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“I Fought in Afghanistan. I Still Wonder, Was It Worth It?”

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Timothy Kahn, formerly a USMC captain, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and writes in the NY Times:

When President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, he appeared to be finally bringing this “forever war” to an end. Although I have waited for this moment for a decade, it is impossible to feel relief. The Sept. 11 attacks took place during my senior year of college, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed consumed the entirety of my adult life. Although history books may mark this as the end of the Afghanistan war, it will never be over for many of my generation who fought.

Sometimes there are moments, no more than the span of a breath, when the smell of it returns and once again I’m stepping off the helicopter ramp into the valley. Covered in the ashen dust of the rotor wash, I take in for the first time the blend of wood fires burning from inside lattice-shaped mud compounds, flooded fields of poppies and corn, the sweat of the unwashed and the wet naps that failed to mask it, chicken and sheep and the occasional cow, the burn pit where trash and plastic smoldered through the day, curries slick with oil eaten by hand on carpeted dirt floors, and fresh bodies buried shallow, like I.E.D.s, in the bitter earth.

It’s sweet and earthy, familiar to the farm boys in the platoon who knew that blend of animal and human musk but alien to those of us used only to the city or the lush Southern woods we patrolled during training. Later, at the big bases far from the action, surrounded by gyms and chow halls and the expeditionary office park where the flag and field grade officers did their work, it was replaced by a cologne of machinery and order. Of common parts installed by low-bid contractors and the ocher windblown sand of the vast deserts where those behemoth bases were always located. Relatively safe after the long months at the frontier but dull and lifeless.

Then it’s replaced by the sweet, artificial scents of home after the long plane ride back. Suddenly I’m on a cold American street littered with leaves. A couple passes by holding hands, a bottle of wine in a tote bag, dressed for a party, unaware of the veneer that preserves their carelessness.

I remain distant from them, trapped between past and present, in the same space you sometimes see in the eyes of the old-timers marching in Veterans Day parades with their folded caps covered in retired unit patches, wearing surplus uniforms they can’t seem to take off. It’s the space between their staring eyes and the cheering crowd where those of us who return from war abide.

My war ended in 2011, when I came home from Afghanistan eager to resume my life. I was in peak physical shape, had a college degree, had a half-year of saved paychecks and would receive an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in a few months. I was free to do whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything.

Initially I attributed it to jet lag, then to a need for well-deserved rest, but eventually there was no excuse. I returned to my friends and family, hoping I would feel differently. I did not.

“Relax. You earned it,” they said. “There’s plenty of time to figure out what’s next.” But figuring out the future felt like abandoning the past. It had been just a month since my last combat patrol, but I know now that years don’t make a difference.

At first, everyone wanted to ask about the war. They knew they were supposed to but approached the topic tentatively, the way you hold out a hand to an injured animal. And as I went into detail, their expressions changed, first to curiosity, then sympathy and finally to horror.

I knew their repulsion was only self-preservation. After all, the war cost nothing to the civilians who stayed home. They just wanted to live the free and peaceful lives they’d grown accustomed to — and wasn’t their peace of mind what we fought for in the first place?

After my discharge, I moved to . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Curbing gun violence in the United States

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In a post yesterday, I set out the reasons that suicide should, like homicide, be viewed as part of the serious gun violence problem the US has. What can be done to implement ways of combating gun violence? Colleen Walsh describes in the Harvard Gazette some steps that could be taken.

In the wake of several deadly mass shootings, President Biden announced a list of executive orders last Thursday aimed at reducing gun-related violence, and called for Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Biden’s orders included better regulation of “ghost guns” — homemade weapons that lack traceable serial numbers — and stabilizing braces that transform pistols into more lethal, short-barreled rifles. They also called for increased support for violence-intervention programs, and model “red flag” legislation to make it easier to get guns away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Stopping gun violence will take myriad approaches, including a range of public health efforts, according to David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and author of the 2006 book “Private Guns, Public Health.” Hemenway, who is working on a new book about firearms and public health while the Elizabeth S. and Richard M. Cashin Fellow at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, spoke with the Gazette about what needs to be done to curb gun violence in the U.S.

Q&A with David Hemenway

GAZETTE: What was your impression of Biden’s executive orders around gun control?

HEMENWAY: Biden’s overall plan seems excellent—a response that is more than just more law enforcement — and these executive actions are good first steps to reduce the terrible problem of firearm violence in the U.S. There are various specific actions taken, such as beginning to address the issues of ghost guns (which aren’t subject to background checks), and they are all important. He could do more, but there are so many important things he can’t do by himself with executive orders. Overall, I think it’s a nice first step, but he needs Congress to work with him to do many of the most important things.

GAZETTE: What are some of those things?

HEMENWAY: Universal background checks need to be passed by Congress, but even more important than that would be universal gun-licensing laws (which implies universal background checks) and handgun registration. Just as everyone who drives a motor vehicle needs to have a license and vehicle registration, the same should be true for anyone who owns a firearm. Only a few U.S. states have gun licensing, but as far as I can tell, virtually every other developed country has some form of gun licensing, and their levels of gun violence are all far lower than ours. Licensing and registration helps keep guns out of the wrong hands.

There are so many other actions the federal government could take to help further reduce firearm violence. For example, the federal government could model what good training for gun owners should look like. In our work at the School of Public Health, we sent people out to take dozens of basic gun training classes throughout the Northeast. Some of the trainings were excellent, but some were horrible. Only half of the trainers discussed how you should store your guns appropriately, while a few said if you have kids you can just hide your guns. Almost no one discussed the role of guns in suicide, the curiosity of children, methods of de-escalating conflict, alternative methods of self-defense, or the type of continual training one needs to effectively use a gun in self-defense. The federal government could play an important role in helping to create and model rules around training.

We also need better gun-safety standards. Many children (and some adults) don’t know that when you take out the magazine from a semi-automatic pistol, the gun is still loaded, not realizing that there is a bullet left in the chamber and that if you pull the trigger you could kill somebody. This is the most common way that children are killed unintentionally with guns in this country. Even better than teaching every child or even having guns that make it apparent when they can still be fired, semi-automatic pistols can be made so the gun won’t fire when the magazine has been removed. We should also have childproof guns. Many 2- to 4-year-olds kill themselves when they find a loaded firearm. We made childproof aspirin bottles because children would find aspirin bottles and die from ingesting the aspirin, but we still make it too easy for toddlers to find guns and kill themselves.

I also think we need strict liability laws for gun owners. One of the reasons accidental pool drownings decreased in many parts of the world is because people who don’t properly fence and protect their pools became liable in the case of accidental injury, especially to children who gained access to the pool and drowned. The same should be true for something as dangerous as a gun. If you own TNT, or anything which is extremely dangerous, you have to be safe and responsible with it. Right now, that’s not the case for many guns, which are too commonly stored insecurely. Roughly 350,000 guns are stolen each year and end up in the wrong hands.

GAZETTE: Picking up on the issue of liability, Biden said during his press conference if he could do one thing it would be to eliminate immunity for gun manufacturers.

HEMENWAY: That’s certainly important. The reason the law was passed during the Bush administration was to protect the gun manufacturers and distributors who saw what had happened in the tobacco arena, and they didn’t want it to happen to them, so they got Republicans to pass a law giving them incredible immunity compared to other products. So yes, that would be a useful thing.

GAZETTE: Why do you think there is so little appetite in America, even after so many mass shootings, for any additional controls on the sale and use of guns?

HEMENWAY: I think it’s a combination of misinformation and the culture wars. I looked at Google news this morning, and the headline about the Biden initiatives was from Fox News: “Sen. Hawley: Biden ultimately seeks civilian gun confiscation while permitting rioters and crime.”

GAZETTE: What do you think of Biden’s pick to head the ATF, David Chipman?

HEMENWAY: I know David. I think he’s great. He’s very smart, very personable, hard-working, and quite experienced. He was an ATF agent for years ­— he’s certainly well-qualified. It would be good if he could strengthen the ATF’s oversight of gun dealers. The agency has been hamstrung through the years, and there seem to still be too many bad-apple gun dealers who make it too easy for the wrong people to gain access to firearms.

GAZETTE: Biden’s plan also calls for a new report on gun trafficking to be conducted by the Justice Department. In your mind, why is that data so important?

HEMENWAY: Reports are good, but perhaps even more important would be

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 12:07 pm

Republicans going off in all directions

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Heather Cox Richardson has a post that’s worth reading because it sets out a variety of developing issues, including a serious conflict within the Republican party regarding the direction it should take. She writes:

Congress has been on break since March 29, and tomorrow members will go back to Washington, D.C., to resume work. The next weeks are going to be busy for the lawmakers, not least because the political ground in America appears to be shifting.

In the two weeks the lawmakers have been back in their districts, a lot has happened. The Biden administration released the American Jobs Plan on March 31, calling for a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure. The plan includes traditional items like railroads and bridges and roads; it also uses a modern, expansive definition of infrastructure, including support for our electrical grid, green energy, and clean water delivery, as well as the construction of high-speed broadband to all Americans. The plan also defines childcare and eldercare as infrastructure issues, an important redefinition that will not only help more women regain a foothold in the economy, but will also help to replace manufacturing jobs as a key stabilizer of middle-class America. The administration is selling the infrastructure plan, in part, by emphasizing that it will create jobs (hence “American Jobs Plan” rather than something like “American Infrastructure Act”).

