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“An Inept Congress”: Two Years After Aurora, Where’s The Gun Reform?

It’s been two years since the tragic Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, which killed 12 people and injured 70. But although many politicians, including President Obama, vowed that the nation would finally do something to strengthen gun regulations, Congress still hasn’t passed a single gun control law since. In fact, Congress hasn’t passed any major gun reform since 1994’s Assault Weapons Ban, which expired 10 years ago.

That doesn’t mean that nothing has changed, however. Months later, after the Newtown elementary school shooting in December 2012, the president set up a task force to address the issue. He promised to send Congress proposals for strengthening gun control, and he urged lawmakers to ban assault weapons, pass a universal background check law, and limit high-capacity ammunition clips.

He then signed 23 executive orders into law in January 2013. These included reducing barriers to background checks, researching the causes of gun violence, and improving mental health services. As Forbes explained at the time, “It does not appear that any of the executive orders would have any impact on the guns people currently own – or would like to purchase – and that all proposals regarding limiting the availability of assault weapons or large ammunition magazines will be proposed for congressional action.”

In other words, Congress still needed to act. In April 2013, the Senate voted to expand the background check system, a reform that 90 percent of Americans supported. But the amendment failed to to gain the 60 votes it needed to advance, due to pressure from the National Rifle Association and the lack of support from some red-state Democrats such as North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp.

President Obama called the vote “a shameful day in Washington.”

Obama took two more executive actions in August 2013. He banned military weapons that the United States had sold or given to allies from being imported back into the country. These weapons, however, are rarely used at crime scenes.

The president also attempted to close a loophole that allows felons and anyone else who can’t legally purchase a gun to register firearms to a corporation. The new rule requires anyone associated with that corporation to go through a background check. But that rule only applies to guns regulated under the National Firearms Act, which only regulates very deadly weapons such as machine guns.

Meanwhile, Congress still hasn’t passed any major gun legislation. The only step in the right direction was in May 2014, when the House passed an amendment that would increase funding for the country’s background check system.

In June, 163 House Democrats wrote an open letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), asking him to allow a vote on legislation to address gun violence. If he doesn’t allow a vote, it could resurface as a major issue in the midterms.

Even though there hasn’t been substantive national action to reduce gun violence, some states have taken gun control into their own hands.

Colorado’s state legislature passed laws that required universal background checks and limited gun magazines to 15 rounds of ammunition. Two Democratic state senators were recalled shortly thereafter, in an effort that was heavily supported by the NRA.

New York also passed new gun control and mental health laws. Other states have improved their background check systems, limited magazine capacity, and worked to prevent the mentally ill from accessing guns.

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 64 laws have strengthened state gun regulations since the Newtown shootings, and 70 laws have weakened them.


By: Rachel Witkin, The National Memo, July 18, 2014

July 19, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Gun Control, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mr. States Rights In A Political Pickle”: How The Constitution May Screw Rand Paul For 2016

Rand Paul has a little-discussed problem. Yes, he’s riding a wave. Yet another new poll brings happy tidings,  putting him at the top of the GOP heap in both Iowa and New Hampshire (although still well behind “undecided”). He keeps doing these clever things that titillate the Beltway sages, like coupling with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (ooh, he’s black!) on sentencing reform. All this, you know. He’s a shrewdie, we have to give him that.

But here’s what you maybe don’t know. Paul is up for reelection in 2016. One assumes that he would want to hold on to his Senate seat. If he ran for president, he would hardly be the first person hoping to appear on a national ticket while simultaneously seeking reelection, although the other examples from the last 30 years have all been vice-presidential candidates: Paul Ryan in 2012, Joe Biden in 2008, Joe Lieberman in 2000, and… trivia question, who’s the fourth?

For those, it hadn’t been a problem. But it is for Paul, because under Kentucky law, he cannot run for two offices at the same time. The law has been on the books in the Bluegrass State for a long time. Paul quietly asked that it be changed, and the GOP-controlled state senate acquiesced this past session. But the Democrats have the majority in the lower house, and they let the bill expire without voting on it. I would reckon, unless the Kentucky state house’s Democratic majority is possessed of a shockingly benevolent character unlike every other legislative majority I’ve ever encountered, it won’t be rushing to pass it.

Paul has said that he’d just ignore the law.

