argue that this income distribution couldn’t possibly be fair to workers, while those on the right suggest that any distribution is inherently fair as long as all Americans have the opportunity to compete to make it to the top.

It is difficult to show that any particular distribution of income is the right place to draw the line between fair and unfair. Let’s leave that question to others and focus solely on the question of whether disparities of this magnitude help or hinder the economy as a whole.

Economists have shifted their position on this issue over time. At one point, most economists agreed that inequality probably helps the economy. Inequality spurs people to work harder. In addition, some inequality is needed to create a pool of concentrated wealth that can be invested to finance the early stages of economic development: harvesting timber, building factories and so on.

However, more recent research suggests that while some inequality is necessary, too much inequality undermines growth: The research shows that the U.S. economy is probably at or near the point where the negative effects of inequality outweigh the positive effects.

Now, inequality dampens growth in three ways:

  • Wealthy people handle their money differently than the rest. They tend to save a much higher percentage of their incremental income, or invest it in fixed assets like vacation homes. These forms of saving and investment do not trickle down to create significant wage income for others. In contrast, incremental money that flows to the middle class and poor people gets spent much more quickly. It’s spent on food, clothing and basic products that are produced in factories and on farms by people who earn wages. Money that flows to the middle class and poor has a multiplier effect, rippling through the economy to create more jobs and income for others. As a result, a shift in income towards the top results in less overall demand.
  • In a nation like ours, where higher education is expensive, greater inequality means that fewer people get the skills they need for well-paying jobs. But as World Bank economist Branko Milanovic writes, “now that human capital is scarcer than machines, widespread education has become the secret to growth.” Facing a less prepared workforce, companies shift research and advanced manufacturing facilities offshore, which further erodes economic growth. The shift increases the chance that the next Facebook will be founded in India or China. Some other country will reap the economic benefit that comes from hosting breakthrough innovation.
  • Other factors beyond the hard costs of higher education are important as well, as inequality rises and class lines harden. Consider two children, both with the same innate potential for accomplishment, one born to a family in the top 1 percent and the other to a family in the bottom 20 percent. The first one will have parents who read to them as a pre-schooler, stimulating his or her brain. The second one, probably not. The first one will grow up surrounded by role models whose hard work brought them success; the second one will grow up surrounded by others whose hard work brought them barely-livable incomes. Is it any wonder that the two children will enter adult life with a different readiness to use their intellect, a different level of motivation and confidence and a different awareness of how to build a successful career?

Two economists, Andrew Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, have quantified the impact of inequality on economic growth. In a 2011 article, “Inequality and Unsustainable Growth: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” they examined why some countries enjoy long years of steady economic growth while other countries see their growth trail off after only a few years.

Berg and Ostry found that income inequality is the single most important factor in determining which countries can keep their economies growing. For example, income distribution is more important than open trading arrangements, favorable exchange rates and the quality of the country’s political institutions.

Berg and Ostry go on to measure the extent to which economic growth falls as inequality rises. They gauge inequality using the GINI coefficient, which ranges for 0 – 100. At one extreme, a society where everyone earns exactly the same would have a GINI score of 0. At the other extreme, a society in which one person owned all the wealth would have a GINI score of 100. For economies with GINI below 45, growth can be robust, but once it crosses above roughly 45, growth slumps. The GINI of the U.S. economy is in the low 40’s currently, so we are dangerously close to the point of decline.

Inequality in the U.S. shows no sign of abating, even as the economy recovers. The decline of unions, the pace of globalization, the abundance of workers in many industries and changes in health care and taxes have combined to staunch the earning power of working Americans, even as the economy grows and productivity increases. There are few options, and none that are consistent with the political climate of the time. But the trend is reaching the point that endangers growth itself, and that should concern everyone, regardless of the size of your paycheck.

 

By: David Brodwin, U. S. News and World Report, September 12, 2013

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Economic Recovery | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Copy And Paste Media”: How Assad Wooed The American Right, And Won The Syria Propaganda War

Even before President Barack Obama put his plans to strike the Syrian regime on hold, he was losing the battle of public opinion about military intervention. Part of the credit, no doubt, goes to a successful media blitz by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its supporters. In an interview aired on Monday night, Assad himself advanced his government’s case to Charlie Rose, saying that the United States had not presented “a single shred of evidence” proving the Syrian military had used chemical weapons.

