Saturday, June 30, 2012

Death by a thousand small cuts

Folks, we could soon be back in the dark ages (pre-Roe v. Wade, 1973) of coat hangers, back alleys, and high death rates from botched abortions.  Plus a rash of unwanted babies that will not be adequately cared for.

Conservatives and religious zealots want to define for the rest of us something that scientists cannot do, that is when life begins.   Catholics and many fundamentalist Protestants say it occurs with fertilization of ovum by sperm.   Therefore, abortion is murder.  To them, even drugs and IUDs that prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg are murder.

This is a theological or a philosophical question.   There is no scientific definition of the exact point at when in the process of development a human embryo becomes a person -- because it is a process with no clear-cut demarcation, from conception through extra-uterine development.  

Being pro-choice is not the same as being  pro-abortion.   As Bill Clinton famously put it:  Abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare."

Several states are now one step away from abolishing all abortion clinics, Mississippi being the latest.   A new law there goes into effect July 1st, which requires that anyone doing abortions in the state of Mississippi must be an Ob-Gyn specialist and have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

As in any surgery, anyone may have a severe allergic reaction to medication or anesthesia or a bleeding or infectious complication of a routine abortion.  Emergency care needs to be available.

But requiring the doctor performing the abortion to have admitting privileges at a local hospital is not the only adequate solution.    My primary care doctor does not admit patients to the hospital;  you become the patient of a "hospitalist," a doctor employed full time by the hospital to take care of inpatients.   In emergencies, patients are taking to emergency rooms and treated by the ER docs who work there for the hospital.

This requirement is another patent attempt to close down all abortion clinics.  They're already down to one in Mississippi, and it may have to close due to this new, unnecessary law.  Just another in the thousand small cuts chipping away at the protections given by Roe vs. Wade.

If some accommodation is not found, this summer could well be the end of any abortion service for poor women in the state of Mississippi.


It is not a big tax hike

Republicans immediately jumped on the Roberts decision:   changing the legal justification for ACA from regulating commerce to a tax.   So now they are hyper-ventilating about this "huge tax" burden.

It is not.   The only "tax" is the penalty for not purchasing health insurance.   So you either choose to buy health insurance, from which you will personally benefit -- or you pay a rather small penalty to the government along with your federal tax return.   Nobody is going to have the police showing up at the door.   You will simply owe the IRS for the penalty, just like any other unpaid tax bill.

The penalty amounts to something like $650 or a percentage of income over a certain amount for those with higher incomes -- and it can never cost more than a basic insurance policy would.   For those who cannot afford it, there will be government subsidies to help.

That is not, repeat NOT, a huge tax increase.    It is not the required purchase of insurance that is the tax;  it is the penalty for not buying it.  If Democrats can't shoot that one down, then they need a new crafter of campaign message.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Another choice tidbit

Maryland's Democratic governor Martin O'Malley took a swipe at Virginia's Republican governor Bob McDonnell.
"The only health care mandate they can embrace are transvaginal probes for women."
McDonnell signed the Virginia law mandating an (medically unnecessary) intravaginal ultrasound exam before a woman could have an abortion.

But, of course.   Isn't it part of the Republican DNA that the government should stay out of our lives, except when it comes to our sex lives?


Good riddance (I wish)

Thanks to Wally and Lynda for passing along this tidbit:

Rush Limbaugh has said he will move to Costa Rica if Obamacare is upheld.   Let's don't tell him, until after he has gone, that Costa Rica has universal health care.


Two AJC editorials today

The two main op-ed columnists in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution have something worthwhile to say.

Eugene Robinson, liberal, says that:
"Obama's great achievement is not any one element of the health care reform law -- not even the now-upheld individual mandate . . .  The important thing is the law's underlying assumption that every American, rich or poor, should have access to adequate health care. . . .  regardless of their ability to pay -- that it is not a privilege but a right.

"Progressive presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have tried to enshrine this principle.

"Obama did it."
On on the other side, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer explored what could be John Roberts' motive in joining the liberals, calling Roberts' opinion "one of the great constitutional finesses of all time."
"He managed to uphold the central conservative argument against Obamacare, while at the same time finding a narrow definitional dodge to uphold the law -- and thus prevented the court from being seen as having overturned, presumably on political grounds, the signature legislation of this administration.