We should stop and pause to appreciate that: Rand Paul, of all people, arguing that states don’t have the authority to dictate the rules for federal elections. Yes, Mr. States’ Rights insists that this is the province of the federal government!

It gets even better. The tradition that states set the rules of their elections and always have was not handed to us by a bunch of pinko mid-century judges, but lo and behold, by the Framers themselves. I give you Article I, Section 4  of the Constitution: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.” So not only is Mr. States’ Rights backing the federal jackboot as long as it’s kicking on his behalf, but Mr. Tea Party Strict Constitutionalist is challenging the Constitution!

Here’s what the Supreme Court has had to say on the matter. There are two cases that are most relevant, U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton  and Cook v. Gralike. In those cases, the court held that Arkansas and Missouri’s respective term-limit laws added extra qualifications to seek office that weren’t found in Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution (the sections that state the qualifications for candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate). That is, the court protected candidates who had served X number of terms and were thus, under those states’ laws, prohibited from seeking office again. You can’t do that, said the court to states; you’re in essence adding an extra-constitutional “qualification” for office (that a candidate can’t have served more than three terms). Sen. Paul can argue that Kentucky’s law imposes an extra-constitutional qualification on him—that if he wants to run for president, the state has added the “qualification” that he not also run for Senate.

I’m no lawyer, but that sounds like a reach to me. A term-limits law is a clear imposition of an added qualification. But a law requiring that a person seek only one office at a time seems to me like a perfectly reasonable thing for a state to decide, under the word “manner” in the relevant constitutional passage, if it wants to. States have had these laws for a long time. Florida has one, too, and Marco Rubio—also up for reelection in 2016 and also considering a White House run—has defended it and said of running for the presidency: “I think, by and large, when you choose to do something as big as that, you’ve really got to be focused on that and not have an exit strategy.”

Paul said in June: “Can you really have equal application of federal law if someone like Paul Ryan or Joe Lieberman can run for two offices, but in Kentucky you would be disallowed? It seems like it might not be equal application of the law to do that. But that means involving a court, and I don’t think we’ve made a decision on that. I think the easier way is to clarify the law.” Touching. I doubt Paul worries too much about the “equal application of federal law” for pregnant women who live in states where they’ve found ways to shut down every federally legal abortion clinic. And of course, historically speaking, there are the black Kentuckians and Southerners generally who weren’t soaking up much equal application of federal law until the passage of the Civil Rights Act that Paul so famously told Rachel Maddow in 2010 he would have opposed.

Paul is going to be in a political pickle over this. Remember, a presidential candidate has never done this in modern history, just vice-presidential ones (trivia answer: Lloyd Bentsen in 1988). Vice president—who really cares. But president? Even if he prevailed in court, can a person really run for president of the United States while also seeking another office? Rubio sounds right here to me. This is the presidency. It just seems cheesy. Plain and simple, Paul should have to choose.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, July 18, 2014

July 19, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, Rand Paul, States Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Nowhere To Hide”: Chris Christie Suddenly Suffers The Unbearable Specificity Of Running For President

Chris Christie went to Iowa this week, bringing what reporters inevitably call his “trademark New Jersey style” to the heartland, where he could mix and mingle with the small number of Republican voters who have the power, a year and a half hence, to either elevate him or crush his White House dreams. And in the process he got an education in what running for president means. While we often describe candidates as having to “move to the right” in the primaries (or to the left for Democrats), what actually happens is often not a move to the edge, but a descent from the general to the specific.

And in practice, that can mean much the same thing. Here’s a report from one of Christie’s events:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Thursday that he backs the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, after declining to give an opinion on the outcome of the case earlier this month.

Christie voiced his support in response to a question from an attendee at a meet-and-greet event in Marion, Iowa, where Christie was campaigning for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R). The Democratic research super PAC American Bridge caught the exchange on video.

“Do I support the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case? I do,” Christie said, according to the video posted by American Bridge.

“Do you support Hobby Lobby’s position on birth control for its employees?” the attendee pressed.

“Well I just said I support the case, so if I support the case and they support the Hobby Lobby–” Christie said before moving on to greet other attendees.

If you’re a governor, you can dodge questions for long periods simply because you don’t have to answer that many of them. I don’t know how often Christie does a press conference, but it’s not that frequent. And when he goes out to do events around his state, people are going to ask him about whatever local issues they’re concerned about. He doesn’t need a well-considered position on every national issue that comes up.

