House Votes To Place Limits on Backdoor Searches; Obama Administration Seeks Reauthorization Of NSA Surveillance

Thanks to the revelations in the material on surveillance released by Edward Snowden, the United States is  now taking baby steps towards reforming the system. Late in the week the House did vote to limit “backdoor searches.” The amendment received bipartisan support, showing how opposition to excessive NSA surveillance is an issue which does not fall under usual partisan lines. More Democrats than Republicans did vote in favor, Democrats voting it 158 to 29, with Republicans voting it 135 to 94 in favor.

Vox explained the significance:

What’s a backdoor search?

In 2008, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act (FAA), which expanded the government’s warrantless surveillance powers.

Ordinarily, the Fourth Amendment requires an individualized warrant before the government can engage in surveillance on American soil. But the FAA created an alternative process where a judge can authorize entire surveillance programs without necessarily knowing which specific people will be surveillance targets. The PRISM program, which the NSA uses to obtain private information from companies such as Google and Facebook, was authorized under this provision of the FAA.

The George W. Bush administration argued that it needed this new power to spy on terrorists whose communications passed through the United States. The FAA included a provision barring the government from using the surveillance facilities to “target” Americans. The problem, civil liberties groups argue, is that “targeting” is defined in a way that doesn’t actually protect Americans. There are ways for the NSA to effectively spy on Americans without technically “targeting” them.

One example is what’s known as a backdoor search. In this technique, the NSA engages in wide surveillance of communications that involve both Americans and foreigners. So long as the foreigners are the official “target,” this is permitted under the FAA. The NSA sometimes stores the information it has collected in a giant database. And the agency has taken the position that it can search this database for information about Americans without running afoul of the no-targeting-Americans rule.

What does the amendment do?

Congress is considering a bill to fund the military for the 2015 fiscal year, and that includes funding for the National Security Agency. The amendment offered by Sensenbrenner and his colleagues and Lofgren prohibits the NSA from using any funds provided in the bill to “query a collection of foreign intelligence information” acquired under the FAA “using a United States person identifier.

In other words, it would ban the use of federal funds to conduct backdoor searches. In practice, that would make it illegal for the NSA to engage in backdoor searches during the 2015 fiscal year.

The legislation does allow such searches in cases where another court order has authorized surveillance of the American being targeted.

The legislation also effectively bars the NSA or the Central Intelligence Agency from forcing device manufacturers to install technical “backdoors” in their products.

Is that a big deal?

By itself, the amendment falls short of the kind of sweeping NSA reforms some civil liberties groups support. But the vote represents the first time a house of Congress has voted to curtail the controversial practices revealed by Ed Snowden last year. It will give NSA critics renewed political momentum and may force President Obama to make further concessions to critics of the NSA.

In August, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) offered an amendment to last year’s defense funding bill that would have shut down a different NSA program: the collection of Americans’ phone records. That vote failed in a razor-thin 205 to 217 vote. The surprising closeness of the vote was widely interpreted as a sign of congressional anger over the NSA’s actions.

Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, argues that the vote is a rebuke to the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee. That body is supposed to serve as a watchdog over NSA surveillance, but in recent years it has more often acted as a defender of NSA policies. The vote, Sanchez says, “demonstrates pretty dramatically that the gatekeepers in the Intelligence Committee are out of synch with the sentiment of the broader House.”

Sanchez also notes that similar language was stripped from the USA FREEDOM Act, legislation intended to rein in the NSA that wound up being substantially weakened during the legislative process.

Spencer Ackerman wrote more on why this is important  at The Guardian.

Meanwhile, TechDirt reports: a  group of Senators, Mark Udall, Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich, sent President Obama a letter reminding him that he can live up to his promise to end bulk phone record collection today by simply having the DOJ not seek to renew the court order from the FISA Court getting the phone operators to hand over that data.

We welcome your proposal, announced on March 27, 2014, to end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. We believe as you do that the government can protect national security by collecting the phone records of individuals connected to terrorism, instead of collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We also believe that you have the authority to implement your proposal now, rather than continuing to reauthorize the existing bulk collection program in 90-day increments.

James Clapper’s office issued a statement that “the government has sought a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program, as modified by the changes the President announced earlier this year.”

TechDirt responded:

Wait. Given what importance of maintaining the capabilities? So far, every analysis of the program has shown that it wasn’t important at all. How could anyone in the administration still claim with a straight face that the Section 215 bulk phone records collection is “important” when everyone who’s seen the evidence agrees that the program has been next to useless in stopping terrorism.

I imagine we will be returning to this in another ninety days to see if there is truly further progress in reforming the surveillance process from the Obama administration. Hopefully by then Congress also passes legislation containing the amendment preventing backdoor searches.

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Republican Extremism And The Weakness Of Republican Leadership

The victory of David Brat over Eric Cantor was momentarily a cause for celebration, but the long term results might not be so favorable. Norm Ornstein warns that this will lead to further radicalization of the Republican Party:

First, it is clear that this moves the Republican Party even further to the right, in approach, attitude and rhetoric. Even if the overwhelming majority of incumbents, including establishment ones, have won renomination, even if broader Republican public opinion is more establishment conservative than Tea Party radical, all it takes is an example or two of the opposite to get all politicians jumping at their shadows and muttering to themselves, “That could happen to me.”