Krauthammer goes on to explain that Roberts "carries two identifies.   Jurisprudentially, he is a constitutional conservative.  Institutionally, he is chief justice and sees himself entrusted with the custodianship of the court's legitimacy, reputation and stature. . . .

"How to reconcile the two imperatives? . . .  Assign yourself the task of writing the majority opinion.  Find the ultimate finesse that manages to uphold the law on the most narrow grounds -- interpreting the individual mandate as merely a tax . . . .

"Law upheld, Supreme Court reputation for neutrality maintained.  Commerce Clause contained. . . .  Obamacare is now essentially upheld.  There's only one way it can be overturned.  The same way it was passed -- elect a new president and a new Congress.  That's undoubtedly what Roberts is saying to Congress  Your job, not mine. . . " 
Pretty impressive analyses, both.   I like Robinson's thinking.   I can admire Krauthammer's clear-headed reasoning, while intensely disliking his opinions in general.  And I think he's right about Roberts' careful balance of conflicting aims.   He's not saying he approves of the health reform law;  he's saying to Congress:   'back to you;  you fix it.'


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Clarification about the Medicaid part of AFA

As I heard it explained on MSNBC today, the Medicaid extension issue that was found invalid by SCOTUS may be a more important loss than initially believed.

That provision of the Affordable Care Act was for a big expansion in the number of people covered by Medicaid -- perhaps a major portion of the increased number of people who would have health insurance.   The federal government would provide grants to the states (as it does now for Medicaid) for the expansion and, in return, require the states to contribute also.   The ACA included a provision that, if a state did not comply with its share of the expansion, all its federal funding for Medicaid would be withdrawn.

What this decision does is simply say you can't withhold the funds for the basic Medicaid part if a state chooses not to co-operate with the expansion.   In effect, it makes the expansion an option for each state.    It could have no effect at all, if states choose to do their part.  But, in this time of state budget crises, it's likely many will take that option not to comply.  In fact it was the lawsuit by 26 states on this issue that brought the case to SCOTUS.

ACA provided both a carrot and a stick to induce state cooperation.  Now only the carrot remains (federal funds);  SCOTUS removed the stick (penalty loss of all Medicaid funds).

How much will this really affect the number of new people who were projected to be covered by insurance under ACA?    Is it fixable some other way?

Stay tuned.


Mandate Survives !!!!

The first quick reading by CNN reporters of SCOTUS' decision is that the individual mandate was declared constitutional.    Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four liberals on this and wrote the majority opinion.

A few minutes later:   The entire Affordable Health Care Act has been upheld, the only exception being that the federal government's power to terminate states' Medicare funding has been narrowly applied.    This is a little complicated, but the ACA expanded states' Medicare coverage, and it required the states to pay a share of the cost or else forfeit their entire Medicare federal funding.  The Roberts decision simply struck down the penalty for states that do not comply.

The Roberts' majority opinion found that the individual mandate cannot be justified under the Commerce Clause, because it regulates what people do but cannot compel them to do something they choose not to do.   However, it then turned to a different justification, which is the power of taxation.  That is, Congress has the power under the constitution to tax, and the individual mandate can be read as nothing more than that, the opinion says.

 That's how it should have been written to start with;  then there would have been no question that it was constitutional.   The Obama administration did not anticipate that the constitutionality of the commerce regulation justification would be challenged, because of precedents.  But now the SCOTUS has said it is constitutional anyway, only for a different reason.

Roberts was the fifth necessary vote.  So that tea leaf reading from yesterday -- that Scalia's excessive anger was an indicator that he had lost on the health care decision -- now seems very prescient.   We can probably expect Scalia at his most scathing in his dissent to this.  He was just getting warmed up on Monday.

Also the earlier predictions, that Roberts might vote for it out of his concern for the courts' reputation, also seem well considered.   He would naturally be concerned with how The Roberts Court will be remembered throughout history.

More later.


Race to the bottom

In just three hours, we'll know the SCOTUS decision on health care.

Before the flood of commentary on that, here's a bit of comic relief -- or rather it would be funny if it were not such a travesty for Texas children.   And it's not just Texas -- it's the whole backward movement of the Tea Party and worse mentality that pervades the Republican Party these days.