President Biden has proposed paying for the plan by raising the corporate tax from 21% to 28% (it was 35% before Trump’s 2017 tax cut) and by increasing the global minimum tax from 13% to 21% (so that companies cannot stash profits in low-tax countries). He has also proposed saving money by ending the federal tax breaks for fossil fuel companies and by putting teeth in the enforcement of tax laws against corporations who have skated without paying taxes in the past.

The president also put together a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to look at the question of adjusting the Supreme Court to the modern era. While people are focusing on the question of whether the number of justices on the Supreme Court should be increased—it has held at 9 since 1869, even as three more circuits have been added—the commission is also looking at “the length of service and turnover of justices on the Court.” It is only very recently that justices grimly held onto a Supreme Court appointment until death; the positions used to turn over with some frequency. The commission is an astonishingly distinguished group of scholars, lawyers, and judges.

Nonetheless, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) claimed the establishment of the commission displayed “open disdain for judicial independence.” And yet, the Supreme Court itself undermined his position in favor of a nonpartisan judiciary late Friday night. It issued an unsigned opinion in which the court decided, by a vote of 5-4, that state restrictions on private religious gatherings during the pandemic infringed on people’s First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the minority.

Biden has also asked Congress to take on the issue of gun control, after yet more mass shootings in the country. And overshadowing all is the Democrat’s demand for the passage of voting rights legislation that would protect voting, end gerrymandering, and curb the influence of big money in U.S. elections.

While the legislative world has been rocking, so has the world of the Republicans. The party is torn between the Trump wing and the business wing, and in the course of the past few weeks, that rift has widened and destabilized.

On March 25, Georgia passed a sweeping new voting restriction law. Legislators argued that they were simply trying to combat voter fraud, but the law, in fact, significantly restricts voting hours and mail-in voting, as well as turning over the mechanics of elections to partisan committees. The Georgia law came after a similar set of restrictions in Iowa; other states, including Texas, are following suit.

But this attack on voting rights is not playing well with the corporate leaders who, in the past, tended to stand with the Republicans. Leaders from more than 170 corporations condemned the new Georgia law, saying, “We stand in solidarity with voters 一 and with the Black executives and leaders at the helm of this movement 一 in our nonpartisan commitment to equality and democracy. If our government is going to work for all of us, each of us must have equal freedom to vote and elections must reflect the will of voters.” Major League Baseball grabbed headlines when it decided to move this summer’s All-Star game out of the state.

Following the corporate pushback over the Georgia law, the leader of the business Republican faction, Mitch McConnell, said that it was “stupid” for corporations to weigh in on divisive political issues, although he specified he was “not talking about political contributions.” Republican lawmakers have said that corporations should not take political stances, a position that sits uneasily with the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which said that corporate donations to political candidates were a form of political speech and could not be limited by the government. The so-called “Citizens United” decision opened up a flood of corporate money into our political system.

Yesterday, more than 100 corporate executives met over Zoom to figure out how . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and some interesting aspects are discussed later in the column.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 10:47 am

“I’m finally done with the Senate filibuster. We’re running out of time to save democracy.”

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Noah Bookbinder, a former criminal prosecutor for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, writes in USA Today:

I worked as a counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years. I heard senators that I admired repeat the apocryphal story of George Washington supposedly explaining to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was “the saucer that cools the tea,” preventing the House from rushing through ill-advised legislation.

While the filibuster was not part of the framers’ plan — and indeed some of the framers warned against a supermajority requirement for legislation — it seemed consistent with this idea of the Senate as an intended obstacle to tyranny by a bare, partisan majority. Perhaps more importantly, I saw the cycles of control in the Senate. I saw how those tactics of delay and obstruction that drove a majority party crazy one year were lifelines when that party ended up in the minority the next

Those seemed like compelling arguments to keep the Senate filibuster, so I passionately resisted the idea of eliminating it for years. Too slowly perhaps, it has become clear to me that times have changed. The old arguments are no longer enough — in fact, our democracy might not survive at all unless Congress passes reforms that a minority seems determined to block. The Senate must get rid of the filibuster in order for us to maintain a democratic system of government going forward, and the sooner the better.

White minority wants to keep control

Our democracy already teetered on the brink when Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 presidential election by more than 7 million votes and a substantial margin in the Electoral College, falsely and repeatedly claimed to have won and then actually tried to convince officials in multiple states to overturn the results of the voting in those states.

When efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine and overturn the election failed, Trump’s supporters switched to a quieter but no less dangerous tactic. Bills have now been introduced in 47 states to restrict access to voting, curbs which will disproportionately impact non-white voters. Many of these bills are on their way to passing. Efforts are also in the planning stages to aggressively gerrymander districts to benefit the former president’s party.

The cumulative effect of all this is to prevent a mostly white minority of Americans from losing control of the United States government. There is legislation that could prevent this, but it looks like it will be blocked in the Senate by the filibuster, something that has often happened to bills meant to advance racial equity and justice.

Now, the combination of systematic disenfranchisement of Black and brown voters, aggressive use of gerrymandering, and a system of unchecked money in political campaigns could allow a minority of voters to ensure that those who supported Trump’s abuses are ushered into control of Congress and the presidency; once in power, they have already shown their willingness to use it to further degrade checks and balances for their own advancement. The democracy as we know it might begin to crumble.

We need H.R. 1: It would maintain voting rights and voting integrity that states saved amid COVID-19

This sounds apocalyptic and maybe a little crazy. It is not. We need only look at the four years of Trump’s presidency, moving from emoluments violations, obstruction of investigations, embrace of white supremacists, and sidelining of watchdogs and prosecutors who threatened him to full-scale attempts to overturn an election and incite insurrection, to see how quickly and completely the foundations of our democracy can be shaken.

Worry about comity later

Legislation before Congress can stop all this from happening. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, contains crucial voting rights protections that will prevent many of the efforts in states to restrict the ability to vote; it will ensure fair, non-partisan redistricting and reform money in politics, as well as curbing much unethical conduct and many abuses of power. We can also shore up our democracy against attack with bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Protecting Our Democracy Act and an act to finally grant District of Columbia residents the same rights to democratic participation that people in all 50 states have.

GOP ex-officials:We need a voting rights champion like Vanita Gupta at Justice, and fast

But if the Senate’s intractable minority is allowed to continue to prevent all legislation to protect our democratic system, we will run out of time. Efforts in the states to curb voting rights and ensure rule by a shrinking white minority will be able to take effect without any check; after the rules are changed and the deck stacked, it might not again be possible to elect a Congress and a president amenable to protecting democratic participation and checks and balances.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The Senate must  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 12:47 pm

As Cuomo Sought $4 Million Book Deal, Aides Hid Damaging Death Toll

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Jesse McKinley, Danny Hakim, and Alexandra Alter report in the NY Times:

As the coronavirus subsided in New York last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had begun pitching a book proposal that would center on his image as a hero of the pandemic. But by early last summer, both his book and image had hit a critical juncture.

Mr. Cuomo leaned on his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, for assistance. She attended video meetings with publishers, and helped him edit early drafts of the book. But there was also another, more pressing edit underway at the same time.

An impending Health Department report threatened to disclose a far higher number of nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus than the Cuomo administration had previously made public. Ms. DeRosa and other top aides expressed concern about the higher death toll, and, after their intervention, the number — which had appeared in the second sentence of the report — was removed from the final version.

The revisions occurred as the governor was on the brink of a huge payoff: a book deal that ended with a high offer of more than $4 million, according to people with knowledge of the book’s bidding process.

A New York Times examination of the development of Mr. Cuomo’s lucrative book deal revealed how it overlapped with the move by his most senior aides to reshape a report about nursing home deaths in a way that insulated the governor from criticism and burnished his image.

Mr. Cuomo also utilized the resources of his office — from his inner circle to far more junior personnel — to help with the manuscript. In late June and early July, for example, a top aide to the governor, Stephanie Benton, twice asked assistants to print portions of the draft of the book, and deliver them to Mr. Cuomo at the Executive Mansion in Albany, where he lives.

One of Ms. Benton’s directives came on June 27, the same day that Ms. DeRosa convened an impromptu teleconference with several other top advisers to discuss the Health Department draft report.

On Wednesday, Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, rejected any link between Mr. Cuomo’s book and the Health Department report.

“There is no connection between the report and this outside project, period,” Mr. Azzopardi said. “And any suggestion otherwise is just wrong.”

The book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” was a dramatic retelling of the battle against the virus in a state where nearly 50,000 people have died. It would garner Mr. Cuomo a fleeting spot on the best-seller list.

Emails and an early draft of Mr. Cuomo’s book obtained by The New York Times indicate that the governor was writing it as early as mid-June, relying on a cadre of trusted aides and junior staffers for everything from full-scale edits to minor clerical work, potentially running afoul of state laws prohibiting use of public resources for personal gain. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. MUCH more, and in damning detail: names, dates, actions. This is from the inside, and probably (given Cuomo’s management style) multiple sources.