…American political parties always face a tension between their establishment and ideological wings. On the Republican side, going back more than a hundred years to the Teddy Roosevelt era, that was a struggle between moderate progressives and conservatives.

Now it is different. There are no moderates or progressives in today’s GOP; the fight is between hard-line conservatives who believe in smaller government and radical nihilists who want to blow up the whole thing, who have as much disdain for Republican traditional conservatives as they do for liberals.

In our 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Tom Mann and I described the Republican Party as an “insurgent outlier.” That is even more true today. The energy and driving force in the party, in its House membership, media dominance, caucus and primary electorates and financial backers, is not its conservative wing but its radical side.

Ornstein is probably right that this will pull the Republicans even further to the right, but how far right can they go before even safe Republican districts are at risk? Will Republicans in these districts support any lunatic with an R after his name, or is there a limit? At the moment it appears that Brat should win, but the narrative would certainly change if the victory by such an extremists were to cause the Republicans to lose a safe Republican district.

Yesterday I noted Brat’s views on slashing spending on Medicare, Social Security, and education.  His plan to replace Obmamacare is just as absurd: “We need to also scrap employer-based health insurance, and give those incentives to individuals to carry their own portable health insurance. If we did that, the issue of pre-existing conditions largely goes away.” This makes absolutely no sense as the individual market has been dominated by insurance plans which have been the most abusive at denying coverage to the sick.

Brat’s campaign manager, Zachery Werrell, scrubbed his Facebook page after the victory but Yahoo News took screen shots while the page was still available:

From comparing George Zimmerman’s shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin to abortion to calling for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration and encouraging the adoption of the silver monetary standard, Zachary Werrell – one of just two paid staffers for the upstart campaign of Randolph-Macon College economics professor David Brat – sought in 2012 and 2013 to build a public profile as a socially conservative libertarian voice…

“Can someone who was outraged that George Zimmerman was found not guilty of ‘SOMETHING ANYTHING’ and who is simultaneously pro-choice explain the logical dissonance there? Ie. Why its not ok to kill someone who is banging your head into concrete but its ok to kill someone for simply existing who, through your conscious actions, you brought into the world?” Werrell had written in an Oct. 24, 2013, posting.

The month before, the campaign manager for the likely next congressman for Virginia’s 7th District – since no Democrat has represented that district since 1971 – questioned whether existing state lines were defensible. “Should sections of States be allowed to secede from a State if they feel they are un/underrepresented in the State Government?” Werrell asked. “I say yes. I derive that opinion from our first foundational document – the Declaration of Independence. What say you?”

On Oct. 25, 2013, he called for an end to the regulation of prescription drugs, citing a story from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. “Abolish the FDA!” he wrote.

On Oct. 29 of that year, it was a piece by Fred Reed from Lew Rockwell’s website on the wussification of boys that set him off. “There is a war on boys!” Werrell wrote. “Rough housing, playing soldier, etc, are all punished or medicated away. And we wonder why there is gender inequality in the classroom and in college/attendance/graduation rates.”

The Reed piece called for the end of women teachers in coed or boys’ schools. “It is time to get women out of the schooling of boys,” wrote Fred Reed. “It is way past time. Women in our feminized classrooms are consigning generations of our sons to years of misery and diminished futures.” The piece further argued that “women should not be allowed within fifty feet of a school where boys are taught” and that “Women are totalitarian. Men are happy to let boys be boys and girls be girls. Women want all children to be girls.”

Brat is far more likely than Cantor to make a major gaffe. It will be interesting to see his take on the views of his campaign manager.

If we can fantasize about a Democratic upset in this Congressional district, we might also fantasize about another upset in the general election. Peter Beinart looked at the weakness of the Republican leadership:

Cantor’s boss, John Boehner is, according to Nancy Pelosi, “the weakest speaker in history.” Less than 50 percent of Republicans approve of his performance. Over the last two years, he has repeatedly retreated in the face of opposition from rank-and-file conservatives who treat him with barely disguised disdain. Until the defeat of Cantor, his most likely heir apparent, it was widely assumed that he would soon either step—or be pushed—aside soon.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell only avoided Cantor’s fate by attaching himself to his Kentucky colleague Rand Paul, whose upstart Senate candidacy McConnell had opposed. Like Boehner, McConnell is treated with striking disrespect in his own caucus.

David Frum wonders whether the Republican leadership will ever fight back:

At some point, Republican leaders must recognize that they have a fight on their hands whether they like it or not. If they refuse to join that fight, they will be devoured anyway. If they surrender, they condemn the whole conservative project in America to the destructive leadership of fanatics (and the cynics who make their living by duping fanatics).