But once you go to Iowa to meet with people who are only thinking of you as a presidential candidate, not only do you have to answer more questions, they come at you in contexts like a Des Moines living room or a Sioux City diner. Unlike when you’re giving a press conference, you can’t say, “That’s all the time we have today, folks” and walk out. If you don’t answer to someone’s satisfaction, they’re going to keep pressing you until you do, and you might just lose them. Back a zillion years ago when I was working on a presidential campaign, I gave one voter a compelling argument for why he should vote for my candidate, and he replied that though I made some sense, a few weeks before he went to an event with my candidate, and he had a question for him but never got the chance to ask it, so he was voting for somebody else. I wanted to throttle the guy.

So not only do you have to answer more questions, those questions come with follow-ups, and the activist voters you’re hoping to win over at this stage aren’t going to accept “Well, it’s complicated” as an answer on anything. So candidates have to come out clearly in favor of something like the Hobby Lobby ruling—absolutely non-negotiable with the Republican base, but broadly unpopular with the general public.

What that means is that “moving to the right” is produced by the practicalities of running in a retail election, where voters in some places (two states in particular) want to stick their finger in your chest and take the measure of you before they’ll deign to bestow their vote up on you. In that context, there’s nowhere to hide.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 18, 2014

July 19, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Sanctimonious Fakers”: Border Crisis Tests Religious Faith — And Some Fail Badly

Flamboyant piety has long been fashionable on the political right, where activists, commentators, and elected officials never hesitate to hector us about their great moral and theological rectitude. Wielding the Scriptures like a weapon, these righteous ’wingers are always eager to condemn the alleged sins of others but reluctant to examine their own. They seem to spend far more time on posturing and preening than spiritual reflection. Rarely does anyone call them out on their failures to fulfill their proclaimed devotion because, in this country, that is considered rude.

But occasionally, something happens that separates the people of faith from the sanctimonious fakers. With thousands of defenseless children now gathered on America’s southern border, seeking asylum from deprivation and deadly violence, something like that is happening right now.

Nobody in the House of Representatives is more vociferous about her reverence for God’s word than Michele Bachmann (R-MN) –the Tea Party queen bee who often has said she believes that America is a “Christian nation.” When Bachmann opened her mouth on television about those hungry and fearful children, she demonized them as “invaders” and incipient criminals who could be expected to rape American women and break American laws.

Then there is Bachmann’s colleague Louie Gohmert (R-TX), whose religious zeal is so overpowering that he cannot restrain himself, even during House proceedings – like that committee hearing last month when he proclaimed his belief that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus is destined for hell. But when the subject is the innocent kids at the border of his home state, most of whom are girls under 13 years of age, Gohmert speaks of “invasion” and urges the governor of Texas to unilaterally initiate a state of war. Like many of his fellow far-rightists, he stokes rumors that these children are harbingers of disease and gangsterism.

So does Phil Gingrey (R-GA), a medical doctor who went so far as to accuse the young migrants of bringing the Ebola virus – seen only in Africa — with them from Central America. And so does Sandy Rios, the religious-right talk-show host who speaks of the “hope” that the Lord bestowed on her, but warns that we should treat the border children like “lepers.” And so does Ann Coulter, the Church Lady who suspects that all those kids, no matter how small, probably belong to the murderous MS-13 narcotics syndicate.

Now among the theological ideas shared by many of these figures is a fondness for the Old Testament, which they routinely quote to justify cruel strictures against gays, women, and anybody else they wish to suppress. At the moment, however, these Biblical literalists ought to be studying the very plain instruction of Leviticus:

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

More recently, Pope Francis laid down a clear edict on the border crisis that springs from his own Biblical understanding, urging Americans to “welcome and protect” the children arriving on our border. (He didn’t mention anything about immediate deportations.) The Holy Father expressed deep concern for the “tens of thousands of children who migrate alone, unaccompanied, to escape poverty and violence…in pursuit of a hope that in most cases turns out to be vain”.

“Many people forced to emigrate suffer, and often, die tragically; many of their rights are violated, they are obliged to separate from their families and, unfortunately, continue to be the subject of racist and xenophobic attitudes,” he said. Francis went on to say that only development and security in their own countries would ever stem the flow of migrants heading northward – and that in the meantime, the rest of us should abandon “attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization.” Attitudes like those displayed by goons waving flags and guns and “Go Home” signs, who don’t care whether these little strangers live or die.

