Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dems fight back against Repubs manipulating the IRS (non)scandal

There is no "IRS Scandal," except what the Republicans are doing in trying to create one, and then to perpetuate the appearance of one, even after investigations have shown there was no scandal.   Here is a summary of what this is about -- it's long, but important.

   1.   The IRS tax code established the designation 501(c)(4) for non-profit organizations that are operated exclusively for promotion of social welfare through education, charitable, and recreational activities.  They are not supposed to take part in or promote political parties or candidates.

   2.  They may, however, advocate for passage of certain legislation to promote social welfare, but no party or candidates may be named or connected with the promotions, and there can be absolutely no coordination with candidates or parties about such promotions.

   3.  Somewhere decades ago, the accepted definition changed from "exclusive" to "primarily" for non-political purposes.    So political groups began forming 501(c)(4) organizations carefully controlled so that no more than 49% of their activities involved political activities.    This left the IRS with the job of having to decide from an organization's application whether it met the 501(c)(4) exemption requirements.

    4.  Both liberal and conservative groups were doing this, but a few years ago there was a sharp rise in applications from Tea Party and other conservative groups, often with names that included "patriot" or other evocative right-wing names.   The IRS had a huge job trying to sort all this out.   But, the fact is, it was their job to investigate just what they have since been accused of doing, unfairly targeting conservative groups.

   5.  Enter Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chair of the House Oversight Committee, who requested from the IRS an inventory of conservative groups whose applications for 501(c)(4) exemption had been selected for scrutiny or were denied.   So they gave him what he asked for;  and, no surprise, it was a list of conservative organizations.  Issa then screamed that conservative organizations had been selectively chosen for scrutiny -- and instituted an investigation claiming the White House had ordered this scrutiny for partisan political purposes.

   6.   An Inspector General's investigation found no such conspiracy;  and in fact it turns out that both conservative and liberal organizations had their applications scrutinized.   Again, that was the IRS's job to do.   It's just that there were a lot more conservative ones, because applications from conservative groups had skyrocketed in numbers in recent years.

   7.  This IG report has not stopped Issa.   He has been relentless in pursuit of scandal where none exists.  (He's also doing the same thing with Benghazi).  So far the IRS fake scandal has cost the taxpayers $14 million and required thousands of hours of IRS staff time to produce more than half a million pages of documents they insisted on getting.   Issa continues to hammer at the IRS, claiming they are not cooperating.

 A couple of weeks ago, House Ways and Measn Committee Ranking Member, Sen. Sander Levin (D-MI), took to the House floor to lambast Republicans' duplicity in trying to create and manipulate a false IRS 'scandal.'

Levin was responding to Republicans' attempts to delay the implementation of new regulations that were designed to help the IRS determine whether an organizations' activities are political.  According to the Huffington Post's account, Levin's counter-attack is a battle cry that Democrats are beginning to take up. 

First he called out the fact that there is absolutely no evidence of Republican claims that the White House had created an enemies list and was corrupt.

Levin tartly brought up the
$14 million in taxpayer funds that Republicans had already thrown away trying to create a fake scandal for political reasons, and pointed out that after all of that money, we learned that absolutely nothing sinister was going on. . . .

But Republicans were so concerned! . . . 
and yet they don’t want to implement the changes  . . . designed to “bring certainty in determining whether an organization’s primary activities are political . . . ”

Then Levin got all truth buster on the GOP and brought up
the explosion of dark money groups after the Citizens United ruling. . . .  [Spending on 501(c)(4) organizations] has skyrocketed. . . .  In 2006, $1 million was spent. . . .  And in 2012, $256 million was spent by 501(c)(4) organizations.”

Levin pointed out that this designation allows the organizations to keep their donors secret. And that this secrecy is actually what Republicans are trying to protect . . . Why? Because the three largest spenders are [Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS ($71 million) and two funds from the Koch brothers (totaling $61 million)] . . .  that work at distorting the Affordable Care Act. . . .

Yes, this is all about protecting dark moneyIt always has been. Levin demanded, “Why are we standing here and saying to the IRS don’t look at 501(c)(4)s. Don’t look at the possible massive abuse. . . . 