To take a few paragraphs at random from a long sequence of such paragraphs:

Ms. DeRosa, the highest nonelected official in Mr. Cuomo’s office, was particularly involved with the development of the book, and was present during some online pitch meetings with Mr. Cuomo. The July 5 request, in fact, was to print a 224-page draft entitled “MDR edits” — a reference to Ms. DeRosa, who had sent the draft to Ms. Benton on July 4, according to the emails. The staffers communicated via personal Gmail accounts, not official governmental email addresses.

Mr. Azzopardi said that Ms. DeRosa and Ms. Benton had “volunteered on this project” during their free time, something he added was “permissible and consistent with ethical requirements” of the state.

As for the junior aides’ participation in tasks related to the book, he said, “Every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project.”

“To the extent an aide printed out a document,” he said, “it appears incidental.”

Ms. DeRosa also had significant input on the July 6 report issued by the Department of Health, which basically cleared Mr. Cuomo’s administration of fault in its handling of nursing homes — discounting the impact of a March 2020 state memo that had asked such facilities to take in or readmit residents who had tested positive for the disease.

Critical changes had been made to the final version of the Health Department report, after concerns were raised about the data by Ms. DeRosa and a second Cuomo aide, Linda Lacewell, according to interviews and documents.

In two earlier drafts of the report, which were both reviewed by The Times, the second sentence said that “from March 1, 2020, through June 10, 2020, there were 9,844 fatalities among NYS nursing home residents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.”

The earlier drafts were written by . . .

And it goes on, naming names. Cuomo is looking at criminal charges.

Later:

Mr. Cuomo, 63, has declined to confirm exactly how much he was paid for “American Crisis,” which was published by Crown Publishing Group in mid-October, just as a second wave of the coronavirus began to swell in New York.

Crown declined to comment on the sale price or confirm that it slightly exceeded $4 million, a large sum for an author whose previous memoir, “All Things Possible,” from 2014, sold fewer than 4,000 hardcover copies.

The governor’s office said he would donate a “significant portion” of the book’s proceeds to a Covid-related charity, though he has not indicated how much; on Wednesday, Mr. Azzopardi reiterated that the governor’s book payment and charitable contributions would be released with his tax returns and state-mandated financial disclosures, both of which are due in mid-May.

Since the book’s publication, . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2021 at 9:44 pm

America’s Immigration Amnesia: Despite recurrent claims of crisis at the border, the United States still does not have a coherent immigration policy

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Caitlin Dickerson writes in the Atlantic:

In the early 2000s, Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas were accustomed to encountering a few hundred children attempting to cross the American border alone each month. Some hoped to sneak into the country unnoticed; others readily presented themselves to officials in order to request asylum. The agents would transport the children, who were exhausted, dehydrated, and sometimes injured, to Border Patrol stations and book them into austere concrete holding cells. The facilities are notoriously cold, so agents would hand the children Mylar blankets to keep warm until federal workers could deliver them to child-welfare authorities.

But starting in 2012, the number of children arriving at the border crept up, first to about 1,000 a month, then 2,000, then 5,000. By the summer of 2014, federal officials were processing more than 8,000 children a month in that region alone, cramming them into the same cells that had previously held only a few dozen at a time, and that were not meant to hold children at all.

As the stations filled, the Obama administration scrambled to find a solution. The law required that the children be moved away from the border within 72 hours and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, so they could be housed safely and comfortably until they were released to adults willing to sponsor them. But HHS facilities were also overflowing. The department signed new contracts for “emergency-influx shelters,” growing its capacity by thousands of beds within a matter of months. Government workers pulled 100-hour weeks to coordinate logistics. And then, seemingly overnight, border crossings began to drop precipitously. No one knew exactly why.

“The numbers are unpredictable,” Mark Weber, an HHS spokesperson, told me in 2016, just as another child-migration surge was beginning to crest. “We don’t know why a bunch of kids decided to come in 2014, or why they stopped coming in 2015. The thing we do know is these kids are trying to escape violence, gangs, economic instability. That’s a common theme. The numbers have changed over the years, but the themes stayed the same.”

The cycle repeated itself under President Donald Trump in 2019, and is doing so again now. And as border crossings rise and the government rushes to open new emergency-influx shelters, some lawmakers and pundits are declaring that the Biden administration is responsible for the surge. “The #BidenBorderCrisis was caused by the message sent by his campaign & by the measures taken in the early days of his new administration,” Marco Rubio tweeted last week. The administration is “luring children to the border with the promise of letting them in,” Joe Scarborough, the Republican congressman turned cable-television host, told millions of viewers during a recent segment.

But for decades, most immigration experts have viewed border crossings not in terms of surges, but in terms of cycles that are affected by an array of factors. These include the cartels’ trafficking business, weather, and religious holidays as well as American politics—but perhaps most of all by conditions in the children’s home countries. A 2014 Congressional Research Service report found that young peoples’ “motives for migrating to the United States are often multifaceted and difficult to measure analytically,” and that “while the impacts of actual and perceived U.S. immigration policies have been widely debated, it remains unclear if, and how, specific immigration policies have motivated children to migrate to the United States.”

The report pointed out that special protections for children put into place under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 may have shifted migration patterns by encouraging parents to send their children alone rather than travel as a family. But it found that blaming any one administration for a rise in border crossings ultimately made no sense—the United States has offered some form of protection to people fleeing persecution since the 1940s, and those rights were expanded more than 40 years ago under the Refugee Act of 1980.

This is not to say that President Joe Biden’s stance on immigration—which has thus far been to discourage foreigners from crossing the border while also declaring that those who do so anyway will be treated humanely—has had no effect on the current trend. Like other business owners, professional human traffickers, known as coyotes, rely on marketing—and federal intelligence suggests that perceived windows of opportunity have been responsible for some of their most profitable years.

For example, border crossings rose in the months before President Trump took office in part because coyotes encouraged people to hurry into the United States before the start of the crackdown that Trump had promised during his campaign. With Trump out of office, some prospective migrants likely feel impelled to seek refuge now, before another election could restore his policies.

But placing blame for the recent increase in border crossings entirely on the current administration’s policies ignores the reality that the federal government has held more children in custody in the past than it is holding right now, and that border crossings have soared and then dropped many times over the decades, seemingly irrespective of who is president.

Given, then, that the movement of unaccompanied minors has long ebbed and flowed—we are now experiencing the fourth so-called surge over the course of three administrations—why do border facilities still appear overwhelmed? The answer, in part, is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 March 2021 at 1:36 pm

Inside the Koch-Backed Effort to Block the Largest Election-Reform Bill in Half a Century

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Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker:

In public, Republicans have denounced Democrats’ ambitious electoral-reform bill, the For the People Act, as an unpopular partisan ploy. In a contentious Senate committee hearing last week, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, slammed the proposal, which aims to expand voting rights and curb the influence of money in politics, as “a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.” But behind closed doors Republicans speak differently about the legislation, which is also known as House Resolution 1 and Senate Bill 1. They admit the lesser-known provisions in the bill that limit secret campaign spending are overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum. In private, they concede their own polling shows that no message they can devise effectively counters the argument that billionaires should be prevented from buying elections.

A recording obtained by The New Yorker of a private conference call on January 8th, between a policy adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell and the leaders of several prominent conservative groups—including one run by the Koch brothers’ network—reveals the participants’ worry that the proposed election reforms garner wide support not just from liberals but from conservative voters, too. The speakers on the call expressed alarm at the broad popularity of the bill’s provision calling for more public disclosure about secret political donors. The participants conceded that the bill, which would stem the flow of dark money from such political donors as the billionaire oil magnate Charles Koch, was so popular that it wasn’t worth trying to mount a public-advocacy campaign to shift opinion. Instead, a senior Koch operative said that opponents would be better off ignoring the will of American voters and trying to kill the bill in Congress.

Kyle McKenzie, the research director for the Koch-run advocacy group Stand Together, told fellow-conservatives and Republican congressional staffers on the call that he had a “spoiler.” “When presented with a very neutral description” of the bill, “people were generally supportive,” McKenzie said, adding that “the most worrisome part . . . is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description.” In fact, he warned, “there’s a large, very large, chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these types of efforts.”

As a result, McKenzie conceded, the legislation’s opponents would likely have to rely on Republicans in the Senate, where the bill is now under debate, to use “under-the-dome-type strategies”—meaning legislative maneuvers beneath Congress’s roof, such as the filibuster—to stop the bill, because turning public opinion against it would be “incredibly difficult.” He warned that the worst thing conservatives could do would be to try to “engage with the other side” on the argument that the legislation “stops billionaires from buying elections.” McKenzie admitted, “Unfortunately, we’ve found that that is a winning message, for both the general public and also conservatives.” He said that when his group tested “tons of other” arguments in support of the bill, the one condemning billionaires buying elections was the most persuasive—people “found that to be most convincing, and it riled them up the most.”

McKenzie explained that the Koch-founded group had invested substantial resources “to see if we could find any message that would activate and persuade conservatives on this issue.” He related that “an A.O.C. message we tested”—one claiming that the bill might help Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez achieve her goal of holding “people in the Trump Administration accountable” by identifying big donors—helped somewhat with conservatives. But McKenzie admitted that the link was tenuous, since “what she means by this is unclear.” “Sadly,” he added, not even attaching the phrase “cancel culture” to the bill, by portraying it as silencing conservative voices, had worked. “It really ranked at the bottom,” McKenzie said to the group. “That was definitely a little concerning for us.”

