Saturday, June 29, 2013

Republican's no good, very bad, awful week

Three major events this week have landed like a hot potato in the lap of Republicans this week.

1.  SCOTUS's gutting of the Civil Rights Act and punting to Congress to fix it -- or not.  The GOP establishment is pulled between trying to placate the Tea Party and to expand their voting constituency to include blacks and Hispanics.    If they obstruct Democrats' efforts to fix the VRA -- by redefining who is under the spotlight for passing laws that disenfranchise the very groups they're trying to attract -- they're going to lose big in 2014.

2.  SCOTUS's killing DOMA and reviving California's marriage equality is going to bring out some die-hard conservatives who will try once again to reinforce their anti-gay laws.   So are they going to stand in the way of the tidal wave of change that is sweeping states?   If they do, they will lose the young vote, which they're also trying to attract.

3.  The Senate today passed a bipartisan immigration bill.   If the House continues to obstruct this other wave of change that is so necessary, they will lose Hispanics in 2014 by an even larger margin.

As Chris Hayes said tonight:   In the House, the Tea Party Controls John Boehner instead of the other way around.

Schadenfreude, Schadenfreude . . . . (sung to the tune of "Edelweiss, Edelweiss . . . ).


Friday, June 28, 2013

Getting married in California

When SCOTUS dismissed the California Proposition 8 appeal for lack of standing in those defending Prop8, it returned it to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.   Their decision that Prop8 was unconstitutional thus stands; but the Circuit Court had said it would take 25 days before marriages could occur, because the losing side in a legal dispute usually has 25 days to ask the court to rehear the case.

Today, California's Attorney General, Kamala Harris asked them to speed it up.  Then the Circuit Court surprised everyone by issuing a one sentence order:   the ban on same-sex marriages is lifted immediately.

Within hours, lots of weddings are taking place in California -- the two most prominent being two couples who were plaintiffs in the case that SCOTUS dismissed.

Att. Gen. Harris performed the wedding ceremony for Kris Perry and Sandy Stier this afternoon in the San Francisco City Hall.  Rachel Maddow showed clips of their wedding on her TV show tonight.

Then a few minutes later on her show, Rachel was able to show -- live -- another wedding of two other plaintiffs, Jeff Katami and Paul Zarrillo, performed by Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the LA City Hall.

What was such a striking aspect of both of these weddings was the shared joy that was so evident in the public officials performing the ceremonies.   This in itself is such a powerful indicator of the changed times we live in.

Only 10 years ago, when SCOTUS struck down the Texas anti-sodomy law, sexual behavior between two men was illegal in 14 states.   And 10 years ago, there was no place in the United States where two people of the same sex could marry.

Now just 10 years later, we have an U. S. President standing up for marriage equality;  and we have the attorney general of the most populous state and the mayor of the second most populous city performing same-sex marriages -- and joining in the obvious outpouring of love and joy over the occasion.  Mayor Villagaraigo actually hugged and kissed the two men after the ceremony.

Wow.   I never thought I would live to see anything like this.


Still trying to make a scandal out of the IRS doing its job

Conservatives think they still might make a scandal out of allegded unfair scrutiny of Tea Party groups that apply for tax exempt status.   The zombi-revival stems from the revelation that, well, yes, the IRS did also target progressive groups BUT at a lower rate.

Here are the facts (with thanks to an article in Salon):

1.  The job of this particular office of the IRS was to evaluate applications by groups for tax exempt status.   It was their job to give extra scrutiny to those who seemed likely to be primarily for political purposes, which made them ineligible for tax exempt status.   They could do some political advocacy, but the main purpose had to be for some social benefit.

2.  During the May 2010 to May 2012 period under question, the IRS was flooded with applications following the rise of the Tea Party and in the wake of the Citizens United decision.   The office was not staffed sufficiently to allow heightened scrutiny of every application, and they had no formal guidelines for selecting ones to audit further.  They needed some sort of triage plan.

3.  Some bureaucrat in the department made a list with key words in names of organizations that would be more likely to pick up inappropriate applications.    The word "progressive" had apparently been used from an earlier time, supposedly from a time of surging progressive groups' applications.

4.  During this 2 year period, there were 96 applications with "Tea Party," "Patriot," or "9/12" in the title;  and 100% of them were processed as potential political groups.   In the same time frame, there were 20 with "progressive" in the title;  and 30% of those got the extra scrutiny.   Thus the latest claim of unfair scrutiny.

5.  But look at the ultimate results:  the only one that was actually denied tax-exempt status was a progressive group.   And many in the conservative group did actually engage in political activity -- apparently not more than allowed in the guidelines but at least enough to merit extra scrutiny.

So where is the unfairness?   Where is the abusive tactic?    

Where is the scandal?