The Texas Republicans have written their platform for 2012.   In the section titled "Education Our Children" [sic] are these directives:

1.  Corporal punishment is effective.   Teachers should be given more authority to deal with disciplinary problems.

2.  Do away with mandatory kindergarten.  "Parents are best suited to train their children in their early development."    One politician argued that kindergarten leads to increased crime rates later on.

3.  Of course it advocates abstinence-only sex education.

4.  It opposes teaching "higher order thinking skills" -- a curriculum that encourages critical thinking, because it might "challenge students' fixed beliefs" and undermine "parental authority."

5.  It also endorses Texas law that denies public school education to children of illegal immigrants.    Federal officials have said this is against the law, but the Texas good 'ol boys and gals are still pushing it.

What a race to the bottom and back into the past.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dionne calls for Scalia to resign

I first thought of writing this as a comment to my last post about Scalia.  But it is really a blockbuster and deserves its own headline.

From Washington Post columnist and regular NPR and PBS political analyst E. J. Dionne:
"Justice Antonin Scalia needs to resign from the Supreme Court.

"He’d have a lot of things to do. He’s a fine public speaker and teacher. He’d be a heck of a columnist and blogger. But he really seems to aspire to being a politician — and that’s the problem.

"So often, Scalia has chosen to ignore the obligation of a Supreme Court justice to be, and appear to be, impartial. He’s turned “judicial restraint” into an oxymoronic phrase. But what he did this week, when the court announced its decision on the Arizona immigration law, should be the end of the line.

"Not content with issuing a fiery written dissent, Scalia offered a bench statement questioning President Obama’s decision to allow some immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children to stay. Obama’s move had nothing to do with the case in question. Scalia just wanted you to know where he stood. . . .

"What boggles the mind is that Scalia thought it proper to jump into this political argument. And when he went on to a broader denunciation of federal policies, he sounded just like an Arizona Senate candidate. . . .

"As it happens, Obama has stepped up immigration enforcement. But if the 76-year-old justice wants to dispute this, he is perfectly free as a citizen to join the political fray and take on the president. But he cannot be a blatantly political actor and a justice at the same time."
Dionne then recalls two prior instances:  (1) the time when Scalia joined Dick Cheney on an Air Force Two trip to a duck hunt just weeks before sitting in judgment on the suit to force Cheney to release the names of his secret energy task force;  (2) his denunciation of the notion that Guantanamo detainees had any civil rights as "a crazy idea" prior to sitting in judgment on that case.

How giving that speech can be deemed appropriate when you're about to hear a civil rights case involving Guantanamo detainees is beyond me.  Dionne concludes:
"It was a fine speech for a campaign gathering, the appropriate venue for a man so eager to brand the things he disagrees with as crazy or mind-boggling. Scalia should free himself to pursue his true vocation. We can then use his resignation as an occasion for a searching debate over just how political this Supreme Court has become."
Amen.    Ain't gonna happen.   I'm afraid the criticism will just make Scalia dig in his arrogant heels and flaunt the privilege of his life-time appointment.   But he really should resign.


Scalia, the Scourge

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has always been at the conservative end of the SCOTUS spectrum;  he has also always been a sharp dissenter, given to sarcasm and denunciation of his colleagues' opinions.   He once wrote in dissent that Sandra Day O'Connor's argument was "not to be taken seriously."

Now he may have gone over the edge in his dissent on the immigration bill.   Not even Clarence Thomas joined his opinion but rather wrote his own.

The objection here is not his disagreement but the dismissive tone and his departure from the law and the questions posed by the case.   He was rudely dismissive of President Obama's executive order concerning those brought here as children -- no polite legalize but closer to street language in talking about the citizens of Arizona being "under seige" and "the evil effects of illegal immigration."

And, mind you, he was dissenting from an opinion written by Anthony Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts -- not just the liberal four.

George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen said,
"He's sounding more like a conservative blogger or a Fox News pundit than a justice."

Paul Campos, law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder said, "In his old age, he has become increasingly intolerant … and a pompous celebrant of his own virtue and rectitude."

Is he just a cranky old man?   Where is the line between being opinionated and sharp-tongued and being imparied to sit on the highest court in the land?   With lifetime tenure, he can serve as long as he pleases.   It would take impeachment to remove him involuntarily.

Let's see what he says tomorrow about the Affordable Heath Care Act.