Because Republicans can’t win elections without dark money spreading lies about Democrats. Republicans can’t afford to run on issues. They have to run on smears, since their policies are determined by the Koch Brothers et al, and thus benefit the top 1% instead of the people.

The Republican intention was to manipulate the IRS with a fake story. . . .  [T]here was no scandal other than the fact that Republicans lied and schemed to manufacture this fake scandal for the cameras. . . .

But it backfired. Sure, the public has been duped, but the Democrats did not bow down per usual. The Democrats are on the war path, and they aren’t going down without a fight.
Strong stuff.   And absolutely on target.  THIS is the voice we need blaring from tv sets and at rallies across the country.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Clean air for sale . . . not cheap

China's air pollution problem is so bad that a Beijing artist staged a clever protest.    Liang Kegang returned from a business trip to southern France with a glass jar filled with . . . clean air from the Provence region.

He put the jar of air up for auction, and it brought the equivalent of $860.

The problem is so bad that another group of artists donned dust masks and lay on the ground playing dead in from of an altar at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.  In another city, artists staged a mock funeral for the city's last citizen dying from the smog.

The U.S. air pollution problem is not as bad as it is in big Chinese urban areas;   but I'm betting that China will address the problem more quickly than we have.   Our legislative process gets so bogged down in partisan political posturing that nothing can get done.   But, the Chinese party leaders can simply decide that it has to be done . . . and do it.

No, I'm not advocating their system of government;   I just wish our representatives in Washington were more concerned with our welfare and benefit than getting re-elected.


Ryan-Republican budget

The House has passed the Paul Ryan budget proposal for FY 2015.   It is pretty much the same as the one Romney-Ryan ran on in 2012 -- and Democrats are elated.   It already proved to be a loser, and now they're trotting it out again.

It purports to balance the budget by FY 2024 by cutting more than $5 trillion in spending, most heavily on health care and safety net programs for the poor and working poor, with a big chunk cut from the food stamp program.

The food stamp program comes under the Department of Agriculture, whose Secretary Tom Vilsac was on the Rachel Maddow msnbc tv show Wednesday night.    He confirmed that raising the minimum wage would actually reduce the need for food stamps.   But of course Republicans are opposed to raising the minimum wage.

Unlike what most people think, a large number of those getting food stamps are actually working -- just at low paying jobs, which keeps them below the poverty level and qualifies them for food stamps.    So raising minimum wage would lift them out of poverty and reduce the need for food stamps.   What's not to like about that?

Then why don't Republicans support raising the minimum wage.   Both Maddow and Vilsac agree that it would make sense for their priorities -- but the political reality seems to be that they think cutting food stamps is a winning campaign issue, so never mind the facts or the wisdom of doing it or the people hurt by not doing it.

Isn't it telling -- and a damned shame -- that something combining compassion and common sense doesn't add up to a winning strategy?   Maybe there's something wrong with their values.   It should be a winning strategy for Democrats.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

New papyrus about Jesus' life authenticated

A papyrus fragment discovered by a Harvard historian in 2012 has now been authenticated through extensive carbon tests of the ink.  Evaluators can say with confidence that it was written sometime between the 4th century and the 9th century BCE.    That means, of course, that it was written at least 400 years after Jesus' death.

"Authenticated" means only that they have established that it is an ancient document, not that the content is anything other than what someone wrote, probably several hundred years after what's being described.   So this is no proof of what the historical man called Jesus actually said or thought.   

However, that does not stop it's being debated.  Referred to as the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," it has been hotly debated by historians and theologians because of its supposed words of Jesus referring to his "wife."  The idea of a married Jesus -- ie, a more ordinary human being -- is unthinkable to many theologians.   There is also reference to his wife being his disciple, which some have taken to support the place of women in the church.

To me, it makes not a whit of difference.   Jesus -- or at least the teachings attributed to him -- was one of the great moral teachers of all time.

I also understand that, for those whose faith depends on his being the divine Son of God, it would shatter something important to them.

But for me, as a humanist, the message stands regardless of what we know of the facts or our later fantasies about the life of the man.


