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“Hatred, The New Republican Exceptionalism”: The GOP Just Screwed Ukraine Out Of Billions To Hurt Obama

You know those people who carry on all the time about how the United States looks weak to the world, and how we have to do everything we possibly can to help poor Ukraine stand up to the evil Vladimir Putin? Well, guess what they just did? They just made the United States look weak to the world—and they actually just reduced (yes, reduced) the amount of global aid that can flow to Ukraine to help it stand up to the evil Vladimir Putin.

The deal was this: The Obama administration’s aid package to Ukraine placed before the Senate included some long-sought International Monetary Fund reforms. These reforms, which the administration agreed to in 2010 with the leading nations of Europe, and which those nations have already signed off on, would have helped Ukraine get more money from the IMF after this quick tranche from the United States ran dry. It’s complicated, but in essence, the reforms shifted money from one narrow spending category to a broader one that could be tapped by countries for projects like building and sustaining democracy, of which Ukraine is in rather desperate need. So while there wasn’t a specific dollar figure on the table, the IMF reforms could potentially, a Senate Democratic aide explained to me, have led to several billion more in aid to the country.

What’s to object to? To Republicans, this: The reforms include an increase in the U.S. contribution quota to the IMF of $63 billion. They would also give more voice to emerging nations. Now, these two measures are offset by the facts that 1) the overall U.S. expenditure on the IMF wouldn’t go up, because the U.S. would be allowed to decrease other commitments by a like amount, and 2) the U.S. would still have enough voting shares at IMF meetings to retain the veto power it has currently.

But those points don’t matter on the right, of course. Over there, it all spells a diminution of American power, the hated global governance, like Pat Buchanan’s old warnings about sending our boys out to global hotspots donning light-blue (i.e. United Nations) helmets. John McCain and Bob Corker, to their credit, supported the aid with the IMF reform tacked on. But most Republicans didn’t, and even though the full package easily passed a procedural vote, Democrats were getting the strong sense that an aid deal with the IMF stuff included wasn’t going to make it.

And so, it emerged this week that the Obama administration and Senate Democrats apparently backed off their demand for the Ukraine aid bill on Capitol Hill to include the reforms. On Monday, John Kerry visited Congress and threw in the towel. Better to have whatever we can get now than fight over this and delay matters. Or worse, lose altogether, because there was no chance that the House would ever have passed the IMF-laden version.

Let’s take stock of this. The Crimea/Ukraine crisis broke. Republicans immediately were all over Obama for being weak. The whole thing was his fault. We are all Ukrainians now. We had to stand with Ukraine to send a strong message to the malefactor Putin.

So what happens when the bill reaches them? The Obama administration tries to live up to an agreement it made—with our friends, our closest allies—four years ago at an opportune moment to press the issue, thinking that the idea that the reform would be of use to Ukraine might help matters. But as with everything, opposition to Obama is more important than anything else. If he’s for it, they’re against it. If Ukraine gets less money because of that, well, tough cheese for them.

And so it happens that the people who caterwaul about America being weak in the world become the very people who make it weaker. What does the world think as it watches this? Maybe some think merely that Obama is weak. But I’d wager most don’t. I’d wager most Europeans and others reach the right and reasonable conclusion: That American partisan dysfunction, driven far more by Republicans than by Democrats, now weakens not just our ability to carry out domestic politics but our foreign-policy aims as well.

Nothing like this has happened in decades. Yes Democrats—and several moderate Republicans, let’s remember, like John Sherman Cooper and Jacob Javits—blocked funding for the Vietnam War. But at least they were acting in accord with their long-stated principles and goal of ending that war. Today, Republicans are opposing their own stated principle of helping Ukraine as much as possible. Sen. Ted Cruz even went so far as to say that the proposed IMF reforms weakened the U.S. and strengthened Russia (I asked his spokesman to explain why this was so, and he wrote me back but never delivered an answer). In fact, Russia, Reuters has reported, is on record urging the IMF to adopt the reforms without U.S. support, and small wonder: Doing so would mean the end of the U.S. veto. So the Obama administration position of buying into the reforms is clearly something Russia doesn’t want to see.