Poll: Obama has 8% lead in battleground states

The June results of the NBC/Wall Street Journal monthly poll are out.   The overall results give Obama a slight lead that is not statistically significant:     Obama   47%;     Romney    44%

The results of two questions on the poll were particularly interesting:   

(1)  Obama supporters are strongly pro-Obama,
     Romney supporters are primarily anti-Obama, not pro-Romney.

Of Obama voters:
    Is your vote more FOR Obama?    72%
                or AGAINST   Romney?     22%

 Of Romney voters:
     Is your vote more FOR Romney?    35%
                or AGAINST Obama?           58%

(2)  A large majority realize that Obama inherited the bad economy.

About the economic situation:   Do you feel it is:
    A situation Obama inherited?                      60%
    Obama's policies mostly responsible for       26%
    Some of both?                                            11%

But here is the encouraging breakdown of the group of 12 states that this poll defines as battleground states:  Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

In those battleground states, collectively, Obama leads Romney by 50% to 42%.

I keep reminding myself:   pay attention to the electoral count, not the popular vote.  And we need to know the results for each individual battleground state.   But Obama is leading in CO, IA, MI, NV, NH, NM, PA, VA, and WI, leaving FL and NC in Romney's column and OH a genuine tossup.  If Obama continues this kind of lead (and it is a significant jump from last month), then his re-election is assured.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What the Arizona decision means

Republicans tried to paint SCOTUS' decision on Arizona immigration laws as a win for them.   It is not.

Actually it is a win for Obama and his Justice Department, which had sued the state of Arizona over this law as infringing on the federal supremacy in immigration control.

Just think what it would be like if all 50 states enacted their own immigration laws, which might be different from each other and from the federal.   Immigration comes under foreign policy, which the Constitution gives to the federal government, not the states.  Border control is a federal function.

Essentially the decision struck down the Arizona law, except for the part that requires Arizona police to verify the legal status of anyone they apprehend that they suspect of being an illegal immigrant -- and hold them in custody if they cannot immediately verify their status (like having immigration papers on them).

A Tucson, AZ sherrif was interviewed on NPR today.   He is not happy with the AZ law that requires this.  He says in Tucson they make some 37,000 arrests a year, most of whom are immediately given a citation and released to appear in court.  But now they will be required to hold in jail any of those who might be released whom they suspect of being illegals.  This means, he says, a huge increase in jail populations that they cannot accommodate.  And it will be the same all over the state.

The SCOTOS decision also stated that this part of the law that was upheld may be revisited in the future if it proves to be misused or problematic or leads to racial profiling;  but they did not pre-emptively assume it would be, given that it has not yet been put into effect.  In other words, as I read it, there's nothing inherently wrong with Arizona police verifying immigration status -- unless it becomes a problem in the carrying out of it.    The Tucson sherrif seems to be predicting that it will become a very big problem.

Roberts and Kennedy joined the four liberals in this 6-2 decision.    Wouldn't it be great if the health care reform has the same result !!


Another Vatican misstep

It's just been announced that the Vatican has engaged a FoxNews correspondent, Greg Burke, to help improve its communications strategy.

If their intent is to copy FoxNews' strategy of distorting the truth in hopes of improving their image, then maybe this is a savvy, but deplorable, marketing choice.   There's no question they've been looking pretty bad lately -- with the sexual abuse scandals and the cover-ups, tales of leaked documents and financial mismanagement -- and, in my opinion, terribly misplaced values in chastising nuns for spending too much time in soup kitchens and helping the sick and not enough time fighting abortion and marriage equality.

But wouldn't you think the spiritual leaders of a world religion that has more than a billion members would be soul-searching and cleaning up their act, rather than white-washing and distorting it?

Please tell me how I'm wrong to believe that something is out of whack with a religious hierarchy that hides and protects its pedophile priests but chastises its nuns for feeding hungry people.

The best they can come up with is hiring a FoxNews man to help improve their image?

Let's hope they're also searching their souls to try to understand how they got it so wrong.    So far, there's little evidence of it.


Monday, June 25, 2012

More on Montana

There is now no question that the conservative majority really knew what it was doing in Citizens United, because it has now doubled down on the decision and extended it to apply to state and local elections as well as federal ones.

In the 2010 majority opinion that established Citizens as law, Justice Kennedy wrote that

". . .  independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption . . . [therefore] no sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations."
This justification was what opponents of the law were hoping could be revisited in the light of what has happened to campaign finance experience since then.

