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“If It’s Too Expensive, Don’t Send Them Off To War”: Instead Of Austerity And Slogans, VA Needs Full Funding And Accountability

The troubles at the Veterans Administration are not just a serious issue for veterans. They are a serious issue for every American who believes the federal government can and must meet the basic commitments necessary to maintain a civil society.

Unfortunately, that seriousness is not reflected in the frenzy of fingerpointing that has developed as a response to “the public’s outrage over excessive wait times and rigged recordkeeping at Veterans Affairs hospitals” — an outrage that the president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents caregivers for vets refers to as “more than justified.”

There is no question that the VA has a problem that must be addressed.

The question is whether the politicians in Washington are ready to address it.

The most predictable of the political careerists, Republicans and Democrats, seem to think that firing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will somehow “fix” things, or that the removal of a few failed managers will suddenly create a functional VA. But that is an absurdly insufficient response.

Depending on what reports regarding the agency reveal, there may well be a place for new leadership and a management shakeup. And those changes might briefly produce a fantasy of action and improvement. But that is all it could be: a fantasy. And a cruel fantasy at that.

Neither the immediate crisis, nor serious issues relating to the long-term future of the VA, will be settled with a mere reorganization of upper management. The real issues are closer to the ground. The VA needs to have enough doctors, nurses and aides to provide the care that is needed – and the doctors, nurses and aides who are now on duty must have the resources and the flexibility to assure that this care is delivered in a timely and responsible manner.

That is not now the case.

“When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit,” explains AFGE president J. David Cox Sr.  “All around the country, medical facilities are understaffed, with numerous frontline care positions going unfilled. How can the VA expect to keep up with the growing needs of our nation’s heroes if it doesn’t properly staff its facilities?”

AFGE notes that, “According to the Independent Budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, developed each year by leading veterans groups, funding levels will remain an estimated $2 billion short in FY 2015 and approximately $500 million short for FY 2016.”

Members of Congress – at least those who pay minimal attention to veterans issues – have for some time been aware of the funding shortfall. Yet, too many of them have resisted calls for action.

The reason is that the current Congress is packed with partisans who are more concerned with maintaining an austerity agenda than with caring for Americans who are in need.

Too many members of Congress continue to prattle on about how government is the problem, about how spending must be cut to meet their imagined bottom lines, about how the resources are not there to keep promises to vulnerable Americans – even if the resources are always there for wars of whim and a military-industrial complex that provides daily evidence of the extremes to which waste, fraud and abuse can be taken.

The current Congress includes a striking number of members who express open antipathy to meeting the guarantees that have been made to all Americans, including veterans. These members of Congress are so unthinking in their approach, so cruel in their budgetary calculus, that they casually, in some cases gleefully, presided over a government shutdown last fall.

Republicans get blamed for advancing the austerity agenda, but it is important to remember that more than a few Democrats have compromised with it. And the difference between those who promote austerity and those who make the compromises that allow for austerity means very little to Americans who are stuck on the waiting lists that are created by budgeting that owes more to Ayn Rand tomes than accounting textbooks.

The VA crisis is a wake-up call.

It is time to get serious. It is time to abandon austerity, and to recognize that core commitments cannot be compromised in order to maintain ideological fantasies.

Senate Veteran Affairs Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, tried to get ahead of a host of issues concerning veterans in February, when he proposed comprehensive legislation to improve VA health care, education and job-training. Though it was strongly backed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and other organizations representing vets, the measure was blocked when most Senate Republicans opposed it. To Republicans who suggested the measure was too expensive, Sanders said, “”If you think it’s too expensive (to fund veterans programs), then don’t send them off to war.”

Last week, Sanders announced that he would reintroduce his plan to allocate $21 billion more for veterans initiatives over the coming decade. He is, as well, proposing a new VA accountability measure. The latter legislation removes bureaucratic barriers and makes it easier for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to make management changes that are necessary to protect those who have served in the military.

The Sanders approach recognizes the need to move beyond the failed responses of America’s austerity-minded politicians while at the same time increasing accountability. It’s a smart long-term fix that eschews the easy sloganeering and empty promises of those who would politicize the VA crisis.