Where are the real Christians? Where are the true people of faith? They may be found in houses of worship near the border and around the country, where people of all political persuasions realize that they are called to feed, clothe, shelter, and heal God’s children, even when they arrive on a bus without papers. If there is a kingdom of heaven, it is these generous souls who will be admitted when they reach its border.

The hypocrites will be sent somewhere else.


By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, July 18, 2014

July 19, 2014 Posted by | Border Crisis, Faith, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Emboldened Anti-Choice Movement”: Republican Family Values Put Women’s Lives In Danger Worldwide

Last week, a committee in the US House of Representatives approved a spending bill that would slash funding for international family planning and reimpose a harmful policy that reduces contraceptive access and tramples on the rights of healthcare providers.

On Monday, the supreme court ruled that some US employers could deny employees access to birth control coverage if they claim a religious objection to contraception.

Is it just me, or do we seem to be in retreat? This latest disregard for women – in the US and overseas – is not unexpected, but it is certainly disappointing. In many ways, we have been fighting the same battle for the past 30 years. But the battle lines have shifted and, frequently, we have to struggle to retain hard-won ground.

When I started working on this issue in the early 80s, there was true, bipartisan support for family planning. Some of the most sincere anti-abortion Republicans realised that the consistent, commonsense public policy position for them to take would be to support overseas family planning funding. Better access to contraception would reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions, especially unsafe abortions.

The global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, was one of the first instances of the domestic anti-choice agenda interfering with the health and lives of women in developing countries. Introduced 30 years ago, during the Reagan administration, the policy bars foreign organisations that receive US family planning assistance from using their own private, non-US government funds to provide information, referrals, or services for legal abortion, or to advocate for the legalisation of abortion in their own countries.

Since it was introduced, the gag rule has been subject to the vagaries of US politics – imposed or kept in place by Republican presidents, and repealed by Democrat leaders. Though it was rescinded by President Obama on taking office in 2009, Republicans in the House have tried every year since to reinstate it.

Their efforts are testament to a rightward shift in US politics, including an emboldened anti-choice movement that has continued to gain political power. The middle has shrunk, the partisan divide has grown, and the Republicans being elected to Congress now are more extreme and bent on undermining women’s health and rights. Under the guise of “protecting the unborn”, the misguided policies they espouse threaten the health and lives of millions of women and families.

The US’s $610m contribution to international family planning and reproductive health in fiscal year 2014 helped 31 million women and couples receive contraceptive services and supplies. It prevented 7 million unintended pregnancies and 3 million abortions (2 million of them unsafe), and saved the lives of 13,000 women. In addition, 60,000 fewer children lost their mothers.

The fact is that family planning saves women’s lives. But in Washington these days, the facts do not matter. Last week Republicans on the House spending committee imposed a completely unnecessary cap on international family planning funding.

The House committee bill proposes cutting international family planning funding by $149m, almost 25% from current levels. Using analysis from the Guttmacher Institute, this would result in more than 7.7 million fewer couples using contraception, more than 1.6 million additional unintended pregnancies, and 745,000 more abortions. Almost 3,000 more women would die in pregnancy or childbirth, and 13,400 more children would lose their mothers. So much for family values.

We have been fortunate in that during the past few years, Republican attacks in the House have been blocked by Senate family planning champions, where, for now at least, Democrats retain control. This has essentially resulted in maintenance of the status quo on family planning policy and on funding. The Senate version of this year’s spending bill counters the House by including $644m for international family planning, and a permanent, legislative repeal of the global gag rule.

But this uneasy stalemate could change, depending on the outcomes in key races in November. If Republicans take control of the Senate, the truce will be broken and battle lines redrawn. The drastic cuts the House committee approved last week could be seriously considered in an omnibus spending bill, and an offensive could be mounted by opponents to attempt to force the gag rule on a pro-choice president.

The health of women around the world is far too important to continue to be thrust on to the frontline of US domestic culture wars.


By: Craig Lasher, Director of US Government Relations at Population Action International; The Guardian, July 17, 2014

July 19, 2014 Posted by | Family Values, Republicans, Women's Health | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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