Except for the very early days of the Cold War, politics never really quite stopped at the water’s edge. But politics did soften at the water’s edge. Not anymore. The Republicans are dug in, and as a result they are causing the very decline in standing and prestige that they are blaming on Obama. This jumps the shark from hurting the president to hurting the country. Hope they’re proud.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 26, 2014

March 26, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, GOP | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Like A Rooster Taking Credit For The Sunrise”: Evidence Of Rand Paul Losing Another Fundraising Stream

The relevant details are still elusive, but President Obama is reportedly prepared to propose sweeping changes to U.S. surveillance policy, including an end to the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection. The reforms will be dependent on congressional approval, but for privacy advocates and civil libertarians, the White House’s apparent intentions are most welcome.

But this is still silly.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he takes some credit for President Obama’s decision to end the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program.

In an interview after Obama announced the change on Tuesday, Paul was asked on “Fox and Friends” if it would make him happy for phone companies, not the government, to retain the metadata.

“Well, you know, I don’t want to take all the credit for ending this, but I think our lawsuit had something to do with bringing the president to the table,” Paul said.

Look, if Edward Snowden and his defenders want to take some credit for NSA reforms, they’re on solid ground. Putting aside the debate over the legality and propriety of his leaks, Snowden’s revelations obviously were dramatically consequential, caused an international controversy, and were directly responsible for the debate that led to the administration’s review.

If Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, and other journalists responsible for reporting on NSA surveillance want to claim some credit, too, they also have a credible case to make, for many of the same reasons.

But for Rand Paul to toot his horn on Fox is just foolish.

For one thing, the senator’s timeline is badly flawed. President Obama delivered a speech in January ordering an internal review of possible changes to U.S. surveillance policy. When did Paul file his lawsuit? Nearly a month later.

In other words, according to Rand Paul, the president didn’t launch this process in response to a global firestorm, but rather, in anticipation of a stunt lawsuit from a senator that hadn’t even been filed yet.

For another, Paul’s lawsuit wasn’t exactly a credible effort. It was a redundant case, largely mirroring a case that had already been filed by someone else, and it was organized through the senator’s political campaign, rather than his official Senate office. (Supporters were supposed to endorse Paul’s lawsuit against “Big Brother” by giving the senator their name, address, zip code, and if they didn’t mind, credit card number.)

It’s very hard to believe the White House was scrambling to change their national-security policies in response to a Rand Paul p.r. stunt.

It makes sense that the senator is trying to turn this into a positive for him, but as a practical matter, if the reports are accurate and the administration is prepared to scrap the controversial NSA program, it’s not evidence of Paul winning; it’s evidence of Paul losing a fundraising stream.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 26, 2014

March 26, 2014 Posted by | National Security Agency, Rand Paul | , , , , | Leave a comment

“It Might Help To Read It First”: The Hobby Lobby President Is Also Building A $70 Million Bible Museum

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will consider the challenge of Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based craft-store chain, to Obamacare’s contraception mandate—a case that could bolster the doctrine of corporate personhood that the Court laid out in Citizens United and end anti-discrimination laws as we know them. Just a few blocks away, the Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, is looking to enshrine his religious beliefs in Washington, D.C. in a different way: with a $50 million museum devoted to the bible.

The new attraction will house a collection of historic bibles that Green has been assembling since 2010. His holdings range from a hand-illustrated Martin Luther New Testament to a Torah from the Spanish Inquisition; experts have valued them at between $20 and $40 million. The Museum of the Bible, which is slated to open in the spring of 2017, will sit at 3rd and D Streets in Southwest D.C., in an eight-story warehouse that Green plans to complement with a two-story addition. A report from the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board even compared the mock-ups to London’s Tate Modern. The museum’s goal, according to the mission statement in its 501(c)3 tax filings for 2011, the most recent year available, is “To bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the bible.”

