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John McCain Makes His Choice: To Eat the Cake, But He Wants to Have It, Too

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In the Atlantic James Fallows has an excellent column on McCain’s smokescreen to hide his actions behind a tapestry of words:

The effort to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care bill is not over, and neither presumably is the public career of John McCain. But each crossed an important threshold yesterday, and Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.

The repeal effort isn’t over, because debate and further voting is now under way to determine whether the bill will pass and, more basically, to define what it would actually do. McCain will have more votes to cast, on this measure and others, and it’s possible that in the end he will turn against this bill because of its provisions (whatever they turn out to be) or because of the rushed and secretive process that led to it. Just this afternoon, McCain voted No on a “straight repeal” bill that would eliminate Obamacare without any replacement.

If in the end John McCain makes as decisive a stand against this proposal as he did in favor of it last night, then the historical verdict on this stage of his career will be more complex than it would be right now. As of the moment the story would be that McCain, soon after his diagnosis and treatment for aggressive brain cancer, responded to this memento mori by flying back to Washington to help take medical coverage away from other people.

There’s still time. But yesterday was important, for the bill and for McCain.

* * *

Not even U.S. senators are often in a position where just one of them, strictly on his or her own, can directly affect the welfare of tens of millions of people. John McCain was in that position yesterday. By definition, in a vote this close, every vote is the “decisive” one. But McCain built drama by holding his vote until the very end. He wanted to take center stage. And he did so—by voting Yes, to let this bill proceed.

He voted to keep alive a bill opposed not by some but by all major medical-professional and health-related groups. A bill that an organization of nuns called “the most harmful legislation to American families in our lifetimes.” A bill with absolutely no across-the-aisle Democratic amendments, as compared with well over 100 Republican amendments in the original Obamacare plan, and with virtually no open hearings or debates. A bill whose support level in opinion polls is roughly half that of Donald Trump himself. A bill—well, the litany is familiar, all leading up to the point that it’s a bill that John McCain could have chosen to stop yesterday, and didn’t.

If he had stayed home in Arizona, the bill would have died. If he had voted No, at least this effort at repeal would have ended. Of course, perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could have squeezed either Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, the two Republican defectors, to switch their votes, so he could still eke out a 50-50 tie, allowing Mike Pence to make it 51-50. Perhaps if McConnell had failed yesterday, he would have kept looking for some other way to get an anti-Obamacare “win,” despite the distortion the crusade is causing in everything else the Senate has to do. Perhaps McCain thought he was saving his influence within the GOP for later—later stages of deliberation on this bill, later encounters with Trump. Perhaps, perhaps. For certain, McCain made a choice yesterday, and he did something no one looking back on this moment will admire.

(Whenever I hear about politicians saving influence “for later,” I cannot help thinking of the unfortunate Ricky Ray Rector, the man whose name is a shorthand for the most heartless thing Bill Clinton did in his drive for the presidency. Rector was a murderer who tried to blow his own brains out when about to be captured by police. He survived but with profound mental disabilities. An Arkansas jury nonetheless convicted him and sentenced him to death; the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case. Young Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, then in a very tight contest in the Democratic primaries of 1992, and all too aware that only four years earlier Michael Dukakis had been badly hurt by a “soft on crime,” Willie Horton race-baiting campaign, approved the execution and went to Little Rock to be in the state when it occurred. When Rector was offered a last meal before being put to death, he told the jailers that he wanted to save his dessert “for later.” When politicians talk about “saving” their influence, this for later is what I hear.)

* * *

John McCain himself went out of his way to highlight why his choice was so sad, and so hypocritical. As David Graham noted yesterday, McCain immediately followed his vote with one of his trademark speeches on the need to take the high road in politics—the need to stop doing things in a rushed and secretive way, to stop simply looking for partisan wins. Elevated words, of the kind McCain is accustomed to being complimented on. But the words were entirely at odds with his actions of just minutes before—when he had the chance to stop a rushed and secretive push toward a partisan win, and he whiffed. Later that same evening, just hours after he somberly declared that “I will not vote for this bill as it is today,” McCain went right ahead and voted for that bill as it was yesterday, one of only 43 Republicans to do so.

And he didn’t need to do this, any of it.  . .

Continue reading.