Gretchen Reiter, the senior vice-president of communications for Stand Together, declined to respond to questions about the conference call or the Koch group’s research showing the robust popularity of the proposed election reforms. In an e-mailed statement, she said, “Defending civil liberties requires more than a sound bite,” and added that the group opposes the bill because “a third of it restricts First Amendment rights.” She included a link to an op-ed written by a member of Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-affiliated advocacy group, which argues that the legislation violates donors’ freedom of expression by requiring the disclosure of the names of those who contribute ten thousand dollars or more to nonprofit groups involved in election spending. Such transparency, the op-ed suggests, could subject donors who prefer to remain anonymous to retaliation or harassment.

The State Policy Network, a confederation of right-wing think tanks with affiliates in every state, convened the conference call days after the Democrats’ twin victories in the Senate runoffs in Georgia, which meant that the Party had won the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, making it likely that the For the People Act would move forward. Participants included Heather Lauer, the executive director of People United for Privacy, a conservative group fighting to keep nonprofit donors’ identities secret, and Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who expressed alarm at the damage that the disclosure provisions could do. “The left is not stupid, they’re evil,” he warned. “They know what they’re doing. They have correctly decided that this is the way to disable the freedom movement.”

Coördinating directly with the right-wing policy groups, which define themselves as nonpartisan for tax purposes, were two top Republican congressional staffers: Caleb Hays, the general counsel to the Republicans on the House Administration Committee, and Steve Donaldson, a policy adviser to McConnell. “When it comes to donor privacy, I can’t stress enough how quickly things could get out of hand,” Donaldson said, indicating McConnell’s concern about the effects that disclosure requirements would have on fund-raising. Donaldson added, “We have to hold our people together,” and predicted that the fight is “going to be a long one. It’s going to be a messy one.” But he insisted that McConnell was “not going to back down.” Neither Donaldson nor Hays responded to requests for comment. David Popp, a spokesperson for McConnell, said, “We don’t comment on private meetings.”

Nick Surgey, the executive director of Documented, a progressive watchdog group that investigates corporate money in politics, told me it made sense that McConnell’s staffer was on the call, because the proposed legislation “poses a very real threat to McConnell’s source of power within the Republican Party, which has always been fund-raising.” Nonetheless, he said that the close coördination on messaging and tactics between the Republican leadership and technically nonpartisan outside-advocacy groups was “surprising to see.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 March 2021 at 1:24 pm

The Real Reason Republicans Couldn’t Kill Obamacare

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Adapted from The Ten Year War: Obamacare and the Unfinished Crusade for Universal Coverage, St. Martin’s Press 2021, and quoted from the Atlantic:

The affordable care act, the health-care law also known as Obamacare, turns 11 years old this week. Somehow, the program has not merely survived the GOP’s decade-long assault. It’s actually getting stronger, thanks to some major upgrades tucked in the COVID-19 relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law earlier this month.

The new provisions should enable millions of Americans to get insurance or save money on coverage they already purchase, bolstering the health-care law in precisely the way its architects had always hoped to do. And although the measures are temporary, Biden and his Democratic Party allies have pledged to pass more legislation making the changes permanent.

The expansion measures are a remarkable achievement, all the more so because Obamacare’s very survival seemed so improbable just a few years ago, when Donald Trump won the presidency. Wiping the law off the books had become the Republicans’ defining cause, and Trump had pledged to make repeal his first priority. As the reality of his victory set in, almost everybody outside the Obama White House thought the effort would succeed, and almost everybody inside did too.

One very curious exception was Jeanne Lambrew, the daughter of a doctor and a nurse from Maine who was serving as the deputy assistant to the president for health policy. As a longtime Obama adviser, going back to the 2008 transition, Lambrew was among a handful of administration officials who had been most responsible for shaping his health-care legislation and shepherding it through Congress—and then for overseeing its implementation. Almost every other top official working on the program had long since left government service for one reason or another. Lambrew had stayed, a policy sentry unwilling to leave her post.

On that glum November 2016 day following the election, Lambrew decided to gather some junior staffers in her office and pass out beers, eventually taking an informal survey to see who thought Obama’s signature domestic-policy achievement would still be on the books in a year. Nobody did—except Lambrew.

Yes, Republicans had already voted to repeal “Obamacare” several times. But, she knew, they had never done so with real-world consequences, because Obama’s veto had always stood in the way. They’d never had to think through what it would really mean to take insurance away from a hotel housekeeper or an office security guard on Medicaid—or to tell a working mom or dad that, yes, an insurance company could deny coverage for their son’s or daughter’s congenital heart defect.

A repeal bill would likely have all of those effects. And although Republicans could try to soften the impact, every adjustment to legislation would force them to sacrifice other priorities, creating angry constituents or interest groups and, eventually, anxious lawmakers. GOP leaders wouldn’t be able to hold the different camps within their caucuses together, Lambrew believed, and the effort would fail.

All of those predictions proved correct. And that wasn’t because Lambrew was lucky or just happened to be an optimist. It was because she knew firsthand what most of the Republicans didn’t: Passing big pieces of legislation is a lot harder than it looks.

It demands unglamorous, grinding work to figure out the precise contours of rules, spending, and revenue necessary to accomplish your goal. It requires methodical building of alliances, endless negotiations among hostile factions, and making painful compromises on cherished ideals. Most of all, it requires seriousness of purpose—a deep belief that you are working toward some kind of better world—in order to sustain those efforts when the task seems hopeless.

Democrats had that sense of mission and went through all of those exercises because they’d spent nearly a century crusading for universal coverage. It was a big reason they were able to pass their once-in-a-generation health-care legislation. Republicans didn’t undertake the same sorts of efforts. Nor did they develop a clear sense of what they were trying to achieve, except to hack away at the welfare state and destroy Obama’s legacy. Those are big reasons their legislation failed.

Obamacare’s survival says a lot about the differences between the two parties nowadays, and not just on health care. It’s a sign of how different they have become, in temperament as much as ideology, and why one has shown that it’s capable of governing and the other has nearly forgotten how.

Democrats were so serious about health care that they began planning what eventually became the Affordable Care Act more than a decade earlier, following the collapse of Bill Clinton’s reform attempt in the 1990s. The ensuing political backlash, which saw them lose control of both the House and Senate, had left top Democrats in no mood to revisit the issue. But reform’s champions knew that another opportunity would come, because America’s sick health-care system wouldn’t heal itself, and they were determined not to make the same mistakes again.

At conferences and private dinners, on chat boards and in academic journals, officials and policy advisers obsessively analyzed what had gone wrong and why—not just in 1993 and 1994 but in the many efforts at universal coverage that had come before. They met with representatives of the health-care industry as well as employers, labor unions, and consumer advocates. Industry lobbyists had helped kill reform since Harry Truman’s day. Now they were sitting down with the champions of reform, creating a group of “strange bedfellows” committed to crafting a reform proposal they could all accept.

Out of these parallel efforts, a rough consensus on substance and strategy emerged. Democrats would put forward a plan that minimized disruption of existing insurance arrangements, in order to avoid scaring people with employer coverage, and they would seek to accommodate rather than overpower the health-care industry. The proposal would err on the side of less regulation, spending, and taxes—basically, anything that sounded like “big government”—and Democrats would work to win over at least a few Republicans, because that would probably be necessary in Congress.

Proof of concept came in 2006, in Massachusetts, when its Republican governor, Mitt Romney, teamed up with the Democratic state legislature to pass a plan that fit neatly into the new vision. It had the backing from a broad coalition, including insurers and progressive religious organizations. Ted Kennedy, the liberal icon and U.S. senator, played a key role, by helping secure changes in funding from Washington that made the plan possible. “My son said something … ‘When Kennedy and Romney support a piece of legislation, usually one of them hasn’t read it,’” Kennedy joked at the signing ceremony, standing at Romney’s side.

Kennedy’s endorsement said a lot about the psychology of Democrats at the time. No figure in American politics was more closely associated with the cause of universal health care and, over the years, he had tried repeatedly to promote plans that looked more like the universal-coverage regimes abroad, with the government providing insurance directly in “single-payer” systems that resembled what today we call “Medicare for All.” But those proposals failed to advance in Congress, and Kennedy frequently expressed regret that, in the early 1970s, negotiations over a more private sector-oriented coverage plan with then-President Richard Nixon had broken down, in part because liberals were holding out for a better deal that never materialized.

Kennedy was not alone in his belief that the champions of universal coverage would have to accept big concessions in order to pass legislation. The liberal House Democrats John Dingell, Pete Stark, and Henry Waxman, veteran crusaders for universal coverage who’d accrued vast power over their decades in Congress, were similarly willing to put up with what they considered second-, third-, and even fourth-best solutions—and they were masters of the legislative process, too. Waxman in particular was an expert at doing big things with small political openings, such as inserting seemingly minor adjustments to Medicaid into GOP legislation, expanding the program’s reach over time. “Fifty percent of the social safety net was created by Henry Waxman when no one was looking,” Tom Scully, who ran Medicare and Medicaid for the Bush administration in the early 2000s, once quipped.