Civil Rights Act -- 50 years later, its' still a fight

President Obama and the four living former presidents, Carter, Clinton, GHW Bush, and GW Bush, are all in Austin, Texas at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So just how well are those protections holding up?    Pretty well in some ways.   Public accommodation denials are gone, for one thing.   But Republicans in the senate just blocked an equal pay for women bill.   And what about voting rights?   We're fast going backwards on that.

Take a look at Ohio, as just one example of some dozen or so states that are busy restricting easy access to voting.    The Republican-controlled Ohio legislature has recently passed legislation that will:   (1)  cut back on the number of early voting days, (2)  eliminate Sunday and weekday evening early voting, (3) reduce the number of voting machines at precincts, and (4) make it more difficult to get a provisional ballot counted.

If that's not enough, they introduced a bill that would forbid counties from sending out absentee ballots.  Henceforth, absentee ballots would have to be sent out only by the Secretary of State's office, and only if the legislature voted to fund it, and only if the SoS wanted to do it.    How outrageous -- and how blatant and obvious can they get in their base motives?  

At this point the Democratic candidate for governor, Ed Fitzgerald, who is the county executive in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), had enough.   First, the county council voted to sent out ballots anyway, in defiance of the law.  The legislature retaliated by introducing a bill that imposes a loss of 10% of state money going to the county if they send out ballots.

Then Fitzgerald filed a lawsuit against the state and asked the U. S. Attorney General to investigate Ohio's attempts to interfere with the voting rights of citizens.

At this point the governor and Republican leadership decided they had gone too far.  They withdrew the bill.    But, at least for now, the other restrictions stand.   Seems to me to be presumptive evidence enough for the Depatrment of Justice to investigate.

The problem is that the DoJ already has Texas, Alabama, North Carolina -- and I don't know how many other states -- to investigate for these restrictive laws.   It's not going to happen in time for the November election, I fear.   And if the Republicans take the senate, then it's too late to reverse this any time soon.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Homophobia is losing corporate America

Corporate America is no longer the safe haven for homophobia that it once was

Mozilla, the parent company for Firefox (web browser) and Thunderbird (email), both of which I use constantly, hired a new CEO.  Turns out he has been an outspoken critic of gay marriage, and made a big contribution to those pushing Proposition 8 in California.    This created a big backlash.  After dragging its feet for a week, Mozilla decided he didn't fit with the values of the companyand the brand new CEO resigned.

There are still places, like the Catholic Diocese I wrote about last week with its moral clause that can get teachers fired just for supporting gays.  But mostly what's in the news now makes homophobia, not homosexuality, the skunk in the closet.

The other side is getting a taste of what it feels like to be discriminated against for who you are or what you believe.   And, to be sure, this does bring up the issue of free speech and losing your job over speaking your mind.  Putting the shoe on the other foot sometimes makes you realize a bad fit.

So, if it's bad for the Catholics to fire people for pro-gay speech, isn't it also bad for Mozilla to fire someone for anti-gay speech?   Isn't this just a variation of the old ACLU defending the neo-Nazi group's right to march in a Jewish neighborhood?

As with most of the really important questions, it comes down to a clash between two values -- here the clash between free speech and equal treatment.   Mozilla didn't automatically fire him for supporting Prop8.   It talked with him about the difference in his values and the company's values.  In the end, he would resign, supposedly voluntarily.

Another gay issue involving corporate America is on display in a video commercial from Honey Maid cracker company, and it doesn't bring up any deep moral dilemmas -- just an awesomely wonderful response to homophobic backlash.   Honey Maid aired an ad showing a montage of family groups in loving scenes, the series titled "Wholesome."  One 2 second clip showed two men cuddling their newborn baby.   It got some backlash from anti-gay viewers.  

Honey Maid's response is what's so heart-warming.   They made another ad about love and inclusiveness as wholesome family values.  Take a look.   It's beautiful.  

Check it out.    I've been eating graham crackers ever since.   Go, Honey Maid


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

More about free speech and money

Some more thoughts about what I put in the "Comment" section of yesterday's post, "Short Takes."

The question posed by Ryan Grim -- If financial contributions to candidates are protected by the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech -- then how can you prosecute any politician for accepting bribes of money?