I never thought there was much of a chance of Grimes to beat Mitch McConnell despite being close in the polls but today Political Wire reported that “A new Magellan Strategies (R) poll in Kentucky finds Allison Lundergran Grimes (D) leading Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) by three points in the U.S. Senate race, 49% to 46%.” Perhaps a major reason that Cantor was defeated is general bipartisan disgust with the Republican leadership, and if so this just might extend to knocking out McConnell.

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Obama Responds To Myth That Both Parties Are Responsible For Current Gridlock

Obama Green Lantern

There has been a lot of back and forth on line recently regarding whether Obama deserves blame for the gridlock in Washington. Ezra Klein explained the fallacies once again in the Green Lantern view of the presidency as a character with near infinite powers.  Ron Fournier continues to play the false equivalency game in trying to blame both the left and right, ignoring the considerable differences between the two and the unprecedented levels of obstructionism since Obama was elected.  He seems to think that being a typical politician and promising more than he can deliver is somehow equivalent to the Republicans deciding to oppose anything proposed by Obama from day one.

Jason Linkins suggested a more realistic view of Obama. If he isn’t Green Lantern, he might be more like Agent Coulson: “team-assembler, favorable environment provider, manager of discrete tasks and outsized personalities, quick to adapt to changing circumstances, eminently mortal, and yet (spoiler alert) at times resurrectable.” Last year Linkins wondered if Fournier could read when he made the same mistakes.

I was happy to see Obama directly respond to this at a fund raiser:

“You’ll hear if you watch the nightly news or you read the newspapers that, well, there’s gridlock, Congress is broken, approval ratings for Congress are terrible.  And there’s a tendency to say, a plague on both your houses.  But the truth of the matter is that the problem in Congress is very specific.  We have a group of folks in the Republican Party who have taken over who are so ideologically rigid, who are so committed to an economic theory that says if folks at the top do very well then everybody else is somehow going to do well; who deny the science of climate change; who don’t think making investments in early childhood education makes sense; who have repeatedly blocked raising a minimum wage so if you work full-time in this country you’re not living in poverty; who scoff at the notion that we might have a problem with women not getting paid for doing the same work that men are doing.

“They, so far, at least, have refused to budge on bipartisan legislation to fix our immigration system, despite the fact that every economist who’s looked at it says it’s going to improve our economy, cut our deficits, help spawn entrepreneurship, and alleviate great pain from millions of families all across the country.

“So the problem…is not that the Democrats are overly ideological — because the truth of the matter is, is that the Democrats in Congress have consistently been willing to compromise and reach out to the other side.  There are no radical proposals coming out from the left.  When we talk about climate change, we talk about how do we incentivize through the market greater investment in clean energy.  When we talk about immigration reform there’s no wild-eyed romanticism.  We say we’re going to be tough on the borders, but let’s also make sure that the system works to allow families to stay together…

“When we talk about taxes we don’t say we’re going to have rates in the 70 percent or 90 percent when it comes to income like existed here 50, 60 years ago.  We say let’s just make sure that those of us who have been incredibly blessed by this country are giving back to kids so that they’re getting a good start in life, so that they get early childhood education…Health care — we didn’t suddenly impose some wild, crazy system.  All we said was let’s make sure everybody has insurance. And this made the other side go nuts — the simple idea that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, nobody should go bankrupt because somebody in their family gets sick, working within a private system.

“So when you hear a false equivalence that somehow, well, Congress is just broken, it’s not true.  What’s broken right now is a Republican Party that repeatedly says no to proven, time-tested strategies to grow the economy, create more jobs, ensure fairness, open up opportunity to all people.”

Ron Fournier has been one of the more prominent journalists attacking Obama from the center with arguments based upon drawing a false equivalency. This has led to some criticism of centrists, but not all centrists have fallen for this idea that both sides are mirror images of each other. Centrists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein made it clear that Republicans are the problem in 2012:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. Its once-legendary moderate and center-right legislators in the House and the Senate — think Bob Michel, Mickey Edwards, John Danforth, Chuck Hagel — are virtually extinct.

The post-McGovern Democratic Party, by contrast, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent in the decades after the civil rights revolution, has retained a more diverse base. Since the Clinton presidency, it has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post…

Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

In the third and now fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading last year to America’s first credit downgrade

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The 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner–Full Video And Best Lines

Above is the video of Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Full transcript is here and excerpts follow:

I admit it — last year was rough.  Sheesh.  At one point things got so bad, the 47 percent called Mitt Romney to apologize.

Of course, we rolled out healthcare.gov.  That could have gone better.  In 2008 my slogan was, “Yes We Can.”  In 2013 my slogan was, “Control-Alt-Delete.”  On the plus side, they did turn the launch of healthcare.gov into one of the year’s biggest movies.  (Slide of “Frozen”)

But rather than dwell on the past, I would like to pivot to this dinner.  Let’s welcome our headliner this evening, Joel McHale.  On “Community,” Joel plays a preening, self-obsessed narcissist.  So this dinner must be a real change of pace for you.