Obama had a similar experience putting together health-care legislation in the Illinois state legislature—where, despite proclaiming his support for the idea of a single-payer system, he led the fight for coverage expansions and universal coverage by working with Republicans and courting downstate, more conservative voters. He also was a master of policy detail, and as president, when it was time to stitch together legislation from different House and Senate versions, he presided over meetings directly (highly unusual for a president) and got deep into the weeds of particular programs.

Obama could do this because the concept of universal coverage fit neatly within . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the column:

Another problem was a recognition that forging a GOP consensus on replacement would have been difficult because of internal divisions. Some Republicans wanted mainly to downsize the Affordable Care Act, others to undertake a radical transformation in ways they said would create more of an open, competitive market. Still others just wanted to get rid of Obama’s law and didn’t especially care what, if anything, took its place.

“The homework that hadn’t been successful was the work to coalesce around a single plan, a single set of specific legislative items that could be supported by most Republicans,” Price told me. “Clearly, looking at the history of this issue, this has always been difficult for us because there are so many different perspectives on what should be done and what ought to be the role of the federal government in health care.”

The incentive structure in conservative politics didn’t help, because it rewarded the ability to generate outrage rather than the ability to deliver changes in policy. Power had been shifting more and more to the party’s most extreme and incendiary voices, whose great skill was in landing appearances on Hannity, not providing for their constituents. Never was that more apparent than in 2013, when DeMint, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and some House conservatives pushed Republicans into shutting down the government in an attempt to “defund” the Affordable Care Act that even many conservative Republicans understood had no chance of succeeding.

The failure to grapple with the complexities of American health care and the difficult politics of enacting any kind of change didn’t really hurt Republicans until they finally got power in 2017 and, for the first time, had to back up their promises of a superior Obamacare alternative with actual policy. Their solution was to minimize public scrutiny, bypassing normal committee hearings so they could hastily write bills in the leadership offices of House Speaker Paul Ryan and, after that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2021 at 4:52 pm

What’s omitted from the news about Sen. Joe Manchin

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From a ProPublica blog:

Hi everybody, I’m Karim Doumar, an audience editor at ProPublica, filling in for Logan this week. Welcome back to the Weekly Dispatch.

If you followed the passage of President Joe Biden’s stimulus bill, you know about Sen. Joe Manchin. And this is probably what you know: The West Virginia Democrat is the most conservative member of the Senate Democrats, and their majority is so tiny that it’s almost impossible for them to pass anything without him.

If you read the daily papers, Manchin has one of two roles: Either he has worked with Republicans to forge bipartisan compromises (remember the December stimulus bill?), or he is the final hurdle facing progressive legislation before it can be enacted (remember the March stimulus bill?).

Either way, all the thorniest Senate issues of the day, including infrastructure, the filibuster and climate change, run straight through Manchin, leaving him competing with the president for the Most Important Joe award. So we wanted to get to know him better.

Lucky for you, reporter Ken Ward Jr., a distinguished fellow working with ProPublica, has spent a lifetime as an investigative and environmental reporter in the state Manchin serves. Ward, who is also a reporter at nonprofit Mountain State Spotlight, isn’t as interested in the Manchin you read about in most political coverage, that highly sought 50th D vote in the senate. What he’s interested in is policy and how it impacts people’s lives. That may sound obvious, but when I sat down with him (via Zoom) to ask what he’s learned about Manchin in his years covering the man, he frequently had to gently nudge me back toward policy and people, and away from looking at the world through a political lens.

Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Karim Doumar: There’s this national narrative of Joe Manchin as a Democrat in a deep red state, navigating a series of wedge issues to survive politically, but a lot less attention is paid toward him as a politician being responsive specifically to needs of voters who elected him. Do you think that’s a fair characterization? And what do you think people who are reading that kind of stuff are missing about residents and voters in the state?

Ken Ward Jr.: The real sticking point for me with the way the national narrative is [it’s] as if the goal of politics is to decide whether red or blue wins, as opposed to looking at what’s being accomplished either way. With Sen. Manchin, I’m looking at: What is it that his constituents elected him to do? And is he serving them? Or to what extent in some cases might he not be serving them?

The example that is in my wheelhouse reporting-wise is: What is he going to do in his role on the Energy Committee on climate change issues? So much of the narrative is more about whether he is going to help President Biden achieve his legislative goals on that or not, as opposed to the parts of it that I think are important. Is he going to be successful in insisting that any sort of action about climate change that might further reduce the ability of states like West Virginia to rely on fossil fuels for the economy, is he going to do something to make sure that the states that would be hurt economically by that have something else in place, some sort of just transition for coal communities, which has been this kind of elusive concept?

KD: Can you talk about West Virginia, its relationship to coal and natural gas, and what role he’s had in that? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 4:36 pm

A scorching reply to Georgia’s vile new voting law unmasks a big GOP lie

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Greg Sargent writes in the Washington Post:

The 2020 elections in Georgia should have been cause for celebration among everyone, not just Democrats who won the state’s presidential and Senate races. Amid extremely challenging conditions, election officials took smart, public-spirited steps to ensure that as many voters as possible could participate.

And it worked. Turnout was high on Election Day and during the Senate runoffs, especially among African American voters.

That should have been widely cheered. Yet it’s precisely what the state’s Republican officials apparently want to ensure never happens again.

Georgia Republicans just passed a far-reaching voter suppression law that is shockingly blatant in its efforts to restrict voting. It was signed Thursday by Gov. Brian Kemp (R), as one Democratic lawmaker who sought to watch was arrested.

In multiple ways, the measure appears designed to target African American voters, the very voters who drove the 2020 Democratic wins. That complaint is at the core of a new lawsuit filed on Thursday night against the law.

But the lawsuit also exposes — in a fresh way — the appalling dishonesty of Republicans who continue using former president Donald Trump’s lie about the election to justify voter suppression efforts everywhere.

Voter suppression on steroids

Most conspicuously, the new law bars third-party groups from sharing food and water with people waiting in voting lines. It imposes new ID requirements for vote-by-mail, restricts drop boxes for mail ballots and bans mobile voting places, among many other things.

The lawsuit by several voting rights groups — represented by Democratic lawyer Marc Elias — argues that the package unduly burdens the voting rights of all Georgians, disproportionately African Americans, violating the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.

The lawsuit cites the extremely high voter turnout in the general and runoff elections, facilitated amid a raging pandemic by vote-by-mail, which was used by African American voters at higher rates than White voters.

The law is largely targeted toward that fact, the lawsuit argues. Restrictions on drop boxes and mobile voting units come after both were heavily utilized in Fulton County, a populous, majority-Black area. African Americans are more likely to use drop boxes because they more often work multiple jobs, the suit argues.

Meanwhile, bans on sharing food and water target the fact that voting lines and wait times tend to be longer in African American areas. And Black voters are disproportionately less likely to have the right ID to qualify to vote by mail, the lawsuit argues.

The critical point is that the past election worked, due to the very practices Republicans now want to curb. Organizers distributed food and water, enabling voters to brave lines. Election officials used expanded vote-by-mail, drop boxes and mobile units to facilitate pandemic voting.

“This successful mobilization was widely heralded as crucial in facilitating Black voter turnout,” the lawsuit notes. Which is precisely the problem, the lawsuit argues: What Republicans want to avert is another such “successful mobilization.”

Republicans give away the game

The justification that Republicans themselves offer for these measures gives away the real game here. Defenders say they are needed to ensure the integrity of future elections and boost public confidence in them.

But the elections in Georgia actually were conducted with absolute integrity, and the Republican secretary of state has himself attested to this. That official, Brad Raffensperger, declared the elections “safe” and “secure.”

This caused Raffensperger to become the target of Trump’s rage. But that doesn’t mean what Raffensperger said isn’t true. It is true.

This was confirmed in a statewide audit. Indeed, Raffensperger has attested to the integrity of Georgia elections more generally, declaring: “Georgia’s voting system has never been more secure or trustworthy.”

Which raises the question: Why are these new measures needed, if Georgia elections are already secure and trustworthy? Why, to avert another “successful mobilization.”

As the lawsuit argues, the very fact that GOP election officials confirmed the integrity of Georgia elections shows the measures “serve no legitimate purpose or compelling state interest other than to make absentee, early, and election-day voting more difficult — especially for minority voters.” . . .

Continue reading.

The column concludes:

p class=”font–body font-copy gray-darkest ma-0 pb-md ” data-el=”text”>All this points to a bigger lie. All across the country, Republicans are escalating voter suppression efforts, fake-justified by the lie that the election was stolen from Trump.

In the softer version of this, it’s fake-justified by the notion that many Republican voters believe that to be true and just need their “confidence” restored to ensure future participation.