McCain is a Republican. That is significant, and tells us a lot.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 July 2017 at 4:10 pm

A clear-eyed view of the Republicans in Congress

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Jennifer Rubin concludes a column today with this pointed remark:

In sum, the consolation for a meltdown in legislative order, rationality and responsible government is that we now know just how incapable the GOP is of governing. Years of antagonism toward government have made them cavalier about the harm they can do to ordinary citizens in their quest to avoid blame. What a shabby group they are. Let’s hope they don’t do real damage before they lose their majority.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 July 2017 at 10:39 am

DOJ: No Sessions recusal paper trail

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Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) have a press release:

The Department of Justice has no unreleased documents or notes on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation, according to information made public by a FOIA lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

According to the DOJ, the only two records ever created regarding his recusal were a press release and a short email to top DOJ officials that was made public in June. Documents obtained by CREW in the lawsuit also show that Sessions announced his recusal about an hour before he was scheduled to meet with his staff to discuss the recusal.

“For such a major decision, it’s a little odd that there’s virtually no paper trail,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said. “This suggests the whole process was haphazardly done, and it provides the Department with very little guidance on the scope of the recusal.”

Assuming the DOJ is correct that there were no records beyond a press release and a short email, that means that no written analysis or detailed explanation accompanied Sessions decision, suggesting he may have made the decision alone in the immediate aftermath of reports of his meeting with Russian officials.

“Whatever the explanation, the story behind the Sessions recusal is noteworthy,” said Bookbinder, a veteran of the Justice Department. “This is not how the Department of Justice normally does business.”

Read the documents here

Written by LeisureGuy

25 July 2017 at 8:46 pm

How Fake Cops Got $1.2 Million in Real Weapons

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Eli Hager reports for the Marshall Project:

When you think of a federal sting operation involving weaponry and military gear, the Government Accountability Office doesn’t immediately jump to mind. The office is tasked with auditing other federal agencies to root out fraud and abuse, usually by asking questions and poring over paperwork.

This year, the agency went a little more cowboy. The GAO created a fictitious law enforcement agency — complete with a fake website and a bogus address that traced back to an empty lot — and applied for military-grade equipment from the Department of Defense.

And in less than a week, they got it.

A GAO report issued this week says the agency’s faux cops were able to obtain $1.2 million worth of military gear, including night-vision goggles, simulated M-16A2 rifles and pipe bomb equipment from the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which supplies state and local law enforcement with excess materiel. The rifles and bomb equipment could have been made functional with widely available parts, the report said.

“They never did any verification, like visit our ‘location,’ and most of it was by email,” said Zina Merritt, director of the GAO’s defense capabilities and management team, which ran the operation. “It was like getting stuff off of eBay.”

In its response to the sting, the Defense Department promised to tighten its verification procedures, including trying to visit the location of law enforcement agencies that apply and making sure agents picking up supplies have valid identification, the GAO report said. The department also promised to do an internal fraud assessment by April 2018.

A Defense Department spokesman declined to comment further.

The sting operation has its roots in the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. At the time, many were surprised to see law enforcement respond to protests with armored trucks, sniper rifles, tear-gas bombs and other weapons of war.

Reporting by The Marshall Project and others found that much of the equipment came from the obscure 1033 program, which dates back to the Clinton era. Any equipment the U.S. military was not using — including Humvees, grenades, scuba-diving gear and even marching-band instruments — was available to local cops who could demonstrate a need.

The program has transferred more than $6 billion worth of supplies to more than 8,600 law enforcement agencies since 1991.

After Ferguson, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order prohibiting the military from giving away some equipment and deeming other equipment “controlled,” establishing strict oversight and training requirements for law enforcement agencies that wanted it. The order also required a Defense Department and Justice Department working group to ensure oversight.

But since President Donald Trump took office, the group has not met, according to the Constitution Project, a bipartisan thinktank that had been participating in the meetings. Trump has said that he will revoke Obama’s executive order, although he has not yet.

Congress ordered the GAO to look into the program last year. A survey of local law enforcement did not turn up any instances of outright abuse at the state level but did find one illegitimate agency that had applied as a federal entity and was approved for equipment, Merritt said.

That’s when the agency launched the sting. Contrary to its public image, GAO has snagged other agencies with undercover work in the past, including an investigation of the Affordable Care Act in which the agency submitted fictitious applications and was approved for subsidized healthcare coverage.

In this case, the GAO created the fake law enforcement agency — whose name the agency would not reveal — and claimed it did high-level security and counterterrorism work. Once approved, the agency easily obtained the items from a Defense Department warehouse of unused military goods.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which lists rescinding Obama’s executive order one of its top priorities for the Trump administration, said the possibility of fraud does not indict the whole program. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 July 2017 at 3:19 pm

Oklahoma’s plague of earthquakes, thanks in part to Scott Pruitt

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Who is now dedicating himself to destroying the EPA. Take a look at the 1-minute video. The Oklahoma government stoutly denied that fracking had anything at all to do with earthquakes in Oklahoma, until it got so bad that even they thought some action should be taken. The video is shocking.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 July 2017 at 8:36 pm

Medicaid Expansion Had a Huge Impact on the Finances of the Poor

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Kevin Drum has an interesting post with this chart:

He notes:

In states that didn’t expand Medicaid, nothing much happened. In states that didexpand Medicaid, medical debt fell nearly 40 percent by the end of 2015. As a check, they also examined overall debt, and found that it varied by only a small amount between expansion and non-expansion states.