This was what Chief Justice John Roberts used in his McCutcheon opinion as the distinguishing factor, that is, quid pro quo bribery is the one instance that falls outside the right to free expression through campaign contributions.

But, Grim says, wait a minute.    Doesn't even that come under the protection, if you equate monetary contributions as protected speech?   Of course, Grim is coming from the other direction of thinking the decision is quite wrong.

The response from McCutcheon's lawyer to this very question from Grim is that money is not speechIt is the means of access to freedom of expression of your political views.

OK.  But to me that's equally problematic.  If we are saying that the money is only a means of access, then we are admitting that our democracy is not a level playing field -- because some people have far more access (money) to the policy-makers than others.

So I think the dilemma is still just as unsettled.   Any ideas?   Equal access here.


Are Democrats distorting this argument?

I usually think it's only Repulicans who distort arguments, because . . . well, because that's what they do.    But here's one that has brought me up a little short, and I'm not sure of where this all comes down.

The issue has to do with "equal pay for women."   The Democrats' talking point is that, on average, women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.   That's true, but . . .

The GOP website has this to say.    This is a distortion because it compares the average earnings of women with the average earnings of men.  But it doesn't compare earnings of men and women in the same job with the same company, given the same experience.

For example, they say, a woman social worker earns less than a man engineer;  but a woman engineer earns the same as a man engineer, and a woman social worker earns the same as a man social worker.   The difference is in the job, not in the salary.

OK.  Fair enough and a good clarification (assuming that it's true).   But then we ask, why do women tend to be in jobs that pay less than men, on average?  Is that not still a problem?

Not necessarily, if those are the jobs women freely choose -- maybe, sometimes because of more flexible hours, or less stress, or whatever appeals to them.   Is it in biology?   Do men choose jobs that require them to be more aggressive, more competitive?   Women more nurturing?

It's a far more complex question than the sound bite implies.  For example, why does our society value the work of engineers more than that of social workers . . . or teachers?   Is it because women have traditionally filled those jobs?

One thing that does distort, however, is the motive behind the Democrats pushing this issue.   They say it's election year politics and that Democrats "don't have any other issues to run on . . . . [because] Obamacare is deeply unpopular."

HA !!   Just you wait and see what issues we will run on:   minimum wage, immigration reform, equal pay for women, the widening income gap, lack of middle class recovery, and YES, the Affordable Care Act.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Short takes

1.  Huffington Post political correspondent Ryan Grim asks a pertinent question vis a vis the recent SCOTUS McCutcheon decision, which found a free speech right to remove aggregate limits on campaign contributions.  Grim asks:   If money is free speech, then how can anyone be charged with bribery, which is the exchange of money (speech) for actions on the part of a public official? [see comment below]

2.  An Esquire exclusive report says that David Wildstein is now cooperating with the federal investigators in the Chris Christie/Port Authority bridge closing.  Christie's big mouth may have sunk his own fate:   Wouldn't you think if someone had the goods on you, it woud not be a good idea to paint him as a loser that wasn't worth your time?    Wildstein may have the last laugh.

3.  Mickey Rooney has died at the age of 93.  He was one of the few remaining Hollywood stars who worked in the silent-film era.   He made up in enthusiasm  and pluck what he lacked in physical stature:  He was 5'3" tall.  He married 8 times (Ava Gardner being the first), fathered 9 or 12 children (depending on the source), was a marquee Hollywood star along with teenagers Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor, won five Oscar nominations, two Golden Globe awards and an Emmy, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his WWII radio broadcasts on the Armed Forces Network.   His era of Andy Hardy boyhood had already passed, and now he has too.

4..   How about this New Yorker cover art as sweet revenge?   'OK, children.   Time to take your medicine.'
View image on Twitter 

Gov. Deal's very bad, terrible, not so good day.

I don't know what was on Gov. Nathan Deal's schedule for Friday.  Maybe something good happened for him.   But he couldn't have been very happy with the news.

There were four stories on Friday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution front page;  three of them were bad news for the governor.