But the real way to restore such confidence is to tell voters the truth: That the election was an inspiring success amid very difficult conditions — and its outcome was unimpeachably legitimate — precisely because of the integrity of election workers everywhere. Grounds for confidence in future elections

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2021 at 2:37 pm

Trump Complains Government Is ‘Persecuting’ Capitol Rioters

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The situation in the US is actively getting more dangerous because Donald Trump is leading and fomenting an already-violent insurrection against the government — against the administration, really, to force someone — Congress, Georgia Governor, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence… anyone — to provide an election “count” sufficient to put Trump back in the White House. And he’s not going to shut up until he is in the White House. He’ll butt into every situation he can. As we’ve seen, he has zero sense of shame and zero decorum.

Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

One of the most dangerous, long-lasting changes effected by Donald Trump is the rightward extension of the Republican coalition. A wide array of far-right militias and cults was either created or inspired to join the Republican Party by Trump’s racist, paranoid, and authoritarian rhetoric. Now those groups are the subject of regular apologias in party-aligned media.

The new reality was driven home in Trump’s interview with Laura Ingraham Thursday night. At one point, the Fox News host, whose “interview” was more like an exchange of talking points, brought up a new report that the Homeland Security Department will be giving more attention to right-wing domestic extremism. “The idea is to identify people who may, through their social-media behavior, be prone to influence by toxic messaging spread by foreign governments, terrorists, and domestic extremists,” Ingraham noted. “Mr. President, their DHS is going after people who may be your supporters.”

It is worth pausing for a moment to record that Ingraham’s reaction to a description of people “prone to influence by toxic messaging spread by foreign governments, terrorists, and domestic extremists” is hey, they’re talking about us!

Trump, taking the cue, denounced federal authorities for charging his supporters with crimes. “They go after that, I guess you’d call them leaning toward the right … those people, they’re arresting them by the dozens,” he complained.

Ingraham did not follow up by asking who was being arrested by the dozens. But Trump’s answer became clear a few questions later. Ingraham prompted him with a safe question about the security fencing around the Capitol, a precaution even Democrats have deemed excessive long after the insurrection ended.

Rather than simply denounce the fencing, Trump launched into . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2021 at 2:14 pm

One political party wants people to vote; the other one doesn’t want people to vote and is doing what it can to make sure they can’t

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

There is only one story today.

It is not the coronavirus pandemic, although 547,000 of us have died of Covid-19, and a study today suggested that we could have avoided nearly 400,000 deaths if we had adopted masks and social distancing early on. It is not the coronavirus even though today President Joe Biden noted that we will reach 100 million vaccinations tomorrow and that he aims to reach 200 million vaccines by his 100th day in office….

It is not the situation on our southern border, where a surge of migrants apparently matches the seasonal pattern of people trying to make it into the United States….

It is not the economy, although the U.S. Treasury said today it had issued 37 million payments this week, worth $83 billion, from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan….

The story today—and always—is the story of American democracy.

Tonight, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia signed a 95-page law designed to suppress the vote in the state where voters chose two Democratic senators in 2020, making it possible for Democrats to enact their agenda. Among other things, the new law strips power from the Republican secretary of state who stood up to Trump’s demand that he change the 2020 voting results. The law also makes it a crime to give water or food to people waiting in line to vote.

The Georgia law is eye-popping, but it is only one of more than 250 measures in 43 states designed to keep Republicans in power no matter what voters want.

This is the only story from today because it is the only story historians will note from this era: Did Americans defend their democracy or did they fall to oligarchy?

The answer to this question right now depends on the Senate filibuster. Democrats are trying to fight state laws suppressing the vote with a federal law called the For the People Act, which protects voting, ends partisan gerrymandering, and keeps dark money out of elections.

The For the People Act, passed by the House of Representatives, is now going to the Senate. There, Republicans will try to kill it with the filibuster, which enables an entrenched minority to stop popular legislation by threatening to hold the floor talking so that the Senate cannot vote. If Republicans block this measure, the extraordinary state laws designed to guarantee that Democrats can never win another election will stay in effect, and America as a whole will look much like the Jim Crow South, with democracy replaced by a one-party state.

Democrats are talking about reforming the filibuster to keep Republicans from blocking the For the People Act.

They have been reluctant to get rid of the filibuster, but today President Joe Biden suggested he would be open to changing the rule that permits Republicans to stop legislation by simply indicating opposition. Republicans are abusing the filibuster, he says, and he indicated he would be open to its reform.

The story today is not . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2021 at 8:42 pm

Bad blood and bad faith in the US Senate

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2021 at 11:05 am

US sinks to new low in rankings of world’s democracies

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Sam Levine reports in the Guardian:

The US has fallen to a new low in a global ranking of political rights and civil liberties, a drop fueled by unequal treatment of minority groups, damaging influence of money in politics, and increased polarization, according to a new report by Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group.

The US earned 83 out of 100 possible points this year in Freedom House’s annual rankings of freedoms around the world, an 11-point drop from its ranking of 94 a decade ago. The US’s new ranking places it on par with countries like Panama, Romania and Croatia and behind countries such as Argentina and Mongolia. It lagged far behind countries like the United Kingdom (93), Chile (93), Costa Rica (91) and Slovakia (90).

“Dropping 11 points is unusual, especially for an established democracy, because they tend to be more stable in our scores,” Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s vice-president for research and analysis, told the Guardian. “It’s significant for Americans and it’s significant for the world, because the United States is such a prominent, visible democracy, one that is looked to for so many reasons.”

While Freedom House has long included the US in its global ranking of freedoms, it traditionally has not turned an eye inward and focused on US democracy. But this year, Repucci authored an extensive report doing just that, a move motivated by increasing concern over attacks on freedoms in the US.

The report details the inequities that minority groups, especially Black people and Native Americans face when it comes to the criminal justice system and voting. It also illustrates that public trust in government has been damaged by the way rich Americans can use their money to exert outsize influence on American politics.

And it points out that extreme partisan gerrymandering – the manipulation of electoral district lines to boost one party over the other – has contributed to dramatic polarization in the US, threatening its democratic foundations. Gerrymandering, the report says, “has the most corrosive and radicalizing effect on US politics”.

“We’re really concerned about these longer-term challenges that aren’t going to be addressed with quick fixes, that were kind of highlighted during the Trump administration and, in some cases, taken advantage of, by that administration.” Repucci said. “A change of president is not gonna make them go away.”

The report offers three recommendations for improving American democracy:  . . .

Continue reading. You will not be surprised to read that Democrats in Congress are pushing to implement all three recommendations and Republicans are fighting all three. Republicans do not want democracy.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2021 at 1:04 pm

Republicans fight to cling to power

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Heather Cox Richardson has another good column. It begins with a description of the Biden administration’s efforts to support and defend democracy abroad (rather than attempting to ingratiate itself with tyrants and dictators, the approach used by the previous administration). Then the column concludes with this:

. . . The Biden administration is not just trying to defend democracy overseas. It is also trying to reclaim democracy here at home. Since 1981, Republicans have focused on cutting taxes and turning over our public infrastructure to private individuals, and as their agenda became less and less popular, they have relied on voter suppression and gerrymandering to stay in power. With Republicans in charge of the Senate, they could kill even enormously popular bills that passed the House of Representatives, and now that Democrats are in charge, the filibuster enables them to do the same.

The Biden administration has used its success with the coronavirus vaccine rollout to illustrate that government can actually be a dramatic force for good. This weekend, the number of coronavirus vaccines delivered was over 3 million a day, and President Biden beat his own goal of reaching 100 million vaccines in arms within his first hundred days by a month.

The passage of the American Rescue Plan, which 77% of the American people wanted and which promptly put desperately needed money into people’s pockets, has encouraged the White House to turn to a $3 trillion infrastructure and jobs package. The details of the plan are still fluid, but it appears that this plan will have two parts: one focused on infrastructure, including hundreds of billions of dollars to fix the country’s crumbling roads and bridges, and one focused on the societal issues that Biden calls the “caregiving economy,” including universal prekindergarten and free tuition for community colleges, as well as funding for childcare. This plan will likely be funded, at least in part, by tax increases on those who make more than $400,000 a year.

They are reclaiming the government for the American people.

But Republicans, who generally cling to the idea that, as President Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem,” are determined to stop Democrats from enacting their agenda. Legislators in 43 states have proposed more than 250 bills to suppress voting. Getting rid of Democratic votes would put Republicans back into power even if they could not command a real majority.

To combat this rigging of the system, Democrats in the House passed HR 1, a sweeping bill to protect voting, end gerrymandering, and limit the power of dark money in our elections. The “For the People Act” has now gone on to the Senate, where Republicans recognize that it would “be absolutely devastating for Republicans in this country.”

The bill will die so long as Republican senators can block it with the filibuster, and if it does, the Republican voter suppression laws that cut Democrats out of the vote will stand, making it likely that Democrats will not be able to win future elections. That reality has put reforming the filibuster back on the table. While President Biden, as well as Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have all expressed a wish to preserve at least some version of the filibuster, they are now all saying they might be willing to reform it. This might mean making election bills exempt from the filibuster the way financial bills are, or going back to the system in which stopping a measure actually required talking, rather than simply threatening to talk.

Both parties recognize that their future hangs on whether HR 1 passes, and that hangs on the filibuster.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 March 2021 at 12:58 am

How Biden Can Clean Up Obama’s Big Tech Mess

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Last week, documents leaked showing that the Obama administration nearly brought antitrust charges against Google in 2012. I’m going to write about why they didn’t, the damage that decision caused, and why Biden will forge a different path.