Assad has always been able to skillfully parry Western journalists’ criticisms of his regime — and, at times, it has won him positive international coverage. Before the uprising, the U.S. media often described the Assad family as Westernized leaders who were trying to bring their country into the 21st century. The most infamous example was Vogue’s profile of Asma al-Assad, which described Syria’s first lady as “a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind … [with] a killer IQ.” But even experts in the field went along: Middle East historian David Lesch wrote a biography of Bashar describing the president as a modernizer, before changing his mind during the uprising.

The carnage over the past two and a half years put an end to much of this praise — but now pro-Assad media outlets have found a new way to influence the American debate. Assad supporters’ claims have repeatedly been republished unquestioningly by right-wing commentators in the United States, who share their hostility toward both Sunni Islamists and the Obama administration. It’s a strange alliance between American conservatives and a regime that was one of America’s first designated state sponsors of terror, and continues to work closely with Iran and Hezbollah.

“There is evidence — mounting evidence — that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack,” conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his audience on Sept. 3. “But not only that, but Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan the Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition!”

Limbaugh’s cited an article by Yossef Bodansky on Global Research, a conspiracy website that has advanced a pro-Assad message during the current crisis. “How can the Obama administration continue to support and seek to empower the opposition which had just intentionally killed some 1,300 innocent civilians?” Bodansky asked.

Bodansky is an ally of Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad — he pushed him as a potential leader of Syria in 2005. Rifaat is the black sheep of the Assad family: He spearheaded the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, but then was forced into exile after he tried to seize power from his brother, President Hafez al-Assad, in 1983. Despite his ouster, however, Rifaat is just as hostile to a Sunni Islamist takeover as other members of the Assad family — a position Bodansky appears to share. Ending Alawite rule in Syria, Bodansky wrote on another pro-Assad website, “will cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East.”

Pro-Assad voices have also helped shape the debate in Europe. The British organization Stop the War, which was instrumental in convincing Parliament to reject a strike on Syria, is not just made up of opponents of intervention — it includes staunch supporters of the Syrian regime. The organization’s vice president is a Stalinist who praised Assad for “a long history of resisting imperialism,” and warned that his defeat “will pave the way for a pro-Western and pro-U.S. regime.” Other top officials in the organization have also spoken publicly about the benefits of keeping Assad in power.

One of the most common ways for pro-Assad propaganda to find its way into reputable newspapers is through Christian news outlets. Arab Christians have many legitimate fears of how Islamist takeovers in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East could affect them — but nonetheless, some of the outlets that cover their plight regularly trade fact for fiction.

The official Vatican news agency, Agenzia Fides, for example, was caught reproducing word-for-word a report on the alleged mass killing of Christians in the city of Homs from Syria Truth, a virulently pro-Assad website. The Agenzia Fides report was eventually picked up by the Los Angeles Times — with no mention, of course, of the original source.

It’s not only the LA Times that has been duped in this way. USA Today ran an article earlier this year saying Saudi Arabia had sent 1,200 inmates on death row to fight in Syria, sourcing the claim to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). The document, however, appears to be a hoax, and had been passed around frequently by pro-Hezbollah websites prior to appearing on AINA. In addition to relying on pro-Assad sources, AINA also looks to U.S. conservatives for inspiration — it republished an article titled “The Myth of the Moderate Syrian Rebels” that first appeared in the far-right FrontPage Magazine.

One of the most prolific defenders of the Assad regime is Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, who says she is a Carmelite nun born in Lebanon who converted to Christianity when she was 19. The National Review uncritically cited her claim last year that Syrian rebels had gathered Christian and Alawite hostages together in a building in the city of Homs, and proceeded to destroy the building with dynamite, killing them all. More recently, she has argued that the video evidence of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack were fabricated, writing that it was “staged and prepared in advance with the goal of framing the Syrian government as the perpetrator.”

But right-wing Americans partisans have not been shy about simply copy-and-pasting claims made in pro-Assad media outlets when it suits their interests, no matter the source. For example, the website Jihad Watch, which is run by leading Islamophobe Robert Spencer, repeated a claim by the Arabic-language al-Hadath that Syrian rebels attacking the Syrian town of Maaloula “terrorized the Christians, threatening to be avenged on them after the triumph of the revolution.”

It doesn’t take much time reading al-Hadath to realize that this is a site staunchly loyal to the Syrian regime and its allies — and therefore inclined to dramatize stories of rebel crimes. The website contains an editorial by the editor-in-chief lauding Hezbollah, and another article reports that a kidnapped European writer said that the rebels launched the Aug. 21 chemical attack (the writer has denied making such claims).

Other stories in such publications, of course, would never see the light of day in the U.S. media. Al-Hadath, for example, features a section dedicated to news about Israel titled “Know Your Enemy” — a strange match for the American right-wing, to say the least.

