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“The Reality Of Refugee Admissions”: Yes, The Government Vets Them

The political panic over the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States, following the terrorist attacks in Paris, has unleashed a wave of fear-mongering, bolstered by a notion being propagated by the right wing, that Americans couldn’t possibly know who is being let into our country. Thirty-one U.S. governors have said they won’t accept any Syrian refugees into their state, many of them claiming there’s a large inherent risk in doing so.

Of course, there’s a serious fallacy at work here: By the time any Syrian refugee actually arrives in the United States, we do know who that person is. Very well.

There is a clear difference between refugees in the United States and refugees in Europe, namely that refugees can’t simply walk or use small boats in order to get to the U.S. By contrast, Europe has a flood of humanity getting displaced into their borders, who may enter one of the countries without getting screened — thus creating the danger that even one ISIS terrorist can disguise himself among the people fleeing his cohorts, as French officials believe did occur with at least one attacker.

But the U.S. actually has the advantages of distance and time to pick and choose before anyone from such a faraway land can set foot over here.

That process involves a multitude of complex steps, starting with an initial screening by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which possibly leads to a referral to the United States and a gauntlet of security checks, personal interviews, medical screening, and matching with a sponsor agency in the U.S. itself. It is far from the mysterious influx of unknown people that the many governors and Republican presidential candidates are making it sound like.

As noted by defense policy researcher Josh Hampson in The Hill: “In fact, there have been no recorded terrorist attacks committed by refugees. The U.S. has admitted 1.5 million refugees from the Middle East since September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks that have occurred since 9/11 have been committed either by American natives or non-refugee immigrants.”

A State Department spokesperson told The National Memo in an emailed statement:

The United States remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American public from terrorists, just as we are committed to providing refuge to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. We do not believe these goals are mutually exclusive, or that either has to be pursued at the expense of the other. To that end the refugee security screening and vetting process has been significantly enhanced over the past few years. Today, all refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, including the involvement of the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. All refugees, including Syrians, are admitted only after successful completion of this stringent security screening regime.

On a conference call Tuesday, an unnamed senior administration official confirmed to the press that the average time for processing a person through that entire gamut of interviews and background checks takes an average of 18 to 24 months. “As you know, we are trying to look at the process and see if we can make it more efficient without cutting corners on security.”

And yet at a congressional hearing Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch still had to explain to House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) — who had seized upon recent comments by FBI Director James Comey about the difficulties of the vetting process — that the Justice Department and others in the government do have a “significant and robust screening process in place,” which Europe has not been able to set up.

On Tuesday, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump posted a message to Instagram, with The Donald shouting to the camera with his typical bombast: “Refugees are pouring into our great country from Syria! We don’t even know who they are! They could be ISIS, they could be anybody! What’s our president doing — is he insane?”

And in the Louisiana gubernatorial race, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter is running this ad — complete with clips of panic in the streets of Paris — ahead of the election this weekend: “One of the Paris ISIS terrorists entered France posing as a Syrian refugee. Now, Obama’s sending Syrian refugees to Louisiana.”

Newly-crowned House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is trying to be a bit more low-key, although catering to the same doubts, as he told reporters Tuesday: “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than sorry. So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”

One can perhaps “forgive” Trump for being utterly clueless, and simply expect that Vitter, in the homestretch phase of his campaign, would act like a demagogue. But shouldn’t the Speaker of the House act like he already knows the government has vigorous vetting procedures in place? And for that matter, what does a “pause” even mean when it comes to admitting in refugees who have taken up to two years to be screened?


By: Eric Kleefeld, The National Memo, November 17, 2015

November 19, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Refugees, Terrorists | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Layaway Purchase Plan”: GOP Nightmare Reveals Secret Corporate Donors

Some people have myriad recurring nightmares about being publicly embarrassed, such as rising to give a speech and realizing you know nothing about the topic — then realizing you’re naked.

You might be surprised to learn though, that corporations also have such nightmares. OK, corporations aren’t really people, no matter what the Supreme Court fabulists claim, so they can’t dream, but their top executives can, and several recently suffered the same chilling hallucination. Only, it wasn’t a dream… it was real.

Perhaps you think that corporations use their campaign donations to buy privileged access to state and national policymakers. Perhaps you even think that their political money actually buys those politicians — after all, they do deliver the public policies the corporate donors want. Perhaps you think this whole monetized political system is corrupt, anti-democratic, and…well, stinky.

You would, of course, be right about all of the above. As Lily Tomlin has put it, “No matter how cynical you get, it’s almost impossible to keep up.”

The corporate purchase of Washington, DC is pretty widely reported, but — keep up now — for the kleptocratic stinkiness fast consuming our statehouses as well. The Republican Governors Association has devised a layaway purchase plan allowing brand-name corporations to make secret donations of $100,000 or more a year to the RGA in support of the corporate-friendly agenda of various GOP governors. And a lot of execs have been buying.