Also in this column are short pieces on:

  • How Gmail Quietly Controls a Vital Channel for Political Speech
  • The Slow Collapse of Corporate Republicans
  • The Monopoly Behind the Nuclear Weapons Lobby
  • The Coming Merger Boom
  • Why Golf Clubs Are Getting Worse

Before the main event, some house-keeping. I have a piece in the New York Times on the Arizona state legislative fight against the app store monopolies of Google and Apple. Also, I was recently on Marketplace to talk about Google. Finally, reporter Alec McGillis has an important book out on Amazon and the tearing apart of American society. It’s called Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, and I’ll be writing more about it shortly.

And now…

Bad Search Engine Results Kill People

Americans expect Google to deliver the most relevant and best results for any particular query. But Google has an edge case problem. When an unsophisticated or desperate user really needs information about something important, and marketers are trying to lie or defraud the user, Google may deliver results that are not only bad, but actively harmful.

For instance, in 2017, reporters Cat Ferguson and Dave Dayen showed that Google’s poor search results had become a useful tool for con artists trying to entice addicts and alcoholics to sham rehab facilities. Google’s marketing tools often worked, helping shoddy treatment center firms cheat addicts, some of whom no doubt relapsed.

Offering poor quality rehab facilities is wrong, and Google didn’t cheat the addicts directly. But what made this line of business profitable was among other things the easy access to customers enabled by using Google. Indeed, as Ferguson noted, these companies were “united by their dependence on Google.” Embarrassed by the publicity, Google eventually made some effort at addressing the problem, but never really figured out how to stop con artists from using its service to harm these desperate people.

Similarly, in 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported on millions of fake listings on Google Maps, which con artists used to cheat customers and blackmail honest small businesses. Users were screwed. But for businesses, the only recourse was to spend more ad money on Google; complaining got you nowhere, or worse. Said one businessman, “It’s less harmful to piss off the government than piss off Google. The government will hit me with a fine. But if Google suspends my listings, I’m out of a job. Google could make me homeless.”

In other words, while generally speaking you will get good results from Google, in edge cases you may get results that are extremely harmful, like a repairman who cheats you, a bad doctor, or someone who wants to steal your money in the guise of helping you recover from addiction. Since most people expect to get credible results from Google, it’s a form of mass deception. And those who rely on Google to convey information to customers, like small businesses, are often on a knife’s edge, existing at the whim of a search monopolist that does not notice them.

These quality problems are a result of Google’s monopoly; poor quality is a classic symptom of monopoly power. How Google seems to offer good results on the whole, but sometimes undermines quality at the edges, is a somewhat subtle story.

Why Does Google Help Kill Addicts Seeking Recovery Services?

Google’s main search engine is what is called a ‘general search engine,’ meaning it provides general results based on indexing most of the web.

There are other types of search engines. Yelp and Expedia, for instance, are known as ‘vertical search engines’ who focus on a much narrower topic, like local businesses and travel. You can’t ask Yelp generalized questions about research or culture, but it is likely better (though not perfect) at removing local restaurant listing spam than Google, because that is its entire business.

Of course Google isn’t just a general search engine. It has vertical search lines of business as well. It competes with Yelp, Expedia, etc, listing restaurants, health providers, travel information, etc, and has user reviews. But the incentives are different for Google. If Google Maps stopped listing every restaurant in New York City, the lost revenue literally wouldn’t show up on Google’s income statement. Yelp, however, would see it as a crisis for its business.

The CEO of Yelp no doubt spends a lot more time thinking about removing fake listings of restaurants than Google CEO Sundar Pichai, just because Pichai has nine products with more than a billion users. Maybe Google is better at building stuff than most companies, but it’s not so much better that its executives can spend no time on a search problem and, all things being equal, still outperform a specialized search vertical. In other words, the reason Google isn’t very good at finding the right health care provider or local business is because that’s not really what its executives think about.

All of this is a way of saying that vertical search engines are sometimes better at finding certain kinds of information than Google. In its original form, from 1998-2007, Google helped blend the world of general and specialized search; it simply chose the best results, sending people to the right place on the web or to the right vertical search engines that had the best results. As Google co-founder Larry Page once put it, “We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible.” People built businesses around an open web. Yelp was founded in 2004, back when you could still found firms adjacent to Google; Yelp got a lot of traffic from Google because it had the best local results.

But in 2007, Google stopped trying to send users to the most relevant place to answer their query, and started to try and keep people on Google properties. It began transforming itself from a general search engine into a walled garden, and it arranged its business strategy to exclude competitors, both vertical and general search, from the market, especially as people started to use their mobile phones to find things. At first this change was subtle, but Google gradually expanded its walled garden, encompassing more and more content. In doing so, it directed ad revenue to itself, eventually strangling not only vertical search competitors, but also publishers, online video and mapping competitors, and advertising technology firms.

Today, Google is the key gatekeeper to the web for users and advertisers, and venture capitalists will not invest in firms adjacent to it. Google’s dominance is also why the web in 2021 is increasingly a mess, a place for scam artists and disinformation. Today, if there were a vibrant competitive market for search, this rehab clinic fiasco might not be a problem; a health-based vertical search engine might be able to solve the problem that Google cannot. But in Google’s walled garden internet, that’s no longer a possibility. And as there really is no distinction between the web and the offline world, Google’s absentee landlord relationship to problems involving credible information is one reason scam artists and disinformation are proliferating globally.

It didn’t have to be this way. And in fact, in 2012, the Federal Trade Commission, which is our antitrust enforcer, nearly filed a case that would have stopped Google from corrupting our information commons.

Fumbling the Future

And this brings me to Leah Nylen’s story last week titled “How Washington Fumbled the Future”, looking back on the Obama administration’s policy vis-a-vis Google. She got her hands on a series of allegations the FTC had in 2012, in documents kept secret for nearly a decade. Recently, there have been multiple antitrust suits launched against Google, two by states and one at the Federal level. What is astonishing is how the FTC in 2012 had the evidence to bring most of the suits in court today.

Those of us who follow this area didn’t think that the 2012 FTC documents would be that interesting. The vote to close the Google investigation was unanimous, 5-0, with both Republican and Democratic commissioners letting Google skate. We figured that the FTC just didn’t see the problem clearly, as technology markets tend to morph quickly. Back in 2011 when the investigation started, who would have imagined that Google would become this powerful and dominant?

And yet, it turns out that the FTC had evidence of Google’s behavior, and just chose not to act. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman called these released documents a “smoking gun” showing how “Google methodically destroyed the web.” Stoppelman competes with Google, but other more neutral observers agree with him. William Kovacic, a Republican ex-FTC member, said, “I always assumed the staff memo was not so specific, direct and clear about the path ahead. A lot of the DOJ case is in there. It’s really breathtaking.” Kovacic, who voted to open an investigation in 2011, left the FTC before the complaint came up for a vote, so he hadn’t read it until this week.

These documents revealed many things, one of which was . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2021 at 10:59 am

How to Collect $1.4 Trillion in Unpaid Taxes

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The NY Times Editorial Board points out that, while some increase in tax rates in the topmost brackets may indeed be desirable, the US could gain a lot by funding the IRS better to go after taxes owed but not paid. The board writes:

When the federal government started withholding income taxes from workers’ paychecks during World War II, the innovation was presented as a matter of fairness, a way to ensure that everyone paid. Irving Berlin wrote a song for the Treasury Department: “You see those bombers in the sky? Rockefeller helped to build them. So did I.”

The withholding system remains the cornerstone of income taxation, effectively preventing Americans from lying about wage income. Employers submit an annual W-2 report on the wages paid to each worker, making it hard to fudge the numbers.

But the burden of taxation is increasingly warped because the government has no comparable system for verifying income from businesses. The result is that most wage earners pay their fair share while many business owners engage in blatant fraud at public expense.

In a remarkable 2019 analysis, the Internal Revenue Service estimated that Americans report on their taxes less than half of all income that is not subject to some form of third-party verification like a W-2. Billions of dollars in business profits, rent and royalties are hidden from the government each year. By contrast, more than 95 percent of wage income is reported.

Unreported income is the single largest reason that unpaid federal income taxes may amount to more than $600 billion this year, and more than $7.5 trillion over the next decade. It is a truly staggering sum — more than half of the projected federal deficit over the same period.

The government has a basic obligation to enforce the law and to crack down on this epidemic of tax fraud. The failure to do so means that the burden of paying for public services falls more heavily on wage earners than on business owners, exacerbating economic inequality. The reality of widespread cheating also undermines the legitimacy of a tax system that still relies to a considerable extent on Americans’ good-faith participation.

Proposals to close this “tax gap” often focus on reversing the long-term decline in funding for the I.R.S., allowing the agency to hire more workers and to audit more wealthy taxpayers. But Charles Rossotti, who led the I.R.S. from 1997 to 2002, makes a compelling argument that such an approach is inadequate. Mr. Rossotti says that Congress needs to change the rules, by creating a third-party verification system for business income, too.

The core of Mr. Rossotti’s clever proposal is to obtain that information from banks. Under his plan, the government would require banks to produce an annual account statement totaling inflows and outflows, like the 1099 tax forms that investment firms must provide to their clients.