Note that this is a 40 percent reduction in total medical debt. Since Medicaid is available only to the poor, it’s a good bet that it’s reduced the medical debt of the poor by considerably more than 40 percent.

Read his post, which includes links.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 July 2017 at 2:10 pm

Public choice theory is crucial to understanding the criminal justice system

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In the Washington Post Radley Balko has an interesting column (as usual):

Nancy MacLean’s new book, “Democracy in Chains,” is causing a lot of controversy. In the book, MacLean, a well-regarded and award-winning historian at Duke University, takes on the late libertarian economist and Nobel laureate James Buchanan, one of the originators of public choice theory. The book has been enthusiastically praised by outlets such as NPRNew RepublicSlate and the Atlantic.

It has also been roundly criticized by libertarians (though not just libertarians) for a number of reasons, including MacLean’s misleading(often deceptive) use of quotations, her conspiratorial tone and tendency to draw links that don’t exist, her fundamental misunderstanding of her subject matter, her sourcing that at times directly contradicts her assertions, and her tendency to assign sinister motivations to her source material.

I’ll leave the in-depth criticism of the book itself to others. Instead, I want to delve into public choice theory itself, explain the influence it has had on my own work and explain why it’s so important to the issues we cover here at The Watch. Before I do, I’ll go ahead and note that I identify as a libertarian. I’ll also disclose that prior to my work here at The Washington Post and previously at the Huffington Post, I worked for Reason magazine and the Cato Institute, two organizations commonly affiliated with the Koch family, one of the targets of MacLean’s book. I also know and have worked with some of the people MacLean targets in her book.

It was during my time at Cato that I was first exposed to the public choice work of Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Generally speaking, public choice theory is the use of economic tools to analyze political behavior. One of the most important findings from the field is that when people work for the government, they don’t always act in the public interest. In fact, they are more likely to act in their own interest.

This is a pretty intuitive observation. And yet somehow it remains controversial. Government employees are human beings, after all. We have no problem believing that people in the private sector tend to act in their own interests. Public choice merely posits that people don’t shed that tendency when they get a government paycheck. It doesn’t suggest that government employees are evil or lazy or inherently corrupt. It’s more that there’s nothing transformative about working for the government that makes someone more or less selfless than someone in the private sector. On some level, this clashes with the high regard we attach to public service. But it doesn’t need to. We can still admire, say, someone who gives up a large salary in the private sector to take a job in public service, while recognizing that not every decision that person makes thereafter will always be in the best interests of the public. It doesn’t need to be a nefarious thing. It may take the form of cognitive bias instead of some conscious decision. If you think your public service job is critical, for example, you might read data in a way that a way that emphasizes the importance of what you’re doing. Or you might be tempted to exaggerate the social problem your agency exists to fight if doing so means not having to lay someone off or take a cut in pay.

The substantive lesson from all of this is that we should design government institutions and align incentives for public official and government employees in ways that acknowledge and compensate for how people actually are (sometimes self-interested) instead of how we wish them to be (always selfless and public-minded).

In the area of criminal justice and civil liberties, the ramifications of this are pretty profound. For example, in a number of areas of constitutional law, the Supreme Court has fashioned a “good faith” exception when police or prosecutors violate someone’s constitutional rights. Under certain conditions, a good faith exemption can excuse an otherwise illegal search. When police or prosecutors lose evidence in a criminal case that may have been exculpatory, the Supreme Court has ruled that defendants are out of luck unless they can show that law enforcement officials acted in bad faith — which in most cases is next to impossible. In other words, the courts assume the cops or prosecutors were acting in good faith unless proven otherwise.

These decisions then essentially become road maps for unscrupulous police or prosecutors. Body cameras are a good example. Because the courts have generally assumed good faith when body-camera footage goes missing, or when cameras themselves malfunction, we’ve seen an small epidemic of lost footage, accidentally deleted footage and damaged cameras.