These are chieftains of brand-name corporate giants who have secretly funneled millions of their shareholders’ dollars into the “dark money” vault of the Republican Governors Association. In turn, the RGA channels the political cash into the campaigns of assorted right-wing governors. This underground pipeline has been a dream come true for corporations, for it lets them elect anti-consumer, anti-worker, anti-environment governors without having to let their customers or shareholders know they’re doing it.

But — oops! — the RGA made a coding error in its database of dark-money donors. So in September, a mess of the GOP’s secret-money corporations were suddenly exposed, standing buck-naked in front of customers, employees, stockholders and others who were startled and angered to learn that the companies they supported were working against their interests.

A lifelong champion of political money reform, Fred Wertheimer, put it this way: “This is a classic example of how corporations are trying to use secret money hidden from the American people to buy influence, and how the Governors Association is selling it,”

Feed the RGA’s political favor meter with $250,000 a year (as Coca-Cola, the Koch brothers, and others do), and the association cynically anoints your corporation with the ironic title of “Statesman,” opening up gubernatorial doors throughout the country. Well, sniff the participants, the money buys nothing but “access” to policymakers. But wait — when was that access put on the auction block? Shouldn’t everyone have access to our public officials? Of course, but call your governor and see if you can even get an office intern to call back.

If you’re an RGA corporate “Statesman,” however, you could get a tête-à-tête with Rick Perry, the recently indicted governor of Texas, or a private breakfast with Bob McDonnell, the now-convicted former governor of Virginia. See, membership in the corrupt club has its privileges.

Now let’s call the roll of some of the privileged corporate dreamers that were pulling the wool over our eyes, hoping we would slumber in ignorance: Aetna, Aflac, Blue Cross, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Exxon Mobil, Hewlett-Packard, Koch Industries, Microsoft, Novartis, Pfizer, Shell Oil, United Health, Verizon, Walgreens and Walmart.

The corporate donors to this previously secret scheme of plutocratic rule says it’s OK, for they also give money to Democrats. Oh, bipartisan corruption — that makes me feel so much better… how about you?


By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, October 1, 2014

October 6, 2014 Posted by | Corporations, GOP, Republican Governors Association | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“So Far, So Feeble”: GOP Governors Have A Problem; The Ways They Govern

Even as Republicans boast of their chances to take over the United States Senate come November, their party’s governors across the country are facing dimmer prospects. From Georgia to Alaska, right-wing ideological rule imposed by GOP chief executives have left voters disappointed, disillusioned, and angry.

The problem isn’t that these governors failed to implement their promised panaceas of tax-cutting, union-busting, and budget-slashing, all in the name of economic recovery; some did all three. The problem is that those policies have failed to deliver the improving jobs and incomes that were supposed to flow from “conservative” governance. In fact, too often the result wasn’t at all truly conservative, at least in the traditional sense — as excessive and imbalanced tax cuts, skewed to benefit the wealthy, led to ruined budgets and damaged credit ratings.

Consider Gov. Scott Walker, famous for surviving the recall effort that Wisconsin’s outraged citizens mounted in response to his attacks on labor. While seeking to end collective bargaining in 2010, Walker also passed a series of regressive tax cuts that he vowed would bring at least 250,000 jobs. By sharply reducing state aid to schools and local governments, he temporarily closed a structural deficit – but this year, with state tax revenues declining precipitously in the wake of his tax cuts, Walker is facing a $1.8 billion budget deficit. And as for the jobs, most of them never materialized. Wisconsin is near the bottom of Midwestern states in creating new jobs.

In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback was equally faithful to right-wing orthodoxy. With the advice of Arthur Laffer, the genius responsible for Ronald Reagan’s exploding deficits in the 1980s, Brownback imposed an historically huge tax cut on the state. Declining revenues meant huge reductions in state services, especially education. And, as furious Kansans have discovered, the Brownback experiment has achieved poor employment growth combined with…yes, a massive budget deficit of nearly $350 million this year.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett’s first budget in 2011 included major tax cuts for corporations that cost about $600 million annually. By this point, it should be obvious who was required to pay for those favors: the children served by the state’s education system, who saw a billion dollars in cuts to their schools and programs, from kindergarten through college.

This year, the state is facing a budget shortfall of over $1 billion, but Corbett doesn’t seem to have learned much. He has demanded further income tax cuts that will benefit the wealthy – and will cost Pennsylvania another $770 million in annual revenue. And what about his promise that the state would become number one nationally in job creation? As of last summer, it ranked either 47th or 49th, depending on the data measured.

So far, so feeble – and it is scarcely more impressive in the other red states whose governors face reelection this year.