I want to thank the White House Correspondents Association for hosting us here tonight.  I am happy to be here, even though I am a little jet-lagged from my trip to Malaysia.  The lengths we have to go to get CNN coverage these days.  I think they’re still searching for their table.

MSNBC is here.  They’re a little overwhelmed.  They’ve never seen an audience this big before.

Just last month, a wonderful story — an American won the Boston Marathon for first time in 30 years. Which was inspiring and only fair, since a Kenyan has been president for the last six.

We have some other athletes here tonight, including Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Jamie Anderson is here.  We’re proud of her.  Incredibly talented young lady.  Michelle and I watched the Olympics — we cannot believe what these folks do — death-defying feats — haven’t seen somebody pull a “180” that fast since Rand Paul disinvited that Nevada rancher from this dinner. As a general rule, things don’t like end well if the sentence starts, “Let me tell you something I know about the negro.”  You don’t really need to hear the rest of it. Just a tip for you — don’t start your sentence that way.

And speaking of conservative heroes, the Koch brothers bought a table here tonight.  But as usual, they used a shadowy right-wing organization as a front.  Hello, Fox News.

Let’s face it, Fox, you’ll miss me when I’m gone. It will be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya.

Of course, now that it’s 2014, Washington is obsessed on the midterms.  Folks are saying that with my sagging poll numbers, my fellow Democrats don’t really want me campaigning with them.  And I don’t think that’s true — although I did notice the other day that Sasha needed a speaker at career day, and she invited Bill Clinton.a, Bill Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, Captain America, Chris Christie, Community, Donald Trump, Facebook, Fox, George Bush, Health Care Reform, Hillary Clinton, House of Cards, Jeb Bush,

And I’m feeling sorry — believe it or not — for the Speaker of the House, as well.  These days, the House Republicans actually give John Boehner a harder time than they give me, which means orange really is the new black.

Look, I know, Washington seems more dysfunctional than ever.  Gridlock has gotten so bad in this town you have to wonder:  What did we do to piss off Chris Christie so bad?

One issue, for example, we haven’t been able to agree on is unemployment insurance.  Republicans continue to refuse to extend it.  And you know what, I am beginning to think they’ve got a point.  If you want to get paid while not working, you should have to run for Congress just like everybody else.

Of course, there is one thing that keeps Republicans busy.  They have tried more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare.  Despite that, 8 million people signed up for health care in the first open enrollment. Which does lead one to ask, how well does Obamacare have to work before you don’t want to repeal it?  What if everybody’s cholesterol drops to 120?  What if your yearly checkup came with tickets to a Clippers game? Not the old, Donald Sterling Clippers — the new Oprah Clippers.  Would that be good enough?  What if they gave Mitch McConnell a pulse?  What is it going to take?

Joel McHale, star of Community and The Soup, did an excellent job. #sixtimesashostandamovie. He has followed a long line of top comedians who have roasted politicians and the media and previous events. The all time best speakers was Stephen Colbert who roasted George Bush in 2006. The full transcript of his speech can be found here.

Following are some of Joel McHale’s best jokes, with video above and full transcript here.

Good evening, Mr. President — or as Paul Ryan refers to you, yet another inner-city minority relying on the federal government to feed and house your family.

I’m a big fan of President Obama. I think he’s one of the all- time great presidents — definitely in the top 50. Please explain that to Jessica Simpson. You’re right. That was low.

All right, how about the president’s performance tonight, everyone?  It is — it’s amazing that you can still bring it with fresh, hilarious material. And my favorite bit of yours was when you said you’d close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. That was a classic. That was hilarious, hilarious. Still going.

All right, look, I know it’s been a long night, but I promise that tonight will be both amusing and over quickly, just like Chris Christie’s presidential bid.

It’s a genuine thrill to be here in Washington, D.C., the city that started the whole crack-smoking-mayor craze.

The vice president isn’t here tonight, not for security reasons. He just thought this event was being held at the Dulles Airport Applebee’s. Yes, right now Joe is elbow-deep in jalapeno poppers and talking to a construction cone he thinks is John Boehner. Also true.

Hillary Clinton has a lot going for her as a candidate. She has experience. She’s a natural leader. And, as our first female president, we could pay her 30 percent less. That’s the savings this country could use.

Hillary’s daughter Chelsea is pregnant, which means in nine months we will officially have a sequel to “Bad Grandpa.” It also raises the question, when the baby is born, do you give Bill Clinton a cigar?

Jeb Bush says he’s thinking about running. Wow, another Bush might be in the White House. Is it already time for our every-10- years surprise party for Iraq? Yes.

As it stands right now, the Republican presidential nominee will either be Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, or a bag of flour with Ronald Reagan’s face drawn on it.  A bag of flour. All right.

People are asking, will Donald Trump run again? And the answer is, does that thing on his head crap in the woods?  I actually don’t know. I don’t know.I don’t know if that thing on his head has a digestive system.