The museum plans to accomplish this largely through historic reenactments, or what its chief operating officer Cary Summers calls “immersive environments.” For example, the Green Collection’s travelling exhibition—so far, it’s been shown in Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Israel, Cuba, and the Vatican—displays a note written by Martin Luther the night before his excommunication in “a theater featuring a debate between Fathers Erasmus and Luther and Dr. Johann Eck … which culminates in Luther nailing his 95 Theses to his church door.” Tourists will also find set pieces of the Dead Sea, where the famous scrolls were found, and London’s Westminster Abbey, where the King James Bible was written.

Summers assured me that “we’re not trying to convince anybody of anything. We’re simply presenting the facts.” Summers added that consistency across thousands of international bibles “gives a great deal of comfort that the bible is true, and it’s accurate.”

When I asked Summers if the exhibits would contain any evidence that the bible was divinely written, he asked, “What if I was to ask you, did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?” I said the jury was out on the bard. “That’s true,” he said. “So somewhere along the way, people have to draw a line and say, ‘Everything I read, even though I can’t prove Aristotle was Aristotle or Sappho was Sappho’—people have a tendency to believe that they are.”

Along with snapshots from biblical historiography, the Museum of the Bible will recreate scenes from famous biblical stories, such as creation. But Summers said it won’t touch on their more controversial implications. Summers has also served as a consultant at the Creation Museum, where an exhibit shows Adam and Eve sharing the Garden with the dinosaurs. Green’s museum, by contrast, will reiterate the tale of earth’s first seven days without mentioning evolution. “How people interpret it is up to them—we’re not going there,” said Summers. “If others want to create a museum that takes the other approach, that’s up to them.” Of course, others have, at the National Museum of Natural History a few blocks away.

Summers said the museum won’t mention homosexuality, abortion, or any other “political commentary.” (He also declined to comment on the Supreme Court case.) But he hinted that the museum will weigh in more freely on controversies past. He mentioned anthropological exhibitions on the spread of the bible: How it “enters into countries and very uncivilized tribes and cultural settings that are very cruel. The bible entered into it and their lives were changed. … We’re presenting the impact through the facts.”

These anthropological components, along with exhibits on archeological records that corroborate biblical stories, are in early planning stages. In the meantime, the Green Collection continues touring—it’s en route to the Vatican this week—while the architects work on its eventual home. Religion News Service has reported that Green paid $50 million for the former refrigeration warehouse, which is currently occupied by the Washington Design Center. Tax filings value its artifacts at $23,038,000.

As Green’s landmark lawsuit comes before the Court, his collection continues to make the rounds, embedded in history as he sees it. Workers who depend on a paycheck and health care from his company, or another with a religious owner, may soon be highly acquainted with his point of view. Visiting his museum, on the other hand, is voluntary.


By: Nora Caplan-Bricker, The New Republic, March 25, 2014

March 26, 2014 Posted by | Discrimination, Women's Health | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Can Liberals Trust John Roberts To Rescue Obamacare Again?”: A Pro-Hobby Lobby Ruling Would Be His Most Radical Decision

Most Supreme Court watchers are fixated these days on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby—the important challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate scheduled for argument Tuesday. And why wouldn’t they be? With its potent mix of religion, sex, Obamacare, and prayerful corporations, it’s the blockbuster case of the term. It is also a crucial test of Chief Justice John Roberts’s leadership on the Supreme Court.

Just two years ago, Roberts cast the deciding vote to largely uphold the Affordable Care Act. While the country remains divided over whether he acted like a traitor or a statesman, all would have to agree that, given the level of public scrutiny on the Court and the case’s overall importance (both substantively and to the President’s legacy), Roberts’s ACA vote was the defining moment of his tenure thus far. In a bold move, he broke ranks with his conservative colleagues, joined with the Court’s progressive wing, and preserved the President’s signature achievement. In Hobby Lobby, Roberts meets the ACA yet again, and the stakes for his reputation—and that of his Court—couldn’t be higher.