The politician tasked with rescuing his party’s beleaguered governors is none other than their colleague from New Jersey, Chris Christie, who serves as chair of the Republican Governors Association. From that perch, of course, the blustering Christie hopes to run for president – an aspiration that may recede still further from his grasp with each lost governor’s mansion this fall. Emotional as he tends to be, Christie surely empathizes with his fellow governors – because his very similar policies have landed New Jersey in equally precarious condition.

So it is puzzling to hear voters in places far from the Garden State – such as Iowa and New Hampshire – tell reporters that they admire Christie because he “saved New Jersey.” Evidently they don’t know that the state’s finances have been sufficiently terrible to provoke not one but two downgrades in its credit rating this year alone.

But bad bond ratings aren’t the only woe confronting the Big Boy, as President Bush called him. Christie is perfectly suited to his leadership role among the GOP governors – if only because his economic record may well be the very worst of any American governor in either party. The question that voters must answer, this November and two years from now, is when these failed fiscal and economic “experiments” – and the suffering they have caused – will at last end.


By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, The National Memo, October 1, 2014

October 2, 2014 Posted by | Governors, Red States, Tax Revenue | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Grappling With Their Shortsighted Rejection”: The Tough Politics Of Medicaid For Republicans

In the world of Republican politics, there is no surer bet than opposing ObamaCare. But conservative obstruction to the health care overhaul may finally be catching up with a handful of Republican governors running for re-election. Their rejection of ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid — the federal health assistance program for the poor and disabled — has been them losing both the argument and voters.

Princeton political scientist Sam Wang recently published an analysis of polling data from this year’s gubernatorial races. It found that Republican incumbents who resisted ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion — including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, and Kansas’ Sam Brownback — are in much tighter races than those who accepted it. “Republican governors who bucked their party’s stance and accepted the policy are faring better with voters — in these races, an average of 8.5 percentage points better,” Wang discovered.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Setting aside the incendiary politics surrounding ObamaCare and its alleged freedom-killing agenda, the simple truth is that Republican governors have blocked health insurance for nearly six million citizens. And they’ve done so despite the fact that under ObamaCare, the federal government covers all the cost of expanding Medicaid for the next six years, and at least 90 percent of the cost in 2020 and beyond.

Why have Republican governors spurned this incredibly good deal? Their ostensible justification has been disbelief that the federal government would hold up its end of the bargain, leaving states to pick up the tab.

But researchers at the Urban Institute threw cold water on this argument in a study last month. They found that the federal government has almost never reduced funding to the states for Medicaid. In fact, it has not done so since 1981, when President Reagan and Congress imposed a temporary funding cut.

Indeed, Congress has been far more likely to increase funding for state Medicaid programs. It has done so twice in recent memory — in 1997 and in 2005 — boosting state funding even while making other cuts to the program.

The sanctity of the federal commitment to Medicaid has only grown in recent years. As evidence of federal faint-heartedness, conservatives point to an administration proposal floated during 2011 budget negotiations that would have reduced federal Medicaid funding to the states.

But this bad idea was dropped after the states got newfound bargaining power from the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision making the Medicaid expansion entirely voluntary. With the expansion now optional, the administration can ill afford to weaken the financial carrot for red states to buy in. This has also made the administration agreeable to some conservative twists on traditional Medicaid, like using public dollars to enroll people in private health plans in Arkansas and Iowa.

The Urban Institute also quantified how much intransigent red states are losing by resisting ObamaCare. They’re turning down $400 billion in free federal money over 10 years. They will have missed out on over 172,000 new jobs in 2015 alone. And they’ve cost their hospitals $168 million, enough to completely offset ObamaCare’s reimbursement cuts to hospitals for Medicare and Medicaid.

And, of course, these states have also frozen themselves at pre-ObamaCare rates of high uninsurance. “While the number of uninsured in other states fell by 38 percent since September 2013,” the researchers explain, “non-expanding states experienced a decline of just 9 percent.”

As the midterm elections approach, Republican candidates are discovering that the politics around health care reform are becoming unexpectedly complicated. Trailing badly in the polls, Gov. Corbett announced last month that Pennsylvania will expand its Medicaid program. In states that have already expanded their programs, pro-repeal conservative candidates are stumbling to explain how they would handle new Medicaid enrollees.

But this is what happens when you engage with the actual policy implications of health care reform. Conservatives can whip up fear and hostility over an abstract big-government monolith called ObamaCare. But the actual programs contained therein (like expanding public health insurance for the poor) tend to be pretty appealing to voters.

As their arguments are rendered hollow, obstructionist Republicans are paying the electoral price for thwarting these types of programs. When they picked a fight against expanding Medicaid, conservatives chose the wrong bulwark for massive resistance against national health care reform.