Governor, do you want bridge jokes or size jokes? Because I’ve got a bunch of both. I could go half and half. I know you like a combo platter.  Now, I get that. I’m sorry for that joke, Governor Christie. I didn’t know I was going to tell it, but I take full responsibility for it. Whoever wrote it will be fired. But the buck stops here. So I will be a man and own up to it, just as soon as I get to the bottom of how it happened, because I was unaware it happened until just now.

I’m appointing a blue-ribbon commission of me to investigate the joke I just told. And if I find any wrongdoing on my part, I assure you I will be dealt with. I just looked into it. It turns out I’m not responsible for it. Justice has been served. He’s going to kill me.

Mr. President, you’re no stranger to criticism. Ted Nugent called you a subhuman mongrel. And it’s comments like that which really make me question whether we can take the guy who wrote “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” seriously anymore.

Your approval rating has slipped. And even worse, you only got two stars on Yelp.

Mitch McConnell said his number one priority was to get the president out of office. So, Mitch, congrats on being just two years away from realizing your goal. You did it — kind of.

But thanks to “Obamacare,” or, as the president refers to it, “Mecare,” millions of newly insured young Americans can visit a doctor’s office and see what a print magazine actually looks like. That’s awesome.

Now over 8 million people have signed up for “Obamacare,” which sounds impressive until you realize Ashley Tisdale has 12 million Twitter followers. So that’s pretty good.

Sir, I do think you’re making a big mistake with Putin. You have to show a guy like that that you’re just as crazy as he is. He invades Crimea. You invade Cancun.  Russia takes back the Ukraine. America takes back Texas. Something to think about.

The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, is here. Finally I can put a face to the mysterious voice clearing its throat on the other end of the phone.  It was weird.

And CNN is desperately searching for something they’ve been missing for months — their dignity.  Totally. That was just that table. At this point, CNN is like the Radio Shack in a sad strip mall. You don’t know how it’s stayed in business this long. You don’t know anyone that shops there. And they just fired Piers Morgan.

Fox News is the highest-rated network in cable news.  Yeah. I can’t believe your table  — that far.  And it’s all thanks to their key demographic, the corpses of old people who tuned in to Fox News and haven’t yet been discovered.

Former “Inside Edition” host Bill O’Reilly is not here. He did host that. Bill’s got another book coming out soon, so he’s making his ghost writers work around the clock. Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity are the Mount Rushmore of keeping old people angry.

This event brings together both Washington and Hollywood. The relationship between Washington and Hollywood has been a long and fruitful one. You give us tax credits for film and television production, and in return, we bring much-needed jobs to hard-working American cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Vancouver again.

Hollywood helps America by projecting a heroic image to the rest of the world. We just released another movie about Captain America, or, as he’s known in China, Captain Who Owes Us $1.1 Trillion.

There’s a lot of celebrities here tonight. They’re the ones that don’t look like ghouls. Look around. The cast of “Veep” is here. That’s a series about what would happen if a Seinfeld star actually landed on another good show. I like “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” I swear.

I’m not going to spoil the shocking twist on “House of Cards,” but just know that it was so surprising that Nancy Pelosi’s face almost changed expression. Did you like that one, Nancy? I can’t tell.

Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter, is here. So if any of you congressmen want to cut out the middleman, just show him your penis. Not now! Are you nuts?

And here’s why America is the best country in the world. A guy like me can stand before the president, the press and Patrick Duffy — and tell jokes without severe repercussions. And instead of being shipped off to a gulag, I’m going to the Vanity Fair after-party. That’s right. This is America, where everyone can be a Pussy Riot.

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Republican Benghazi Truthers Go Wild In Preparation For Midterm Elections

What do the Republicans do when the Affordable Care Act is exceeding expectations, their latest  lies have been exposed, and there are no real scandals for them to attack with? Benghazi. Sure it has been investigated over and over again with nothing coming up, but that doesn’t matter. Politics, especially in a year with a midterm election, is all about firing up the base to get out to vote, and we know the Republican base doesn’t care about facts. They have a new email which adds nothing new to the story, but that is apparently enough for John Boehner to call for yet another investigation. Or as Paul Waldman put it, The GOP hunt for a Watergate-scale scandal continues (even though there is nothing there).

David Weigel reported on the “shocking” news that the email showed that the White House agreed with the CIA talking points.

But it’s just lazy journalism or lazy politicking to blame Rhodes for a talking point that was fed from the CIA. The White House’s shifty-sounding excuse, that the “demonstration” story line came not from its spin factory but from the CIA, remains surprisingly accurate. (And I mean really lazy. It does not take very much time to compare the new Rhodes email to the previously known timeline of emails.)

From there Weigel presented a time line which you might want to go through to help put all this nonsense into perspective.

Peter Weber at The Week tried to find an actual crime which the Republicans might be accusing Obama of:

If the crime is that the Obama administration, two months before a presidential election, was concerned with putting the best face on the attack, Team Obama is probably guilty. But the emails do not suggest that the administration lied to the American public, let alone orchestrated a vast cover-up of some massive intelligence or policy failure.

Maybe they need a new committee to investigate as Darrel Issa’s witch hunt is falling apart.