One of my favorite examples came in a drug dog case the Supreme Court considered a few years ago. Drug dogs have notoriously high rates of false alerts. The fear is that many of these dogs are not alerting when they detect the presence of drugs, but that they’re picking up on their handlers’ body language and alerting when the handler suspects someone may be hiding drugs. There’s good evidence for this. There’s also at least anecdotal evidence that some handlers can prod a dog to alert on command. Because a drug dog alert is probable cause for a search, under either scenario, these dogs can provide legal justification for a search based on little more than a police officer’s hunch. That’s exactly the sort of thing the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect against. During oral arguments in the case, Justice Antonin Scalia seemed perplexed as to why a police officer could possibly want a drug dog that would falsely alert. He speculated that a dog that frequently alerted falsely would be a waste of time and resources. But of course there are lots of reasons why a police officer would want such a dog. By the time a K-9 unit is inspecting a car, the police already strongly suspect illegal activity. The drug dog is a shortcut to a search — a search that might find drugs but also weapons or evidence of some other crime. Between arrest and seizure quotas (which, if not explicit, are often implied) and asset forfeiture, there are plenty of incentives for a cop to want a tool that gives them carte blanche to search anyone they find suspicious. And a properly trained (or improperly trained, depending on your point of view) drug dog does exactly that.

You can see public choice theory in action all over the criminal justice system. It’s helpful for understanding why police unions don’t always represent the best interests of police, much less the interests of the community. It explains why it’s advantageous for police officials toexaggerate the threat of crime in some circumstances and underreport it in others. It explains why a policy such as civil asset forfeiture provides an incentive for police to wait until drugs are already on the streets to make busts, instead of busting drug dealers while they’re holding a large supply. (A car or stash house full of drugs provides no financial reward for the investigating police agency. A car or stash house full of cash is a potential windfall.) It explains how federal grants can incentivize police departments to expend resources rounding up hundreds of low-level drug offenders instead investigating crimes such as murder or robbery or rape, which typically don’t come with a federal bounty.

As you might imagine, Buchanan’s ideas have traditionally received a warm reception on the political right. Except when it comes to criminal justice. Oddly, the same Republican politicians who tout the trappings of public choice when railing against the Environmental Protection Agency or the Securities and Exchange Commission demand deference to law enforcement officials, even though they’re subject to the same analysis. They can’t see how a police officer or prosecutor might be tempted to bend the rules, take shortcuts or take actions that serve their own interests rather than the public’s. Perversely, this is the one area of public policy where Buchanan’s ideas are most important, because the stakes are so high.

Public choice also explains a lot of the odd choices of public interest groups outside of government. . .

Continue reading.

Later (and there’s quite a bit more):

. . . Look at the elections of judges. Electing judges is obviously a more democratic policy than appointing them. But it’s far from clear that judicial elections make the courts fairer or more just. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise. A 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that judges facing reelection or retention hand out harsher sentences as Election Day approaches. Similar studies in Washington and Pennsylvania have found similar results. The studies further found that judges who were retiring — i.e. no longer influenced by the democratic process — were less likely to impose punishment harsher than the sentencing guidelines. The Brennan study also found that in states where judges are elected, the more supportive the public is of capital punishment, the more likely judges are to hand down death sentences when they’re up for reelection. A 2016 studyfound that sentences of black (but not white) defendants increased by 2.4 percentage points in the final six months of a prosecutor’s election cycle. A 2015 Reuters study found that appellate court judges who were elected rejected the appeals of death row prisoners at twice the rate of judges who are appointed. In Alabama, judges can impose the death sentence even if a jury recommends otherwise. And not surprisingly, judges are more likely to do so during election years.

If you value democracy above all else, you ought to be celebrating these findings. This is the democratic process doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: These elected officials are responding to the will of the people. But I’ll go out on a limb and assume that someone of Nancy MacLean’s politics would not celebrate these findings. And if I’m right, that’s because there are some principles that she values more than democracy — justice, fairness, mercy, equality before the law.

The United States leads the developed world in incarceration. We also have one of the world’s most politicized criminal justice systems. It seems unlikely that these two things are coincidental. We’re the only country in the world where prosecutors are elected, and we’re one of only a few where judges are. Incidentally, 95 percent of America’s prosecutors are white, and nearly 80 percent are white men. These are the people who disproportionately send black people to prison. This, too, is democracy in action.

A 2007 study of prosecutors in MacLean’s own state of North Carolina found that in election years, criminal defendants were significantly more likely to be convicted and less likely to have their charges dismissed. Interestingly, this effect was more pronounced for drug and property crime than for violent crime. Which means that in cases where prosecutors had room for discretion, they were more punitive in election years. Moreover, the effect was even more pronounced among district attorneys facing competition for reelection. In other words, more democracy meant more punitiveness. In fact, a 2012 study of district attorney campaigns found that when incumbent prosecutors do have election opponents, the campaign rhetoric is rarely about policy or priorities, and it tends instead to be more about personality, and aberrant, high-profile cases. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2017 at 3:51 pm

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