#1.  The jury ruled in favor of the former director of the state ethics board, who had charged that she was forced from her job for aggressively investigating charges against Gov. Deal in a 2010 campaign finance violation.  She was awarded $700,000 plus back pay and legal expenses.   This cannot be good news for the governor in the midst of his re-election campaign.

#2.  The governor has previously been sharply criticized for refusing to extend Medicaid coverage available through the Affordable Care Act that would have given more than 600,000 additional Georgians health insurance -- almost entirely paid for by the federal government.   Today's story adds to that.   It would also have provided health coverage for all of the state's prison inmates -- and saved Georgia taxpayers an additional $20 million a year.    Gov. Deal had said he refused the Medicare deal because we couldn't afford it.

#3.   The state's food stamp program is in such a mess, with such a backlog (65,000 cases as of late February), that the federal government is threatening the loss of $76 million in federal funding.  The state agency is working overtime but still has about 5,500 cases backlogged.

Gov. Deal's ethics problem -- plus now the court evidence that the engineering of the investigator's 'firing' leads directly to his office -- brings up questions of abuse of power and political corruption.

The other two involve the Governor's priorities.   He likes to brag about Georgia having the lowest tax rates of any state in the nation.   I wonder how low we would be on a measure of state services to its citizens, especially those who most need the help of safety net services.  What's so great about having the lowest taxes?   You could eliminate schools and have even lower taxes.  Would that be good?

I've been strongly opposed to this governor ever since he followed the crowd and became a Republican representative in the U. S. House.   I thought some of his tactics in the 2010 campaign were despicable, especially his endangering LGBT teenagers by telling lies about their very fine Youth Pride center and making it a target for haters -- just to try to score points against his opponent.

I knew Nathan Deal's parents, who were both school teachers in my home town of Sandersville.   He seemed to be a nice little boy -- and then I went away to college and had no further contact with him.

But he has not turned out to be such a nice man.   Maybe politics corrupted him.   I don't think his parents would approve.   They were good people.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Inexplicable Newt

Newt Gingrich made waves on ABC's "This Week" talk show this morning.   Asked about the McCutcheon decision, he said he favored removing all limits on campaign contributions, period.

"Then overnight you will equalize the middle class and the rich."

I didn't see the program but only the video excerpt online, so I don't know whether anyone followed up to ask him to explain what he meant.   But, on the face of it, it seems like an interation of Newt's signature sound bite, aimed to shock.

Bill Crystal, another neocon who has become famous for always being wrong, chimed in and said that a lot of rich people hate this decision, because now they're going to have to give more money.   Before, they could say, "Sorry, I've maxed out."

Well, boo hoo, what a terrible problem to have.  Let's all feel sorry for the rich folks who are so put upon and have a hard time saying no.   Too bad they find it so easy to say no to all the social safety net programs that help people out of poverty.


Roberts Court: help for the powerful

More reflections on SCOTUS's McCutcheon decision striking down campaign finance limits:

This decision, along with Citizens United and the gutting of the Equal Rights Law, shows this court's tilt toward helping the powerful, the rich, and the advantaged.

Anthony Kennedy's swing vote works in our favor when it comes to gay rights, and thanks be to him for that.   But on things like this, he's conservative to the core.

How can we have fair elections if one party is allowed to dominate the message by flooding the airwaves with their point of view and -- all too often -- lies and distortions?

Until we can get one more moderate or liberal on the court, our only recourse is to prove that this doesn't work.   And it didn't on the national level in 2012.  Local politics was another story then.   But all of the Koch money and the Adelson money went to losers in the presidential race -- and we have no presidential race in 2014.

This time, they're going for control of the Senate, however.   If they get that, we can forget about another liberal justice on the court.

We have to make up for their billionaire base by grass-roots organization and get-out-the-vote campaigns.   It's easier to do with a president to vote for, but we have to do it anyway.

Of course, this is what the Republicans fear -- so they pass laws to make it difficult for Democratic-tending groups to vote -- all the while piously claiming that it's to "protect" the vote. 

If the Afghans can turn out 58% of their voting population, despite far more difficult journeys to voting places and despite threats of violence from the Taliban -- then we should be able to get Democratic voters to do it.    Perhaps, if we realized that our democracy depends on it, as the Afghans do, we Americans would be more motivated.