If Congress really wants to investigate preventable deaths of Americans, they can look at how George Bush ignored intelligence briefings warning about the 9/11 attack, and then responded by sending more Americans to their death in the Iraq war based upon lies. Rather than dwelling further on Susan Rice, they might look at how Condoleezza Rice lied when she denied receiving the anti-terrorist strategy from the Clinton administration. They could look at previous embassy attacks under Republican presidents, including the over 320 Americans who died in embassy attacks under Ronald Reagan or question why Republicans cut funding for embassy security.

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Republican Extremism Gives Democrats The Edge

Jonathan Chait looked at demographic and political trends to consider whether the trend towards the Democratic Party is likely to continue. Much of what he wrote is a recap of the conventional wisdom these days, with some disagreeing. He considered multiple factors including the tendency of the young and minorities to vote Democratic. To some degree this could be offset by an increased trend for white voters to vote Republican out of a backlash against the increase in minorities. While Democrats are expected to dominate in presidential elections, there certainly can be exceptions if there is a major occurrence favoring Republicans as the party out of power. Plus Republicans should continue to maintain a sizable portion of Congress due to the higher turnout among Republicans in off year elections as well as structural advantages in each House. Republicans have an advantage in the House of Representatives due to gerrymandering and the greater concentration of Democrats in urban areas, giving Democrats victories by larger margins in a smaller number of states. Republicans have an advantage in the Senate due to smaller Republican states having the same number of Senators as the larger Democratic states. Republicans therefore have a reasonable chance of controlling each House, or come close as is now the case in the Senate, despite a larger number of people voting for Democrats to represent them.

The key point which gives us our status quo, and gives the Democrats the edge, is that the Republican Party is now firmly in the hands of a radical fringe which will always have difficulty winning a national election, but which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future:

My belief, of which I obviously can’t be certain, is that conservatism as we know it is doomed. I believe this because the virulent opposition to the welfare state we see here is almost completely unique among major conservative parties across the world. In no other advanced country do leading figures of governing parties propose the denial of medical care to their citizens or take their ideological inspiration from crackpots like Ayn Rand. America’s unique brand of ideological anti-statism is historically inseparable (as I recently argued) from the legacy of slavery. Whatever form America’s polyglot majority ultimately takes, it is hard to see the basis for its attraction to an ideology sociologically rooted in white supremacy.

Jonathan Bernstein sees the United States as remaining more of a 50:50 nation as in 2000, also citing George Bush’s victory over John Kerry in 2004. However the Democratic advantage in the electoral college has increased tremendously since 2000 when George W. Bush was able to come in a close enough second to take the presidency due to irregularities in Florida and a friendly Supreme Court. This victory in 2000, along with the 9/11 attack, gave Bush, as an incumbent during time of war, an edge which future Republican candidates are unlikely to enjoy.

The current political divisions won’t last in their current form forever. At sometime there is likely to be a major event which shakes up the current divisions. Chait noted that this might have been the 9/11 attack if the Republicans hadn’t squandered their political advantages by their disastrous invasion of Iraq. I would add to that being on the wrong side of far too many other issues prevented the Republicans from becoming a long-term majority party.

Most likely at some point in the future the far right will lose their grasp on the Republican Party as those who actually want to be able to win an election eventually regain control. Perhaps this will come as a newer generation rejects the most extreme ideas of the current conservative movement. If the Republicans don’t change, eventually a third party might challenge them, as difficult as it is for third parties to compete in our current political system. We might also see the Republicans persisting in their current form as a southern regional party as others battle for political control in the rest of the country.

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Republicans Had To Hide Support For Fix To Affordable Care Act To Limit Attacks From The Right

The “doc fix”  has become a strange legislative tradition as Congress regularly votes to stop the automatic  cuts in physician payment called for under the flawed Sustainable Growth Rate formula. As I discussed in March, this time there were a couple of new twists which were known, but in addition it turns out that another item hidden in the bill reveals a lot about the Republican Party.

First I’ll recap what we had already known. The “doc fix” proposed to block the cuts which would have taken effect in April was for one year and included multiple other measures, including a delay in implementing change to ICD-10 diagnosis codes until at least October 2015. Physician groups actually opposed this bill because a permanent fix was also under consideration and it was feared that passing yet another temporary fix would lead to abandonment of the permanent fix (which does now appear dead).

The “doc fix” regularly passes with bipartisan support because Congress is not going to risk the backlash which would be created if many Medicare patients could no longer find physicians willing to accept them. This time the House passed the “doc fix” on a voice vote, which allows individual members to avoid being held accountable for the vote.

Over the weekend we learned why House Republicans wanted to pass this on a voice vote. Another item in the bill made some changes in the Affordable Care Act which was desired by small business and which Democrats were willing to make:

At the prodding of business organizations, House Republicans quietly secured a recent change in President Barack Obama’s health law to expand coverage choices, a striking, one-of-a-kind departure from dozens of high-decibel attempts to repeal or dismember it.