Chief Justice Roberts has often spoken about how important it is for the justices to maintain the legitimacy of the Court—by limiting divisive rulings, moving the law incrementally, and trying to stay above politics. For instance, in an interview with Jeffrey Rosen early in his tenure as chief justice, Roberts explained that the Court is “ripe for a … refocus on functioning as an institution, because if it doesn’t it’s going to lose its credibility and legitimacy.” Expressing admiration for the great Chief Justice John Marshall, Roberts added that, even as a committed Federalist, Marshall preferred to move the law “in a way that … wasn’t going to alienate people on the Court and turn the Court into another battleground.” While commentators certainly quibble over just how radical an effect John Roberts has had on the law—even Justice Antonin Scalia once attacked the chief justice’s approach in a pre-Citizens United campaign finance case as “faux judicial restraint”—there’s little question that Roberts himself prefers the image of the modest jurist to that of judge-as-hero (think Earl Warren) or judge-as-prophet (think Scalia).

He cultivated this image most dramatically in the first ACA case, joining with his progressive colleagues to uphold a Democratic president’s most important achievement—and in the middle of an election year, no less. Furthermore, just last term, the Roberts Court managed to reach an unlikely compromise in a blockbuster affirmative action case, and Roberts himself preserved the marriage-equality status quo in California with his majority opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry. However, even in areas where Roberts has pushed the law dramatically to the right (like voting rights), he has tended to prefer a slower-moving, more incremental approach than his more radical colleagues, with seismic shifts (like Shelby County v. Holder) coming only after the political ground has already been prepared with previous, more modest decisions (like NAMUDNO v. Holder)—legal warning shots, if you will. He has also chipped away at progressive laws in a series of low-profile cases—for instance, those on the Court’s business docket. This strategy allows him to move the law to the right, while also preserving the institutional legitimacy of the Court.

Through this lens, Hobby Lobby presents a potential dilemma for the savvy Chief Justice. In the case, Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain owned by Southern Baptists, is suing the government to seek religious exemption from the ACA’s requirement that it offer insurance plans to employees that cover contraception at no extra cost. On the one hand, Roberts is confronting the ACA for the first time since the conservative firestorm over his decision largely upholding the Act. There’s little doubt that he’ll be tempted to throw conservatives a bone, siding with Hobby Lobby and against the ACA.

On the other hand, a vote in favor of Hobby Lobby requires the chief justice to do at least three things that threaten major disruptive consequences and present serious downstream risks for the Court as an institution. First, he must conclude that corporations have the same rights to religious freedom as living, breathing humans—something that the Supreme Court has never done. Second, he must unsettle centuries of well-established corporate law practice—a move at loggerheads with the Roberts Court’s (and John Roberts’s own) pro-corporate leanings. And, third, he must extend unprecedented protections to a secular employer, therefore opening the floodgates to new religious freedom challenges to countless other laws. In short, a vote for Hobby Lobby means endorsing a radical departure from well-settled precedent—perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in the realm of religious freedom.

In the decades leading up to the Supreme Court’s 1990 landmark decision in Employment Division v. Smith, courts heard many free exercise challenges. For the most part, they followed a familiar pattern: A law applied to everyone in a given jurisdiction; someone came to court and claimed a religious objection to that law; and the court ultimately rejected that challenger’s claim. This was true in the Supreme Court and, as explained by Professor James Ryan, it was also true in the lower courts. The bottom line—whether you were an Amish employer refusing to pay Social Security taxes or an army doctor wishing to wear a yarmulke while on duty, you were probably going to lose your free exercise claim.

Then along came Smith—a free exercise decision that hit the legal and political world like a thunderbolt. The case involved Native Americans dismissed from their jobs for failing a drug test. (They had smoked peyote during a religious ceremony.) Because of this drug use—religiously motivated or not—Oregon then denied them unemployment benefits. When they challenged this action on free exercise grounds, the Court rejected their claim. However, rather than simply applying the Court’s traditional balancing test (where the Court weighed a given law’s burden on religion against the governmental interest advanced by the law), Justice Scalia struck a radical pose, shelving it for a bright-line rule that was even less protective of religious objectors—and hence the controversy.