Conscious of the urgency of that crisis, the senator plans to move quickly to get both measures to the Senate floor. “In recent years, as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1.5 million more veterans have entered the VA health care system,” says Sanders. “Congress must do everything possible to make certain that the VA has the financial resources and administrative accountability to provide the high-quality health care and timely access to care that our veterans earned and deserve.”

 

By: John Nichols, The Nation, May 25, 2014

 

May 26, 2014 Posted by | Veterans, Veterans Administration | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Yes, Opposition To Obamacare Is Tied Up With Race”: A Staple Of Conservative Rhetoric Since The Beginning Of His Presidency

Is opposition to Obamacare really about race? That’s the highly charged question that has bubbled up in the last day or so, starting with a Senate hearing and then bursting into the news media. I won’t keep you in suspense: The answer is, “Yes, but . . . .”  Not all opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and not from all people, and not at all times. But two things are clearly true. First, some conservatives with large megaphones have worked hard to use the ACA as a tool of race-baiting, encouraging their white audiences to see the law through a racial lens. And second, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that race plays a role in many people’s opposition to the law.

Before we get into details, this is coming up now because of an exchange between senators Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) at a hearing. Here’s how it started:

“It’s very important to take a long view at what’s going on here. And I’ll be able to dig up some emails that make part of the Affordable Care Act that doesn’t look good, especially from people who have made up their mind that they don’t want it to work. Because they don’t like the president, maybe he’s of the wrong color. Something of that sort,” Rockefeller said. “I’ve seen a lot of that and I know a lot of that to be true. It’s not something you’re meant to talk about in public, but it’s something I’m talking about in public because that is very true.”

Senator Johnson reacted angrily, saying that because he was the only Republican in the room, it looked like Sen. Rockefeller was accusing him of being racist — a not uncommon reaction to this kind of accusation.

This morning, MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough said:

“I must say, I have been behind closed doors with thousands of conservatives through the years. I have never once heard one of them say in the deep south or in the northeast or in South Boston, ‘Boy, I really hate Obamacare because that black president’ — no, I’ve never heard anybody come close to saying that,” Scarborough said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “And I have spoken to some wildly right wing groups. I have never heard it once.”

There are many reasons why a person might oppose the Affordable Care Act, and there are many people who are opposed to it. You can oppose it for reasons having nothing to do with race. You can oppose it and not be a racist. Heck, I suppose you can even be a racist but oppose it for non-racial reasons.

But let’s return to the two other truths I mentioned up top, that at least some of the opposition to the ACA is tied up with race and that there has been an unusual amount of race-baiting from the right during this presidency, both in general and on the issue of health-care reform.

On the first question, there is a growing body of evidence that people’s implicit or explicit ideas about race affect how they look at the Affordable Care Act. Let me quote from the abstracts of studies done by political scientists and psychologists over the last few years:

“Using a nationally representative experiment over two waves, I induced several emotions to elicit anger, fear, enthusiasm, or relaxation. The results show that anger uniquely pushes racial conservatives to be more opposing of health care reform while it triggers more support among racial liberals.” [paper here]

“Controlling for explicit prejudice, implicit prejudice predicted a reluctance to vote for Obama, opposition to his health care reform plan, and endorsement of specific concerns about the plan. In an experiment, the association between implicit prejudice and opposition to health care reform replicated when the plan was attributed to Obama, but not to Bill Clinton — suggesting that individuals high in anti-Black prejudice tended to oppose Obama at least in part because they dislike him as a Black person. In sum, our data support the notion that racial prejudice is one factor driving opposition to Obama and his policies.” [paper here]

“This study argues that President Obama’s strong association with an issue like health care should polarize public opinion by racial attitudes and race. Consistent with that hypothesis, racial attitudes had a significantly larger impact on health care opinions in fall 2009 than they had in cross-sectional surveys from the past two decades and in panel data collected before Obama became the face of the policy. Moreover, the experiments embedded in one of those reinterview surveys found health care policies were significantly more racialized when attributed to President Obama than they were when these same proposals were framed as President Clinton’s 1993 reform efforts.” [paper here]

“This study investigates the relationship between individual-level support for the 2010 Affordable Care Act and nativism, the perception that a traditional American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence. The results of an analysis of a 2011 public opinion survey demonstrate that nativism was an independent and significant predictor of opposition to health care reform and that this effect held for both Republicans as well as Democrats, although the relationship is stronger for Republicans.” [paper here]

What this demonstrates is that when we approach a policy issue, none of us looks at it in a vacuum. We bring to it the ideas and opinions we associate with the people and parties advocating the various positions, among other things. Now add to that the fact that since Barack Obama took office in 2009, conservatives have been told, over and over and over again, that Barack Obama is coming to do them harm precisely because of their race.