Individuals would then have the opportunity to reconcile what Mr. Rossotti dubs their “1099New” forms with their reported income on their individual tax returns. One might, for example, assert that a particular deposit was a tax-exempt gift.

Mr. Rossotti has proposed that the I.R.S. require the new forms only for people with taxable income above a generous threshold. A bill including Mr. Rossotti’s plan, introduced by Representative Ro Khanna of California, sets that threshold at $400,000, to minimize the burden on small business. The money is undoubtedly in chasing wealthy tax cheats, but equity argues that business income, like wage income, should be subject to a uniform reporting standard. Small businesses ought to pay their taxes, too.

The proposal would not increase the amount anyone owes in taxes. It would, instead, increase the amount paid in taxes by those who are currently cheating.

It would have the immediate benefit of scaring people into probity.

Consider what happened after Congress passed legislation in 1986 to require taxpayers to list a Social Security number for each person claimed as a dependent. The government could not easily crosscheck all of those claims then, but the requirement itself caused a sharp drop in fraud. The next year, seven million children abruptly disappeared from tax returns.

To realize the full benefit of the new data, however, Congress does need to make a significant investment in upgrading the I.R.S.’s outdated computer systems, and in hiring enough qualified workers to examine suspicious cases and to hold accountable those who cheat.

In 2008, for example, Congress passed a bill to require credit card processors to report payments processed on behalf of online retailers on an annual form called a 1099-K so the I.R.S. could verify the income reported by those retailers. But in December, the Treasury Department’s inspector general reported that “resource limitations” had prevented the I.R.S. from investigating more than 310,000 cases in which individuals and businesses failed to report more than $330 billion in income documented on 1099-Ks.

Congressional Republicans, unable to muster public support for reductions in federal spending, have pursued that goal indirectly by constraining federal revenue, in part by hacking away at the I.R.S.’s budget. The share of all tax returns subject to an audit declined by 46 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office. For millionaires, the decline in the audit rate was 61 percent. Today, the government employs fewer people to track down deadbeats than at any time since the 1950s.

The result is a parallel increase in federal debt and in tax fraud.

Mr. Rossotti, together with the Harvard economist Lawrence Summers and the University of Pennsylvania law professor Natasha Sarin, argued in an analysis published in November that investing $100 billion in the I.R.S. over the next decade, for technology and personnel, in combination with better data on business income, would allow the agency to collect up to $1.4 trillion in lawful tax revenue that otherwise would go uncollected. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2021 at 9:55 am

Why is Amazon so terrified of workers forming a union?

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Here’s my take on it: my article in Medium’s “Age of Awareness.”

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2021 at 9:03 pm

Corruption in the judiciary

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Today, I’m watching some stories that have immediate significance, but also indicate larger trends.

First, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has asked the Justice Department, now overseen by Attorney General Merrick Garland, to look into the unusual circumstances through which Brett Kavanaugh’s large debts disappeared before his nomination to the Supreme Court. While this question is important to understanding Kavanaugh’s position on our Supreme Court, it is more than that: it is part of a larger investigation into the role of big money in our justice system.

Last May, Whitehouse, along with Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), released a report titled “Captured Courts: The GOP’s Big Money Assault On The Constitution, Our Independent Judiciary, And The Rule of Law.” It outlined how the “Conservative Legal Movement has rewritten federal law to favor the rich and powerful,” how the Federalist Society and special-interest money control our courts, and how the system benefits the big-money donors behind the Republicans.

On March 10, Whitehouse began hearings to investigate the role of big money in Supreme Court nominations and decisions. Aside from Chief Justice John Roberts, every Supreme Court justice named by a Republican president has ties to the Federalist Society, a group that advocates an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of the courts to regulate business or to defend civil rights.

So while it is the Kavanaugh story that is getting media attention, the longer story is about whether our courts have been bought.

Another story on my list is that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell today warned Democrats in the Senate not to get rid of the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. “Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin, can even begin, to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” he said. But, in fact, they can, because it was McConnell himself who got rid of the filibuster to hammer through Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, and who pushed through Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which benefited only the very wealthy, by using a technique that avoided the filibuster.

McConnell warned that, without the filibuster, he would defund Planned Parenthood, pass anti-abortion legislation, and create national concealed-carry gun laws. But all of these measures are quite unpopular in the nation, so it’s not clear that these are threats the Democrats want to avoid. It’s entirely possible that permitting the Republicans to push through those measures would hurt the Republicans, rather than the Democrats.

Democrats are talking about reforming the filibuster because they are keen on passing H.R. 1, the voting rights act that would defang the voter suppression measures Republicans are pushing in 43 states. If those measures become law, it will be hard for the Democrats ever again to win control of the government, no matter how popular they are. H.R. 1 will level the democratic playing field, so both parties compete fairly. But fair elections will disadvantage Republicans, who have come to rely on voter suppression to win.

Hence McConnell’s threats.

For his part—in a third story I’m watching– Biden is reaching out to Republicans with an infrastructure package. Republicans were caught wrongfooted when they all voted against the enormously popular American Rescue Plan, and he is offering them an infrastructure bill at the same time Democrats have gotten rid of a ban on so-called “earmarks,” local spending funded in a federal package. Earmarks tend to increase bipartisanship by enabling lawmakers to go home to their constituents with something tangible in hand in exchange for their vote on a bill. Infrastructure spending is popular among voters in both parties, so this approach might break the united front of Republican lawmakers to oppose all Democratic policies.

Finally, I am fascinated by the Democratic-led, bipartisan move among congressional leaders to repeal the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2021 at 8:59 pm

The importance of Biden’s Dept of the Interior appointment

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Tonight, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) as Secretary of the Interior Department. An impressive woman in her own right, Haaland embodies the determination of the new administration to use the government for the good of all Americans, rather than for special interests. This makes her a threat to business-as-usual on issues of both race and the economy. Her confirmation vote was 50-41; only four Republicans voted in favor of her appointment.

Haaland is the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in our history, heading the department that, in the nineteenth century, abandoned Indigenous peoples for political leverage. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation, whose people have lived in the land that is now New Mexico for 35 generations. The daughter of two military veterans, Haaland is a single mother who earned a law degree with a young child in tow. She was a tribal leader focused on environmentally responsible economic development for the Lagunas before she became a Democratic leader.

Haaland brings to the position her opposition to further explorations for oil and gas on public lands, as well as an opposition to fracking, the process of extracting natural gas through fracturing rock with hydraulic pressure. Republicans have called her “radical” and say her opposition to the expansion of fossil fuels disqualifies her from overseeing an agency that, as Washington Post columnist Darryl Fears puts it, “traditionally promoted those values.”

Congress established the Department of the Interior in 1849 to pull together federal offices that dealt with matters significant to the domestic policy of the United States and were, at the time, scattered in a number of different departments. Among other things, the Interior Department took control of Indian affairs and public lands.

Reformers hoped that moving Indian Affairs from the War Department to the Interior Department, where civilians rather than army officers would control Indigenous relations, would lead to fewer wars. Instead, the move swept Indigenous people into a political system over which they had no control.

As settlers pushed into Indigenous territory, the government took control of the land through treaties that promised the tribes food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and usually the tools and seeds to become farmers. As well, tribal members usually received a yearly payment of cash. These distributions of goods and money were not payment for the land. They replaced the livelihood the tribes lost when they gave up their lands.

Either willingly or by force, tribes moved onto reservations, large tracts overseen by an agent who, once Indian Affairs was in the Department of the Interior, was a political appointee chosen by the U.S. senators of the state in which the reservation was located. While some of the agents actually tried to do their job, most were put into office to advance the interests of the political party in power. So, they took the money Congress appropriated for the tribe they oversaw, then gave the contracts for the beef, flour, clothing, blankets, and so on, to cronies, who would fulfill the contracts with moldy food and rags, if they bothered to fulfill them at all. The agents would pocket the rest of the money, using it to help keep their political party in power and themselves in office.

When tribal leaders complained, lawmakers pointed out—usually quite correctly—that they had appropriated the money required under the treaties. But the system had essentially become a slush fund, and the tribes had no recourse against the corrupt agents except, when they were starving, to go to war. Then the agents called in the troops. Democrat Grover Cleveland tried to clean up the system in 1885-1889, but as soon as Republican Benjamin Harrison took the White House back, he jump-started the old system again.

The corruption was so bad by then that military leaders tried to take the management of Indian Affairs away from the Interior Department, furious that politicians caused trouble with the tribes and then soldiers and unoffending Indians died. It looked briefly as if they might win until the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 ended any illusions that military management would be a better deal for Native Americans than political management.

By the twentieth century, much of the Interior Department’s work turned to managing mineral and grazing rights, not only on Indigenous land, but also on land owned by the federal government. Until 1920, federal law permitted companies to claim the minerals under land they staked out. The discovery of oil in the West sparked a rush, though, and in 1909, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey warned Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger that prospectors were taking up all the land. Ballinger in turn warned President William Howard Taft, who used an executive order to protect more than 3 million acres of public lands in California and Wyoming, reserving the oil under them for use by the U.S. Navy.

In 1920, Congress passed . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2021 at 8:52 pm

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