Democrats describe the change involving small-business coverage options as a straightforward improvement of the type they are eager to make, and Obama signed it into law. Republicans are loath to agree, given the strong sentiment among the rank and file that the only fix the law deserves is a burial.

“Maybe you say it helps (Obamacare), but it really helps the small businessman,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., one of several physician-lawmakers among Republicans and an advocate of repeal.

No member of the House GOP leadership has publicly hailed the fix, which was tucked, at Republicans’ request, into legislation preventing a cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

It is unclear how many members of the House rank and file knew of it because the legislation was passed by a highly unusual voice vote without debate.

This shows how dysfunctional Congress has become. Normally both parties would see it as a victory for the system that they passed a measure to make requested changes in the Affordable Care Act. However, Republicans felt compelled to hide this vote because it contradicts their public policy of only supporting repeal (having voted for repeal over fifty times). Since this became public, the Republicans have faced criticism from the right, probably making it even harder for them to vote on improvements in the Affordable Care Act in the future.

The fix which passed allows small businesses to offer policies with higher deductibles. This allows for lower premiums, and the higher deductibles are often handled separately with Medical Savings Accounts. There are also added protections in new insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act such as annual limits on out of pocket expenses and the elimination of annual and lifetime caps on coverage which help offset the problems created by higher deductibles.

If Republicans should attack the Affordable Care Act based upon including high deductible plans, keep in mind that this is exactly the type of plan which Republicans frequently advocate, and that the Republicans voted to increase the allowable deductible levels in response to requests from small business.  Democrats had no objection to the change as the limit on deductions was originally placed in the bill because it was supported by Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. In response to this addition, Snowe voted for the Affordable Care Act when in the Senate Finance Committee but ultimately voted against the bill on the Senate floor, along with every other Republican Senator.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Democrats Need A Message

One reason that the Republicans get people to turn out to vote in off year elections, often to vote against their economic self-interest, is that they have a message. The message might be based upon dishonest claims and incorrect views as to how the economy and government work, but it is a message. In contrast, many Democratic voters feel less interested in turning out to vote, especially in off year elections. To some degree the Democrats have difficulty in defining a message as they are a big tent party which wins elections by appealing to a wide variety of voters, ranging from center-right to left wing. Issues which appeal to some Democratic voters might turn off others.

The Washington Post describes how Senate Democrats are struggling to define a message:

Senate Democrats’ latest effort in that regard is a 10-point plan for legislation they intend to bring to the floor over the spring and summer.

The issues are familiar ones for Democrats, and poll well among Americans generally.

Yet they are top priorities to narrower slices of the Democrats’ constituency — particularly those who showed up to vote for President Obama in 2012, but who do not have a history or voting in off-year contests.

The first items up for Senate debate will be increasing the minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, and a bill to assure paycheck equity between male and female workers.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that those are measures that would have their greatest impact on young people, unmarried women, Latinos and African-Americans — all of whom can be difficult to turn out in years when there is no presidential election.

“This doesn’t replace a broader economic message. In the long run, we have to do that. But in the short run, this is very helpful,” said Lake, who has warned that the Democrats face a large turnout disadvantage in a year when Republican voters appear to be more motivated.

GOP pollster Neil Newhouse said the Senate Democrats’ targeted strategy echoes that of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, where he emphasized a number of “niche group” issues such as the Dream Act, mandatory contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act, student loan expansion and support for same-sex marriage.

Why haven’t Democrats been pushing for legalization of same-sex marriage more strongly in the past? As Michigan and other states saw recent legal victories for marriage equality I thought that, although this is an issue far more associated with Democrats than Republicans, the victories are in the courts and not the result of actions by the Democratic Party.

Perhaps Democratic leaders did not want to be associated with bringing about marriage equality out of a fear of losing socially conservative Democratic voters. Maybe, but I also wonder how many socially liberal people who lean Democratic don’t bother to get out to vote because of not seeing a real commitment from Democratic leaders for liberal causes.

Republicans have learned that people tend to take on the other views of the party they associate with when there is a consistent message. They get social conservatives to back their economic policies by joining these as a common conservative philosophy. If the Democrats were to put out a more consistent message, perhaps those who vote for Democrats for other reasons would also “evolve,” as Barack Obama has, on issues such as same-sex marriage.

Democrats should frame this as a consistent platform of keeping government out of the private lives of individuals, along with support for reproductive rights and ideally an end to marijuana prohibition (or at least a stronger defense of medical marijuana). It is amazing that Democrats have allowed Republicans to take an advantage on issues which should be seen as reasons to vote Democratic, from size of government as it relates to private lives to support for Medicare.

Democrats also think too small on economic matters. Rather than just concentrating on issues such as increasing the minimum wage, Democrats need an economic message showing how Democratic ideas strengthen and grow the economy while Republican economic policies lead to economic stagnation and a concentration of wealth in a small minority. Income inequality is an important issue, but only when placed in an overall economic message of expanding the economy and how extreme income inequality destroys the middle class. An economic message seen as merely dislike for the rich (or the Koch brothers) will never sell.