No one who pays any attention to conservative media can honestly deny that this has been the case. The idea that Barack Obama is leading an army of black people coming to exact revenge on whites for past sins has been a staple of conservative rhetoric since the beginning of his presidency. Often, this is framed in terms of reparations for slavery: whatever policy Obama happens to be advocating at the moment, including health-care reform, conservative audiences are told that it is an effort by Obama to take their money and give it to black people to right a historical wrong for which they are blameless. In a 2009 discussion about the stimulus bill, Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, “Obama’s entire economic program is reparations!” Not long before, Limbaugh said this:

“The president of the United States? We’re talking now about a Supreme Court justice? The days of them [racial minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry, he’s gon’ cut this country down to size, he’s gon’ make it pay for all its multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on.”

And yes, that was a little black dialect Rush threw in there, just to be clear. About the ACA, Limbaugh said, “This is a civil rights bill, this is reparations, whatever you want to call it.” Or another time: “I think I’ve finally figured out why Obama is pushing so hard on this health care bill. He just wants us to have the same health care and plan that he had in Kenya.” In early 2012, Limbaugh said this:

“Obama has a plan. Obama’s plan is based on his inherent belief that this country was immorally and illegitimately founded by a very small minority of white Europeans who screwed everybody else since the founding to get all the money and all the goodies, and it’s about time that the scales were made even. And that’s what’s going on here. And that’s why the president is lawless, and that’s why there is no prosecution of the Black Panthers for voter intimidation, because it’s not possible for a minority to intimidate the white majority. It’s not possible. It’s always been the other way around. This is just payback. This is ‘how does it feel’ time.”

Rush Limbaugh has the largest talk-radio audience in the United States, and he is admired and lauded by one Republican politician after another. But it isn’t just him. Bill O’Reilly told his viewers, “I think Mr. Obama allows historical grievances — things like slavery, bad treatment for Native Americans and U.S. exploitation of Third World countries — to shape his economic thinking. . . . He gives the bad things about America far too much weight, leading to his desire to redistribute wealth, thereby correcting historical grievance.” Almost any domestic policy choice, whether it involves taxes or budgets or health care, can be characterized as an act of racial vengeance exacted upon whites for the benefit of blacks.

Glenn Beck has been another prominent advocate of the reparations theory. “Everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill,” he said in 2009, “are transforming America. And they are all driven by President Obama’s thinking on one idea: reparations.” When the Shirley Sherrod story broke (that is, when Andrew Breitbart deceptively edited video of a speech the Agriculture Department official gave to make is seem as if she were confessing to treating white people unfairly when she was actually saying the opposite), Beck said, “Have we suddenly transported into 1956 except it’s the other way around? . . . Does anybody else have a sense that there are some that just want revenge? Doesn’t it feel that way?”

Intimations of actual violence to come are rare, but they’re out there. Beck once said the New Black Panther party was part of Obama’s “army of thugs.” Conservative science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card, author of “Ender’s Game,” imagined a future in which Obama seized dictatorial powers and mobilized “young out-of-work urban men” into a brownshirt army. “Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people ‘trying to escape’ — people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.”

This is the rhetoric in which conservatives have been marinating for five years. Given that, it is not at all surprising that for some of them — I repeat, for some of them — ideas about Obama’s policies, including the Affordable Care Act, are inextricably bound to their feelings, whether conscious or unconscious, about race. It would be irresponsible and unfair to say that all or even most opposition to the ACA is rooted in racism. But it would be blind to deny that race has had a role in keeping that opposition so fervid for so long.