Thursday, June 27, 2013

A twist on DOMA

Here's something that struck me.   Last night, former Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) was interviewed on MSNBC about the court's decisions on gay issues.

Among other things, Barney said a striking thing:   We should give John Boehner some credit for the decisive decision and the striking down of DOMA.

Here's the explanation.   The Obama administration had said it was no longer going to defend DOMA in court.   Thus the appeal that SCOTUS had agreed to hear would have no defense from the government.    Then John Boehner and the House Republicans took up the cause and hired a defense team -- at tax payer expense.  

Braney's point is that, because it was defended and thus had a full hearing of pros and cons, the court made a decisive ruling that it was unconstitutional.   If it had not been defended, there might have been a less clearcut decision for such a dramatic change.

So, it's far from the result Boehner wanted, he is in part responsible for such a decisive and sweeping change.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Two words . . . say it all

Amidst the rejoicing and sense of total victory over the two SCOTUS decisions today that eliminated discrimination against same-sex married couples in all federal regulations and reinstated marriage equality in California, Nancy Pelosi got off the best line of the day.

Just two words.

Michele Bachmann spent the day denouncing the decisions.  "Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted. . . . [It is] an affront to the Constitution, and to the foundational unit of society, which is marriage."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked what she thought of Bachmann's denunciations, and she spoke the two-word sentence that was just perfect.

With a shrug, Pelosi replied:  "Who cares?"

Why is that so important?   Because it says that the victory is final.   We don't have to argue about it any more.   I don't even need to be outraged by Antonin Scalia's tantrum of a dissent.   It's irrelevant.  We have won, Michele;   we have defeated you, old man Scalia.   Get over it.


A gay day at SCOTUS

As long anticipated, and as predicted here, SCOTUS struck down DOMA as unconstitutional and let stand the California Supreme Court's decision on Proposition 8 that found it in violation of equal rights.

So anyone who is legally married in 13 states or the District of Columbia, or any one of some 14 other countries, will now get the same federal rights and benefits as heterosexual married couples.

And marriage equality is now legal in California.   The court found that those private individuals bringing the appeal in defense of Prop8 did not have the standing to defend it when the government itself would not defend its own law.   Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, saying that SCOTUS had never granted an appeal to individuals on cases that the state government would not defend.

The DOMA decision now sets up another obvious challenge.   Those federal employees who live in states where marriage is not legal can claim unequal treatment because they don't get the same benefits that otherwise similar employees do, who may have married in another state and moved to the state where it's not legal.  In other words, two similar employees, working side by side doing the same job -- and one, having married in another state where it is legal, may get benefits the other does not get.    So look for an eventual broader ruling.


PS:   And let's not forget that DOMA also was not defended by the Department of Justice;  it was defended by House Republicans, spending over $1 million in taxpayers money for a fool's errand.

It Happened One Night . . . In Texas ! ! !

One courageous woman lawmaker and the people of Texas stood up to the legislature and defeated an anti-abortion bill that would have closed nearly every abortion clinic in the state.   It would have prohibited abortions after 20 weeks, restricted access to medical abortions, placed onerous requirements on doctors who do them, and put such restrictions on outpatient abortion facilities as to effectively shut them down.

But it did not pass.   Gov. Rick Perry had called a special session of the legislature to deal with the issue;  the lower legislative house had passed it, and the governor was ready to sign it.   The state senate had to pass it before midnight last night.

The Texas state legislature has a filibuster law that tries to make it impossible to carry out.   Only one person may speak.   S/he may not sit down, may not eat or drink, may not lean on the podium, may not take a bathroom break, and must not stray from the topic.   S/he gets a warning for breaking any of these rules;  and a third violation ends the filibuster.

Senator Wendy Davis took on this formidable challenge.    She has the determination.  At age 19 she was a single mother;   she later graduated with honors from Harvard Law School.

Sen. Davis began her filibuster in the morning with the plan to keep it up and run out the clock at midnight -- 13 hours -- thus killing the bill.

She received one warning for getting off topic early on;  a second warning for having help to put on a back brace during the evening.  Around 10 pm she mentioned the RU486 abortion-inducing medication, and the chairman ruled that off topic.   Another senator called for an appeal of the decision.   This led to a number of parliamentary procedures until another woman senator took the microphone and complained about not being recognized to speak.

With 12 minutes to go until midnight, the chair was trying to call a vote amidst the chaos.  The gallery crowd erupted with shouts of "boo" and cries of "shame," drowning out floor proceedings.     The clock ran out.   The bill failed to pass.

Gov. Perry can simply call another special session.  But maybe there is hope.   Don't minimize the effect of a woman standing for 11 hours without a bathroom break, without food or drink, -- ready to go on for the full 13 hours.   That galvanizes people power.   It also shines the world media's spotlight on what the good old boys of Texas tried to do to their "little women" in the name of "protecting life."