Of course, under the pre-Smith test, religious objectors were already losing these cases. Following Smith, they were only slightly more likely to do so. Nevertheless, Congress responded to Scalia’s decision by enacting a new law explicitly overturning Smith and restoring the pre-Smith status quo, but all that really did was reestablish an environment where free exercise claims rarely succeeded.

Given this legal backdrop, the key question for Roberts leading up to the Hobby Lobby argument is whether he’ll stick with this traditional approach or adopt a new, more stringent test—one even stricter than anything that existed in the pre-Smith world. If the chief justice takes the more radical path—and, more importantly, if he convinces at least four of his colleagues to go along with him—Hobby Lobby could, indeed, live up to the hype and become a truly revolutionary case.

For instance, such a ruling would entangle lower courts and the Roberts Court itself in knotty free exercise challenges (and a lot of them)—challenges that would potentially require judges to define what counts as “religious belief,” assess the sincerity of those beliefs that pass muster, and apply the traditional balancing test with serious bite. Courts have balked at going down this path in the past—and for good reason. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has never granted a religious accommodation to a secular business that comes at the expense of its employees—an unprecedented move that would allow secular employers to effectively impose their own religious views on the employees, even in the face of contrary laws.

In the end, however tempted Chief Justice Roberts may be to strike a blow to Obamacare in this highly publicized, blockbuster case—and however much his conservative colleagues may be pulling him in that direction—Roberts can’t give in to these pressures without tarnishing his carefully cultivated image as a cautious jurist and, in the process, unleashing a wave of unpredictable (and risky) consequences.


By: Tom Donnelly, Counsel at Constitutional Accountability Center; The New Republic, March 24, 2014

March 26, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Contraception, John Roberts | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Like Sands Through The Hourglass”: Gov. Christie’s Wife Works At Firm Managing State Pension Funds

Last week, The Nation published my piece exploring how Gov. Chris Christie — a champion of so-called “pension reform” — has presided over a massive transfer of state retiree money into the hands of hedge funds and other high-fee investment managers, including to Wall Street titans who have boosted the governor’s political career with hefty donations to the Republican Governors Association.

As part the piece, we noted that this shift came as perhaps somewhat of a surprise to those who followed Christie’s first campaign for statewide office. In 2009, Christie and his surrogates bashed Democratic Governor Jon Corzine for the same practice of moving large amounts of pension money into so-called “alternative investment” managers. “Jon Corzine made it easier for his friends from Wall Street to manage New Jersey’s pension fund,” blasted a “Christie for Governor” press release. In fact, Christie suggested that Corzine’s personal investments with a fund that had won New Jersey pension contracts reeked of corruption — and demanded that he divest.

Well, it appears that Christie’s wife, Mary Pat Christie, also has a financial interest in a firm that invests money on behalf of New Jersey retirees. Mary Pat joined the alternative investment firm Angelo Gordon in 2012, where “she works full time on strategic planning and marketing, focusing on bank debt and distressed funds,” according to Bloomberg. Disclosures from the New Jersey Division of Investment, the agency that oversees the state pension, reveal that Angelo Gordon continues to manage money on behalf of the fund, though they have wound down some of the investments over the years. The particular fund is called “AG Garden Partners,” one of many investment vehicles owned by Angelo Gordon.

A request for comment from the Division of Investment and to Angelo Gordon has not been answered.

Now, the contact between the New Jersey pension plan and Angelo Gordon began in 2006, well before Christie became governor. But as the Christie campaign, including then-campaign surrogate Bill Baroni, charged, such potential conflicts of interest opens ”up the door to the perception of politics.”

Will Mary Pat Christie’s employment with Angelo Gordon influence continued investments from the New Jersey pension fund into her firm?

Another question this relationship raises is, how will the many hedge fund and private equity business deals at stake in 2014 influence Christie’s chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, the organization responsible for ensuring Republicans win gubernatorial races. In most states, governors have wide latitude in managing how state pension funds are run. Angelo Gordon manages pension money for the Nebraska and New Mexico state plans — two states where Republicans are hoping to retain power, and where Christie and the RGA are likely to play a role.


By: Lee Fang, Republic Report, March 24, 2014

March 26, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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