 

By: Paul Waldman, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, May 23, 2014

May 26, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Conservatives, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“This Is Not A Binary Argument”: The Debate Has To Be Deeper When National Security And American Lives Are Involved

Elias Isquith is correct that the fundamental distinction between Glenn Greenwald and his critics is based on how each, respectively, views the current state of the American government. Those that consider our government to be as rotten and illegitimate as France’s Ancien Regime or the Tsar’s Russia are not particularly troubled about defining the correct journalistic line between informing the public and compromising national security.

Defenders of the government are not done any favors by allies like Michael Kinsley, who manages to do little more than arouse sympathy for Greenwald’s side of the argument. Kinsley’s thesis is so sloppy that it allows Greenwald to define himself as engaging in an honest journalistic enterprise that his detractors would make illegal. That kind of dichotomous argument is one that Greenwald could never lose.

The debate ought to be deeper than this. If our national security state is engaged in activities that are not authorized by law, and if they are conducting themselves in ways that do grave damage to our international relations when they are disclosed, do they then forfeit the deference they are otherwise given on what does and does not harm national security?

One of the difficulties here is that when our leaders do things that when disclosed will harm our national security, they aren’t the only ones who are negatively impacted. All Americans are put at risk when our national security is harmed. A journalist has to weigh the benefits of public disclosure versus the potential risks to the general public, and this is a very subjective exercise. That is why people on Greenwald’s side are so intent on countering the idea that the disclosures of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have done any actual, demonstrable harm.

Too often, it seems to me, Greenwald and his strong supporters behave as if the government deserves to be damaged and that our national security ought to suffer, even though all Americans are put at risk as a result. The risk to Americans is not something that can just be shrugged off as if it were indisputable that the country has gained a net-benefit from every single disclosure of classified information.

The reason that Greenwald is getting the better of the argument isn’t because his principles are clearly superior, but because the government lacks credibility. The overall effect of the disclosures has been beneficial, at least so far, because nothing catastrophic has resulted and we now have greater knowledge about what our government has been doing, which is already leading to reforms.

But none of this relieves journalistic enterprises of the responsibility to weigh the risks and benefits of disclosing classified information, nor does it completely vindicate either Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, who both leaked far more information than was necessary to make their points.

 

By: Martin Longman, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 24, 2014

May 26, 2014 Posted by | Journalists, National Security | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Conservative Demonology”: Countering The Minimum Wage With More Help For “Lucky Duckies”

One of the key contributors and promoters of the “reform conservative” cause (and the new “manifesto” Room to Grow), Ramesh Ponnuru, has a Bloomberg View column making the fairly obvious suggestion about how Republicans might respond to the drive for a higher minimum wage:

One way to do so is to support expanding the earned income tax credit, an earnings subsidy that targets poor households much better than the minimum wage does and poses no threat of destroying jobs. That credit may not be as easily understood as the minimum wage, but it would give Republicans a way to show that they want to help the poor — and that their stated objections to raising the minimum wage are sincere.

He might have added that the EITC used to be a very popular initiative among conservatives, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.

But not any more, as both Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein quickly pointed out. Here’s Ezra’s brisk summary of the Republican revolt against the EITC:

The most recent Republican budget lets a stimulus-era boost in the EITC to expire and, on top of that, includes huge cuts to the part of the budget (the “income security budget function,” for wonks) that houses the EITC.

But it’s worse than that: the EITC has been largely responsible for eliminating federal income tax liability among low-income Americans. And that has become a deep source of grievance, and even of conspiracy theories, among conservatives at both the elite and grassroots level. The classic slam at the EITC was articulated by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which got into the habit of referring to poor people who didn’t owe federal income tax as “lucky duckies.” This in turn became integral to the popular conservative theory that people who didn’t pay income taxes didn’t bear the cost of governing (an argument, of course, that ignored all the other kinds of taxes the poor pay, often at regressive rates), and thus represented looters who voted themselves more and more of other people’s money.

I personally became convinced this had become an important part of conservative demonology when watching Rick Perry make his statement of presidential candidacy in 2011, at a RedState gathering in South Carolina. In the midst of an extended tirade about the need for lower taxes, Perry suddenly blasted “the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.” The crowd responded with what I described at the time as a “feral roar.” So it wasn’t surprising a year or so later when Mitt Romney got caught buying into the same idea in his “47 percent” comments, about “people who pay no income tax” but nonetheless receive federal benefits.