 

By: David Kenner, Foreign Policy, September 10, 2013

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Media, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Congress On Crazy Pills”: Republicans Are Working On The Assumption That The Rest Of Us Are Idiots

BuzzFeed’s Kate Nocera asked a Republican aide on Capitol Hill yesterday about the likelihood of Republicans shutting down the government at the end of the month. The congressional staffer responded by emailing Nocera this five-second clip. Watch on YouTube

For those who can’t watch videos online, the clip shows Will Ferrell’s character in Zoolander shouting, “Doesn’t anyone notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

Yes, we’ve reached the point at which madness has become so pervasive among congressional Republicans that their own staffers think of “crazy pills” when describing the current conditions on Capitol Hill. How encouraging.

At issue, in the short term, is the fact that the government will run out of money in 17 days. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team thought they’d come up with a credible solution, but House Republicans and their allied activist groups promptly killed it, less than a day after GOP leaders unveiled it. Because Boehner is really only the Speaker In Name Only, he has no real influence or control what happens next, and he has no idea how to get out of the mess his own members created.

Indeed, the arithmetic is brutal. There are currently 233 House Republicans, which means Boehner can pass a conservative spending bill that keeps the government’s lights on if he loses no more than 15 of his own members (that number goes up slightly if some Blue Dog Democrats break ranks). How many House GOP lawmakers oppose Boehner’s plan because it doesn’t fully defund “Obamacare”? As of last night, 43.

I emphasize this because we’re not just talking about party leaders twisting a few arms to get something done. Dozens of House Republicans are ready to shut down the government unless Democrats agree to take health care benefits away from millions of Americans — and these lawmakers’ position is inflexible.

What do Boehner and GOP leaders intend to do? In a way, that’s the funny part — with very little time remaining, they haven’t the foggiest idea.

Consider this amazing behind-the-scenes tidbit.

In a bipartisan meeting Thursday among House and Senate leaders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) asked Mr. Boehner what other concession could be made to satisfy conservatives, other than defunding the health-care law. The speaker said there was none, according to Republican and Democratic aides briefed on the meeting.

“Boehner said nothing will appease them but defunding Obamacare,” one aide said.

The one thing they want is the one thing they can’t have.

Also, the public-private dichotomy is bordering on hilarious. When talking to reporters after bipartisan, bicameral talks yesterday morning, Boehner inexplicably said, “It’s time for the president’s party to show the courage to work with us to solve this problem,” apparently working under the assumption that we’re idiots. When talking to policymakers behind closed doors, though, Boehner is desperate, hoping someone will help him clean up his caucus’ mess.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) conceded yesterday, “I like John Boehner. I do feel sorry for him.”

Reid added, when asked about the likelihood of Republicans shutting down the government in two weeks, “I’m really frightened.”

That’s understandable. In fact, I imagine the vast majority of Americans aren’t giving this much thought, but it’s probably time they start. It’s unpleasant, but radicalized Republican lawmakers really are prepared to deliberately shut down the government, force a debt-ceiling crisis, jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States, and do untold damage to the economy — and all of this is going to play out in the coming weeks, not months.

From where I sit, there are only four ways forward:

1. A paralyzed House does nothing: Boehner can’t put together 218 votes for his stop-gap plan, won’t work with Democrats on a more moderate compromise, so the process implodes and the government shuts down on Sept. 30 at midnight.

2. Boehner jettisons the extremists: GOP leaders may soon realize that the radicals can’t be reasoned with, but Democrats can be. Boehner can scale back the needlessly stupid sequestration cuts, pick up plenty of Democratic votes, pass a continuing resolution, prevent a shutdown, and win broad praise for bipartisan governing.

3. Boehner caves to the radicals: Unwilling to strike a deal with Democrats, Boehner can pass a spending measure that defunds the Affordable Care Act for real. The Senate and the White House will balk, and the government will shut down.

4. Democrats cave: Boehner probably only needs about 20 to 30 House Democrats to vote for his conservative plan that includes the sequester, and if Dems go along, they’ll save his butt and prevent a shutdown.

The one thing that I can say with confidence won’t happen is that the right won’t win out on health care defunding. There is simply no way Democrats will agree to the right-wing demands on this. As best as I can tell, for Dems, this isn’t on the table; it’s not open to discussion; and it’s not negotiable at any level. Period. Full stop.

That said, what happens next is entirely unclear, though next week is bound to be interesting. I’d say the likelihood of a shutdown at this point is about 65% and climbing.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 13, 2013

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Government Shut Down, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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