By: Joel Dodge, The Week, September 9, 2014

September 9, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, GOP, Medicaid Expansion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Insane Economic Policy”: GOP’s Rejection Of Medicaid Funds Is One More Ideologically Driven Bad Idea

My emotions after the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act last week went through various stages: confusion (thanks, CNN), shock and finally sheer joy. It was a complete surprise to have the highest court uphold the entire law, including the individual mandate. Liberals rightly celebrated the ruling as a historic step toward ensuring a better quality of life for all Americans.

But in the jubilation hangover, some more sober analysis has taken its place. One important aspect of the Court’s decision gives no reason to celebrate: the ruling that the federal government can’t withdraw all Medicaid funds from governors who refuse to expand Medicaid rolls in their states, essentially making it possible for them to opt out. The Medicaid expansion is meant to give coverage to about 17 million Americans by 2019, accounting for almost half of the 32 million people the bill promised to insure. Yet as Sarah Kliff reported, if states opt out of expanding Medicaid, it could leave some of the poorest Americans stuck in a no-man’s land in which they don’t qualify for Medicaid but also don’t qualify for subsidies to buy insurance. Beyond literally being a matter of life or death for many uninsured Americans, it’s also an economic issue: the White House calculated that expanding the number of Americans with insurance would increase economic well-being by about $100 billion a year, or about two-thirds of a percent of GDP.

It seems foolhardy for governors to reject what is basically free money to help more people in their own states gain health insurance. Josh Barro wrote just after the ruling that while the White House’s stick was taken away, its carrot—the federal government’s picking up 100 percent of the states’ Medicaid expansion tab for the early years, gradually declining to 90 percent after that—would be enough to incite states to participate. And they stand to see other economic benefits. States that already provide coverage and care to people living at 133 percent of the poverty line would no longer shoulder those costs, saving them millions. Even for those that don’t offer such coverage, the bill stands to save all states money by getting rid of the “hidden tax” they pay in higher insurance premiums that account for the cost of covering the uninsured, also potentially saving millions.

Yet Republican governors are already contemplating rejecting the money. The Hill reported this week that fifteen governors are either flat-out planning to reject the Medicaid expansion money or are leaning in that direction. Firm nos have come from Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina and Wisconsin. Eight more are still undecided yet appear to be following suit: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Texas and Virginia. Yet Brian Beutler reports today that these very states have some of the country’s highest uninsured rates and would stand to see the biggest benefits. Florida ties with Nevada and New Mexico in second to last place in the country at 21 percent uninsured, and South Carolina and Louisiana come in with 19 and 17 percent rates, respectively.

An indignant refusal of federal money in these states may sound familiar. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas were among the handful of states to say they would reject federal stimulus money way back in early 2009. The argument was similar back then: as with the Medicaid expansion money, the states were expected to change some policies to protect more of their residents from economic harm. In the case of the stimulus money, they had to expand unemployment benefits to more people. That’s what made GOP governors too cranky to accept the funds. Eventually all fifty accepted federal funds, although some still turned away the money meant to increase those unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, the last holdout, South Carolina, had the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate at the time that it was contemplating rejecting the funds on ideological grounds.

But other federal money was later rejected outright. After President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union, he called for building a high-speed rail network and pledged $8 billion in stimulus money for rail projects in various states. Yet four Republican governors—New Jersey’s Christie, Wisconsin’s Walker, Ohio’s Kasich and Florida’s Scott—refused to take money for the projects. They would have created tens of thousands of jobs in each state—an estimated 16,000 in Ohio, 10,000 in Wisconsin and 10,000 in Florida.

Meanwhile, as research my colleague Mike Konczal and I conducted showed, ultraconservative Republican governors across the country have been enacting policies that hurt their economies, and therefore the entire economy, in other ways. In the midst of a massive jobs crisis, the eleven states that flipped red after the 2010 midterms and Texas accounted for 70 percent of public sector job losses last year, either laying off or pushing these workers out through attrition. The rest of the states lost only an average of .5 percent of their government workforces. Without these massive waves of job losses, our unemployment rate would likely be closer to 7 percent.

What ties all of these conservative state-level actions together? An adherence to ideology over what’s best for the economy—even their own state economies. The belief that government spending should be shrunk at all costs has steamrolled over policies that shouldn’t be about party affiliation. Taking federal money for much-needed updates to our infrastructure that would also create thousands of jobs is clearly the right choice. Throwing government workers out of their jobs at a time of sky-high unemployment is clearly the wrong choice. And now these conservative states are threatening to keep millions of Americans out of health insurance policies because they worry about higher state spending in the long run. This despite the fact that their residents and their budgets stand to see huge benefits now. The Republican Party’s abhorrence of government is driving bad economic decision-making—and that’s hurting all of us.

By: Bryce Covert, The Nation, July 5, 2012

July 6, 2012 Posted by | Affordable Care Act | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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