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What does SCOTUS's decision on the civil rights act mean?

By a 5 to 4 vote, the Supreme Court has declared Section 4 of the landmark Civil Rights Act unconstitutional.

Section 4 is the part that sets criteria for the required prior approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court for any changes in voting laws in a designated group of states.   These states are ones with past records of discriminatory laws and practices concerning registering and voting.  Section 4 covered criteria to be used in determining when a state might be released from this pre-clearance requirement.

What the court has now said is that the Voting Rights Act has been remarkably successful, that things have changed dramatically since it was adopted, and that these criteria are out of date.   The decision further says that Congress could update those laws to take account of present-day conditions;  but since it has not done that, SCOTUS has no choice but to hold Section 4 unconstitutional.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, notably did not strike down Section 5, which mandates the preclearance provision, only Section 4 concerning the way states are evaluated to come under Section 5.

Here's what I understand that this means.   On the surface of the majority opinion, it seems rather reasonable:   there has been improvement, and we should use up to date data rather than old data.

In practical terms, however, what this means is that with the present control of Congress largely in the hands of Republicans, nothing will be done any time soon.   It's Republicans in state governments, after all, that are passing new laws every year that effectively restrict voting participation of minorities.

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent stated:
"The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. . .  The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ance is no longer needed."
Just this past year, the VRA allowed the Department of Justice to invalidate changes in voting regulations in both Texas and South Carolina, because they were seen as affecting black Americans disproportionately.  And Republican-controlled state governments now will only become bolder in their voter-suppression efforts.

On the other hand, I agree that the danger to voting rights in the 21st century is less about race per se than it is about disadvantaged groups in general that tend to vote Democratic.   It's more about class than race.  So we do need a new Voters' Rights Act to shift the emphasis from race to voting rights for all.

But is there any chance of such a law getting through Congress any time soon?   Not likely.  No, this is a bad day for democracy.    One of the two major political parties has essentially conceded that the only way they can win elections is by lying, distorting the facts, and inhibiting access to the polls of their opponents' constituents.

And now the conservative court has removed a major obstacle, making it a easier for them to do this.


Monday, June 24, 2013

IRS: equal opportunity targeting

Let's get something straight here.    The job of the staff in the IRS office that processes applications for tax-exempt status includes spotting those that are ineligible because their primary activity is political.

When they "targeted" Tea Party groups, they didn't do anything to them that is not something that any applicant might be asked to do.    The claim is that they subjected innocent applicants to extra forms and scrutiny and delays.   But so what:   if the IRS decides -- for whatever reason -- to audit your tax return, that is just doing their job.

So what is the beef here?   There was good reason to have a heightened scrutiny of those who chose names that suggested political activity or the causes widely known to be associated with a particular political fervor and movement.  And applications from such groups surged during that time period.

The solution to the complaint of "targeting" seems to me to be simple:   hire extra staff and let everyone who applies for tax exempt status go through the same extra scrutiny.  In other words, target everybody, which is the same as targeting nobody.

Today we learned from a deputy commissioner of the IRS that progressive groups were also on the list of groups to be "on the lookout for."   Key words that were listed triggers:  Israel, progressive, occupy.

I don't really get what the problems is.   It's not like these groups were automatically rejected or arrested.  The were just looked at more closely.  Someone please explain to me how this is different from the IRS being "on the lookout" for people who claim business deductions for use of a home office -- which absolutely does happen.  It is one of the known triggers for an audit.

Perhaps I'll scream "scandal" on behalf of home office users.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Paula Deen #2

One of the more forgiving comments about Paula Deen's (unintended) expression of racism came from a 36 year old African-American woman, Nicole Green, who was standing in line to eat at Deen's Savannah restaurant (quoted in the AJC).

"I get it, believe me.  But what's hard for people to understand is that she didn't mean it as racistIt sounds bad, but that's not what's in her heartShe's just from another time."

Yes . . . but . . .

That's the problem.   It's not in her heart.   Or rather, I would say it's not what's in her head.   But it is in her bones -- born and bred there through generations of accepting the supposed inferiority of the darker races, and infused with lingering prejudice and wishing to defend our ancestors and put a more benign face on slavery.

But that doesn't make it right.  It's there in the depths of all of us who grew up in that time and place.   But we must recognize it with our heads and let them over-rule such spontaneous, blind expressions that demean and hurt other people based on the color of their skin.

Having never paid much attention to Paula Deen before this, I watched her video clips of apology and an earlier interview about race and the South.    She is a woman who just blurts things out, with no censor between her thoughts and her tongue.  Should we then judge her less harshly than someone who proclaimed such an attitude in a prepared speech?

Perhaps it is going a bit far for her to have to lose her entire television cooking program.   But it is good that this problem is being discussed openly.