Those hopes are now dashed.    The same majority summarily (meaning without holding hearings on the case) overturned the Montana Supreme Court's decision and declared that "there can be no serious doubt" that Citizens United does apply to Montana state elections.

Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayer, and Kagan joined Justice Bryer's dissent, in which he wrote:
"Montana's experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court's decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court's supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so."
There seem to be only two ways to change this:   pass a constitutional amendment on campaign finance law or wait for the balance on the court to shift by replacing one of the conservatives with a liberal and hope that a suitable test case arrives at the court while that balance holds.   That could be a very long time and require that a Democrat is in the White House when it does happen.

There may be dark times ahead.   This court is a disaster for democracy.  It is more and more defining itself as unquestionably pro-business.  Far worse than I ever anticipated when Roberts and Alito were confirmed.



This is a big week at the Supreme Court -- it's final week for the year and several big decisions to be announced.

Today, two big ones:   Arizona immigration law and Montana's challenge to Citizens UnitedThursday, the health care law.

The Arizona immigration case was a split:   the Justices upheld the basic duty of authorities to stop suspects and ask for their papers, but they struck down other portions of the law that put state law above federal law.

Obama responded by pointing out the need for comprehensive immigration reform and federal laws that replace the impossible patchwork of varying state laws concerning what is a national issue.

The Montana case basically upheld the odious Citizens United by summarily overturning a Montana Supreme Court decision that upheld its century-old laws limiting corporate spending on political campaigns.

I'm all for free speech -- but I equally support some limits.   No false yelling of "Fire" in a crowded theater to create panic and possible deaths by trampling.    Some limits on "hate speech" that evokes violence against representatives of certain groups.

But it's quite obvious now that our democratic process is being seriously distorted by the obscene pouring of billions into political campaign-related SuperPACs.   A wealthy billionaire could literally buy himself a few Congressmen, enough to tip the balance of control and influence the direction of our economic policy, for example.

Because the same law applies to organizations like labor unions, it should be opposed by conservatives as well.    However, they know that this is no threat in practical terms, since no liberal, democratic groups are likely to amass the fortunes that super-rich Republicans are can easily spare.

So, the answer on campaign finance reform is in.   SCOTUS is not going to rethink Citizens United, at least not with the court's current conservative majority, led by the pro-business chief justice.   Only a legislative solution, probably a constitutional amendment, can change it now.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

A good line from HBO

Alan Sorkin ("West Wing" and "Social Network") has written a new series for HBO called "The Newsroom."   It's a fictional inside look at network news programs, especially their shallow, ratings-driven shows where honest journalism gets short-changed.   These are the crusading good guys, trying to do it right.

Since I still resist allowing cable in my house, I won't be able to watch;  but already from the description it might be worth it, if this sample is any indication.

Ever since Shakespeare, the phrase "speaking truth to power" has been a stock phrase -- but useful because it is so needed, whether in the bard's court jesters and fools or in our modern day whistle-blowers.

"The Newsroom" has one character's variation on that phrase to describe what they do:

"Speaking truth to stupid."
Amen.  We need more of that.


Key Prop8 supporter changes his stance

This seems pretty significant.

David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and a the chief witness for Proposition 8 in the court hearings two years ago, has written a New York Times online op-ed in which he says that he now supports gay and lesbian marriage.
"Whatever one's definition of marriage, legally recognizing gay and lesbian couples and their children is a victory for basic fairness. . . .  The time has come for me to accept gay marriage and emphasize the good it can do . . . ."
In the 2010 hearings, Blankenhorn testified that he believed that marriage would help gay and lesbian couples, but he feared that it would undermine the institution of heterosexual marriage as an institution.  Unlike most public opponents of marriage equality, his objection is not biblical or religious but more sociological.

Andrew Sullivan has called him "probably the most clearly decent, intellectually honest, nonhomophobic opponent of marriage equality."

Now Blankenhorn says that he has come to believe that much of the opposition to gay marriage stems from anti-gay bias, and he finds that "profoundly disturbing."   Besides, he says, opposing it has not helped heterosexual marriage, as he had hoped.
"If fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage overall, I think we'd have seen some signs of it by now. . . .As I look at what our society needs most today, I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call 'culture wars.' Especially on this issue, I'm more interested in conciliation than in further fighting."
The dominoes are starting to fall, faster and faster.