Of course making a coherent economic message which will not only mobilize their own voters but bring in new voters will take time and cannot be done in only one election year. The Republicans have been working for years at indoctrinating the country in their type of Voodoo Economics. It will also take several years to get out the message on how the economy actually works, but the Democrats might as well start now.

Health care remains one of the strongest reasons to vote for Democrats. Even those who have a negative view of the Affordable Care Act based upon Republican misinformation still prefer to improve it over either repeal or turning to any Republican alternative. As I have written before, Democrats need to go on the offensive on health care reform, not run away from the issue. Joe Conason has the same message again, with numbers now out showing that enrollment through the exchanges has exceeded the projected number of six million:

Success for Obamacare might boost the turnout projections that Republicans have tried so hard to suppress and that Democrats have so far proved unable to resuscitate.

Dominant forces in the Republican Party — including the tea party and its billionaire financiers — have staked everything on the commonplace assumption that Obamacare will drag down Democrats across the country.

Indeed, they make almost no other argument. Bolstering that cynical bet is the Democratic hesitation to mount a powerful counteroffensive on health care, with the impulse to push the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and other vital issues that still feel safer.

But as Clinton warns, they will find no shelter from this storm. They cannot hide from their own history; and the more they pretend to do so, the more they risk contempt. For decades, Democrats have insisted that all Americans must have health coverage — a momentous and admirable goal advanced by the Affordable Care Act.

With the numbers now on their side, they should lift their heads, raise their voices, and lean into the midterm debate. They have no better choice.

Cross Posted at The Moderate Voice

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Bill Calls For Adding ICD-10 Delay To Latest “Doc Fix”

I recently pointed out that the Republicans killed a recent attempt to repeal the Sustainable Growth Rate formula by attaching a measure to end the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. With failing to repeal the Sustainable Growth Rate it becomes necessary for Congress to pass yet another temporary “doc fix” to prevent Medicare reimbursement from automatically falling so low that doctors will not be able to afford to see Medicare patients.

Medical Economics reports that a proposal to delay the transition from ICD-9 to ICD-10 diagnoses codes from October 2013 to October 2014. The transition was originally passed under the Bush administration, so ignore the Republican claims which are out there which blame Obamacare for the change. While there are benefits to the newer system which is used by the rest of the world, the change would be very expensive for medical practices. Changes such as this also take up a lot of physician time, reducing the number of patients which can be seen each day.

Such decreases in productivity would come at a poor time in 2013 when millions of new people will receive health insurance due to the Affordable Care Act and will need to find physicians who are accepting new patients. In addition, the second phase of requirements for electronic medical records (EMR’s) also kicks in for many physicians this October and having two sets of major changes will further reduce physician productivity, making it more difficult to accept new patients. Personally I had to greatly restrict accepting new patients for several months after the first phase of requirements went into effect, and anticipate again having to limit accepting new patients this fall if both the new EMR requirements and change to ICD-10 take effect simultaneously.

The AMA and many other physician groups have been lobbying for a further delay in ICD-10 implementation, which has already been delayed in the past. Medical Economics reports:

The ICD-10 transition has been a major point of concern for physicians due to its scope and cost to implement. In recent months the American Medical Association (AMA) ramped up opposition to the ICD-10 transition, and petitioned CMS for a delay to the implementation of ICD-10.

According to the AMA, small practices can expect staggering costs ranging from $56,639 to $226,105 to implement the new code set. According to a February survey by the Medical Management Group Association, 79% of physicians report that they haven’t begun ICD-10 implementation, or were only “somewhat ready.”

Molly Cooke, MD, FACP, president of the American College of Physicians, said the college favors the delay. “The college has expressed concern at every opportunity about the implementation of ICD-10. I’m not sure the healthcare system loses a lot if we delay implementation for another year, and it certainly would give our members a bit of a breather.”Earlier this month, the Republican-led House passed a bill to repeal SGR and replace it with a formula that would calculate payments based on quality metrics. But the bill received widespread opposition from Democrats because it was paid for by a five-year delay in the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Don’t Panic Because Nate Silver Predicts Republicans Will Take Senate

I was traveling yesterday and when I finally got on line saw a lot of panic over Nate Silver predicting that the Republicans were favored to take control of the Senate. I don’t find this terribly significant.

We already knew that there was a real possibility that the Republicans could take control of the Senate and Silver’s prediction does not provide any new information. Silver making the prediction does not mean it is any more likely to occur than it was last week. He was way off in predicting a 61 percent chance the Republicans would take control of the Senate in 2012. I hope he is wrong again.

As I noted recently, Nate Silver’s predictions in the 2012 presidential election were similar to those from other sources (ignoring the Republicans who made predictions contrary to polling results). His predictions for the Senate in 2012 were also comparable to predictions being made by others at that point. His prediction for the Senate in 2014 is comparable to predictions already made by others.

There is real reason to fear that the Republicans will take control of the Senate is year, but the news of Nate Silver predicting this does not alter what we knew before he made this prediction and does not mean that it is any more likely to occur.

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