Even if they didn’t rely on EITC cuts to pay for upper-end tax cuts in their budget schemes, Republicans seem to have developed a moral aversion to the EITC that’s more important to them than finding a sensible alternative to minimum wage increases. So Ponnuru is almost certainly barking up the wrong tree.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 23, 2014

May 26, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Minimum Wage | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Big Benghazi Dance”: In The End, Both Democrats And Republicans Are Going To Get Exactly What They Want

Nancy Pelosi has now announced the five Democratic members of Congress who will serve on the Republicans’ select committee to investigate Benghazi. They will be outnumbered by the committee’s seven Republicans, but at this point we can safely predict what’s going to happen with this committee.

To quote Macbeth, it will be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

OK, so maybe the “idiot” part is too harsh — no one thinks that Rep. Trey Gowdy, who will be leading the committee, isn’t a smart guy. But it’s easy to see exactly how the big Benghazi dance will unfold, and how everyone will play their appointed parts.

That’s partly because of the nature of this matter, partly because of everything that has happened up until this point, and partly because of who’ll be on the committee. This description in the New York Times makes the contrast in who got chosen to represent each party:

The Democrats chosen were Mr. [Elijah] Cummings, who clashed repeatedly over Benghazi with the chairman of the Oversight Committee, Representative Darrell Issa of California; Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee; Adam B. Schiff of California, a member of the Intelligence Committee; Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a decorated and severely wounded combat veteran of the Iraq war; and Linda T. Sánchez of California, the ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee.

The Republican members, by contrast, largely lack foreign policy and military credentials, although with Mr. Gowdy and Representative Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, they have prosecutorial experience. They include Representative Peter Roskam of Illinois, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, Representative Martha Roby of Alabama and Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia. 

Just by looking at the committee’s membership, you can see what the two parties are trying to achieve. John Boehner picked a combination of prosecutors, intense partisans, and hard-right blowhards, people who are there to pound the table, shake their fists, and raise their voices. Pelosi could have picked similar Democrats (there was a move to get Rep. Alan Grayson on to the committee), but instead she selected a group of serious members who come with some knowledge on the matters to be explored. Despite the fact that Democrats (even those on this committee) think this is all a waste of time, they’re taking a high road approach, hoping that they’ll look reasonable and sober while Republicans look wild-eyed and angry.

So here’s how this is going to go down:

1) The first day of hearings will get blanket coverage in the media. The members will each get a chance to make their opening statements, which will leave the walls of the hearing room quivering under the power of all the thunderous outrage the Republicans can muster.

2) At some point, Hillary Clinton will testify. The media will rub their hands together in anticipation of the confrontation, the smack-down, the Capitol Hill cage match! Republican members will preen for the cameras, and Clinton will, most likely, parry all their assaults. It’ll be good television, but no new information will be revealed.

3) After that, the media will quickly lose interest.

4)Republicans will then complain that the liberal media are covering up the scandal.

All that is predicated on the assumption that the committee is not actually going to discover damning new evidence of Obama administration malfeasance that will lead to resignations, criminal indictments, or even (be still the Republicans’ hearts) impeachment. I feel secure in assuming that, given how much Benghazi has been examined over the last year and a half. Keep in mind that there have already been investigations and hearings on Benghazi not only by Darrell Issa’s oversight committee, but also by House and Senate committees on foreign affairs, intelligence, armed services, and homeland security (not to mention lengthy investigations by the FBI and news organizations). Is it theoretically possible that there is some blockbuster revelation that none of these committees were able to uncover, but the select committee will? Sure. It’s also theoretically possible that there really are space aliens being held at Area 51.

In the end, both Democrats and Republicans are going to get exactly what they want out of this committee. Republicans will be able to show their base that they’re holding Barack Obama’s feet to the fire and giving Hillary Clinton the business. Democrats will be able to show their base that Republicans are crazy. Everybody wins.

 

By: Paul Waldman, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, May 22, 2014

May 26, 2014 Posted by | Benghazi, Democrats, House Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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